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Catchgroove’s Hall of Fame: Dexter Gordon – Sophisticated Giant

February 7, 2021
All tunes arranged by Slide Hampton
Recorded June 21 & 22, 1977 at Sound Ideas, NYC by William Wittman

Dexter Gordon’s tenor is the first time I became aware that I have a kind of synesthesia when it comes to music – I can taste the sound of his horn.

Right before the young lions movement of the 1980s (e.g. Wynton Marsalis), Columbia Records made a major investment in jazz and Dexter Gordon was at the center of that investment.

Gordon was among the most influential early bebop musicians. He was in the same class, but less famous, as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell. His major influence, like Bird, was Lester Young. Gordon, in turn, was an early influence on John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Rollins and Coltrane then influenced Gordon’s playing as he explored hard bop and modal playing during the 1960s. The 60s were a hard time for jazz cats and so Gordon headed to Europe (mainly in Paris and Copenhagen) where he was treated with the respect he deserved.

Gordon returned to the United States and recorded the Homecoming album live at the Village Vanguard in 1976. That album, released on Columbia, was a jazz sensation and I became aware of it via Downbeat magazine. I loved that album, but Sophisticated Giant, that came out a year later, completely blew my mind.

Sophisticated Giant features an eleven-piece band playing tunes arranged by trombone player Slide Hampton. It is absolutely gorgeous. I mentioned my synesthesia earlier – when Gordon solos on the opening cut “Laura” it tastes like a piece of high end soft caramel – my mouth literally waters every time I listen.

Homecoming and Sophisticated Giant were my introduction to trumpeter Woody Shaw. Woody released another one of my hall of fame records on Columbia around this time: Rosewood. Woody and Dexter both solo on a Shaw composed standard “The Moontrane” that first appeared on Larry Young’s 1966 Blue Note masterpiece Unity.

As great as Woody Shaw is on this album, my favorite trumpet solo on the album is from Benny Bailey when he glissandos on “Red Top.” I never get tired of hearing it.

“Fried Bananas” is a Dexter Gordon song that gives most of the band a chance to strut their stuff.

“You’re Blasé” is dreamy late night ballad that is a brilliant showcase for Dexter’s big tone.

“How Insensitive” is a bossa nova by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes. Dexter performs the main melody on a soprano saxophone and brings his great tone to that instrument too – I often find the soprano shrill, but in the hands of Dexter it is smooth and easy.

This is a dream band for Dexter: Frank Wess — alto saxophone, flute, piccolo; Woody Shaw — trumpet, fluegelhorn; Benny Bailey — trumpet, fluegelhorn; Slide Hampton — trombone and arranger; Wayne Andre trombone; Howard Johnson — tuba, baritone saxophone; Bobby Hutcherson — vibes; George Cables — piano; Rufus Reid — bass; Victor Lewis — drums.

The Slide Hampton arrangements, Michael Cuscuna production and William Whitman engineering/mixing are perfect. I bet I have listened to this album a thousand times. It could be the most listened to album in my collection. My original vinyl version is remarkably in great shape given the workout it has been through. Early in the CD era it was not available and a friend acquired me a CD copy while vacationing in Europe – so that added some life to my vinyl copy. Stereophile magazine has a feature called “Records To Die For” – Sophisticated Giant would be on my list. In the liner notes, Ira Gilter quotes Dexter: “This is a classic. It should be in everyone’s library.” Truer words have never been spoken.

Coda: Sophisticated Giant (The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon) is also the name of Dexter’s biography by his wife and manager Maxine Gordon.

One Comment
  1. Nice, I’ve not heard this one yet but ‘One Flight Up’ blew my mind last year when i first bought it. I’m slowly working my way through.

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