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The Sweet Sound: Frank Morgan Plays Baltimore

Franz A. Matzner By

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A sweet, soulful, smooth sound that wraps every melody, every improvised chorus, every articulated note within a warm, glowing encasement.
The Baltimore Museum of Art
Sculpture Garden Series
July 19, 2003

Frank Morgan has proved that anything can be overcome. After defeating a deep heroin addiction and surviving a prolonged prison sentence, Morgan has managed, like Art Pepper before him, to return to the stage with mind, body, and abilities intact.

Morgan’s broad appeal was immediately apparent upon arriving at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Sculpture Garden, where a sold-out crowd waited eagerly for his set to begin. The environment could not have been better suited for such a concert. A clear blue sky, quiet surroundings, and a garden of trees embracing a collection of modern sculpture. This museum context seemed to suit Morgan’s approach, since, unlike Pepper, Morgan has remained firmly attached to a Bop-era style. Sticking to the sound he developed before his involvement with drug use thwarted a bourgeoning career as Bird heir apparent, Morgan’s musical talent nevertheless remains remarkable and instead of feeling dated, his old school tendencies present a direct bridge to an already receding past.

Taking the stage in this idyllic setting, Morgan opened with a solid, though by no means ground-breaking, rendition of “A Night in Tunisia.” Within moments it became quite evident why he remains such a draw. First, Morgan plays it like the old days. And second, the tone. A sweet, soulful, smooth sound that wraps every melody, every improvised chorus, every articulated note within a warm, glowing encasement. This is the real secret to Morgan’s playing, and even the skeptic would have to nod in agreement and smile with appreciation at the personal prowess and honesty Morgan displays.

Backed by local musicians Bob Butta(piano), James King(bass), and Nassar Aberdean(drums), Morgan proceeded to play two crowd pleasing sets comprised of standards. Some examples include “This Thing Called Love”, a swinging rendition of “Billie’s Bounce”, providing the night’s best piano solo, and Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”, which took Morgan out of Parker territory, showing he possesses flexibility when he opts to use it, and also gave King an opportunity to present his best solo of the night. Working the higher range of the instrument, King created an elegant line formed by subtle phrasing and shifting dynamics.

While the crowd responded to these nostalgic pieces, some of which suffered from a lack of cohesion between band members, and it was nice to hear Morgan venture outside his comfort zone, the definitive highlights of the night were Morgan’s ballads. Where the other tunes had left the crowd smiling and swaying pleasantly, Morgan’s searching rendition of “My One and Only Love”, as well as a second blues piece, led listeners into a different realm of contemplation and inward movement. Morgan’s tone and interpretative skill elevate his ballad playing and show why he is still considered a master of his craft. Playing almost like a Dexter Gordon on alto, Morgan’s gentle tone shaped the contours of each song with careful, lyrical caresses that explored the hidden cartography of each piece, his sweet timbre drawing the listener into the mournful center.

The night concluded with another standard, straight ahead Bop piece followed by a rousing standing ovation. Many patrons stopped at the stage on their way out to speak with Morgan, and accommodating them, Morgan sat and spoke with each until the crowd had dispersed. Presenting a rather tired but content appearance, one couldn’t help wondering what would have developed if this sincere man had escaped the punishments of addiction and lengthy imprisonment.

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