Though most of us get our jazz information nowadays from technical books and the Internet, the history of jazz learning had been mostly from live performance and study of recordings until the rise of social media and jazz in universities and colleges. But it was vital form of development and still holds an important place in jazz. So let us look at saxophonist Dexter Gordon in this manner.
Gordon was not only a master of jazz; he also was a unique figure in the history of the music. He was John Coltrane’s saxophone teacher, an Academy Award nominee, and also happened to be nearly 6’6″ feet tall. But beyond the trivia, he also brilliantly demonstrated one of the time-honored truths of jazz, the value and genius of creatively elaborated quarter notes in improvisation. Unfortunately, this idea as well is not easily appreciated and understood these days. We now live in a hyper, ‘multiple-app’ society. But if you really want to take your playing to the highest level, then the sophisticated and clever use of quarter notes is essential. So let’s look at Dexter’s recordings and see what we can learn about quarter notes.
First of all, Dexter’s playing has been described by fellow musicians, producers, and critics almost invariably along the following lines: operatic, ebullient, poetic, bursting with ideas, beautiful story-teller, dry humor, and larger than life. This is because of his brilliant use of quarter and half note syncopation. Clear examples of this are the first few bars of both the melody and saxophone solo of Cheese Cake, and the second bar of the melody and the beginning of the second solo stanza (00:53) on 2nd Balcony Jump, both from the album GO! . On I Want More (from Dexter Calling), both the intro and Dexter’s soloing contain a series of bars of simple, syncopated eighth note lines followed by a bar containing four quarter notes, occasionally tying them over the bar line, cleverly outlining the bare essentials of the harmony. The combination of harmony and quarter notes creates a beautiful, dramatic sound.
Secondly, Dexter seemingly does the impossible by single tonguing quarter notes and making them swing simultaneously! All our jazz lives we are taught to play in a legato manner with tongue accents on key notes. And yet Dexter’s soloing (especially on Scrapple from the Apple from the LP Our Man in Paris) is filled with heavily tongued quarter notes. But boy do they sound great! The key here is his time. Dexter had incredibly good time, and uses it to make these almost comically exaggerated quarter notes work.
Thirdly, Dexter utilizes a lot of rhythmic variety, even within the supposedly “limited” realm of quarter notes and half notes. The key to his success is note placement. For example, he might play one bar that contains three quarter notes and two eighth notes on beat four. The next bar will see the two eighth notes played on the first beat followed by three quarter notes. The next bar after that will contain two quarternotes, two eighth notes on beat three and a quarter note on beat four. Audiences particularly love this kind of playing because it includes them in the process of the music. They quickly pick up on what is going on and almost invariably anticipate what will happen next eagerly, which is the fourth idea inherent in Dexter’s playing.
As much as a little flash in one’s playing is exciting, few people include “a little” of it! It is almost like modern jazz musicians don’t trust the audience, assuming that they are only capable of appreciating the athletic aspects of the music, which is not true. Everyone loves a good story, and the audience will completely “get” and enjoy quarter notes and half notes if they are played with great time and in clever groupings. This includes outlining the essentials of the harmony as opposed to playing thousands “clever” ornaments and sidesteps around it, all of the time. A little strawberry on the top of a dessert is nice. So don’t throw the entire strawberry basket at your audience!
Fifthly, Dexter was a voracious reader. He knew the lyrics to pretty much all the ballads ever written, and spoke several languages on one level or another merely through touring. With that in mind, we can appreciate the ‘spoken’ quality of his music. Whereas eighth notes are like letters, Dexter’s quarter notes are words. This to me partially explains why audiences politely clap for, but most often mentally tune out, fast, long eighth note solos. It is like spelling out a story one letter at a time instead of speaking the words! And the story can be told by a clever combination of ideas with the quarter note as the starting point.
So to conclude: use quarter note and half note syncopation tied over barlines, use single tonguing occasionally to add drama to your solos, place your quarter notes in clever places, use quarter notes to outline the bare harmonic essentials in exciting ways, and tell a musical story through the combined use of the previous ideas. It will clarify your ideas, expand your sense of time, and open up exciting new areas of sound and rhythm to explore. And if you are interested in checking out Dexter Gordon, I recommend the following albums: GO!, Doin’ Allright, Dexter Calling, A Swingin’ Affair, and Our Man in Paris.