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At the age of 14, Lee Morgan’s career seemed to be set in stone after receiving a trumpet for his birthday. His growth was meteoric, and just one year later, while still in high school, he was already performing professionally. Even the upper echelon of jazz musicians noticed Morgan’s talent — many were eager to scout the rising talent. Shortly after graduating high school, Dizzy Gillespie invited Morgan to join his big band. Clifford Brown had been a mentor to the rising musician, and following Brown’s untimely death in a car accident, Morgan was catapulted to the top of the list as the next great trumpeter.
Shortly afterward, Morgan landed on Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ roster during a few of its most prolific years. Despite his talent, he faced his own hurdles when he was forced to leave the band in 1961 while grappling with heroin addiction. There was a period of time when it significantly impeded his career, but the release of Take Twelve signified the turning point for Morgan as he landed back on his feet.
Despite his short career and life, Morgan left behind a lengthy discography. Before diving into Take Twelve, VMP’s September 2021 Classics Record of the Month, take some time to explore some of Morgan’s albums during different periods of his life.
Recorded in 1957 and released the following year on Blue Note Records, Morgan was only 19 when he and his quintet released The Cooker. He was joined by Pepper Adams (saxophone), Bobby Timmons (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums).
The album’s opening song, “A Night in Tunisia,” was written by Morgan’s former band leader, Dizzy Gillespie, roughly a decade-and-a-half earlier. Morgan previously covered the archetypal song while playing with both Gillespie and the Jazz Messengers, adding his own style and frenzied notes to the song. In fact, Gillespie frequently gave the trumpeter opportunities to captivate audiences with his solo on the song. On the contrary, The Cooker’s “Lover Man” demonstrates Morgan playing at a lower tempo. Not entirely subdued, but not quite overly vigorous, he weighs in at an ideal balance for the song, touting cutting notes while slurring with engrossing oscillations. The Cooker is one of Morgan’s early albums that incorporated his compositions and his distinctive playing style, indicating several of his commonly used techniques throughout his career.
Gillespie’s band broke up around the same time Morgan released Candy via Blue Note, however, Morgan easily found himself with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. He opted for a quartet in Candy, and it’s the only album he ever released that was entirely recorded as part of a quartet. The album features Sonny Clark (piano), Doug Watkins (bass) and Art Taylor (drums).
Despite having to leave Gillespie’s band, Morgan still thrived as a frontman and soloist in his other pursuits with Blue Note. With no other brass or woodwind instrumentalists backing him up, Morgan is placed at the forefront of the album. The album’s eponymous title uncovers his comfortable barrage of notes and controlled gusts.
The Sidewinder immediately followed Take Twelve and is considered to be Morgan’s most successful work. At the time, Blue Note was financially struggling, and The Sidewinder’s sales might have single-handedly prevented the label from filing for bankruptcy. It sprung to the top of Billboard charts, becoming a household favorite and even appearing in commercials and on television.
The album featured rising saxophonist Joe Henderson, Barry Harris (piano), Bob Cranshaw (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums). The album’s opening song and title track became Morgan’s most well-known work — although according to many, he seemed confounded by its immense success and only intended for it to act as filler on the album. Still, “The Sidewinder” and the album holistically are mesmerizing. It’s apparent that Morgan approached the album differently from his past releases. The songs flutter with a buoyant tempo, tapping into Latin-inspired percussion — not to mention Morgan’s own swaying trumpet carrying a funkier tone. The Sidewinder was a turning point for Morgan following his addiction. It’s as though the album signaled his happier return to stability and the Jazz Messengers.
After The Sidewinder’s commercial success, Blue Note sought to replicate the formula that could bring in more listeners. This time, Morgan took on a sextet with Hank Mobley (tenor saxophone), Jackie McLean (alto saxophone), renowned pianist Herbie Hancock, Lee Ridley (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums), who Morgan had previously worked with on The Sidewinder.
Cornbread is charged with emphatic performances by Morgan, especially with its harmonious opening. It’s an energetic affair that lasts even through the album’s second title (named after Higgins) which highlights the drummer’s enraptured clashes. While Morgan’s name is frequently associated with hard bop, he takes on a more bossa nova sound in “Ceora,” which would eventually rise as a favorite for many.
Search for the New Land was recorded prior to The Sidewinder, but with the latter’s immense success, the album’s release was postponed until 1966. Many of Morgan’s previous collaborators returned for the album, with Billy Higgins (drums), Wayne Shorter (saxophone), Herbie Hancock (piano), Grant Green (guitar) and Reggie Workman (bass) playing together on it.
Search for the New Land begins with a collision of trills, quietly and calmly paving the way until Morgan himself breathes coherent, distinct notes of energy. It seems as though the album brims with a cool quality. Each musician carries swagger in Search for the New Land, half leaning toward a soothing sound, but ready to breach through with a sudden change of rhythm or tone. It’s an album brimming with contrast between sounds.
The Gigolo sees Morgan in a quintet with Wayne Shorter (saxophone), Harold Mabern (piano), Bob Cranshaw (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums). While it had been recorded before Cornbread, it wasn't released until 1968, once again with Blue Note. The Gigolo has no quiet moments. Between the parade of clashing percussion, rowdy piano chords, booming bass and lively coupled performances between Shorter and Morgan, the album thunders with an enthusiasm that pushes beyond the studio.
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