Hear a Never-Before-Seen 1986 Dexter Gordon Piece, Played by 8 Different Artists

In November 2016, Peter Pillitteri, an aspiring composer and one of the students in Ian Davis’ popular Orchestration for Strings course, emailed us out of the blue to tell us this incredible story:

“‘Round Midnight is a 1986 film by Bertrand Tavernier about a fictitious jazzman, Dale Turner, who was played by the great jazz saxophonist, Dexter Gordon. Dexter arrived in Malpensa Airport, Milan, Italy, on an overnight Alitalia flight in November 1986 to debut the film at the Venice Film Festival.

“I, too, had flown all night, and I recognized him as he exited the plane with his saxophone in hand. During our bus ride to customs, I asked him what he was doing in Italy. In a tired and hungover voice, he said, ‘I’ve become an actor and I’m going to the Venice Film Festival.’ After such a long flight, I wanted to give him his space. I left him seated alone in the baggage claim area as his female companion scurried about collecting his luggage.

“After a long while, I could not resist asking him for an autograph and opened my music manuscript notebook to a blank page. With eyes closed and face facing downwards, I waited — what seemed an eternity — for him to sign an autograph. I thought for a moment that he had fallen asleep sitting up on the bench when suddenly he began to write what was to become a manuscript. He finished it by saying in a gravelly voice, ‘I don’t know how it sounds, but you’ll have to try it out.’

“Exhausted after flying all night, he wrote a manuscript, and to my disbelief, he gave it back to me. I told him that I could not accept his manuscript but he reassured me that it was OK. I asked him if he was ‘going to sign it’ and he signed it with a big, bold signature and finished by entitling it ‘Milano.’ I thanked him and walked off in a daze, not believing what had just happened.

“I searched out his companion and told her what Dexter had done and that I couldn’t accept an original manuscript from him. She told me not to worry and shrugged it off implying that, perhaps, he did this type of thing all of the time.

“His piece ‘Milano’ is not the jazz standard entitled ‘Milano,’ by John Lewis, but an original bebop piece.”

And then, Peter sent us the manuscript…

It’s a beautifully hand-scribbled work of musical art. And until now, nobody other than those close to Peter has seen this. So naturally, we asked if we could send this to some jazz musicians and improvisers to play, and Peter agreed.

Here, for the first time ever seen or heard is Dexter Gordon’s 1986 autographed manuscript, “Milano.” Below, you’ll hear brand new interpretations of this piece by eight different artists who have shared their thoughts about the experience of performing a chart that nobody has ever seen, and which Dexter himself hasn’t even played!

Participating artists include: guitarist and instrument inventor Elliott Sharp; violin duo String Noise (Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris); producer and composer, Charles Burchell a.k.a. BLVK Samurai; guitarist Nick Millevoi and bassist Matt Stein; guitarist and electronic producer Mikael Tobias; pianist Adam Daudrich; classical guitarist and sound artist Leonie Roessler; composer, multi-instrumentalist, and bandleader of Tredici BacciSimon Hanes; and last but certainly not least, saxophonist, composer and bandleader Mats Gustafsson.

Elliott Sharp

“Dexter Gordon visited Buffalo in 1976 to perform at the Tralfamadore Cafe. I’d often stop in to catch the last set, and that night, Dexter was warmed up — on fire, actually. His sound was burly and muscular, even in a ballad, and his phrasing was punchy even when slurring and sliding. It was astounding to hear his spontaneous melodic inventions in that larger-than-life tone.

“While affecting, the film ‘Round Midnight seemed to present a caricature of a European impression of a ‘jazz archetype.’ Dexter Gordon ‘the actor’ was not the Dexter Gordon ‘the musician.’ That, I had experienced. To play ‘Milano,’ I hoped to capture a taste of that memory of 40 years ago in a packed club when Dexter Gordon poured his soul into his horn.”

String Noise

“It was cool reading it down together for the first time, not knowing how the other would interpret it. Then, to totally let loose and shred was super satisfying!” 

BLVK Samurai

“Dexter Gordon is a bebop legend. When I was younger, one of my very good friends who is a talented bebop player said he learned all his language from Dexter Gordon. I frequently travel from New York to Rome and have made the flight from New York to Milan a few times so I know how tired he must have been while writing this tune. Being that this was towards the end of his career, and life, I think it’s safe to say that his music had become a part of him.

“For him, writing this manuscript must have been as easy as signing his name on a document. You can tell it was rushed because there are some lines that apply some obvious harmonic choices but he only wrote a few chords. For me I did my best to fill in the harmonic gaps and I applied the song to my own style which is somewhere between bebop and boom bap. If Dexter Gordon was alive today, and he heard my version of this song, he’d probably deny writing it, but I hope my version sheds a little light on the genius that was, and is, Dexter Gordon.”

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Are There ‘Happy’ Blue Notes? Well, Maybe…”

Mikael Tobias

“This was the first time I looked at a jazz lead sheet in several years. My sight reading is pretty rusty, but that alone seemed like a good enough reason to try and tackle this. I wanted to do something pretty untraditional, and I was on a bus in northern Denmark with nothing but a laptop, so I started by programming the chords as MIDI.

“I went with a synthy palette and played with the arpeggiator and different voicings of the chords that are held for several bars. The harmony and melody of the composition are so rooted in jazz that it was difficult to really get away from that feeling, so I played the melody on guitar which I felt grounded my interpretation of the floating and bubbly synths.”

Leonie Roessler

“Delighted to be among the few first musicians to make this manuscript sound, I set on the task of putting the music down in a way that respects the score and the composer himself, while integrating the sort of sound work I have been doing these past few years. I am a composer and musician who, at this point, rarely plays anything but her own work. So going back to working with a lead sheet — especially one that has resurfaced after such a long time along with a great story of how it came about — was exciting and almost made me a bit nervous.

“Not having a piano around, I played ‘funky’ MIDI instruments for the first time ever, straight into Logic, using my ex-husband’s wonderful new keyboard that he left in our living room. I counted loudly while developing my arrangement — all the while, imagining a story I could tell about the possible scene at the Milano airport with my field recordings.

“Having decided on an AABB form, I added a story of a flight almost missed, in the A section, which is resolved by the mellower B part, where the clicking of seatbelts and the safety announcements on the plane let us know that everything worked out fine in the end. Short and sweet and simple. Thank you for listening.”

Field Recordings made at Eindhoven Airport in the summer of 2015.

Simon Hanes

“Since the somewhat embarrassing truth is that I’ve never really listened to Dexter Gordon, I felt free to approach the melodic and harmonic content of the piece without any preconceptions about how it should sound. The fun of it all, for me, was finding the aspects of the score that spoke to me most clearly and figuring out how to reimagine them in my own voice.”

Nick Millevoi with Matt Stein

“I can’t resist a good mystery, and Peter’s story about this piece has a mysterious feeling to it that hits all the right notes. Who knows if Dexter was feeling mysterious about the music he wrote down, but I thought that I would reach beyond the notes on the page to create an imaginary noir soundtrack to the two guys standing there in the airport as the piece slowly unravels on the page. I can imagine the camera slowly panning, maybe a little fog outside the glass doors. Peter approaches Dexter Gordon with a notepad… Something like that.

“Matt Stein and I got together, and we barely talked about how we would approach the feel for the tune. Between the story, the intervals used in the melody, and the harmony (especially those ♭5 chords!), the tune feels so haunting. Some of the notes feel like they should just be suspended in mid-air for a while. Melodic mystery.

“It was an honor to get to deliver a premier take on this tune. I’m very glad Peter decided to approach Dexter that morning in Milan.”

Adam Daudrich

“Challenging. Right off the bat, you get a pretty dense sound, a G7♭5, classic bebop like Thelonious Monk. That’s the first phrase! Then, a kind of regal fanfare-ish announcement on that Cm7. Then, a pause (that could be an E in the melody… not sure). Then the descending line, and I’m like, what the heck is that chord supposed to be?…probably G bass note (i.e., G7).

“OK, so eureka, the first section ends on D♭7♭5 (the polar opposite of that first dense chord, the G7♭5). So, to recap: three very different ideas, connected. That’s perfect for jazz improv. You establish a connection between three different ideas, and now the improv will just flow out with ease, even if it’s pretty abstract… which this is.

“When you have a composition that doesn’t connect to itself, improv starts to get wanky, no matter how hard you try. That’s why popular songs work well for improv and re-composition, like the beboppers did, and Dexter is definitely part of that.

“So, how did Dexter think of this? What are the missing chord changes supposed to be? Then I thought: Dexter = tenor sax, so the melody is probably an octave lower. I’ll double the melody, accentuate those ♭5 chords, and pick a tempo that sounds like it could work with a band. I guessed what the missing chords might be. (Sorry Dexter — you gotta give me more than that!) And I am really hoping the cadence is right… Coming back to Cm after an Fmaj cadence is, well, pretty chill. But, hey…”

Mats Gustafsson

Dexter Gordon. Tenor sax.

When I was asked to do this project, those facts will remain, I knew that. It had to be done with tenor sax — but in another concept, with some limitations to the idea. Dexter being an all-time favorite tenor sax hero of mine; epic records made in the history of jazz. To be inspired by, yet never to repeat. Our Man In Paris is a personal favorite!

Tenor sax, close mic’d, ballad, almost a lament (I never heard the melody in another way after I got it). Historic connection established, and a contemporary blink to the world of live electronics and noise. To put the music in the context of something happening now, I used seven circuit-bent devices named ”MOLNET” (the cloud). The clouds above us, the frictions between history and future will always continue to fascinate me.

Tenor sax. Dexter Gordon.

Don’t stop here!

Continue learning about music theory, composition, arrangement, harmony and chord progressions with Soundfly’s in-depth online courses, like Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords, Introduction to the Composer’s Craft, and The Creative Power of Advanced Harmony. Subscribe for unlimited access here.

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