The Penguin Guide to Jazz, Penguin Books’ jazz encyclopedia, has for nine editions given “crown ratings” to albums the editors feel supersede their highest rating of four stars. My object in these “Preening” articles (because that’s what penguins do) is to analyze each crown album and decide if it is a 5-star work by our count. I don’t wish to criticize Penguin’s choices, but merely to catalogue and appraise the most acclaimed records in an art form that I believe is America’s greatest export.
I was something of a brash hotspur in high school, especially on trumpet. I had no formal training on the instrument, but my playing was well-received, and on the recommendation of my band teacher I attended a week-long jazz camp at the local university that summer. I was hopeless, as I forgot I could not sight-read until the very minute I was thrust into the sight-reading audition, and as a result I was put in one of the lower level jazz combos. Our instructor was a trumpet player himself, and chose Lee Morgan‘s “The Sidewinder” as our first chart for the student concert the next week. It was fun, simple, and easy to solo over, so I took no issue with the whole affair (and I was glad I wasn’t in the poor group that played through “Ornithology”). I remembered Morgan’s name, but filed him away for the time being.
Now Morgan is one of my favorite trumpeters. His precision and tone matches that of Freddie Hubbard’s, his accuracy in the upper octaves competes with Don Cherry’s pocket trumpet, and his half-valving technique is reminiscent of Miles Davis’. I realized that he was just as brash as I was, barreling headfirst into innumerable choruses. His specialty was coming out clean the other end. He would swoop and groan and scream for 31 bars and then end with something so melodic and polite it was as if he tipped his hat to the audience, apologized for taking liberties with his solo, and bid them all good night. He started so early, too: he was barely able to buy a cigarette when he joined Dizzy Gillespie’s band in the mid-fifties, and he played with Hank Mobley, John Coltrane, and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers all by the time he was 20. Despite only recording for 16 years – his live-in partner shot him in the middle of a show on February 19th, 1972 – he released music on two labels with more than 250 musicians.
The three Lee Morgan-featuring albums I love besides the rest are Coltrane’s Blue Train, Blakey’s Moanin’, and Morgan’s own The Sidewinder. All three are very famous recordings, but it’s The Sidewinder that reveals his considerable songwriting abilities as well as his immense level of musicianship. All five tracks are of Morgan’s composition, and he is able to navigate around them with his band-members brilliantly. The album, recorded in late 1963 when Morgan was 25, features Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone, Barry Harris on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums. The first four tracks are more or less straight blues pieces, and the head of the remaining cut, “Hocus-Pocus,” is structured ordinarily at 32 bars, with a 16-bar A section, an 8-bar B section, and an 8-bar reprise of A’s melody. Speaking plainly, The Sidewinder does not depend on the strength of its compositions: if it did, it would be a minor achievement at best. The album depends on Morgan’s arrangement of his personnel, and more immediately, its improvisation.
When Morgan was with other tenor players, like Coltrane and fellow Jazz Messenger Benny Golson, the partnership was tenuous. Perhaps it was because both had songwriting privileges that superseded Morgan’s, as all but one track on Blue Train and two on Moanin’ were written by the group’s tenor saxophonist. On The Sidewinder, Henderson and Morgan are a true team, playing in octaves or in thirds off each other, the harmonies studied and omnipresent. The melodies gain vital warmth when both Morgan and Henderson are so precise with their notes but so cognizant of the other’s playing. “Boy, What a Night” and “Hocus-Pocus” are two very good indicators of their camaraderie. The former dynamically and continuously shifts the chromatic distance between Morgan’s and Henderson’s parts, while the latter is impressive partly because Henderson manages to hold on, so dogged is Morgan’s insistence to play the “and” of every single note. Soloing is also a team effort: when Morgan ends his on “The Sidewinder” after playing through a couple choruses, Henderson immediately echoes Morgan’s closing notes, creating a seamless transition between the trumpet player’s improvisation and his own. Maybe it is because they were so young – although I could envision Morgan developing somewhat of an ego at this point – but very few jazz groups have two lead players who function so harmoniously together. Usually individual reputation gets in the way, which is especially endemic to jazz, since its main qualifier is solo, instantaneous composition.
This rhythm section is a bit harder to describe than Morgan and Henderson. The Sidewinder’s simplicity and depth of passion allows for less refinement, provided it is sacrificed to make room for feeling. Billy Higgins performs the most adeptly of the three, his high hat in perfect time with the rest of the musicians and his snare rolls cascading violently in the closing minutes of “Totem Pole.” Bob Cranshaw is unstoppable too; without him, “The Sidewinder” would lack a suitable foundation (not to mention its first four notes). The odd man out is Barry Harris. Philip Larkin once called Thelonious Monk “the elephant on the keyboard,” but Harris seems more deserving of the distinction than Monk. Many places his clumsy piano phrasings are essential. “The Sidewinder” again is a major triumph for Harris, milking the highest possible potential out of one note and emphasizing the correct rhythm. The track was one of the progenitors of the “boogaloo” rhythm in jazz, placing importance on the counts 2 and the “and” of 3. Harris’ comping emphasizes those two counts extremely well, and it was largely his responsibility to install the song as one of the most important soul jazz (or hard bop, depending on who you ask) pieces in history. However, his clumsiness wears thin, especially during his solo on “Totem Pole.” It is not that all jazz pianists should seek refinement and mastery of technique; in fact, Harris is a very sound technical piano player. It is that his phrasings sometimes contrast sharply with Morgan’s style. Morgan is a virtuoso, moving through scales and disassembling chords very quickly. Harris’ minimalism doesn’t provide the neutral base it should to temper the trumpeter: often Harris just seems lost in the dust.
Say what you will about the other four cuts, but “The Sidewinder” is the one place on the album that achieves true perfection. The melody is memorable, the solos are fluid, the atmosphere is transporting, and the musicians play not one unnecessary note. It The Sidewinder ought not to be “The Sidewinder,” and the rest of the album suffers in the shadow of its greatest achievement. Lee Morgan, for as headstrong and brash as he was, still possessed the patience to create something controlled and slow-burning, but that same brashness also distanced himself from some of his players. The distance separates a great album from a flawless one, and I believe because of the disparity in style this record belongs to the former category.
Stream: “The Sidewinder”
Stream: “Totem Pole”