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Monday, December 18, 2023

¡Caramba! - Lee Morgan


Cunning Lee

Lee Morgan
All Compositions by Lee Morgan
Cover Photo by Charles Keddie
Cover Design by Forlenza Venus Associates
Produced by Francis Wolff
Blue Note BST 84289
A Product of Liberty Records

From the inside (gatefold) cover: Recently I was playing a record for a non-musician friend, a hip though non-performing follower of the jazz scene. His first comment was: "The trumpet player sure has a good sound."

A minute later, he added: "He phrases well. He knows how to use space."

Before the solo was over, a smile of recognition lit up his face as he said: "Of course! It's Lee Morgan."

This is the way it should be; the personality and individuality of a soloist should be strong enough to assure recognition, yet never obtrusive enough to smack of gimmickry. I can think of two or three nationally known hornmen who are, on a blindfold test, just as easily detectable as Lee Morgan, but artistically, it avails them nothing, since the musical statement the are trying to make have no inherent validity.

Lee Morgan has been pretty much his own man for the rest part of a decade now. Perhaps the quest for individuality began on the very day his sister Ernestine bough him a trumpet as a 14th birthday present, July 10, 1952, and arranged for him to start taking lessons. Certainly there were strong influences along the way, as there are for all of us, whether we design music or words or jewelry or clothes. As I commented in previous notes on him, in the early years he came under the influence of several men whom he admired for various elements: Dizzy Gillespie for his masterful control, Miles Davis for his use of space, Clifford Brown, Kenny Durham, and most of all, the tragically short-lived Fats Navarro. But all these factors coalesced, and by the time of Lee's second incumbency as a member of Area Blakey's Jazz Messengers, in 1964-5, his personality both as soloist and composer was fully formed.

Helping to shape his style and define his direction in music during the early years were two of the musicals heard often with Lee in person and on records, including the present album. Speaking with affection and respect, Lee told me: "I consider Cedar Walton to be my pianist – or at least, the one I'd always like to have with me when he's available. I first played with him when I went back with the Messengers. Since then he's matured wonderfully. He has his own definite touch now and is really coming into his own. He's a beautiful guy to have comping behind you."

Reggie Workman goes back much further with Lee. "We first met when I was about 13 and he was 14. He and I and Archie Shepp grew up together; we went to the same high school in Philadelphia. Then after he came to New York I saw him when he was working with John Coltrane, in 1960, and of course we were both with Art's group in '64. I've seen Reggie marry and raise kids, and I've watched his music grow right along with him.

"As for Billy Higgins, he's about as adaptable as any drummer I can think of. He can fit in perfectly, where it's with Ornette Coleman or Don Cherry or a group like mine.

The only ringer in the present group is Bennie Maurine, who does not have a comparable background of frequent work with Lee. "I first heard him when he was trying out for the Horace Silver group, just before Horace hired him. He's a very adaptable soloist, like Joe Henderson. Another thing I liked about him – and I could hear it from the very first chorus – is his talent for building a performance dynamically to an exciting climax. He's one of the most promising new tenor players who've come along in the past couple of years."

Caramba,  the long and sedulously fashioned track that launches the album, opens with a repeat figure played by the rhythm section; in other words, as Lee says, "It's one of those vamp type things. Eddie Harris had a hit doing something along similar lines. The interesting thing about doing a tune this way is that no two people will play the same thing on it. At the same time, the rhythm section maintains a certain simplicity, and the layman can hear it and get some sort of genuine message from it."

Lee starts his own solo as if holding his straight and dynamism in reserve, sticking mainly to repeated notes in the lower and middle respire awhile the rhythm section keeps up the same background vamp. Typically, builds idea upon idea, his lines become more complex, and some of the notes are bent in an almost pleading, plaintive fashion. Bennie Maurine starts in an understated groove, but he too gets to moving around a little more aggressively as the mood hits him. Cedar's chords have a serene, gentle quality; during  his solo the horns help intensify the mood by adding a repeated phrase before the main theme returns.

Asked about the jarring title of Suicide City, Lee said, "Well, New York is that way for many people, you know. It can make you are break you." There is, however  nothing of a Gloomy Sunday nature about the composition. Its bright tempo introduces a brief thematic line, after which Lee, Bennie and Cedar offer their impassioned statements. Notice particularly the variety of rhythmic configurations supplied by Higgins under the horn solos.

Bennie Maurine is exceptionally eloquent on this track. Thought I seem to detect touches of Wayne and Trane and Rollins too, Maurine already would seem to be passing out the realm of followers into a new stage that will establish him as one of the young leaders in the contemporary jazz cosmos. Cedars harmonic imagination is again beautifully illustrated, with brilliant accents supplied by the clean-and-clear-toneed Workman. Everybody and everything swings relentlessly, including Lee's rhythmically ingenious melody line.

Cunning Lee, played at a moderato gait, is built on the traditional 32-bar-chours structure, in the minor mode. This time Cedar shifts the order around to take the first solo, evidencing a superbly light touch and assurance as he produces pearl-strands of single-note lines. Lee's work is fluent and consistent in his first chorus. flighty and delightfully unpredictable in the second. Maurine sounds liked a natural extension of lee in both style and mood. Workman works out alone on this tune in a chorus that is dazzling in its assurance and creativity, and every bit as melodic as the horns' contributions.

Soulita, after an introduction bye Cedar, moves into a cheerful, tonal tune. The title tells it like it is: a visit to the Latin quarter of Soulville, so to speak. You will find the sound of surprise in Lee's offering, most conspicuously in the sudden flurry of triplets during his second blowing chorus, and in the quote from the traditional melody of And The Angels Sing.

Bennie gets his teeth into this one with a searing solo, after which Cedar takes a different tack in one of his more straight-ahead swinging flights, with the horns licking in pairs of chords here and there to accentuate the happy overall feeling.

Helen's Ritual moves at an easy pace, set by Cedar with Billy and Reggie, before the 12-bar minor melody is introduced, eight bars in unison and the last four voiced, everything very relaxed in phrasing and conception. Maurine moves around the horn to lend his solo great variety; his technique, though outstanding, is clearly a means to an artistic end. This is true, of course, of Lee's solo too, in which there are some phrases that are long and almost savagely intense, others that are relatively quiet and basic.
Cedar's solo give us a good chance to hear what Lee meant in his comment about the empathy that exists among the members for this rhythm section. Everything flows evenly and cohesively, as if the product of a single mind. From there it's back to the head, followed buy an emotionally affecting retard for the finale.

After listening to the present album I dug back into why files to find Lee Morgan Indeed!. Blue Note 1538, recorded when he was 18. There are differences, of course; Lee was more dependent, as were most jazzmen in those days, on following the precise dictates of chord patterns. His sound had not yet rounded itself out and he lacked the fluency and command that are to come with years of experience; yet in essence all the basic qualities that are to be heard a dozen years later were either apparent of latent.

Lee Morgan at 30, a young man who has spent have his leg as a professional musician, has not deviated from the path along which he began to move when we first heard his teen-aged excursion. He is more than  ever his own man, "He has a good sound... he phrases well... he knows how to use space... Of course! It's Lee Morgan." – Leonard Feather (Author of The EncyclopediaOf Jazz in the '60s)

Suicide City
Cunning Lee
Helen's Ritual

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