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Lee Morgan On Music Matters

Greg Simmons By

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Somewhere up in the sky there's a pantheon of jazz legends. Lee Morgan rightfully has a seat in the top tier, and the jam must be extraordinary.

Morgan hit the scene in 1956, an obvious prodigy who'd scored two triumphs at the tender age of eighteen: a standing gig in Dizzy Gillespie's big band and the commencement of a prolific recording career as a leader for Blue Note Records. Following his first LP, Indeed, he went on to record another two-dozen records for the label as a leader, and more than twice as many again as a sideman with the best of the era: Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Hank Mobley and Joe Henderson, to name just a few. Of thirty odd recordings led by Morgan all but a handful were for the label.

Of course the man and his trumpet didn't pop out of the ground fully formed. Morgan was fortunate to have grown up in Philadelphia, which in the 1950s was an almost perfect biosphere for aspiring young jazz talent. The public school system had one of the nation's premier music education programs at Mastbaum Vo-Tech, and the city had a unique network of clubs, some of which set aside times during the week so underage players could get stage time or jam. There couldn't have been a better environment to develop Morgan's enormous talent and he took full advantage of all of it, studying and practicing relentlessly, gigging where he could, and soaking in the wisdom and experience of older musicians who either lived there or were passing through.

Undoubtedly, his most important formative relationship was with Clifford Brown, who'd settled in Philly. When performing schedules allowed, the two would spend hours practicing in Brown's basement or just discussing, parsing and dissecting music. Brown was an important role model in other ways. In a musical circle that was rife with substance abuse, Brown's clean living—he rarely even took a drink—created a space for Morgan to grow without the kinds of distractions that destroyed the lives of a great many first-rate musicians, at least for a while.

Jazz culture in the fifties and sixties was a cauldron of reckless, self-destructive behaviors that turned some its brightest luminaries into casualties. Just a couple of short years after his career had taken him out of Philly, Morgan had plunged headfirst into that stew and was sinking. It's believed that he started using heroin while he was a member of The Jazz Messengers, and the habit took a heavy toll on him. He showed up for a session missing teeth after a run-in with an unpaid dealer, almost burned off his scalp when he blacked out against a hot radiator, and wound up completely off the scene for few years struggling with life as a junkie. On one frigid winter night he found himself with no coat and no horn, having pawned both for dope. For much of Lee Morgan's adult life, the hard way was often the only way.

Nevertheless, despite all of his extracurricular problems Morgan managed to have an exceptionally productive career. He built an enormous catalog for Blue Note, second numerically only to Hank Mobley, and caught lightning in a bottle when he recorded one of the label's biggest pop hits: 1963's "The Sidewinder," a throwaway track conjured on the spot as a session filler—in Morgan's own telling, in the bathroom written on toilet paper—with no rehearsal. He continued to record and evolve, quite literally, until the day before he died, shot to death between sets at Slug's Saloon in the East Village by his common law wife, Helen, in 1972. He was only thirty-three.

Style and Substance

Morgan developed his own distinct sound early, particularly in his phrasing and timing. Even his earliest recordings sound like Lee Morgan, an unusual hallmarking for such a young player. Some of those recordings do show the influence Clifford Brown, but where Brown cultivated a very polished presentation Morgan developed a brassier tone, sometimes with a coarse urgency where it suited the music. Also like Brown, Morgan favored the lower range of the trumpet, acquiring a full, deep timbre, and generally staying away from high-note histrionics. By time he joined Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra in 1956 he was already past the point where his own style could be easily subverted. In fact when Morgan was featured as a soloist, it was precisely the contrast between their styles that convinced Diz the mix would be so compelling. Gillespie became another adult mentor and he and Morgan became very good friends.

Yet even as a very young man in such close proximity to two such individually self-assured trumpet players as Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown, Morgan always had the presence of mind to stay on his own musical path. Morgan's playing was always very honest, downplaying unnecessary speed or ornamental fluff, though he could—and did—do both brilliantly when it was appropriate. He had unmistakable signature figures, little rapid succession staccato triplets and smeared notes for example, but they never became cliché and were always servile to his bigger musical vision. Of course, like any musician, his playing evolved. Over his career his improvisations become more direct as he abandoned embellishments in favor of crisp statements.

Another consistency throughout Morgan's career was that everything he played came within a strong structural context. His records always give the impression that he was focused on the music and his role in it, rather than just on blowing over the top of a backing band. His music was always cooperative, even with respect to composition. On his first recordings he used Benny Golson as a writer and arranger, but thereafter quickly began writing the majority of the music for his own dates. He penned some genuine classics, but he always kept an ear out for talent, frequently giving right of way to great compositions by his collaborators, especially in later years as his own writing ability waned somewhat.

The Music Matters Series

Morgan's more popular records, especially The Sidewinder, have been re-released many times, but with a catalog this large there are other great titles that may not be as well known, but are absolutely worth hearing.

Reissue house Music Matters has been re-pressing Blue Notes records for the better part of a decade. They've made a consistent point of including lesser-known titles, and their handling of Lee Morgan has been no exception. Each album has been re-mastered directly from the original Rudy Van Gelder master session tapes and pressed into 180gram vinyl by RTI; true analog recordings from end to end. The covers are all faithfully reproduced on heavy stock with added gatefolds featuring additional Francis Wolff session photos.

Music Matters' stated goal was to wring as much sonic information from those tapes as possible, which is not necessarily the same as duplicating the sound of the original records. The results speak for themselves. Some hidebound purists may wince, but accurately reproducing the tapes on higher quality, quieter modern vinyl makes for some very fine sounding records.

Within the Music Matters catalog there are more than a dozen records that Morgan either led or played on as a sideman. The Sidewinder, of course, is one of them, but there are plenty of others that emphasize Morgan's extraordinary talent.

Vol. 3

Recorded in early 1957, Morgan's third album for Blue Note, simply titled Vol. 3, is a monaural sextet featuring the compositions, arrangements and tenor saxophone of fellow Philadelphian Benny Golson, as well as the alto and flute of Gigi Gryce. The band is tight and confident and Morgan's improvisations are brilliant.

The opener, "Hasaan's Dream" features a melodic statement by Gryce on the flute with Morgan echoing him in the background, as well as tempo changes that almost break the track into movements. There are structured horn harmonies periodically throughout the record, including some used as comps behind the soloist as one might find with a larger ensemble.

Morgan's playing is exemplary throughout, but his shining moment comes on "I Remember Clifford." Though not the first recording of this instant classic, it's surely among the best. Morgan keeps his improvisations very tight against the melody, quoting it in small phrases even as he expounds on it. He shows exceptional restraint and maturity for a hotshot player who was still only eighteen years old. The performance transcends his youth: hymn-like and exceptionally poignant as he pays the ultimate musician's tribute to his great friend.

Candy

Candy, recorded in late 1957 and early 1958, is unique among Morgan's Blue Note records—and unusual for the label in general -for being his only date without a second (or third) horn in the lineup. Though not sequential, it's a clear stylistic break from Vol. 3. The quartet is much looser, featuring the ill-fated Sonny Clark on piano, as well as Doug Watkins and Art Taylor on bass and drums. Possibly because Morgan was not coordinating arrangements with another lead instrument, the record has a much less structured feel, as if they'd gone into the studio with minimal preparation and just started playing.

The title track, popularized by Nat "King" Cole among others, is casual and flowing. Jimmy Heath's "CTA" gets a fiery reading with Morgan carrying it all on his back. Taylor alternates between brushes and sticks as needed, impeccable as always, while Clark comps energetically, showing off the deep influence of Bud Powell on his improvisations. Morgan's burnished tone lends itself to the ballads "Since I Fell For You" and "All The Way," with sensitivity that defies his youth. The Music Matters pressing also captures recording anomalies like a squeaky (but unobtrusive) high-hat in need of a little oil, a detail that adds a bit of humanity to the musicians.

For whatever reason, Candy was shelved for many years after it's initial release. It didn't see daylight again under the Blue Note moniker until 1979; a rare and somewhat atypical album that's worth seeking out.

The Procrastinator

When The Procrastinator was recorded in 1967 Morgan was already a ten-year veteran with two-dozen records as a leader under his belt. By this time he'd been somewhat successful getting his heroin habit under control, though he'd been through some very rough personal times, often not playing for months on end. Morgan's recording sessions over the previous years had been spotty, with poor stamina and under-used embouchure that sometimes limited his ability to deliver usable takes.

For this date he'd called on his old friend Wayne Shorter, as well as Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter, with Bobby Hutcherson adding a little extra soul. In stark contrast to some other period sessions, this unit hit the studio well rehearsed with Morgan strong and in fine form. Morgan's style had changed somewhat during the intervening years. He was always a straightforward soloist, never prone to pyrotechnics for their own sake, but on this record even the trademark figures and slurs that were so distinctive on his early records are gone in favor of a conspicuously direct delivery. The younger man of a decade earlier might have added a pinch of razzle-dazzle, but not on this date. The notes are crisp and to the point. Morgan is far more forthright, as though he's just telling it straight up.

The title track opens with a stately horn duet that's almost dirge-like before Carter enters with a steroidal bass vamp that leads the crew into a real swinger. The melody is emphasized, played through several times as if to reinforce the point before giving way to the solos. On the barnburner "StartStop" the whole crew is simply on fire: fast tempos overlaid by even faster, dizzying improvisations. When they do slow it down, on Shorter's "Rio," Hutcherson's vibes lend some atmosphere to the room over Carter's fat bass intro. The bass on this record is particularly deep and well recorded. In addition to playing tenor, Shorter contributes a couple of the compositions, lending strong reverberations of Miles Davis's band at the time, for which he was also composing. The similarities are hardly surprising with three-fifths of the Second Great Quintet in the room.

Although it was a particularly strong session, the recordings were shelved, only released posthumously in 1976. Music Matters created a new, sepia toned cover to match the aesthetics of the rest of the series. The Procrastinator stands with the best: a great Lee Morgan record by any measure.

Side Gigs

In addition to recording his own records, Morgan did a lot of hired-gun gigs for other musicians. Some of them, like the Messengers, were actual working bands with which Morgan had long associations, but many others were one-off studio creations. Two of the resulting records are among the most famous in the Blue Note catalog: John Coltrane's Blue Train and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, colloquially known by the title of its most famous track, "Moanin.'" Morgan takes a prominent role on both.

On "Moanin,'" Bobby Timmons' most well known composition, Morgan is captured discussing his solo just before they open the track. He takes the first turn and drops what is surely among the most famous solos in jazz, incorporating his distinctive staccato triplets, slurred notes and slippery runs, all delivered with an unbelievably perfect sense of timing. Whether intentional or not, the little wa-wa's echo an earlier era in jazz; subtly paying an homage to the effects of the early trumpet masters. It's instantly recognizable, and deservedly so. No survey of Morgan's recordings would be complete without it.

Blue Train is a study in moving the goal line in the middle of the game. In addition to Trane, this record has a dream lineup of Morgan, Curtis Fuller, Kenny Drew, Blue Note house bassist Paul Chambers and the great Philly Joe Jones; an exceptionally capable band, well versed in the language of hard bop. Coltrane, however, is already a play or two ahead of his team. The album is still very much hard bop, but Trane's solos are deeply into his aggressive new harmonic language and he's blowing like mad. On the title track Morgan has the unenviable task of having to follow Trane's explosive opening solo. What he plays is unmistakably Lee Morgan but tremendously amped up: aggressive, fast and powerful, but still containing all of his stylistic cues. He repeats the feat on "Locomotion," matching Trane's energy and conviction without attempting to imitate the new language that very few people had yet come to fully understand, a very smart play from a trumpet player who was still—incredibly—just nineteen years old.

Coda

A discussion of only five records barely scratches the surface of Lee Morgan's recorded legacy. In a room with ten fans you'd likely hear arguments in favor of The Sidewinder or The Gigolo. Maybe a fight would break out between champions for Tom Cat or Search For A New Land. Someone would surely chime in with Morgan's contribution to Grachan Moncur III's avant-garde classic Evolution, and some wag might throw in Here's Lee Morgan on the Vee-Jay label (That wag might be the author plugging a personal favorite). There's so much great music here, everyone would have a valid point.

It would be almost impossible to overstate Lee Morgan's contribution to mid-century jazz. During his lifetime there were certainly musicians who became more widely known or commercially successful while Morgan toiled through his own troubled life. But he always persisted with his exceptional creativity intact, and few trumpet players have had as lasting or as deep an influence on their musical descendants. Pick up a Lee Morgan record—any Lee Morgan record—and it'll be easy to understand why.

The opportunity to hear these records in a high quality true analog format is a real treat. Music Matters has managed a rare achievement, even among a multitude of other vinyl reissues, bringing Lee Morgan and the rest of the Blue Note artists back to life with such realism that they're almost corporeal. They're that good.

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