Live At The Left Bank
Ready for a 24-minute rendition of Thelonious Monk's "Rhythm-a-ning"? You don't think so? Well, give it a shot - you might be pleasantly surprised. Material from Dexter Gordon's May 1969 concert at the Famous Ballroom in Baltimore has already appeared on another live album (L.T.D., also on Prestige), but the three long tracks presented here are not cold leftovers. Opening with that 24-minute version of "Rhythm-a-ning," Gordon shows himself to be in peak form, improvising for a solid seven minutes without doing anything boring. Pianist Bobby Timmons is playing well too (though he's a bit hard to hear in the slightly unbalanced mix; bassist Victor Gaskin is, unfortunately, practically inaudible). And on this track, Percy Brice delivers one of what may be only two or three truly interesting drum solos in the history of jazz. The second tune is a version of "Misty" that comes across as surprisingly robust and rhythmically driven, despite its slow tempo and balladic melody; here, again, Gordon shines on an unusually long performance. The program culminates with a 22-minute rendition of "Love for Sale," which is given a gently propulsive and faintly Latin-tinged arrangement. Whether this can be considered an essential Dexter Gordon document is open to debate, but for those with a particular interest in the artist, it can be recommended without reservation.
- Rick Anderson (All Music Guide)
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Some jazz authorities tell us that by the late 1960s, rock had so swamped other forms of popular music that straightahead jazz musicians found themselves without an audience.
With no one to play for, and nowhere left to play, some improvisers drifted into exile. Dexter Gordon, for example, moved to Europe, and stayed until his triumphant return to the Village Vanguard at the end of 1976, when jazz listeners began to come back home as well.
It's a neat little story, but like other tidy tales, it looks a bit less so on close inspection. For one thing, Dexter expatriated at the end of 1962, a year before the Beatles crossed the Atlantic going the other way. And while Europe and the U.S. were farther apart then, culturally and in terms of convenient travel, it's not like the tenor saxophonist had moved to Mars. In his 1989 bio Dexter Gordon, Stan Britt tallies at least five visits Dexter made to the States prior to 1976, during which he recorded numerous LPs, for such American labels as Blue Note, Prestige, Chiaroscuro, Cadet, and Cobblestone (and Denmark's Steeplechase, whose many Dexter issues were readily available in the States). Gordon got gigs when he was in the country too; some of those recordings had been made live, in Chicago or San Francisco clubs, or at Radio City during the '73 Newport festival in New York. Or in Baltimore, where this music was presented and preserved by the Left Bank Jazz Society, at one of its weekly Sunday concerts at the Famous Ballroom, 1717 N.Charles Street.
The Famous was an easy hop for musicians coming down from New York: it was one block north of the train station, and the early-evening showtime allowed Gothamites the chance to grab a late train home. Some lingered anyway, finding a warm reception there. (Clifford Jordan married his Baltimore bride on stage at the Famous.) The Left Bank audience epitomizes those diehards whose love of mainstream jazz didn't waver during the lean years. The black working - class audience that jazz musicians often bemoan losing touch with was out in force, by the hundreds, week after week.
Left Bank members and friends took their jazz very seriously. (The Society's still active, and you better believe they still do.) A mere whiff of free jazz could raise the hackles of a few regulars, but the organization didn't mind testing some new sounds: the Art Ensemble of Chicago didn't go over so well, but starting in 1976 Sun Ra and his Arkestra played there about as often as he played anywhere. That made some weird kind of sense: Ra and the Baltimore loyalists both saw those concerts as a social ritual. The atmosphere at the Left Bank, Sundays from five to nine, was part Saturday night party and part Sunday morning religious observance, combined with a rueful awareness that Monday morning was just hours away.
I spent a lot of Sunday evenings at Left Bank concerts after moving to Baltimore in the mid-1970s, and got a lot of my jazz education there. Since then I've been to hip venues ail over two continents, but never found one with a feel quite like it. You'd hike up a long flight of stairs to the box office on your left. As you walked in the door, the bandstand was against the wall to your right, and the big room kept stretching out in front of you, into the distance. The sound might have boomed around had the ceiling been higher. (The ballroom had once served as a bowling alley.) You'd sit on folding chairs at covered, small and round or long and rectangular tables. Just off stage left, there was a tiny bar that sold draft beer cheap. Off stage right, toward the back of the hall, there were more tables, and then a counter where you could buy setups for the bottle you brought, and fat wedges of homemade cake or pie, and scented plastic roses that'd light up. Around the corner, back by the musicians' dressing room, was the kitchen where Chef Willis served up fine barbecue and the tastiest collard greens I've had yet.
When the doors swung open at four it was party time, and everyone was welcome, but when it came time for the three full-length sets, folks got down to the serious business of listening, not to "America's classical music" but to the living sound of the neighborhood. When patrons were moved to talk back to a soloist - "Lighten up son, bring it back" - it was less a display of ego than verification that the congregants were paying attention. Which was both a confirmation and a challenge: we hear a lot of "Misty"s around here, so make sure your version counts.
That carrot-and-stick love could be very inspiring. The music told you that much. This May 4,1969 concert has already been tapped for L.T.D. (Prestige 11018), but you only need hear Monk's "Rhythm-a-ning" here to know there was more cream to skim. Hearing Gordon in his prime (he was then 46), one sometimes gets the feeling he hardly needed to improvise, what with a million elegant phrases lying ; ready under his fingers. And if a lick here or flurry there sounds lifted from Wardell Gray or John Coltrane, it doesn't detract a bit, because it's all filtered through his bruising tone and swaggery timing - the uncanny timing that makes every quote sound logical in context, never mind how the melodies cited skate across varied worlds of music: on "Rhythm-a-ning" he touches on 1908's "Shine On Harvest Moon," his own jam-session joust "The Chase" (the bit cribbed from the New Orleans warhorse "High Society"), Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee," "Yankee Doodle," and more. (On "Misty" the long quote from "I Want to Talk About You" on the second chorus, and "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" on the cadenza, nod to tenors associated with those respective tunes, Coltrane and Sonny Rollins.)
Gordon had recorded "Rhythm-a-ning" for the first time back in February at Amsterdam's Paradiso (with Han Bennink on drums); it'd turn up on a few of his recordings thereafter, its bouncy cadences a perfect catapult. Ex-Cannonball Adderley bassist Victor Gaskin might've played it some more during his stint with Monk the same year. (Two years later Gaskin would be part of British bluesman John Mayall's high-profile Jazz Blues Fusion unit, alongside trumpeter Blue Mitchell.) His arco solo here is in a scratchin' fiddle rhythm one doesn't hear much in jazz anymore; ditto the (literally) gut-wrenching physicality with which he attacks the strings. He has a nice way of tugging against the rest of the swinging rhythm section too.
The pianist's aptitude for such material may be inferred from a comment Monk made about a (Denny Zeitlin) number on a 1966 blindfold test: "It reminded me of Bobby Timmons, and that's got to be good." By some accounts Timmons was washed up by the late Sixties. He was working mostly local gigs in New York, his classic soul-jazz tunes and elliptical bluesy solos with Art Blakey well behind him. (His last studio recordings, from 196? and '68, are surveyed on the Milestone CD Quartets and Orchestra. He died in 1974.) His playing here ought to prompt some rethinking. Timmons shows off the economy, sure touch, and sense of fun that Monk could relate to, and like Monk he's a playful comper. From the top he plays a spirited cat and mouse game with the leader; the pianist is his pal one second, his foil the next.
Drummer Percy Brice shines on a Latin-tinged "Love for Sale"; his cymbals shimmer soft as sleighbells at the top, and pierce like tongues of fire on the rideout. Throughout the program he applies rhythmic pressure firmly but with a light hand; he's active but no bully. (He'd played with everybody over the previous 25 years: Luis Russell, Benny Carter, George Shearing, Sarah Vaughan, Harry Belafonte).
This Baltimore date may be the quartet's only documented encounter, but they mesh quite well, finding a good balance. Listen to the way Timmons instantly picks up on Dexter's ascending figures at around 2:23 on "Rhythm-a-ning." That's empathy.
This wasn't Long Tall Dexter's last trip to the Famous Ballroom. Return engagements included two gigs in 1977, after his big comeback-and one in October of 76, two months before his putative homecoming at the Vanguard. To some of the faithful, it must have looked as if he'd scarcely left at all.
- Kevin Whitehead (June 2002)