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Al Cohn and Dexter Gordon

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Tenor saxophone giants Al Cohn and Dexter Gordon recorded together only once—on Oct. 22, 1976, for the Xanadu label. The result of the lengthy New York session were two albums—True Blue and Silver Blue. Cohn was recording regularly for Xanadu at the time and Gordon had only recently relocated to the States after spending 14 years living in Europe. These recordings preceded Gordon's lengthy relationship with Columbia, which began with his live album for the label two months later—the aptly titled Homecoming with trumpeter Woody Shaw. 

The Xanadu session was conceived by label founder and producer Don Schlitten, who used the exceptional pianist Barry Harris bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes. He also had the wisdom to include two terrific sharp-edged trumpeters—Blue Mitchell and Sam Noto. The pair both energized Cohn and Gordon and gave them a break between long solos. As original liner-notes writer Tom Piazza observed, this was basically a jam session.

What I like most about the re-issue of this material is that the albums are combined in a two-CD set and, more important, we get to hear the individual artists without stylistic confusion. From 1956 to 1974, Cohn recorded frequently with Zoot Sims and other saxophonists who modeled themselves after Lester Young's yearning approach, producing ribbons of swinging improvisation. On this Xanadu CD, we can easily discern the difference between Gordon's biting bop sound and Cohn's swinging style. In addition, we can hear the contrast between Blue Mitchell's hard bop, tap-dancing attack and Sam Noto's broader sound schooled in Stan Kenton's trumpet sections.

I have to give Gordon the edge on these sessions in terms of energy and ideas. Cohn's solos are technically superb but they don't move you as much as the ones played by Gordon, who had something to prove after being off the New York scene since 1962. But as great as Gordon was here, the musician who brings the most to the party was Barry Harris. The bop pianist was at his peak here and completely in the pocket. He is equaled only by drummer Louis Hayes.

The only song where Cohn and Gorden have a chance to go after each other in classic tenor battle fashion was on the bop standard, Wee Dot, also known as Allen's Alley. (For more on this song, go here.) As a result, there are plenty of fireworks.

The year 1976 was a tough one for acoustic jazz. Disco was nearing its peak, electric jazz-rock fusion had become a sizable sensation among college-age listeners, and young adults were digging the eclecticism and panache of orchestral funk found on the CTI label. In many ways, True Blue and Silver Blue were stubborn throwbacks to another era, before amps, wet-color album covers and a big beat.

The session became a proving ground for musicians who still hadn't given up on jazz's earthy tradition and viewed rock and electric jazz as an annoyance rather than a cause. Not long after these albums were recorded, a neo-acoustic era in jazz would emerge in the 1980s, thanks, ironically, in large measure to Gordon's Columbia recordings.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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