The Bethlehem Years was a reissue series distributed by RCA Victor featuring artists who had been on Bethlehem -- a New York indie jazz imprint -- during its brief, but prolific heyday in the mid- to late '50s. Bebop pioneer Dexter Gordon (tenor sax) recorded the half-dozen selections included on this installment of the Bethlehem Years during a single mid-September 1955 session fronting the Dexter Gordon Quartet with Kenny Drew (piano), Leroy Vinnegar (bass), and Larry Marable (drums). Had it not been common knowledge that Gordon was nursing a fairly debilitating drug habit, most listeners likely would not have been able to tell based purely on the strength and command unleashed here. In fact, Gordon is so strong and emotive throughout, it would suggest that he was at (or nearing) the top of his game. Especially when he supplies a pair of the date's best sides, the lighthearted "Daddy Plays the Horn" and the melodic midtempo bop groover "Number Four." In many ways, Kenny Drew's offerings can be considered complementary to those of Gordon. At the very least, his abilities -- to enhance the tenor's performance if not the overall arrangement -- are evident on every cut. One of Drew's finest moments on the project can be heard during the foursome's evenly paced spin of Charlie Parker's "Confirmation." Gordon yields as Drew transports the rhythm section through their paces while simultaneously creating a link between Gordon's confident and creative solos. "Darn That Dream" embraces the tenor sax's warmth with sensual resonant phrasing that leaves just enough space for Drew to sonically bridge the gap with his own unhurried and stylish chord punctuations. Although generically titled, "Number Four" is anything but ordinary as the Gordon original jumps solid from start to finish. Gordon comes out swinging with an assured and unfettered malleability. Yet his penetrating leads are never chaotic or contrived. Quite to the contrary as Gordon passes to Drew and then bassist Vinnegar before reprising the catchy tune one last time. The pop standard "Autumn in New York" is as alluring and affective as the Big Apple itself. There is a practically indescribable empathy in Gordon's tone and its expressiveness is extended into Drew's equally communicative contributions. Marable kick starts the closer "You Can Depend on Me" with Gordon falling right into place for one final full-blown bop fling. The sheer joy heard in the tenor's full-bodied timbre is infectious as Drew fills in the gaps with precisely interjected harmonic chord phrases. Sadly, Gordon's relative sobriety would be short-lived and he would not resurface in the studio for another five years. Luckily, at that time Gordon was granted an opportunity to match, if not arguably surpass his work on these jazz milestones.
The Bethlehem Years Review
by Lindsay Planer