Tenor saxophone battles originated at Minton's Playhouse jam sessions in Harlem in the early 1940s and soon became common at clubs on Central Avenue in Los Angeles. Famed tenor sax pairings include Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray, Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, Eddie Lockjaw" Davis and Johnny Griffin, and Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. One of the finest battle albums is Settin' the Pace (Prestige), featuring Dexter Gordon and Booker Ervin.
The two tenor titans met in Munich, Germany, on October 27, 1965. Ervin was touring Europe at the time and Gordon was residing in Copenhagen. Fortunately, Prestige records, Ervin's label at the time, was there to capture the meeting.
Only two tracks were recorded, each filling a side. On Setting the Pace, Gordon took the first solo. On Dexter's Deck, Ervin kicked things off. The first track runs just over 19 minutes while the second lasts for nearly 23 minutes. The rhythm section featured Jaki Byard on piano, Reggie Workman on bass and Alan Dawson on drums.
All in all, my vote goes to Gordon. Ervin [pictured] may have been playing out of the box, with freer, Coltranesque lines. But Gordon is immensely more interesting to listen to and a lot more fluid and melodic as he tirelessly runs chorus after chorus of ideas. Ervin also pauses often to reload by landing and lingering on notes, the musical equivalent of Uhhh" in a speech.
I asked Maxine Gordon, the saxophonist's widow, about this summit yesterday. Here's what she said:
Prestige arranged the date. After the club appearance, Dexter was in Berlin with Kenny Drew on October 30 with Booker Ervin playing a jam session with Sonny Rollins, Kenny Drew, Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen and Alan Dawson. There is a radio broadcast of Scrapple From the Apple."
One only wonders what the audience thought that night and what these two talked about afterward. The October 30 date doesn't sound half bad either!
JazzWax tracks: Settin' the Pace and Dexter's Deck are available on CD here or on Dexter Gordon: The Complete Prestige Recordings here.
JazzWax note: Be sure to visit Dexter Gordon's official site here.
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