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Frank Morgan and George Cables: Montreal Memories

Peter Hoetjes By

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Montreal Memories is a duet album recorded at Theatre Port Royal on July 1, 1989, featuring two of the most talented jazz artists of any generation: alto saxophonist Frank Morgan; and pianist George Cables. This is the second duet album they've released, the first being Contemporary's Double Image in 1987.

A jazz duet is a format which invites intimacy and profundity, more than the typical quartet or quintet setup. Two musicians must really know each other, to be completely cohesive and able to anticipate the other's changes. This sort of album tends to be either great or lackluster, which makes it a bit of a gamble to record live, but Morgan and Cables play those odds and they pay off well for a second time.

And why shouldn't they? They've worked together on and off from the mid-eighties until the Morgan's death in 2007. With a career as pianist for some of the greatest horn players in existence, Cables effortlessly blends his approach with Morgan's singular voice. Both musicians have very recognizable sounds; if one were to remove either from this record, it wouldn't be difficult to tell who's playing. Neither sacrifices a bit of their character to create this, and Montreal Memories is a far stronger album for it.

The live set swings out of the starting gate with Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time," before mellowing for "All the Things You Are," a standard that allows the pair to showcase their improvisations within the construct of a ballad. Morgan's moody saxophone layers over Cables' subdued piano to lend the song not only emotional resonance but atmosphere.

The duo rockets through the familiar, swinging "A Night in Tunisia." A decade earlier, Cables was playing it with another altoist, Art Pepper, during the saxophonist's legendary Village Vanguard sessions. This recording takes the familiarity and toys with it somewhat, giving it a new twist without ever losing sight of its familiar melody. "Round Midnight" seems like a logical choice for a pianist like Cables to include in his set, considering the admiration he held for Dexter Gordon—who, at the same time, was making headlines for the classic Thelonious Monk song again, with his appearance in Bernard Tavernier's 1986 film of the same name and subsequent soundtrack.

"Confirmation" is an interesting take on a classic Charlie Parker song. Not truly fast-tempo'd, it still feels as if Morgan is pushing just a bit at Cables, nipping at his heels, which has the effect of nudging the heartbeat a bit faster than it would be had they chosen a blisteringly fast song like "Cherokee." It's an unexpected, unique effect halfway through the album.

The laid-back tearjerker that Morgan wrote for his wife, "Blues For Rosalinda," is followed by two Cables originals: the ubiquitous "Helen's Song"; and "Lullaby."

"Lullaby," as usual, is a weighty and emotional song, perfectly apropos for its title. The song doesn't just ache, it moans and sobs and bleeds all at once, clawing at the heart. "Helen's Song" on the other hand, gets an interesting take from Morgan. While it's typically played with a piano-led trio, this rendition removes the rhythm section and, instead, allows Morgan and Cables to improvise their way through the performance, breathing new life into the pianist's best known composition. If "Lullaby" is intended to lull you to sleep, "Helen's Song" is designed to roust you from it, with its assertions of love and hope.

Countering the tenderness of the past 22 minutes, the duo chooses to end its live set with an intriguing medley. Bridging Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti" with another Parker tune, "Billie's Bounce," is a wise choice, taking all of the sounds the audience heard throughout the last hour and molding them together in a way that proves how incredible these two were at the time.

With Morgan no longer alive (though George Cables is still performing both solo as well as with jazz super group The Cookers), this album may qualify as the final 2018 posthumous release, alongside music from such legendary artists as Erroll Garner, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon, and Art Pepper. Some were middling, some were a bit disappointing, and some were valuable treasures. Not only does Montreal Memories fall into that final category, it is truly one of the "must hear" jazz albums of the year.

Track Listing: Now's The Time; All The Things You Are; A Night in Tunisia; Round Midnight; Confirmation; Blues For Rosalinda; Helen's Song; Lullaby; Medley: Nefertiti/Billie's Bounce.

Personnel: Frank Morgan: alto saxophone; George Cables; piano.

Title: Montreal Memories | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: HighNote Records

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