Lee Morgan: "The Complete Live at the Lighthouse"

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Category: CD music CD music

August 2021

Blue Note B096C185JM
Format: 8 CDs

Musical Performance
*****

Sound Quality
****

Overall Enjoyment
*****

Like me, you probably have a few recordings you’ve played so many times you know every note, every nuance.

I have three or four, but the one I know best is a 1970 double LP, Live at the Lighthouse, by trumpeter Lee Morgan (Blue Note BST 89906). As its title announces, it was recorded at the renowned West Coast nightclub, located in Hermosa Beach, California, by Morgan’s working quintet: Bennie Maupin, reeds; Harold Mabern, piano; Jymie Merritt, bass; and Mickey Roker, drums. The original album had just four long performances, one per side, and it caught my ear the first time I heard it on a late-night FM radio show.

Once I bought it, in 1972, it became my go-to companion any time I had to put my head down and concentrate on the work at hand. I’ve lost count of how many high school and university essays were written to that soundtrack. Almost 50 years later, I still turn to it when I have to work long and fast.

At first, it did its magic because of the songs’ long, loping grooves and fiery solos; these days, it still does the trick because I take it in on a subconscious level. I know it that well.

It goes without saying that I was excited to hear about the release of essentially every note Blue Note recorded during the final three nights of the band’s Hermosa Beach stand—eight times more music than was on the original release and over four hours more than what was released on CD in 1996. If the earlier three-CD set—spearheaded by Michael Cuscuna, David Weiss, and the late Bob Belden at the peak of the jazz reissue boom—proved anything, it was that those four performances released in 1970 were not just highlights; in fact, they might not have even represented the best music the band played that weekend.

Like another of the albums I know by heart, The Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East, Live at the Lighthouse captured a band at its absolute peak. The players knew the material extremely well, and despite the 20-minute songs, no one wasted a note. The rhythm section was completely locked in, and the improvisations were fresh and highly creative.

There’s another, tragic factor that links the Allmans’ landmark live album and Live at the Lighthouse. Just as At Fillmore East became the last album released during bandleader Duane Allman’s life, Morgan would die—just 14 weeks after Allman—before he released another recording. On a snowy Saturday evening, February 19, 1972, the trumpeter was shot and killed in New York City by his long-time partner, Helen More.

Morgan’s violent death at the hands of his lover would’ve been news enough, but it has gained notoriety because the shooting occurred near the front door of Slugs’ Saloon, the club where the trumpeter was headlining. Between sets, Morgan—caught by More in the company of another woman—had pushed his common-law wife out the door onto the snowy sidewalk of East 3rd Street without her coat. More did have her purse, though, and when she dropped it into the snow, a small-calibre revolver fell out. Morgan had given it to her to protect herself. That night, she carried the gun back into Slugs’ and shot the 33-year-old trumpeter. Then she sat down and waited for the police.

The tragedy was compounded by the fact that More had likely saved Morgan’s life five years earlier, when she took him in and helped him beat his heroin habit.

A native of Philadelphia, Morgan was viewed as an enfant terrible when he hit the jazz scene in 1956. Another dazzling, young trumpet star, Clifford Brown, had just died in a car accident, and Morgan’s lithe style and prodigious technical ability made him the obvious heir. Blue Note Records signed him, and soon released the first of 25 albums Morgan would lead for the label. He joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band and Hank Mobley’s combo, and recorded with John Coltrane on Blue Train. In 1958, still just 19, he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, one of the top bands of the day.

Playing with Blakey allowed Morgan to mature his voice and exposed him to a wide audience around the world, but the association also introduced him to hard drugs and left him with the addiction that would dominate his life until 1968.

By 1961, Morgan’s heroin use was out of control, and Blakey let him go. His trumpet in hock, Morgan moved back to Philadelphia with his wife, model Kiko Yamamoto. Soon, she was out of his life, and he was out of music. That might’ve been the end of his career, but he was arrested and sent to a drug rehabilitation facility called the Narcotic Farm that had also housed artists like Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins, and William S. Burroughs. Rumors circulated around the jazz world that he would never play again—or worse, that he was dead.

But just before John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Morgan suddenly reappeared on the scene in New York City—still addicted, but more in control of his drug use than previously.

On December 21, 1963, he entered Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey and recorded what would become one of the most popular jazz LPs: The Sidewinder. Filled with memorable melodies, the album helped usher in the soul-jazz movement that dominated the mid-’60s—an instrumental echo of the pop music being made by Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and others.

The bluesy, up-tempo sound became Morgan’s signature, as he turned out successive hit albums, including Search for the New Land, The Rumproller, and Cornbread.

But by 1967, Morgan was down and out again—often living on the street and showing up for recording sessions wearing pajamas. He was lost—the perfect project for jazz-loving Helen More, who prided herself on the jazz salon she had fashioned in her apartment near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. It had become a popular refuge for jazz musicians who needed a good meal and some sympathetic company. More took Morgan in, fed him her southern cooking, and slowly weaned him off heroin.

To hear Maupin tell the story—as he does in the fascinating film biography of More and Morgan, I Called Him Morgan—the trumpeter had his life together by the late ’60s. Morgan was showing up to gigs well dressed and on time; he was off drugs and playing well, thanks to More seeing to the dental work he needed. Maupin frequently dropped by the Bronx apartment for dinner, and then he and Morgan would head out to catch some music. In the extensive booklet that accompanies this new reissue of Live at the Lighthouse, Maupin recalls that they caught Freddie Hubbard and pianists John Hicks and Cedar Walton during these forays.

Between his friendship with Maupin and the adventurous musicians he was hearing live, this was a sea change in Morgan’s approach to music. It all pushed him toward more open-ended compositions, more advanced harmony, and rhythmic structures that would allow soloists to explore their ideas at length. He was shifting with the times, exchanging his suit and tie for an African dashiki and letting his hair go natural.

Mabern, the laconic Memphis pianist who’d briefly been with Miles Davis, joined Morgan in 1968, along with Roker, and then Merritt joined, happy to play with the trumpeter again after getting to know him in Blakey’s band. When saxophonist George Coleman left Morgan’s group near the end of 1969, the trumpeter reached out to Maupin.

Today, at 80, Maupin remains one of the most underrated reed players of his generation, despite having been a key member of Miles Davis’s band on some of his best-known recordings and then being an essential part of Herbie Hancock’s band throughout the ’70s. His tenor playing is strong and distinctive, but it’s his skill on bass clarinet that really stands out. Not only does he sound exceptional throughout these eight CDs that The Complete Live at the Lighthouse has been released on, but the five compositions he contributed helped define this band’s sound. (The Complete Live at the Lighthouse is also available on 12 LPs.)

The Complete Live at the Lighthouse

Morgan had taken a band west to the Lighthouse for a week in the summer of 1969 when Coleman was still his saxophonist, but the plan for the two-week stand that started on June 30, 1970, was special. He knew the band was great, and with the contributions from Maupin, Merritt, and Mabern he had a deep bag of terrific new material. It was time to record a live album, the first under Morgan’s name. The band would hit San Francisco for two weeks at the Both/And club first and then head south to Hermosa Beach. By the time recording was set to begin on July 10, they’d be ready. The attitude the group took to the bandstand was more than just a result of what its members gained through playing the tunes every night; this was like a working vacation—escaping the heat and grit of New York City, to the ocean. Maupin swung by his parents’ house in Detroit to pick up his young son for a summer vacation, and Helen traveled with Morgan, who, she claimed, was completely sober. In San Francisco, they all hung out in Golden Gate Park; in Southern California, they hit the beach, captured in the album’s photos. All was cool, and the recordings reflect it.

When I first heard Morgan’s voice as he welcomed the audience and introduced the band on the original LP set, I thought he sounded stoned. In fact, he was just relaxed, funny. Those who knew Morgan well, like Maupin and Merritt, remembered him as a sweet guy with a childlike sense of wonder about the world. So what you hear is a young man who’s been knocked down a few times, but is now feeling great, if a bit nervous about how it will all work out. At the start of each night, he cautioned the audience not to expect to hear his hits, but by the Sunday sets he knew what he had on tape and sounded a bit looser. While he always demonstrated a great rapport with his audience, on Sunday he even worked a patron’s broken glass into his between-song introduction.

The music mirrors the leader’s onstage attitude. It is loose yet focused, constantly pushing forward, with the musicians exchanging ideas effortlessly. Every piece reveals why Morgan sounded so excited to be sharing the music with those in the club, with the anticipation of reaching listeners around the world.

Most impressive, perhaps, is how thoroughly Morgan had rehabilitated his embouchure by the time of these recordings. He showed no signs of the dental distress he’d been in just months before; his tone was impeccable, his range impressive, and he seemed indefatigable. On pieces like Merritt’s wonderful “Absolutions” and Mabern’s “The Beehive,” the trumpeter spooled out inventive chorus after chorus, while on Maupin’s “Neophilia,” Morgan displayed his growing interest in the flugelhorn, delving into the instrument’s darker tonal areas in harmony with Maupin’s highly textured bass clarinet.

These 12 sets of music combine to provide a highly detailed mise en scène of what live jazz sounded—and felt—like in 1970.

The Complete Live at the Lighthouse

The only drawback to the performances relates to the fact that Mabern had to share one of the four channels with Merritt, who played an unusual five-string Ampeg electric upright bass. As co-producer Zev Feldman explains in the liner notes, recording engineer Dino Lappas had to balance the volume of the two instruments, pushing the piano down in the mix to avoid giving too much prominence to the only amplified instrument. Lappas also had to adjust the mix on the fly, not unusual for live recordings in 1970, and he missed a cue as the Saturday night show began, causing some distortion in Roker’s channel. Neither of these issues affect the joy I experience in listening, and imagining myself in the audience.

Ironically, considering how vital this music has been to my appreciation of live improvisation over the past five decades, I was just miles away from Hermosa Beach when it was being recorded—visiting Los Angeles on a vacation with my parents.

If only I’d known that history was being made just down the road.

. . . James Hale
jamesh@soundstagenetwork.com