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Search For The New Land
LP (12" album, 33 rpm)
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Search For The New Land (Rudy Van Gelder Edition)
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A Blue Note essential, Search For The New Land is part of the Blue Note 75 anniversary vinyl reissue campaign, featuring 100 titles abd key to the initiative is high quality audio at affordable prices. Also available this month on LP: Art Blakey Quintet's A Night At Birdland, Vol. 1, Bobby Hutcherson's Components, Grant Green's I Want To Hold Your Hand and Medeski Martin & Wood's End Of The World Party (Just In Case).
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I have at least 20 albums with Lee Morgan as leader or as soloist in the ensemble of a major jazz artist (John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Jimmy Smith, Dizzy Gillespie, Hank Mobley). He was one of several trumpeters with qualifications making him the heir-apparent to the incomparable Clifford Brown, whose life was tragically ended in 1955. Kenny Dorham was the veteran of the group, a player with an unmistakable, readily identifiable voice, minimalist and quiet yet capable of surprising technique and power. Donald Byrd was another complete musician, notable for his clean lines and practically breathless phrasing. But Lee Morgan seemed the most likely "next greatest trumpet player," blessed with the technique of the former players plus an abundance of raw power.
Lee had the pyrotechnics along with the flash and flamboyance of an artist not lacking in either talent or modesty. Of the approx. 10 albums Lee made before "Search for the New Land," two strike me as stand-outs. One is "Sidewinder," an album whose great popularity and commercial success for Alfred Lion's tiny Blue Note Records should not be reason to ignore it. "Sidewinder" is a clever piece by Morgan, with an engaging rhythm and irresistible groovin', danceable quality that distinguishes it from the leaden bossa nova melody of Horace Silver's "Song for My Father," the recording that became the other big hit for Blue Note in the 1960s.
The other indispensable Morgan recording is "Corn Bread," which has Lee's loveliest composition, an inventive bossa nova melody entitled "Ceora," one of the best "jazz standards" of the decade. The album also boasts the tasetul, soulful, ceaselessly melodic tenor of Mobley and the sensitive, complementary piano accompaniment of Herbie Hancock.
"Search for the New Land" is a 1964 album which--in the same year as "Corn Bread"--brings Hancock back for an album which, like Sinatra's "concept" albums and Coltrane's theologically-inspired "A Love Supreme"--takes a path that's different from Lee's early albums, which were a mixture of standards and originals played in the intricate bebop style of Clifford or the more basic hard bop style characterizing most of the releases on Blue Note. In "Search"--with a 16-minute title piece that serves as the primary theme music for the new biopic, "I Called Him Morgan"-- Lee is developing "programmatic music, " with an all-original program of five tunes with melodic and thematic links. It may be Lee Morgan's fullest personal expression on record. It's also music which--with its simple melodies, occasional dispensing of harmonies and use of modes (one of many recordings influenced by Miles Davis' 1959 album, "Kind of Blue"), and replacement of Mobley with Wayne Shorter's Coltrane-like intensity--has undeniably wider appeal than Morgan's heavily "bebop-influenced" early albums.
As appealing as the first elongated track is--inviting the listener to create imaginary pictures prior to and during the deliberative solos of each player--there's a discordance between the composition and the solos that doesn't work for me--at least not compared with the inexhaustible freshness of "Kind of Blue" (credit the audio engineers at Columbia for much of that album's mystique and feeling of depth, both emotional and spatial). The solos on the Morgan album are exceedingly well-crafted, with Morgan himself taking the most adventurous, inventive yet well-executed and satisfying turns on each tune. But the simplicity of the melodies and the plainness of the orchestrations (often harkening back to the hasty and universal unison "arrangements-on-the-fly" of 1940s bebop) is a combination that works only if it sets up the kind of "spiritual, meditative musical prayer" that distinguishes Coltrane's "A Love Supreme." Instead, Lee the conqueror--or the Moses about to deliver a jeremiad to his followers--arrives at the New Land and immediately calls upon his guitarist for a brief entertainment.
Grant Green obliges with solos that are tasteful, melodic and assured--to a fault. His solos are "stripped down" versions of the leader's, with every phrase a sequence of swinging 8th notes, so thoughtfully but predictably played that the listener must ask "Why?" What has his instrument brought to the session other than a reminder of this music's indebtedness to a previous era, soon to be superseded by Miles' "B's Brew" and the fusion music to follow.
Even if the critical listener is hesitant to break down and analyze Morgan's playing, Nat Hentoff's liner notes suggest that Morgan himself was keenly aware of his shortcomings in expressing the emotional depth of Miles (e.g., "Kind of Blue," "Sketches of Spain") or of equaling the light and precise articulations of Clifford. In this session, Morgan addresses those areas--but to a limited extent. His fans might be cheered to know that "Search for the New Land" manifests many of the trademarks of the old flamboyant and flashy Morgan. His use of half-valving and note-squeezing soon come as much into play as on his earlier recordings. And he avails himself of every opportunity to envelop us with the rich, brassy lower register of his horn, as suggestive of a euphonium as a trumpet.
Unlike the minimalist Miles, Morgan can't resist throwing down the gauntlet in the form of his familiar strengths--and those attributes are sufficient--on one well-executed solo after the other--to set him apart as one of the top 5-6 trumpet players of his era. But as artists like Miles and Sinatra (not to mention Billie Holiday) have shown, virtuoso musicians who can't resist the urge to "show off" their wares, risk distancing themselves from their audiences. Listeners respond to artists who, rather than glorify the attributes of the performer, shine a revelatory light upon their own lives of ups and downs, their own struggles to find love and peace, truth and beauty.
Some of Morgan's late recordings, after his recovery from disabling drug addiction, suggest a more modal and free direction in his playing--but at the expense of variety, color and interest. (Modes can offer the performer freedom in proportion to the listener's greater sense of tedium.) No doubt fusion would have preoccupied him as the '70s played out, and with Wynton Marsalis's appearance in the '80s, perhaps Morgan would finally have become the mature player and complete musician promised by his early playing as a teenaged prodigy in the 1950s. Or perhaps not. He might have outplayed Hubbard and even Marsalis--more readily than Miles could have--but it would have required much discipline and work--along with a submerging of ego--for him to have equaled Marsalis' compositional mastery and historical scope.
Still, anyone who has gone deep into Morgan's playing--or seen the new movie based on his life and death--"I Called Him Morgan--which is not a mere documentary but perhaps the "definitive" jazz movie, constructed with the combination of care and risk of the best jazz solos--should remain content with the music he played for some of us in person and the body of impressive work he left behind on his recordings. In my book, he'll always rank among the top 10 trumpet players of all time (with Louis, Clifford and Dizzy at the top, and Lee along with Miles, Freddie and a few others somewhere just below). That's one illustrious trumpet section to be a member of.
While the other tunes on this album are not as monumental or interesting as the title track, they are all very good. "The Joker" is a blast of fun after the serious tones that preceded it; I especially like the parts where the trumpet, sax, and guitar follow each in a brief round before joining together to restate the theme. "Mr. Kenyatta" is a more typical hard bop number and features excellent solos. "Melancholee" (note the double "e" as in Morgan's "Delightfulee" album from 1966) is more in the vein of the title track and features a beautiful arrangement. Lee's playing on this track is one of the best examples of his poignancy in ballads, another being "You Go to My Head" from his 1965 album "The Gigolo" which also featured Wayne Shorter (who is just as good as Morgan on both tunes). Finally, the album finishes with the very happy "Morgan the Pirate" who will bring a smile to your face. Perhaps the pirate has sailed into the New Land's welcoming harbor.
If you like sextets and Morgan, check out his "Tom Cat" and "Cornbread" albums. The first features Curtis Fuller on trombone and Jackie McLean on alto sax. The second features McLean on alto and Hank Mobley on tenor sax. Of course, you should also check out John Coltrane's classic "Blue Train" from 1957 which featured Morgan and Fuller as sidemen when they were both younger.
If I was only allowed to give 1 5-star rating to each artist, then this would probably be the Lee Morgan album I would chose.