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Lee Morgan: Lee Morgan: The Sidewinder – 1964

Marc Davis By

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The Sidewinder is the jazz equivalent of comfort food–but gourmet comfort food.
What's left to say about Lee Morgan's most popular album, The Sidewinder? How about this: It is one FUN record. That's capital F, capital U, capital N.

Anything wrong with that?

Sometimes it feels like all the fun has gone out of jazz. As if nothing can be Good unless it is Serious. As if muted Miles and spiritual Trane are the ultimate barometers of true jazz respectability. Hey, I love Miles and Trane and all the great, serious musicians who came before and since. But there is also room for music that simply makes you smile, tap your feet and shimmy your hips.

The Sidewinder is that record. In spades.

There's the title cut, of course—10 minutes of pure, unadulterated riff and groove. Who doesn't love a great riff? The Beatles played great riffs. Jimi Hendrix played great riffs. Hell, Beethoven's Fifth is arguably the greatest riff of all time. So to say "The Sidewinder" is just a lot of fun variations on a great soul-jazz riff is not to damn with faint praise. It's a compliment.

The remaining four cuts (and one alternate take) are not quite as riffy, and definitely not in the same soul-jazz mode, but still a hell of a lot of fun.

Every track is upbeat and lively. Every track is clever and brash. And every track was written by Morgan himself—what a great composer! Morgan on trumpet and Joe Henderson on tenor are simply inspired. They can twist a tune every which way and make it sound original. Barry Harris on piano reminds me of Ramsey Lewis on "The In Crowd," especially on the title cut. Not a huge surprise, since "The In Crowd" came out the same year, infected by the same Fun vibe.

Yes, Lee Morgan played Serious hard bop for many years before The Sidewinder. They are pretty great records, too, especially the ones with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. You can love Serious and Fun equally. I do. That dichotomy goes back as far as jazz itself. There was Serious Louis Armstrong and Fun Louis Armstrong—sometimes on the same record, and all of it sublime.

So yes, The Sidewinder is on the Fun side of jazz. But it is virtuoso fun, and head-nodding fun. It is the jazz equivalent of comfort food—but gourmet comfort food. Morgan spent years trying to recapture the magic and never quite got it. The Sidewinder is fun before it became mere formula. Get it.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

Availability: Oodles and oodles of copies out there

Cost: $9 new, $4 used, $5 for just the MP3s

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