The Month In Jazz – August 2021
There were a lot of trumpeters around in the 1960s, but the Big Four were Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Donald Byrd, and Lee Morgan. Davis was the most outwardly obsessed with innovation and constant forward movement: His 1965-68 quintet exploded hard bop into shards, and while people were still absorbing that band’s ideas, he moved on, bringing in electric keyboards and ultimately going full-on into fusion.
Donald Byrd was just as adventurous, though. He explored “out” jazz early, on 1962’s Free Form — and had Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter in his band three years before Davis — and added an eight-member vocal ensemble on 1963’s A New Perspective. He moved into fusion at the same time as Davis, with 1969’s Fancy Free, and wound up making some incredible, silky-smooth disco-jazz-funk albums in the 1970s.
Although Freddie Hubbard was best known as a mainstream hard bop guy who could dig deep into the blues or execute lightning-fast runs over a hard-swinging rhythm, he had an experimental side, too. He was the only musician to appear on both Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz and John Coltrane’s Ascension, two landmark recordings that expanded jazz’s boundaries. Hubbard’s technical skill and blow-the-walls-down power were an unstoppable combination in the mid ’60s, and even when he moved in a slick R&B direction later, the old Hubbard would come ripping through the curtain every now and then.
Lee Morgan was every bit the equal of these three men. He began his career as a teenage phenomenon, recording his first album as a leader just a few months after his 18th birthday, in November 1956. Not long afterward, he became a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, paired up with saxophonist Benny Golson. When Golson left, Morgan convinced Blakey to hire Wayne Shorter, and the albums the drummer recorded between 1959 and 1961, with those two up front, are his best known and most beloved.
In the early ’60s, Morgan recorded a half dozen albums for Blue Note that cemented his position as a major jazz star. His 1963 release The Sidewinder was a massive hit, Blue Note’s best-selling album ever at that time — its title track was even used in a Chrysler commercial. But Morgan, too, had an adventurous side; the title track from his album Search For The New Land, recorded before The Sidewinder but shelved until 1966, was a nearly 16-minute stop-start modal jazz odyssey. He also played on trombonist Grachan Moncur III’s Evolution, a fascinating example of “inside-outside” jazz composition that blended avant-garde ideas with a deep feeling for the blues.
The stunning popularity of “The Sidewinder” allowed Morgan to keep recording and touring throughout the 1960s; he booked so many sessions, in fact, that Blue Note shelved about half of them at the time, releasing them in the 1970s and ’80s. He was also a prolific sideman, playing on albums by Joe Henderson, Andrew Hill, McCoy Tyner, Larry Young, Hank Mobley, and many others. Tragically, his career ended when he was shot at Slugs’ Saloon on East 3rd Street in New York in February 1972, by his partner, Helen Morgan. He was 33 years old. (The 2016 documentary I Called Him Morgan, about their relationship, is available for rent on Amazon.)
The last album Lee Morgan released in his lifetime was Live At The Lighthouse, a double LP recorded over three nights — July 10-12 — in 1970 at a club in Hermosa Beach, CA. In its original incarnation, it had just four tracks ranging from 16 to 19 minutes in length. The band included Bennie Maupin on tenor sax, flute, and bass clarinet; Harold Mabern on piano; Jymie Merritt (Morgan’s former bandmate in the Jazz Messengers) on bass; and Mickey Roker on drums. The music, though it sprawled across LP sides, was still very much rooted in hard bop tradition. Morgan never showed much interest in funky soul jazz, despite the boogaloo rhythm that underpinned “The Sidewinder” and later tracks like “The Rumproller,” and he hadn’t made the shift toward fusion like Davis, Hubbard, or Byrd (though a posthumous album, recorded in 1971, would feature Mabern on electric piano and both electric and acoustic basses, played by Merritt and Reggie Workman respectively). These were complex compositions played with a real sense of dynamics and an exploratory mindset — they were stretching the hard bop form as far is it could go. Some of Maupin’s saxophone solos go into a heavy, almost free jazz zone, but without ever tipping all the way over into Pharoah Sanders-esque screams and cries. He always pulls back from the brink, and the band is always there to anchor him with powerful chords and a driving beat.
In 1996, Live At The Lighthouse was expanded to a three-CD set; it now featured 12 tracks, plus a brief spoken introduction from Morgan. That version painted an even more vivid portrait of what he and his bandmates had been up to at the time. Almost all the compositions were new, except for versions of “Speedball” (from The Gigolo, an album recorded in 1965 but not released until 1968) and “The Sidewinder.” Morgan had clearly been riding a wave of creative inspiration in 1970, working on a book of music — some pieces of his own, and others by Maupin, Mabern, and Merritt — that he opted to document onstage rather than in the studio. The three-CD version has been out of print for many years, and until recently commanded grotesque prices on Discogs and eBay. Not anymore, though.
This month, Blue Note finally went all out with this set, releasing The Complete Live At The Lighthouse. This new version, which comes on 12 LPs or eight CDs, contains all twelve sets Morgan and the band performed that weekend — four sets a night on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. This release combines two of my favorite things: live albums that contain new/exclusive material not recorded in the studio, and live boxes that document a band’s entire run at a given spot. It sits very well alongside Miles Davis’s Complete Live At The Plugged Nickel 1965 and Cellar Door Sessions 1970 sets, Sonny Rollins’s Complete Live At The Village Gate 1962 (a bootleg, but easy enough to find), Cecil Taylor’s 2 Ts With A Lovely T, Dave Douglas’s Brazen Heart Live At Jazz Standard, and others on my shelf.
Listening to it one or two sets at a time, you really get a thorough picture of what Morgan and company were up to, and how they thought about their work. There are three versions each of “Absolutions,” “The Beehive,” “I Remember Britt,” “Neophilia,” “Peyote,” “Something Like This,” and “Yunjana.” They play “Nommo” twice, and “Aon” and “416 East 10th Street” (and “The Sidewinder”) just once each, and they use “Speedball” as a closing theme on six of the 12 sets, mostly on the first night. They’re usually a minute long or less, after which Morgan announces that they’re taking a break and will be back in a little while. To end the final set on Friday night, though, they play a nearly 12-minute version, with Jack DeJohnette sitting in on drums. Friday was clearly the getting-t0-know-you night; the band’s performance of “The Sidewinder” came during the third set, likely the one with the biggest crowd. On Saturday and Sunday, they went hardcore — all new material all night long. By the late-night sets on Saturday and Sunday, they were playing just two long pieces.
Side note: It’s interesting to me that jazz groups used to play four sets, each running between 30 and 45 minutes. Back in the Before Times, when I was going to jazz clubs, sets ran 65-75 minutes and there were two or at most three. That’s probably part of jazz’s overall shift from entertainment to Art, and I can’t say whether it’s good or bad, but it’s one more way in which The Complete Live At The Lighthouse is a time capsule.
This may seem like the kind of thing that’s only for collectors and maniacs, but the performances are so adventurous and on-fire, and the tunes are so good, that it’s absolutely worth hearing. It’s been almost 50 years since Lee Morgan’s death, and people don’t talk about his brilliance as much as they should. Had he lived, I have no doubt he would have continued to be one of jazz’s major names well into the ’70s and ’80s, if not longer. He was incredible, and this box shows that for all that he achieved in the 1950s and 1960s, he was really just getting started.
And now, new music!
Timo Lassy - "Foreign Routes"
Finnish tenor saxophonist Timo Lassy has a new trio featuring bassist Ville Herrala and drummer Jaska Lukkarinen; this is their debut album. On it, they’re joined by a few guests — Valtteri Laurell Pöyhönen of Dalindèo and Tuomo Prättälä of the Ilmiliekki Quartet play keyboards here and there, and the Budapest Art Orchestra contributes strings — but the three-way relationship between the core members is what it’s all about. The opening track, “Foreign Routes,” starts the album off beautifully; Lukkarinen sets up a driving backbeat, like Billy Higgins on a mid-’60s Blue Note album, there’s a gentle splash of synth, and then the strings come in, surging all around as Lassy steps into the spotlight. He’s got a gigantic, Dexter Gordon-ish sound, and he lets every note ring out, soloing like a graceful dancer. Honestly, the piece sounds like something off the soundtrack to a mid-’60s spy movie — not a Sean Connery-era James Bond movie, but one of the knockoffs starring Dean Martin or James Coburn. (From Trio, out 8/27 via We Jazz.)
José Lencastre Nau Quartet + Pedro Carneiro - "One Way To Cultivate Courage"
There’s a lot of fascinating music coming out of Portugal. Saxophonist José Lencastre has been around for a little over a decade, but he’s really been on a hot streak for the last five years or so. In addition to multiple one-off improv projects and live encounters, he’s made several albums with the Variable Geometry Orchestra, a multi-generational ensemble that blends out jazz with avant-garde electronics. He also leads his Nau Quartet, which features pianist Rodrigo Pinheiro, bassist Hernâni Faustino, and his brother João Lencastre on drums. They’ve made three albums since 2017, and on this fourth release, they’ve brought in a special guest: marimba player Pedro Carneiro. The deep wooden tones of the marimba give it a very different feel from the vibraphone or even a xylophone; it booms and sings. That’s not the only change here, either. On previous Nau Quartet albums, Lencastre played alto sax only, but this time he’s also playing tenor, giving the music even more muscle. On the opening track, “One Way To Cultivate Courage,” his lines are quick like snow flurries whipped by the wind, and the band rattles and surges behind him, his brother tossing out martial snare runs as Pinheiro’s piano clangs and jangles. Carneiro’s marimba is a countervailing force, offering pointillistic commentary that sometimes teams up with the piano to bracket the other three, but just as often makes its own statement from the corner. (From Thoughts Are Things, out now via Phonogram Unit.)
Matt Mitchell & Kate Gentile - "key tettle | FLARDLE"
This album is a lot. Literally, a lot: It’s a six-CD set running just over five and a half hours and containing 49 pieces, performed by a rotating cast of ten musicians in all, with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Kate Gentile as leaders and conveners of the various ensembles. Mitchell and Gentile have been creating a very particular type of music under the Snark Horse banner since 2013; they write one-bar compositions which are then used as platforms for improvisation. Normally, both musicians write extremely complex music that shifts through endless permutations before reaching anything like a conclusion; it’s often hard to tell, watching one of their ensembles perform, what’s on the page and what’s an improvised solo by a group member. It all has a great deal of compositional rigor. This music, because the players are starting with such a tiny nugget of information, is obviously much more improv-focused, but those one-bar pieces can be just as dense as longer works. “key tettle | FLARDLE” features guitarist Ava Mendoza alongside Mitchell and Gentile. They start out looping a piano melody that’s almost Thelonious Monk-ish in the way it seems to tumble over itself, but eventually Mitchell breaks its constraints and goes wandering, as Mendoza emits bursts of distorted noise that recall Marc Ribot in the way they exhilarate, and make your teeth hurt, at the same time. Gentile’s drumming implies time, but also has the kind of explosive force found in the extreme metal she loves. (From Snark Horse, out now via Pi Recordings.)
Mankwe Ndosi & Body MemOri - "underinside climbing"
Vocalist Mankwe Ndosi is a Chicago-based artist who also works in Minneapolis; she’s a member of flutist Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, but has also worked with Atmosphere and Brother Ali. On this project, she’s joined by cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Silvia Bolognesi, and drummer Davu Seru. The title of the album, Felt/Not Said, is an accurate reflection of its contents, because Ndosi’s vocals are mostly wordless here. On “underinside climbing,” she hisses, gulps, rattles, moans, and occasionally scats, sometimes sounding like she’s speaking Xhosa (the African language with all the clicks) and sometimes like she’s throat singing a la Tanya Tagaq, and the musicians behind her create a groaning storm of sound, deeply bowed bass and cello drones and rumbles combined with rattling percussion. It’s like being trapped in the belly of a wooden ship with a ghost left over from the Middle Passage. It’s hypnotic, intense, and at times frightening, and it’s like nothing else you’ll hear this year. (From Felt/Not Said, out now via Auspice Now.)
Adi Meyerson - "Follow The Red Dot"
Bassist/composer Adi Meyerson’s second album is a tribute to Japanese visual artist Yayoi Kusama, whose repetitive patterns of dots and curved figures are intended to provide a kind of utopian space into which the viewer can escape. (I attended a Kusama exhibition in Helsinki, Finland that featured a kind of mirror maze where you found yourself surrounded by an infinity of black and yellow dots; it was weirdly hypnotic, and not at all creepy or disorienting. I probably could have stayed there for hours, but they had signs encouraging people to keep it moving.) The band includes trumpeter Marquis Hill, flutist Anne Drummond, bass clarinetist and saxophonist Lucas Pino, keyboardist Sam Towse, and drummer Kush Abadey, and several vocalists. “Follow The Red Dot” begins with Hill, Drummond, and Pino floating gracefully past and around each other, playing somewhat pointillistic lines that gradually congeal into a sharp, quick melody line. When Meyerson and Abadey come in, playing a fast bebop rhythm, the piece is off and running in an almost Ornette Coleman-ish fashion, with Towse’s piano adding only accents, never guiding or anchoring the music in any real way. (From I Want To Sing My Heart Out In Praise Of Life, out now via Adi Meyerson Music.)
Hank Roberts Sextet - "SAT/SUN PA TU X"
Cellist Hank Roberts is well known to avant-garde jazz fans of a certain age for his late-’80s and early-’90s work with alto saxophonist Tim Berne and guitarist Bill Frisell; he appeared on Berne’s Fulton Street Maul, Fractured Fairy Tales, and Sanctified Dreams, and Frisell’s Lookout For Hope and Before We Were Born, and recorded several well regarded albums of his own. But Science Of Love is his first album as a leader in a decade. He’s formed a new group with trombonist Brian Drye, clarinetist/soprano saxophonist Mike McGinniss, violinist Dana Lyn, pianist Jacob Sacks, and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza, and written a book of complex and fascinating compositions. The album opens with “SAT/SUN PA TU X,” a reworking “Saturday/Sunday” from his 1993 album Little Motor People. It begins quietly, with Roberts plucking the cello like a bass as McGinniss’s clarinet tootles and Drye’s muted trombone growls; Sperrazza taps out a light swing beat, and they seem to be heading in an old-timey, New Orleans direction, or something Charles Mingus might write in a particularly benevolent mood. But as it goes on, the intensity builds until the wave crashes at about the four-and-a-half-minute mark, and it becomes an abstract, less structured conversation between instruments, with deep bowed drones from Roberts anchoring it all. (From Science Of Love, out now via Sunnyside.)
Andrew Cyrille Quartet - "Go Happy Lucky"
Drummer Andrew Cyrille is a jazz legend. He started out in the mainstream — his first record date, in his early 20s, was backing saxophonist Coleman Hawkins — but when he joined Cecil Taylor’s group in 1965, his artistic path changed forever. He stayed with Taylor through the mid 1970s (and they reunited in 1999 for the excellent Incarnation). But he also led his own group, Maono, and collaborated with fellow first-wave free jazz drummers like Milford Graves and Rashied Ali, and generally made his sparse, precise style crucial to avant-garde jazz over the last five decades. The News is his second album for ECM with a group featuring guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Ben Street; on the first one, 2016’s The Declaration Of Musical Independence, synth player Richard Teitelbaum, with whom Cyrille has been playing off and on since the ’70s, was present, but here he’s replaced by pianist David Virelles. On “Go Happy Lucky,” a Frisell composition, he digs deep into the keyboard’s low end to complement the guitarist’s gentle country-blues melody. Street lays down a solid foundation, and Cyrille dances across the snare and cymbals. (From The News, out 8/27 via ECM.)
Kenny Garrett - "Sounds From The Ancestors"
Alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett turned 60 last year. He’s been playing jazz professionally since the age of 18, when he joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra, then being led by Ellington’s son Mercer. In the late ’80s, he was a member of Miles Davis’s band, appearing on Amandla and several live recordings of the era, including the one I wrote about in last month’s column. He’s someone with a lot of interesting ideas; there’s no way to predict what you’ll get when he puts out an album. One of my favorite Garrett albums is 2006’s Beyond The Wall, which features Pharoah Sanders on tenor sax and Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, plus strings and traditional Chinese instruments. He hasn’t released an album in five years, though; his last was 2016’s Do Your Dance!. The core band from that disc — pianist Vernell Brown, Jr., bassist Corcoran Holt, and drummer Ronald Bruner, as well as percussionist Rudy Bird — all return for this one, but there are several guests as well. Maurice “Mobetta” Brown plays trumpet on “Hargrove,” there are a trio of vocalists on a couple of tunes, and on the title track, Dwight Trible, who works with Kamasi Washington in addition to recording as a leader, sings and Pedrito Martinez adds congas and also sings. Garrett plays a long piano intro, almost two and a half minutes, before Martinez comes in and the groove launches. The main body of the piece is a passionate eruption, with Garrett wailing and the two vocalists evoking a Santeria-esque spiritual jazz ritual. (From Sounds From The Ancestors, out 8/27 via Mack Avenue.)
Terence Blanchard - "Fall"
Trumpeter Terence Blanchard seems to have taken saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s famous quote, “For me, the word ‘jazz’ means ‘I dare you,’” to heart. He’s covered an extraordinary amount of creative territory in his nearly 40-year career, from playing with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers to scoring Spike Lee movies. He’s even written an opera; Fire Shut Up In My Bones will open the Metropolitan Opera’s 2021-22 season next month, the first opera by a Black composer performed there in the Met’s 136-year history. His new album Absence is a tribute to Shorter, performed with his band the E-Collective (pianist Fabian Almazan, guitarist Charles Altura, bassist David Ginyard, and drummer Oscar Seaton) and the Turtle Island String Quartet. Only about half the pieces are Shorter compositions, though; the rest are written by Blanchard or members of the band. “Fall” was originally recorded on Miles Davis’ Nefertiti, a graceful, swaying melody that repeats over and over, opting for a sustained mood rather than laying down a platform for egocentric soloing. Of course, there are solos, but they fit within the context of that melody, which surges in and out like the tide, particularly on this version, which is extra-cushiony given the strings and some weird electronic outbursts from (I think) Altura. (From Absence, out 8/27 via Blue Note.)
Brandee Younger - "Reclamation"
Harpist Brandee Younger has been around longer than you think, but she’s really hitting her stride. Her 2019 album Soul Awakening featured music recorded as far back as 2012, and her 2020 release Force Majeure, with bassist Dezron Douglas, harvested highlights from live streams the two played from their apartment during pandemic lockdown. She’s also become well known for her contributions to albums by players like Makaya McCraven, Jeremy Pelt, Christian McBride, Kassa Overall, Lakecia Benjamin, and others. Somewhere Different, her debut for Impulse!, features Maurice “Mobetta” Brown on trumpet, Chelsea Baratz on tenor sax, Anne Drummond on flute, Rashaan Carter on bass (though Douglas, who produced the record, and Ron Carter also appear), and Allan Mednard and Marcus Gilmore on drums. “Reclamation” is a perfect way to kick off the album, as it begins gently, with a soft single-note pattern from the harp before the bass and drums come in, first playing a mellow, head-nodding beat, then picking up as the horns rise to a crescendo. Then it drops back down again, and repeats. Though she acknowledges the importance of Alice Coltrane in making space for the harp in jazz, and Coltrane’s influence on her own work, she comes off here much more like a disciple of another jazz harpist, Dorothy Ashby, whose music prioritized soulful grooves and melodic hooks over spiritual atmospheres. Younger could easily have recorded for CTI in the mid ’70s; her music has a down-to-earth quality that manages, at the same time, to feel orchestral, even though there are no strings present. (From Somewhere Different, out now via Impulse!.)