Dexter Gordon - One Flight Up

Blue Note

One Flight Up cover

Recorded June 2nd 1964 by Jacques Lubin at CBS studios, Paris

RVG remastered version released in 2003


Donald Byrd (trumpet)
Dexter Gordon (tenor sax)
Kenny Drew (Piano)
Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen (bass)
Art Taylor (drums)

Tanya, Coppin’ The Haven, Darn That Dream, Kong Neptune

Dexter Gordon is often cited as a major influence on John Coltrane. He was the first to take Charlie Parker's alto sax bebop breakthroughs and understand how to develop them for tenor. Not that he is aiming at the same transcendent themes as Coltrane but rather that his musical understanding is a spur to playing sax in a more open and responsive way than heard before.

This openness and invention is heard at its best on “One Flight Up”. The album is remarkable for a host of reasons. It was recorded in Paris (not New Jersey) by musicians who had established themselves outside of the United States. On its initial release on vinyl, a single 18 minute track (“Tanya”) took up the whole of the first side – this some two years before Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” amazed the pop world by taking up a whole side of the album “Blonde on Blonde”. And “One Flight Up” marks the early and definitive appearance of one of the few European jazz players to make it on a truly international stage – bass player Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, unsurprisingly known for short as NHOP.

Dexter had been successful with the 1963 Blue Note release “Our Man In Paris” (with Bud Powell (piano), Pierre Michelot (bass) and Kenny Clarke (drums), recorded at CBS studios Paris, as the title suggests. This in itself is often regarded as one of the great jazz albums in which Dexter’s style fully and freely emerges. Francis Wolff was keen to get more of Dexter’s output on disc and went to Paris to produce the “One Flight Up” sessions.

Leonard Feather’s original album liner notes for “One Flight Up” and the additional notes prepared by Bob Blumenthal for the RVG edition in 2003 both refer to a round table discussion for “Down Beat” in 1964 in which Dexter Gordon and Kenny Drew (who plays piano on the album) talk about the advantages of being expatriates. Dexter had left the US in 1962 to take up a permanent residency at the Montmatre Club in Copenhagen. There he had recruited NHOP (then aged just 16) as bass player in his trio. Kenny Drew had moved to Paris in 1960, staying on after a six week role in the play “The Connection”. Both point out the freedom that they were able to discover in playing jazz away from the pressures of being back home. The most obvious advantage was the absence of racism – still a major problem for African Americans in the 1960s, as we have pointed out in discussing John Coltrane’s music. Miles Davis had had a similar experience when he had lived for awhile in Paris in 1957, shortly after recording ‘Kind Of Blue”.

He was there to make the soundtrack of Louis Malle’s film noir “Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud (Lift To The Scaffold)”, joining the Left Bank artistic set (which included Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir) and, by all accounts, having an affair with movie actress Juliette Grecco. (All this is documented in the remarkable book by Boris Vian - "Manual of Saint Germain-Des-Pres"). Miles has remarked on the shock of being for the first time looked upon as a musician and a person about whom his race was not the most important thing. Seven years later, Dexter Gordon experienced the same freedom that could enter his music once that context of racism has been removed: “I felt that I could breathe, and just be more or less a human being, without being white or black….”

But there was a second aspect of the freedom of being in Europe that was equally important; working at the same location with continuity of employment in the same job (Dexter at the Montmatre, Drew with long residencies in Paris) created the space in which artistic expression could flower away from the constant pressure of touring at home. The music of “One Flight Up” fully reflects this newfound freedom.

Formally, this is expressed in the way the open, mainly modal, structures of “Tanya” and “Coppin’ The Haven” allow space for each musician to express himself, unhurried, untroubled by conventions of time and length, able to take just as much room as they wish to get their musical ideas over. The sound and feel is remarkably similar to that achieved on Miles’ “Kind of Blue”; the clarity of Donald Byrd’s trumpet and Dexter Gordon’s sax echoing Miles’ and John Coltrane’s earlier masterpiece.

“Tanya”, a Donald Byrd composition, is built around a heavy asymmetrical beat from Art Taylor and features two counterposed themes, the first modal and free flowing and the second more structured and conventional. The modal theme tends to stoke up tension, the more conventional theme serving as release, capturing that early ‘sixties jazz urban optimism. The overall feel is one of well-being, of being at peace and in harmony with whatever life brings.

As in Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” there is the feeling that for all the lack of restriction on what each soloist will contribute, every note is somehow necessary and that though the piece is indeed 18 minutes long, that length is fully justified. “Coppin’ The Haven” (a Kenny Drew composition) is very similarly structured and executed except that the pace is quicker and the sense of well-being is infused with a sense of urgency. On both tracks the quintet is heard in full. “On Darn That Dream” and the RVG “bonus track” "Kong Neptune” (a Dexter Gordon composition that did not make it the original release) Donald Byrd is absent.

A key player here is Niels-Herring Orsted Pedersen. Indeed, following his death aged 58 in April this year (2005), the whole album could be taken not only as a fitting tribute to Dexter Gordon's legacy (he died in 1990) but also to NHOP's legacy. Barely 18 at the time of recording “One Flight Up”, NHOP already displays those hallmarks that would lead to his long and illustrious career in jazz, most notably his long membership of the Oscar Peterson Trio. As John Fordham notes in his obituary for "The Guardian", where most bass players pluck the strings with a single finger (or a single clump of fingers) NHOP has the strength and dexterity to pluck the strings with four fingers individually, much as a guitar player would pick the strings of that instrument. The result is a fluency and an ability to develop bass line runs with rapidity and complexity that is seldom heard on the instrument. This is heard to full effect on “Tanya” and “Coppin’ The Haven” where the bass forms almost a fourth solo instrument at the same time as it also takes up its rhythm duties. Indeed, so strong is the rhythm taken on by bass that Art Taylor’s drumming is freed up to launch into all sort of increasingly complex cross rhythms that build on the feeling of openness as the song progresses.

“Darn That Dream” is a more conventional take on the jazz standard, taken as a late night, after hours piece. Donald Byrd is absent; there is more opportunity for Dexter to show off his lyrical side and excellent sax technique. Richard Cook and Brian Morton note that this track in particular shows the influence of Dexter’s playing on John Coltrane’s harmonic development at this time.

“Kong Neptune”, the RVG bonus track, is the only Dexter Gordon composition on the album. Again with Byrd absent, it is a complex, bop influenced work out with fine playing by Dexter and NHOP. However, the remainder of the band were unable to gel around the complex changes involved. Kenny Drew in particular seems to be playing in some other groove right the way through and Art Taylor is doing no more that hanging in there. We get the best of the numerous takes on the RVG edition but “Kong Neptune” has to go down as one of those good compositions that somehow got away despite the best efforts of all involved.

Overall, this a great album, catching five fine musicians at a moment in their careers when the pressure was off and the barriers to creative expression had been lowered. Over forty years later that discovery they found in this music still shines through.

Star Rating ****

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Other useful information on Dexter Gordon:

Dexter Gordon Discography

Boris Vian's account of jazz and Left Bank Paris in the 50's with photographs by Georges Dudognon (Boris Vian's Manual of Saint Germain-des-pres : Left Bank Paris in the Fifties): amazon UK amazon Germany amazon France


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