THE DOZENS: 12 CLASSIC LEE MORGAN TRACKS by Matt Leskovic

Nobody’s perfect, right? We’ve all heard that one. Even some of the most revered greats are missing pieces of the elusive perfection puzzle. Shaquille O’Neal brings backboards down to the floor with his dunks but he can’t hit a foul shot to save his life. Roger Federer may be the greatest tennis player that ever lived but he can’t beat Rafa Nadal on the clay at Roland Garros.



                          Lee Morgan, artwork by Suzanne Cerny


The same goes for musicians, as many of the greatest have holes in their styles. Take trumpeters, for example; some have the tone but no range; some can burn through up-tempo changes but are lifeless on ballads; and some of the most creative lack a justifying delivery.

But Lee Morgan had the whole package: a tone that was both beautiful and penetrating, a powerful, reliable high range, infallible technique and virtuosic double-timing, sensitivity on ballads, humanized vocal inflections like half-valving and slurred articulations, and some of the filthiest blues licks you’ll ever hear. His boundless energy, creativity, and sense of humor can invigorate, surprise, and make you laugh all in one 12-bar chorus.

Morgan was a star almost immediately upon his entry into the modern jazz scene in 1956. As an 18-year-old and devoted Brown/Gillespie disciple, his scorching, long-winded, machine gun improvisations were technically stunning displays of precocious and somewhat cocky virtuosity. His stock rose after claiming the trumpet chair in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1958, an apprenticeship during which he developed a more personalized voice. With more spacious phrasing and a funky, blues-centric rhythmic and harmonic base, Morgan’s new style reached its zenith with his 1964 smash-hit boogaloo single, “The Sidewinder.” Refusing to be pigeonholed post-Sidewinder, Morgan’s mid-1960s playing took on a deepening seriousness and exciting, unpredictable volatility. His late-period catalog challenged the boundaries of hard bop and his relationship to the tradition; his Live at the Lighthouse (1970) flirts with the avant-garde, and he experiments with electronics on the posthumously released The Last Session.

Aside from top-notch, must-have classics of his own such as Candy, Search for the New Land, The Gigolo, and Cornbread, Morgan’s multi-faceted playing made him a first-choice sideman as well until his untimely murder in 1972. Morgan participated in far too many classic sessions to list them all, but some of his greatest sideman dates were Blakey’s Moanin’ and A Night in Tunisia, Coltrane’s Blue Train, Grachan Moncur III’s Evolution, Wayne Shorter’s Night Dreamer, and his infamous battle with Freddie Hubbard on Night of the Cookers. After he and Blue Note struck gold with The Sidewinder, Morgan became an in-demand boogaloo soloist as well, lending his funky stylings to grooving dates like Lonnie Smith’s Think! and Reuben Wilson’s Love Bug. A consistently resourceful soloist, even when adapting to another leader’s conception, Morgan sounded like Lee Morgan. Hard bop, free or funk, his sound and style remain instantly recognizable.

Below are a dozen of Lee Morgan’s finest solos, chronicling the evolving style of a great master of jazz trumpet, one whose music defined the Blue Note sound for over a decade and influenced scores of jazz trumpeters to this day.

Special thanks to Morgan biographer Jeffrey S. McMillan for his input and his fantastic book, Delightfulee.


Lee Morgan: I Remember Clifford

Track

I Remember Clifford

Artist

Lee Morgan (trumpet)

CD

Lee Morgan, Vol. 3 (EMI/Blue Note 6413)

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Musicians:

Lee Morgan (trumpet), Benny Golson (tenor sax), Wynton Kelly (piano),

Gigi Gryce, alto sax; Paul Chambers, bass; Charlie Persip, drums

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Composed and arranged by Benny Golson

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Recorded: Hackensack, NJ, March 24, 1957

Albumcoverleemorgan-vol-3

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

The heartbreaking death of Clifford Brown devastated the jazz community in 1956. Admired not only for his extraordinary trumpeting but also for his clean-living gentlemanliness, if there was ever a musician who deserved to be honored with an elegy this beautiful, it was Brownie. Benny Golson tapped 18-year-old Philadelphian trumpet sensation Lee Morgan to unveil his composition, passing the torch from the great master to one of his most gifted disciples.

No frills are necessary with Golson’s immaculate melody and the normally hurried and excitable young Morgan adheres closely to it, expressive and melancholic while recalling his mentor with a velvety sound and warm vibrato. Though his improvisation exudes a lighter, bouncier spirit, it is infused with a loving reverence, capturing both the tender and playful sides of the young trumpeter’s playing. Golson has said, “I wanted to create a melody that the public would remember and associate it with [Brown].” He did just that; with the help of Morgan, “I Remember Clifford” remains one of the most touching and enduring ballads in the annals of jazz.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


John Coltrane: Blue Train (featuring Lee Morgan)

Track

Blue Train

Artist

John Coltrane (tenor sax)

CD

Blue Train (Blue Note 95326)

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Musicians:

John Coltrane (tenor sax), Lee Morgan (trumpet), Curtis Fuller (trombone), Kenny Drew (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums).

Composed by John Coltrane

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Recorded: Hackensack, N.J., September 15, 1957

Albumcoverbluetrain

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Lee Morgan’s career is chock-full of essential, “Dozens”-worthy improvisations; it took weeks of eating, breathing, and sleeping Lee Morgan before I could narrow it down to the final twelve. What’s truly astonishing, however, is the number of jaw-dropping solos he waxed before his twentieth birthday! As he aged, Morgan broadened stylistically, incorporating insightful and at times brooding lyricism, chic funkiness, and cathartic cries. But at age nineteen, Morgan’s playing was more elemental—a raw and fiery approach built on power, velocity, and excitement. Young Morgan was also fueled by his cockiness, which certainly came in handy on all-star sessions like John Coltrane’s Blue Train.

In 1957 the great tenorman was saying all one could possibly say while following chord changes. His classic solo on “Blue Train” is biting, intense, and concentrated but never stuffy. Morgan’s first two choruses build rather patiently, but one gets the feeling he has an itch that needs scratching. Philly Joe’s double-time-introducing hi-hat is his remedy and the eager trumpeter wastes no time, blasting into a 16th note extravaganza squarely on beat one of his third chorus. His dizzying lines are impeccably executed and popping with accents. Energetic nearly to a fault, Morgan tears through the double-time then seamlessly releases into his fifth and final chorus with one of the baddest licks of all-time (4:48), finishing off a prodigious solo with a final chorus steeped in the blues.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Art Blakey: Moanin'

Track

Moanin'

Group

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

CD

Moanin’ (Blue Note 95324)

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Musicians:

Art Blakey (drums), Lee Morgan (trumpet), Benny Golson (tenor sax), Bobby Timmons (piano), Jymie Merritt (bass).

Recorded: Hackensack, N.J., October 30, 1958

Albumcovermoanin

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

For decades, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers was a breeding ground for hard-bop talent. Countless numbers of future superstars honed their skills and cut their teeth in the drummer’s powerfully swinging group. 20-year-old Lee Morgan replaced Bill Hardman in 1958 and made a startling initial impression on “Moanin,’” the opening track from his first recording with the Messengers. Undoubtedly one of the greatest trumpet solos of the modern era, Morgan’s famous, brilliantly self-assured opening exclamation solidified his status as the next great trumpet hero. With his crisp and funky licks in the ‘A’ sections contrasted by elongated, linear phrases over the bridges, Morgan’s improvisation is not only astounding in content but in its structure as well. Displaying brilliance well beyond his years, the young trumpeter’s pomposity and dazzling technique is balanced by his strong blues sensibility and fluid lyricism. This crucial hard-bop classic is absolutely essential to any jazz collection.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Art Blakey: A Night In Tunisia (featuring Lee Morgan)

Track

A Night in Tunisia

Group

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

CD

A Night in Tunisia (Blue Note 4049)

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Musicians:

Art Blakey (drums), Lee Morgan (trumpet), Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Bobby Timmons (piano),

Jymie Merritt (bass)

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Composed by Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Paparelli

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Recorded: Hackensack, NJ, August 14, 1960

Albumcoverartblakeyandthejazzmessengers-anightintunisia

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

In his review of this track as part of his Essential Art Blakey Dozens, my fellow Jazz.com compatriot Eric Novod asks, “Is there a more intense, energetic single track anywhere out there?” Well, I’d confidently bet my entire CD collection that there isn’t. From Blakey’s thunderous opening crash through its explosive conclusion, this version of “A Night in Tunisia” is like a roller-coaster ride through a minefield. Hold on to your hat.

Morgan was featured nightly on “A Night in Tunisia” in Diz’s big band from 1956-1958 so he was no stranger to the tune, and pushed by Blakey’s propulsive beat and Timmons’ powerful comping his performance here reaches new heights. The rumbling Mt. Blakey erupts with the ferocity of ten volcanoes as the trumpeter enters; spitting some hot fire of his own, Morgan dodges the drummer’s bombs at first before rocketing through a monstrous, mind-blowing solo. His unaccompanied cadenza is one of the great moments in jazz trumpeting with forcefully driving lines, flurried trills, and stuttering blues licks pieced together with astounding precision. Blakey, famous for vocally encouraging his bandmates from his drum stool, goads on his brilliant young trumpeter at 8:42 (“Play yo’ instrument!”) and again after a particularly nasty lick at 9:06 (“Get mad!”).

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Lee Morgan: The Sidewinder

Track

The Sidewinder

Artist

Lee Morgan (trumpet)

CD

The Sidewinder (Blue Note 4953322)

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Musicians:

Lee Morgan (trumpet), Joe Henderson (tenor sax), Barry Harris (piano), Bob Cranshaw (bass), Billy Higgins (drums).

Composed by Lee Morgan

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Recorded: Englewood Cliffs, N.J., December 21, 1963

Albumcoverleemorganswinder

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

Morgan spent the majority of 1962 and 1963 in Philadelphia in the clutches of a heroin habit he picked up while in the Jazz Messengers. After a brief (and not totally successful) stint in rehab, he returned to Van Gelder Studio on December 21, 1963 to record The Sidewinder. A surprise hit, it peaked at number 25 on the Pop LP charts in early 1965 and snuck into the R&B Top 10, becoming Blue Note’s greatest commercial success.

The rhythm section’s bouncy groove on “The Sidewinder” is so irresistible and the melody so catchy it’s possible to neglect what is one of Morgan’s most impressive recorded solos. It’s meticulously constructed with logic and clarity, and Morgan displays a modesty that he often lacked in his ostentatious youth. His phrasing is especially noteworthy; the spaces he leaves between his concise ideas serve as timely punctuations that enhance the efficacy of each statement, creating three bluesy choruses that breathe and build organically. It’s also Morgan at his coolest and funkiest, grooving like none other.

The unexpected success of “The Sidewinder” left Blue Note determined to produce another hit single. Dozens of mid-1960s LPs kicked off with bluesy R&B-tinged tracks in an effort to place the label back on the charts. Though most of these tracks were solid, none would ever duplicate the success of Morgan’s original.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Lee Morgan: Search For The New Land

Track

Search For The New Land

Artist

Lee Morgan (trumpet)

CD

Search For The New Land (Blue Note 84169)

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Musicians:

Lee Morgan (trumpet), Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Herbie Hancock (piano), Grant Green (guitar), Reggie Workman (bass), Billy Higgins (drums).

Composed by Lee Morgan

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Recorded: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, February 15, 1964

Leemorgan-searchforthenewland

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Recorded not even two months later yet far from the carefree groove of his hit single “The Sidewinder,” Morgan travels to the outer reaches of hard-bop and flirts with a darker, modal terrain on the aptly titled “Search for the New Land.” Like two seasoned explorers at sea, Morgan and Shorter reflect nostalgically on previous journeys while their vessel rolls over swelling waves of trills and cymbals in the rubato opening section. Workman spies land on the distant horizon and valiantly sets course, introducing an ominous waltz groove. As the rhythm section picks up steam, Morgan and Shorter sing their same song with newfound exuberance over the steady bounce of their rhythm mates. Shorter cautiously ventures out first, soon finding firm footing and skittering through all registers of his tenor and Morgan follows with pensive and introspective ponderings, though still deeply rooted in the blues. Hancock’s comping is intriguing; note his “broken record” repetitiveness contrasting Morgan’s pulling back on the time (6:00-6:10) and his pulsating connection with Higgins which allows the trumpeter to experiment with polyrhythms (6:20-6:30). Green takes a swinging solo before Hancock’s dense block-chording leads the group back out to sea and on towards their next endeavor. Morgan was entering the pinnacle of his career with Search for the New Land, broadening both the scope of his compositions and the depth of his improvisations.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Lee Morgan: Trapped

Track

Trapped

Artist

Lee Morgan (trumpet)

CD

The Gigolo (Blue Note 84212)

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Musicians:

Lee Morgan (trumpet), Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Harold Mabern (piano), Bob Cranshaw (bass), Billy Higgins (drums).

Composed by Wayne Shorter

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Recorded: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, June 25, 1965

Albumcoverlmorgangigolo

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

When paired together in a frontline, Wayne Shorter and Lee Morgan never disappointed. Shorter’s compositions consistently lured the best out of Morgan and the cookin’ 16-bar “Trapped” is no exception. Supported by the insistent but always tasteful prodding of his favorite drummer, Billy Higgins, Morgan’s solo is one of his boldest from the mid-1960s. At this point in his career he rarely exploited his high-range so heavily and the results here are staggering—an incredible exhibition of technical virtuosity, stamina, intensity and searing power.

Countless numbers of Morgan’s tracks conclude with the trumpeter trading with one or more of his bandmates, and honestly, it never ever gets old. Morgan and Shorter, at the time partnered in the Jazz Messengers, return after Mabern’s piano solo to display a communicative interplay so complementary and seamless their lines sound like they must have originated in a shared brain. It’s freakish.

Could Morgan’s overtly inspired playing on the dubiously titled “Trapped” hint at a frustration with Blue Note’s commercial aspirations in the post-“Sidewinder” era? Did the pressure to churn out another jukebox hit hold him back? These are questions for another forum. Regardless, the trumpeter’s playing here is ferocious and some of his finest on record.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Lee Morgan: Ceora

Track

Ceora

Artist

Lee Morgan (trumpet)

CD

Cornbread (Blue Note 84222)

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Musicians:

Lee Morgan (trumpet), Hank Mobley (tenor sax), Herbie Hancock (piano), Larry Ridley (bass), Billy Higgins (drums).

Composed by Lee Morgan

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Recorded: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, September 18, 1965

Albumcoverleemorgan-cornbread

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

While “The Sidewinder” may have been his biggest hit, “Ceora” is Lee Morgan’s most enduring contribution to the jazz canon. By 1965 Morgan had built a reputation as a fiery trumpeter with a style that was half flash and half funk, so the lovely, balladic “Ceora” was an unlikely centerpiece on Cornbread—a hard grooving album of heavy hitters like the title track. Whatever “Ceora” lacks in explicit passion is made up for with its transcendent beauty, which begins immediately on beat one of Hancock’s pristine intro, setting the mood with exactly sixty seconds of pure, understated bliss. With its syncopation and intervallic jumps, Morgan and Mobley’s melody is deceptively restless but Hancock’s splendid comping and Higgins’ gentle brushwork and soothing bossa groove smooth down its spiked edges. Morgan retains the edginess in his improvisation—heavily accented and articulated with grace notes and a defiant tug-of-war with the time—but his charming lyricism makes this one of his most singable solos. Essential 1960s jazz.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Joe Henderson (with Lee Morgan): Caribbean Fire Dance

Track

Caribbean Fire Dance

Artist

Joe Henderson (tenor sax)

CD

Mode for Joe (Blue Note 84227)

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Musicians:

Joe Henderson (tenor sax), Lee Morgan (trumpet), Curtis Fuller (trombone), Bobby Hutcherson (vibes),

Cedar Walton (piano), Ron Carter (bass), Joe Chambers (drums)

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Composed by Cedar Walton

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Recorded: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, January 27, 1966

Albumcoverjoehenderson-modeforjoe

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Joe Henderson added his hard-nosed tenor stylings to The Sidewinder (1963) and The Rumproller (1965) so Morgan graciously returned the favor in 1966 by joining the tenorman on his fantastic Mode for Joe. Surrounded by a who’s who of Blue Note superstars, Morgan stands out with a performance that characterizes his mid-1960s playing: daring and bold but imperfect, yet unrelenting in energy and determination.

Composer Cedar Walton’s Latin-tinged ostinato pattern and Hutcherson’s sporadic chime-like octaves give “Caribbean Fire Dance” an anxious, unresolved feeling which the soloists exploit in unique ways, creating a haunting and increasingly tense listening experience. Though Morgan sounds fatigued from the tune’s downbeat, he summons up his chops and courageously puts it all on the line in his solo. He immediately shoots into his upper register, his crackling, spreading tone sounds on the brink of bursting into flames. Exposed, audacious, and brutally raw, the first 16-bars of his improvisation are some of the most thrilling and suspenseful Morgan ever waxed. He returns from the stratosphere on the bridge, moving self-consciously up and down a whole-tone scale. Morgan toys with rhythmic ideas that recall the staccato seesawing nature of the melody during his second chorus, before a more convincing use of the whole-tone scale on his second bridge. Morgan combines all of the distinct elements of his style in this solo—his daredevil power and range, complex rhythmic and harmonic eccentricities, built on top of a bedrock of blues.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Larry Young (with Lee Morgan): Trip Merchant

Track

Trip Merchant

CD

Mother Ship (Blue Note 90415)

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Musicians:

Larry Young (Khalid Yasin) (organ), Lee Morgan (trumpet), Herbert Morgan (tenor sax), Eddie Gladden (drums).

Composed by Larry Young

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Recorded: Hackensack, NJ, February 7, 1969

Albumcoverlarryyoung-mothership

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Though Lee Morgan didn’t incorporate elements of the avant-garde in his own groups until late in his career, his resourceful and multi-faceted playing earned him sideman slots on such adventurous records as Grachan Moncur III’s Evolution (1963), Andrew Hill’s Grass Roots (1968), and Mother Ship, by the iconoclastic organist Larry Young. With loose rhythm and minimal blues inflections, Morgan’s solo on Young’s “Trip Merchant” strays far from the “in-the-pocket” playing that defined his improvisations throughout his career. This just might be as “out” as he would ever get.

After a spacey, explorative solo by the leader, Morgan begins contemplatively, ruminating on the pentatonic scale over Young’s pedal bass footwork. He is swept higher and higher on the organist’s tornado-like chords, intensifying and extending his half-step motive into a cathartic, shrieking trill. A chromatic descent preludes Morgan’s examination of the open nature of Young’s sustained chords, utilizing an uncharacteristic amount of dissonance before returning to pentatonics to close out his exhausting solo. Young’s playing is stimulating and drummer Eddie Gladden’s cymbal texturing and communicable energy is notable throughout. An exciting and important solo in his vast discography, “Trip Merchant” shows Morgan developing a new dimension in his playing that would unfortunately never become fully realized.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Lee Morgan: Mr. Johnson

Track

Mr. Johnson

Artist

Lee Morgan (trumpet)

CD

Sonic Boom (Blue Note 90414)

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Musicians:

Lee Morgan (trumpet), George Coleman (tenor sax), Julian Priester (trombone), Harold Mabern (piano), Walter Booker (bass), Mickey Roker (drums).

Composed by Harold Mabern

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Recorded: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, September 12, 1969

Leemorgansonicboom

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Though not a prolific composer, pianist Harold Mabern has written his share of outstanding tunes, and his brooding minor-key waltz “Mr. Johnson” is a tour de force that could’ve—no, should’ve—become a jazz standard. A mostly forgotten track from an ill-fated session of obscurities and uneven performances, “Mr. Johnson” finds everyone in exceptional form. After the ensemble charges through the loping melody, George Coleman wrestles his way above Mabern’s forceful, Tyner-like chords, soaring and squealing his way into Coltrane-like ecstasy. The dominating influence of Trane’s quartet is deeply infused at the core of this track.

Morgan’s solo is a special one. Beginning with a small two-note idea, he methodically elongates his motive, slowly building momentum as he inches forward and upward. At the bridge, in typical Morgan fashion, he contrasts his punchiness on the ‘A’ sections with a linear approach, melodically leading back into a continued motivic development that consumes his second chorus as well. Morgan battled occasional chop issues at this point in his career, but at this session his high-range was crystal clear and he showcased it; his high notes ring magnificently as the group nearly bursts at its seams with tension.

Eschewing his myriad licks and tricks, Morgan breaks out of his comfort zone on “Mr. Johnson”; this is true, organic, unfiltered improvisation, replete with a sense of discovery and surprise in every note.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Lee Morgan: Absolutions

Track

Absolutions

Artist

Lee Morgan (flugelhorn)

CD

Live At The Lighthouse (Blue Note 35228)

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Musicians:

Lee Morgan (flugelhorn), Bennie Maupin (tenor sax), Harold Mabern (piano), Jymie Merritt (bass), Mickey Roker (drums).

Composed by Jymie Merritt

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Recorded: Hermosa Beach, CA, July 11, 1970

Leemorganliveatthelighthouse

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

In early 1970 Morgan was on the wrong end of an altercation with a pipe-wielding assailant, taking a blow directly to the face. Painful, loosened teeth were wired together with braces, forcing Morgan to reconstruct his embouchure and rebuild his strength and endurance. Ironically, this arduous process coincided with a dramatic change in the sound of Morgan’s working group. Spearheaded by the addition of reedman/composer Bennie Maupin, Morgan’s quintet opened up, exuding a new adventurousness and exoticism in its long-form modal structures. The seasoned trumpeter explored these new compositions in marathon, often introverted improvisations, less flamboyant than in his gregarious youth. On “Absolutions,” following a cathartic, searching statement by Maupin, Morgan enters meditatively, sustaining long notes and carefully developing his ideas at a deliberate pace before erupting with more familiar explosiveness near the 7:52 mark. The rhythm section—Mabern’s grounding, full-bodied fourth chords, Roker’s polyrhythmic triplets, and supple, active bass from the composer Jymie Merritt—creates a dense and sinister soundscape that reaches a sustained, violent peak behind the leader. Morgan is potent and focused, determinedly battling his career-threatening injury. He would go on to make only a few more recordings before his life came to its tragic end, making the epic three-disc Live at the Lighthouse all the more precious.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


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