Lee Morgan ‘Four Classic Albums’ 2CD (Avid Jazz) 4/5

Trumpeter Lee Morgan led an adventurous life, to say the least, and was tragically killed by his then girlfriend in a jazz club in 1972. His meteoric rise to fame began as part of the Dizzy Gillespie big band before he gained notoriety in one of the very best ever incarnations of the Jazz Messengers under leader Art Blakey. This collection of four albums covers the period 1957 to 1960, with no less than three of the recordings dating from the latter when Morgan’s sound was much in demand.

The 1957 Hollywood recording of part of the Gillespie big band under Morgan’s leadership, ‘Dizzy Atmosphere’, is very much the odd one out here because the sound is more akin to that of Count Basie than Morgan, and Morgan was at the time an exciting hard-bop trumpet. As a whole, the album is something of a disappointment and Avid would have been better served including another album from 1960/1 that more accurately reflects Morgan as a leader. An early Blue Note album such as ‘Candy’ would have provided a useful comparison with what followed.

Moving on to the 1960 albums, two of these were recorded for the Chicago-based Vee-Jay label and this was an interesting record company on at least two accounts. First of all, it was a family firm owned by two brothers Vivian and James Brackeen, who were African-American, and this was unusual for the recording industry at the time. Secondly, the albums were promoted via edited 45s being released and played on the local format favored in inner cities at the time, of the jukebox. This being the case, the first album, ‘Here’s Lee Morgan’, from February of that year featured two single releases in ‘Terrible T’ and ‘I’m a fool to want you’, both original compositions by Morgan. A stellar line-up comprised Clifford Jordan on tenor, Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Art Blakey on drums recorded the six pieces in New York. Morgan was by now part of the Jazz Messengers and his fellow band member Wayne Shorter was as prolific composer and offered up ‘Running brook’ here.

A second album for Vee-Jay was recorded in October 1960 and once again featured Blakey and Jordan, but with Eddie Higgins on piano and Art Davis on bass. Morgan was gaining in confidence and his own ‘Triple track’ is an album highlight along with pianist Higgins’ original and title track ‘Expoobident’. In between these two albums, Lee Morgan found time to record for the Blue Note label and the superior quality of the sound and the performances is evident. Blue Note paid musicians to rehearse and this resulted in the pieces performed on record being that tighter than on other labels. A strong rhythm section line-up of Chambers and Blakey plus Bobby Timmons (misspelt as ‘Paul’ in the liner notes) is added to with Morgan and altoist Jackie McLean. This pairing of fiery brass musicians would meet up on numerous Blue Note albums in the future, but here the chemistry is already evident and on four lengthy numbers, they work out on, ‘These are soulful days’ and McLean’s own ‘Midtown blues’. Not yet definitive Morgan, but good enough by any other standards nonetheless.

Tim Stenhouse