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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 39.0° F  Fair
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UW-Madison's Blue Note Ensemble to pay tribute to Dexter Gordon
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This semester, Dexter Gordon seemed the appropriate choice since Maxine Gordon's visit is coming up.

Though the great tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon died of liver failure in 1990, the UW will celebrate his life and legacy this winter, when he would have celebrated his 90th birthday. Several Gordon-themed activities complement the university's efforts to build a new jazz program.

Gordon's widow, biographer and former manager, Maxine Gordon, will visit the UW's Morphy Hall on March 11 for an event dubbed "Dexter Gordon @ 90." Here, she'll answer questions from the audience and WORT-FM jazz-program hosts Steve Braunginn and Jane Reynolds. Her talk will be interspersed with performances of Dexter Gordon compositions from one of the UW's new student groups, the Blue Note Ensemble.

With a catalog full of canonical jazz releases and timelessly cool album art, Blue Note Records is revered by even the most casual jazz listeners. But it's especially important to the UW's director of jazz studies, Johannes Wallmann, who's also the director of the Blue Note Ensemble. He wrote a doctoral dissertation on Herbie Hancock's string of releases for the label.

The Blue Note Ensemble has several more performances coming up, including March 1 at the Rathskeller and April 9 at Morphy Hall, both with the new Contemporary Jazz Ensemble. Wallmann uses the ensemble to help his students delve into the works of one or two Blue Note Records artists each semester, emphasizing releases from the 1950s and 1960s. Last semester he focused on Lee Morgan. This deep-study opportunity would usually just be available to graduate students in the music department, but Wallmann says the ensemble currently includes mostly freshmen and sophomores.

This semester, Dexter Gordon seemed the appropriate choice since Maxine Gordon's visit is coming up. Wallmann says he also chose Gordon so his class would tie in with bassist Richard Davis' course on black music history, which is focusing on saxophonists this month. So Wallmann and his students have dug into Gordon's revered Blue Note releases from the early '60s, like Go! and Our Man in Paris.

"The starting point is the compositions," Wallmann says. "We spend a lot of time listening to the players and talking about them, both the main player and the sidemen. I might talk with the drummer about what is, say, Billy Higgins bringing to the drums on this album, or [have students] compare the different pianists that Dexter recorded with."

Focusing on the compositions is particularly challenging with Gordon. His recordings mostly drew on jazz standards, and the tunes he did compose can be tricky to transcribe. For example, take "Ernie's Tune," a ballad from 1961's Dexter Calling.

"He recorded it with a quartet, so there's nobody doubling the melody," Wallmann says. "Every time he plays the same phrase, he'll play it so differently that it's really instructive to look at the different variations that he brings to the table. But the challenge is trying to figure out the underlying musical phrase, without his interpretation in it."

Tough as this may be, Wallmann says it's worthwhile to explore great compositions that haven't entered the repertoire of many jazz students.

"So often when we hear Dexter Gordon or any jazz artist, it's in the context of lots of other artists on either side of him, so there isn't a lot of opportunity for deep engagement," Wallmann says. "I think that [deep engagement] is something a university does well."

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