Lee Morgan

Morgan shone a bright light on trumpet and was part of many classic recordings. Mostly a hardbopper, he sometimes appeared in freer situations.

The Sidewinder
Dec. 1963 / Blue Note RVG

Far be it from me to nitpick one of the most popular Blue Note albums ever, but I’ve never been keen on the infamous “Sidewinder” title track, an extended boogaloo blues. I’m sure the stiff groove sounded refreshing in its day, though the group sticks too close to it. At least you get to hear Morgan and tenor saxman Joe Henderson stretch out as the rhythm section (Barry Harris, Bob Cranshaw, Billy Higgins) shimmies away. I find the remaining tracks more engaging, especially “Gary’s Notebook”, a dark 12-bar labyrinth with a neat Henderson solo. Morgan peppers some tunes with rhythmic twists, like the Latin/swing of “Totem Pole” and the waltz/blues lurch of “Boy What a Night”. The long, descending notes of “Totem Pole” remind me vaguely of Coltrane’s “Spiral”, and the closing “Hocus Pocus” is a bright, solid piece all around. These aren’t among the deepest tunes in existence (except perhaps for “Gary’s Notebook”), although they provoke spirited playing. Morgan’s technically adroit trumpet is a given – minus a few faltering high notes – and Henderson scales the tunes’ walls in unexpected ways. The rhythm team stays nice and tight. I tend to prefer more flexibility, but what the heck, The Sidewinder does the straight-on hardbop thing well.

Search for the New Land
Feb. 1964 / Blue Note RVG

No rumprolling here. The quarter-hour title track repeats a form of spacious incantations surrounding a mid-tempo waltz. Not a typical example of Morgan, yet one of his most entrancing, with moody solos from Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Grant Green. The waltz section sounds to me like Miles’ “Teo”, while the solemn refrain carries the same weight as field hymns, Coltrane’s elegies, or ECM’s cathedral moments, take your pick. Nothing else on the album is quite as heavy, but the bouncing “Mr. Kenyatta” allows the soloists some of the same freedoms, and Herbie and Wayne circa ’64 aren’t going to disappoint. “Melancholee” quietly alters the blues, while “The Joker” is the only real straightforward piece. “Morgan The Pirate” sounds like one big recurring cadence, always in pursuit of its own end, thus a great closing number. The melody is kind of smug, but you may still be humming it an hour later. This album blends rootsy jazz with accessible risks and is very recommendable overall.

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