By Sam Griffith
I have long been a fan of Dexter Gordon. In fact, I can say without a doubt that he was one of, possibly my first, musical influences. My parents bought me a ten disc Jazz Masters compilation that featured Dexter playing “Come Rain of Come Shine”. I was immediately hooked and filled out my jazz library with only Dexter and J.J. Johnson albums. It has been a while since I dug into Dexter’s music and at a friends suggestion, recently watched a documentary of his life and career, More Than You Know.
Its very weird.
There is a lot I can say about this particular documentary. It is edited in an interesting way, and does offer some fantastic live video footage of Gordon’s playing. But not without a lot of weirdness. A LOT.
The film begins with underscoring consisting of music from an album Dexter did with strings. This immediately hit me as bizarre because there are so many better/more significant/influential/captivating recordings that could have been used. It seemed very weird to begin the documentary with a recording that didn’t highlight many of the great attributes of Gordon. That being said, it did make me aware of a Dexter with strings album I didn’t know.
If Dexter with strings wasn’t surprising enough, we are next hit with Dexter reciting lyrics. To me this also came across as bizarre, mostly because I wanted to hear him play bebop tunes. The recitation of lyrics is a common theme throughout the film, and does highlight an important component to playing music from the Great American Songbook. Enhancing one’s knowledge of a particular composition by memorizing the lyrics is common practice among many jazz musicians (although I struggle with it greatly). It many cases, it provides context for the emotional content/mood of a song. In these instances, Dexter could be giving information to the audience necessary to understand his performance of a specific standard. Or he is just showing off his knowledge of lyrics. Either way, there is a lot of it in this movie.
About 30% of the movie is actual background on Dexter’s life, most of which is pretty fascinating. For those unfamiliar with his career, Gordon was at the forefront of adapting the bebop language to the tenor saxophone, suffered from a drug addiction in the 50s that sidelined his career, signed a record deal with Blue Note records in 1961, was one of the first bebop musicians to leave for Europe and is generally credited as making acoustic jazz “cool” again in America in the late 1970s with his homecoming concerts at the Village Vanguard.
There are additional musician interviews with NHOP, Woody Shaw, Ben Webster and Phil Woods (check out the short shorts!!!) all of which seem a little unguided and/or have little to do with Dexter. There is an interesting conversation with several musicians about the importance of being in New York to jazz musicians. Also, Shaw credits Dexter with being a “living legend” and states there was a “lack of innovative saxophonists” in the 1970s before Dexter’s resurgence (ouch!).
With regards to underscoring, there is also some weirdness. In addition to the Dexter stuff with strings, there is several musical that do not featuring Dexter. Most of them seem a little out of place, or carry on to long.
It is not all bad. Here are some other delightful moments:
- There is a scene of Dexter riding a bike underscored with strings and oboe.
- “Artists are oddballs” – a quote from Dexter referring to those musicians who stray from the mainstream.
- “You have to have heart to make it in music” – another Dexter quote.
- He refers to “Blues Walk” as “Loose Walk”. Might need an official ruling as to the name of this song ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVEA6dLRbOs or more famously here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNSXSR0ebxM)
- There is a weird scene where the rhythm section accompanying Dexter is “exploring” some country-western thing.
In conclusion, there are some great moments in this documentary. But also a ton of weird things.
Here is a link to the documentary, fully watchable on YouTube. Thanks YouTube!
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