LEE MORGAN The Sidewinder (Blue Note)
Lee Morgan’s famed 1964 release pretty much exposes everything that so underwhelmed me about Joe Henderson’s “Page One”, recorded six months earlier. (Somewhat ironically, Henderson appears as a member of the quintet here.) There’s almost always something rhythmically and melodically interesting and adventurous going on here, shaking up the traditional hard bop tropes that Henderson’s debut seemed content to cower behind. The slinky, immediately appealing title track, which reached the Billboard Hot 100 when released as an edited single, is almost funk. “Totem Pole” is an amalgam of blues and Latin rhythms, and the slightly angular “Gary’s Notebook” sounds like a “Take Five” that somebody has tried, and eventually given up on, squashing back into regularity.
The currently available vinyl issue of this fine album is a Scorpio pressing, so the chances of audio excellence are slim to non-existent, but given how much of a botch Blue Note make of their own reissues the market is wide open for a better kind of mediocrity. Scorpio’s “Sidewinder” sounds like it has a weird, sickly sonic pallor, as if a sepia tint has been applied to the music, but it’s not obtrusive enough to totally inhibit enjoyment.
LEE MORGAN Search For The New Land (Music Matters)
The highlight of this 1964 album from jazz trumpeter Morgan is its awesome 16-minute opening title track. The sextet runs through the slow, languid theme before cranking up the tempo for a more emphatic, bluesy restatement, after which the slow/fast pattern repeats with each lead instrument taking a solo during the latter half of each cycle. That description probably makes “Search For The New Land” sound like some dry, theoretical work, but, whilst there does seem to be an unusual mathematical precision to its construction, with the likes of Wayne Shorter on sax, Grant Green on guitar and Herbie Hancock on piano contributing, it’s actually one of the most thrilling jazz performances I’ve heard in a long while, a perfect balance of emotion and experimentation.
I normally find that Blue Note albums are sequenced with an astonishing opening track and a series of rather less impressive numbers trailing in its wake. Despite the enormity of the task facing it the remainder of “Search For The New Land” stakes a surprisingly emphatic claim for the listener’s attention. After the high-minded seriousness of that opener the jaunty insouciance of “The Joker” is something of a surprise. Similarly, although the upbeat, almost salsa-inflected “Mr. Kenyatta” might seem like comparatively trivial froth almost imperceptibly it begins to cook, culminating in Morgan plotting a wailing solo against Billy Higgins’ complex percussive clatter. “Melancholee” is the more downbeat, reflective thing its title suggests, but the similarly self-referential “Morgan The Pirate” closes the album on a good-timey, playful note. In fact, I’d place “Search For The New Land” as a whole ahead of its more immediately popular predecessor, “The Sidewinder”.
Music Matters’ fabulous vinyl reissue is key to conveying the album’s brilliance. It’s been immaculately cut and pressed on two 180 gram slabs of 45 rpm plastic and housed in a thick, glossy cardboard sleeve with photographs from the session covering its gatefold. All this attention to detail results in a record that presents the music almost as a living, breathing organism, sometimes shocking in its vitality. If you only buy one crazily over-engineered audiophile jazz vinyl reissue this year why not make it this one? I’m glad I did.