Alto saxophonists Frank Morgan and the late Art Pepper have much in common outside their chosen instrument. Both were active on the West Coast during the rage of Charlie Parker and bebop. Both possessed a beautifully spearmint-dry ice tone in their early careers and both were unsurpassed as ballad interpreters. Both musicians recorded for Contemporary Records, often with the same sidemen. Both were heroin addicts who interrupted their respective careers for decades with incarceration before making successful comebacks. Pepper's began in the late '70s and Morgan's in the mid-'80s.
After a string of recordings for Contemporary, Antilles, and Telarc between 1985 and 1996, Morgan suffered a stroke that sidelined him until his second comeback in 2004 with the release of City Nights: Live at the Jazz Standard (HighNote, 2004) and its follow up Raising the Standard: Live at the Jazz Standard, Vol.2 (HighNote, 2005). Morgan now releases his first studio recording since Bop (Telarc, 1996) and it is no disappointment.
Reflections, just released on HighNote, should not be confused with his recording by the same title released on Contemporary in 1989. The two recordings offer an informative comparison of the pre- and post-stroke Frank Morgan with regards to his playing. The late-'80s Morgan still possessed the pent-up heat of thirty years away from regular performance. His style did not change as drastically as Pepper's after his return, but it was assertive and hungry. Twenty years later, we find Morgan with less heat but more light in his playing.
With a tone once described "like a wounded bird, the 2007 edition of Frank Morgan sounds like a well-delivered sermon on the certainty of salvation. Morgan's intonation and modulation are as sure as ever and he can still blow the best bop blown. Evidence of this is on the opener, "Walkin', which has pianist Ronnie Mathews taking the first solo after the head to be followed by Morgan, who effectively cleans the corners of the old style, showing why bop still matters so much.
"Walkin' is the only up-tempo piece on the disc. Morgan interprets Monk ("Monk's Mood and "Blue Monk ) contemplatively, showing his blues chops on the latter. Morgan reprises his performance of "Love Story, which he performed as a duet with Art Pepper's favorite pianist George "Mr. Beautiful Cables on Double Image (Contemporary). He approaches Miles again with "Solar, producing one the finest interpretations recorded.
Morgan's rhythm section is nuclear, providing rock solid time and support, leaving the saxophonist to do what he does best, interpreting classics as he makes them his own. Frank Morgan is as close to the source as the listener is likely to get.
Personnel: Frank Morgan: alto saxophone; Ronnie Mathews: piano; Essiet Essiet: bass; Billy Hart: drums.