by Marc Myers | Jazz Wax
Tenor saxophone giants Al Cohn and Dexter Gordon recorded together only once—on Oct. 22, 1976, for the Xanadu label. The results 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 returned to the States for good after spending 14 years in Europe. Interestingly, 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 (above), 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 energized Cohn and Gordon and gave them a rest between lengthy solos. As original liner-notes writer Tom Piazza observed, this was basically a jam session. There were only three songs on each album—two on Side A and one on Side B.
What I enjoy most about the re-issue of this material by producer Zev Feldman, in cooperation with Schlitten, is that the albums are now together in a two-CD set and, more significantly, we get to hear the individual artists without stylistic confusion. From 1956 to 1974, Cohn recorded feverishly with Zoot Sims (both above) and other saxophonists who modeled themselves after Lester Young’s swinging, yearning approach, producing ribbons of seemingly endless improvisation. As a result, only a careful ear could pick out one or the other.
On this Xanadu CD, we can easily discern the difference between Gordon’s biting bop sound and Cohn’s lower, smoother 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 late-’50s trumpet section.
Overall, 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 is Barry Harris. The bop pianist was at his peak in ’76 and thoroughly in the pocket. He is equaled only by drummer Louis Hayes.
The sole song where Cohn and Gorden have a chance to go after each other in classic tenor-battle fashion was on J.J. Johnson’s bop standard, Wee Dot. There are plenty of competitive 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-soul 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, in part, to Gordon’s Columbia recordings. [Photo above of Sam Noto, left, and Blue Mitchell]
JazzWax tracks: You’ll find True Blue/Silver Blue (Xanadu), digitally remastered from the original tapes, here.
JazzWax note: For more on the Xanadu reissue series, go here.
JazzWax clip: Here’s Wee Dot…