Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy



Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Soprano Stylings of Dexter Gordon




My first time hearing Dexter Gordon playing the soprano saxophone was in the 1986 film Round Midnight by Bertrand Taverier and David Rayfiel, for which Dexter was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role and won a Grammy for the film's soundtrack titled The Other Side of Round Midnight in the category for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, Soloist.  The two pieces on which I heard him was Herbie Hancock’s “Time Still” and Dexters “Tivoli.”

As is the case with many doubling on the instrument, his soprano sounded like his main horn up an octave. In Dexter's case, this was not a bad thing. His soprano had many of the qualities that defined his tenor sound: it was deep, full-bodied, and laced with his signature slow and wavering vibrato. In the past, I've been critical of hearing alto and tenor saxophonists using the soprano solely as the third and fourth octave of their larger horns.  All to often, I felt we were only left with a compromised soprano sound, and so much a musical voice. 

This was not true with Dexter.

There was no "cringe factor" with he played the soprano. However, like many who don’t play it all the time, he struggled with the instrument's inherent pitch problems. All things considered, he brought the same warmth to the soprano that was ubiquitous in his tenor playing. Consequently, we got to hear is his sound concept from a new perspective, instead of a higher-pitched, compromised version of it.

Another reason I feel Dexter’s concept worked well on the soprano is that his approach is sound centered: meaning that the sound used to support his ideas are equally as important as the ideas, if not more. This was true for most of the musicians during this era. You could not separate their ideas from their sound. Joe Henderson would have sounded silly playing Wayne Shorter's ideas, and vice versa. Amongst many modern players, this is not always true. In fact, you could take five of the top young saxophonists, have them play each other's ideas verbatim, and it would not sound the least bit out a context. That's because their concepts are more idea-centered. Their sound often serves no other purpose than to deliver their ideas--sound is not viewed as a separate entity. In the era of sound centered concepts, you had a Lester Young school of sound, a Coleman Hawkins school of sound, a John Coltrane school of sound, etc. And even in modern times, we have David Sanborn and Michael Brecker schools of sound.  However, amongst many of today's practitioners, this commitment to sound is becoming increasingly elusive--myself included.

And I actually see the soprano as more of a sound instrument, anyway. A topic I will discuss in more detail in a future post.


These six performances are neither in chronological nor any order of importance. But I did decide to start and end with the two performances from the movie Round Midnight since this was my introduction to the straight horn side of Dexter.



"Tivoli" is from the album The Other Side of Round Midnight, recorded in 1985, and released in 1986 on Blue Note Records.

Dexter Gordon - soprano saxophone
Palle Mikkelborg - trumpet
Cedar Walton - piano
Mads Vinding - bass
Billy Higgins - drums
Composed by Dexter Gordon



“In a Sentimental Mood” from his album Stable Mable, released in 1975 on Steeplechase Records.

Dexter Gordon – soprano saxophone
Horace Parlan – piano
Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen – bass
Tony Inzalaco · drums
Composed by Duke Ellington

        

“How Insensitive “ from his album Sophisticated Giant, released in 1977 on Columbia Records.

Dexter Gordon – soprano saxophone
Frank Wess - alto saxophone, flute, piccolo
Howard Johnson - baritone saxophone
Woody Shaw - flugelhorn, trumpet
Benny Bailey - flugelhorn, trumpet
Wayne Andre - trombone: 
Slide Hampton - trombone, arranger
George Cables - piano
Rufus Reid - bass
Victor Lewis - drums 
Composed by Antônio Carlos Jobim



“Blues for Gates” is from the album Total Swing, Vol. 4, released in 2001 on Starburst Records.

Dexter Gordon – soprano saxophone
Lionel Hampton - vibraphone
Bucky Pizzarelli - guitar
Hank Jones – piano
George Duvivier – bass
Oliver Jackson – drums
Candido (Camero) - congas
Composed by Lionel Hampton



”Seven Comes Eleven” is from the album Total Swing, Vol. 4, released in 2001 on Starburst Records.

Dexter Gordon – soprano saxophone
Lionel Hampton - vibraphone
Bucky Pizzarelli - guitar
Hank Jones – piano
George Duvivier – bass
Oliver Jackson – drums
Candido (Camero) - congas
Composed by Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman



"Still Time" is from the album Round Midnight (The Movie Soundtrack), recorded in 1985, and released in 1986 on Blue Note Records.

Dexter Gordon - soprano saxophone
Herbie Hancock - piano
Pierre Michelot - bass
Billy Higgins - drums
Composed by Herbie Hancock


And here's a clip of Herbie receiving an Oscar for Best Original Score for Round Midnight at the 59th Annual Academy Awards. He had some pretty stiff competition.  At 3:45 we get to see a short segment with Dexter looking happy and proud, just as he should have been.

As an aspiring jazz musician attending the Berklee College of Music at the time, seeing jazz and jazz musicians that we admired being recognized on network television, during prime time, in front of millions of viewers, gave us tremendous hope regarding our future. And Herbie's speech was pretty cool, too.







Please check out my book Life Lessons from the Horn and my new CD, Sopranoville.

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