|During the final years of Art Pepper's life, from the mid-'70s through 1982, George Cables was the saxophone player's pianist of choice, both live and in the studio. Pepper called Cables Mr. Beautiful—not just for his playing, but also for his warm and loving personality. (In particular, Pepper appreciated Cables' positive attitude to white musicians, which apparently contrasted pleasantly with that of many other sidemen he'd worked with over the years, who'd denigrate Pepper behind his back.) Cables' playing illuminated a clutch of late-period Pepper albums.
One day—assuming the affection was mutual—we may get to hear a Cables tribute to Pepper. Meanwhile, A Letter To Dexter celebrates another saxophonist, Dexter Gordon, with whom Cables gigged and recorded a little from 1977-79.
As is to be hoped with such a fine trio of musicians—each of whom played with Gordon, bassist Rufus Reid doing so contemporaneously with Cables—the music is sinewy, lyrical and infectiously good-time, like Gordon himself. Indeed, there are moments when your mind wanders and you half expect Gordon himself to join in.
Gordon's playlist was focused on standards, but he also wrote some enduring tunes of his own, and Cables includes four of these on the album. (The other tracks are standards, and one Cables original, “I Told You So,” all of them associated with Gordon.) “Catalonian Nights,” Gordon's tribute to the city of Barcelona, opens the proceedings with a hot Spanish tinge. The familiar “Cheese Cake” and the less well-known, more throwaway “Fried Bananas” (using the “It Could Happen To You” changes) both get spirited workouts.
The penultimate track on the album, before a solo piano reading of “Round About Midnight,” is the Gordon band's gigging signature tune, “LTD (Long Tall Dexter).” On this track in particular, Gordon's presence is almost tangible; Victor Lewis' clattering drums seemingly announce the saxophonist's entry at several points.
Other standouts include a suitably sweaty and funktified performance of Donald Byrd's soul-jazzer “Tanya”; a lovely “Polkadots And Moonbeams,” which is introduced by Cables' Gordonesque recitation of the first verse of the lyrics; and Cables' uptempo and vigorous, at times near-barrelhouse solo reimagining of the old Monk warhorse.
There's nothing revolutionary here, but some mighty fine music and enough good vibes to make you feel happier with the world (for a while, anyway).