In November 1946, tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray led a bop quartet that recorded for Sunset Records in Hollywood. The group featured Dodo Marmarosa on piano (who was living on the West Coast at the time after leaving Artie Shaw's band a year earlier); Red Callender on bass; and Chuck Thompson on drums.
Among the tracks recorded that day was Easy Swing, which has a bop line that's virtually identical to Charlie Parker's Steeplechase. Except Steeplechase wasn't recorded yet by Bird and wouldn't be until September 1948. Talk about Bird taking something home from the West Coast after his stay at Camarillo State Hospital! Or perhaps Bird gave the bop line to Wardell for his recording date. We'll never know.
Flash forward to June 1952. Wardell Gray and tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon get together at Swing Time records for another one of their famed tenor battle sessions. The group featured Gerry Wiggins on piano and organ, Red Callender on bass, and Chuck Thompson on drums.
The reason I mention both sessions is that they are fabulous and are available on one CD, which I spotted a week ago tucked away under Wardell Gray's name at iTunes.
The $11.98 download (and CD available on the web) is called Citizens Bop (Black Lion) and offers 12 tracks from three different dates. If you're a fan of Dexter's and Wardell's, and of West Coast bop, this download is breathtaking for the ideas that pour forth and the quality of the remastered sound. I found the Wardell Gray Quartet session from 1946 to be one of Wardell's strongest and most inventive outings.
Most importantly, there are two ballads on this download—one featuring Dexter and the other Wardell.
The Dexter ballad is My Kinda Love (1952) and is one moody, masterpiece with a fabulous tag at the end. Dexter's solo is pure smoke and gives you a hint of where he is heading artistically and where he winds up later in the decade and in the 1960s.
The Wardell ballad is The Man I Love (1946)—but Wardell never once plays the melody as written. Instead, he invents a completely new song off the cuff as the rhythm section comps the chord changes. Seriously smart stuff.
These two tracks, along with the other 10, represent a vivid and spirited West Coast bop document. I spent the last four days listening to the CD several times at each sitting. Despite repeated playing, I never once found myself bored or disappointed.
The CD's only flaw—and it's minor—is Jingle Jangle Jump, a holiday-season jump boogie featuring Wardell and Dexter and a vocal by Gladys Bentley. (Bentley was an openly gay blues singer in the 1920s and 1930s who performed in men's clothes and relocated to California in the 1940s, where she recorded and sang at clubs.) Jingle features upbeat tenor solos, but it's too much of a novelty number for this CD.
Otherwise, the Wardell Gray/Dexter Gordon CD is bop perfect from start to finish.
Wax tracks: Since iTunes doesn't break the CD into its different dates, let me do it for you here:
The Rubaiyat—Wardell and Dexter (1952)
My Kinda Love—Dexter ballad (1952)
Citizens Bop—Wardell and Dexter (1952)
One for Prez—Wardell (1946)
Jingle Jangle Jump—Wardell + Dexter (1952) w/ vocal
Dell's Bells—Wardel (1946)
I Hear You Knockin'—Wardell (1952) mimics the early r&b tenor sound popular then
The Man I Love—Wardell (1946)
Easy Swing—Wardell (1946)
Man with a Horn—Maurice Simon on bari (1952)
Blue Lou—Wardell (1947) with Erroll Garner on piano
The Rubaiyat—alternate take
Wax clips: To hear Wardell, as smooth as silk, in 1955 with Count Basie, go here. To get a sense of Dexter's cocky personality and confident blowing, go here. If only there was footage of the two boppers playing together in the late 1940s. One day, maybe.