Frank Morgan with the Rodney Kendrick Trio
Although all eight selections on this CD have been played many times before (the only song not a boppish warhorse is John Lewis' "Milano"), altoist Frank Morgan makes each of the pieces sound fresh. As producer John Snyder is quoted in the liner notes, this is bop without cliches. Morgan, who is assisted by pianist Rodney Kendrick, drummer Leroy Williams and either Curtis Lundy or Ray Drummond on bass, digs into such songs as "Well You Needn't," "A Night In Tunisia" and an 11 ? minute version of "Half Nelson," coming up with some surprising twists and plenty of viable ideas.
All Music Guide
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In this stimulating collection, Frank Morgan explores ten pieces from the rich lode of American music that flourished in the decade following World War II. Music of extraordinary vitality and beauty, bebop broadened the harmonic and rhythmic bases of jazz and worked its influence on every musical idiom, radiating through the culture. It affected pop tunes, scores for motion pictures and television, even the methods of classical composers and performers. It is the music that formed Morgan when he was a child prodigy and that gave him the will to raise himself up from thirty years of torment and illness.
In 1947, Frank moved from Milwaukee to Los Angeles with his parents. Musicians as disparate as Duke Ellington and Freddy Martin recognized him as a virtuoso on the alto saxophone. He was fourteen. Ellington tried to hire him. Mrs. Morgan insisted that her son finish school. Long before high school graduation, he was a part of the L.A. bebop establishment that developed around the visits of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, the Lewis and Clark of the new music.
Morgan was among the legions of saxophonists around the world whom Parker entranced. Indeed, many of them tried with all of their might and talent to be Charlie Parker. Frank's technique and musical understanding allowed him to learn and speak Parker's language. His immaturity and lack of judgment led him to emulate Parker's habits, despite his idol's warnings against heroin. By 1955, with an acclaimed album to his credit and sideman appearances on recordings by Teddy Charles and Kenny Clarke, young Frank Morgan was hooked. A series of arrests followed. Soon, he was in prison. Narcotic offenses kept him locked up much of the time until 1985, when he reappeared and became the music comeback story of the year. Since his reemergence, he has been a member of the mainstream jazz community. Life is no more a bed of roses for Morgan than for most jazz artists, but his productivity and the quality of his mature playing bring him respect from his peers and admiration from his public.
Charlie Parker, "Yardbird," was a protean musician whose style had many facets. Morgan's adaptation of Parker stems from one of Bird's most attractive aspects, his lyricism. Although Morgan is capable of ferocity and headlong swing, his most striking moments come when he emulates the Parker whose inventions were like songs, the Parker of "Yardbird Suite," "Bird of Paradise," "Just Friends." As Morgan's lyrical treatment of standard songs made his last Telarc album (Love, Lost and Found, CD-83374) one of his best, his melodic gift informs his approach to these classic compositions from bebop's heyday, 1945 to 1955.
John Snyder, who produced this album and six previous ones for Morgan, has heard a lot of Frank and carefully tracked the development of his artistry. He feels that Morgan has reduced the elements of his style to an essence.
"This is not just another bop record," Snyder says. "This is bebop for the 2000s. It is bop without cliche."
In the opening number, it is also bop without fear of altering traditional treatments. John Lewis wrote Milano, the most recent of the pieces, for a 1955 Prestige recording by the Modern Jazz Quartet. A ballad for the MJQ (metronome setting M.M. 71), it becomes a rather more sprightly affair (M.M. 151) in the hands of Morgan and his colleagues. Frank's solo is full of little whoops of joy, possibly reflecting his current state of mind. At the piano, Rodney Kendrick announces that he is enchanted with Thelonious Monk.
Monk made the first recording of Well, You Needn't for Blue Note in 1947, when he was a known quantity to musicians but not to the public. As much as they admired him, jazz players were leery of Monk's tunes, more because of their unconventional harmonies than their quirky melodies. This one had plenty of dangers, but after Miles Davis proved that its harmonic minefield could be safely negotiated, it became terra cognita and is one of the most played of Monk's compositions. Certainly it presents no difficulties to Morgan and his young colleagues.
Parker recorded K.C. Blues for Clef in 1951 with his quintet. In addition to the pungency of his own choruses, Bird's recording was notable for one of Miles Davis's most enigmatic trumpet solos. Morgan does the blues at precisely the tempo of the original. He is enigmatic, or perhaps wistful, only in the ending phrases in which he echoes, intentionally or not, "Whistle While You Work." Kendrick is elliptical here, but in his own way, rather than Monk's. Leroy Williams abets Lundy's solo with subtle brush strokes, Kendrick with near-subliminal punctuations.
Generations of listeners to Blakey's album A Night at Birdland can lip-synch his version of the genesis of A Night in Tunisia. Art announces on the recording that he was there when Dizzy Gillespie composed the tune "in Texas, on the bottom of a garbage can." It's a great story. The facts are that the name of the piece was originally "Interlude" and Gillespie began working on it when he was with Benny Carter in the early forties. He later arranged it for Boyd Raeburn's band and played the trumpet solo on Raeburn's famous recording of it. The piece was a staple of the big band that Gillespie operated from 1945.
For alto players, however, the transcendent version of "A Night in Tunisia" is Parker's 1946 Dial recording containing the famous alto break. Jazz cognoscenti say "the famous alto break" in the hushed tones with which Picasso partisans pronounce "Guernica," cinema devotees say "Rosebud," and experts on the modern American novel quote Pynchon's, "A screaming comes across the sky." Morgan does not approximate the break, but he does a little screaming. Curtis Lundy begins the piece with a variation on the famous introduction Gillespie fashioned for Ray Brown's bass.
Thelonious's old-timey Blue Monk is his earthiest blues and tied with "Straight No Chaser" as his best known. Morgan takes it at a more stately pace than Monk did in his initial 1953 recording of the tune for Prestige with Art Blakey and bassist Percy Heath. Kendrick is in a frenzy of Monkisms here. Frank is the archetype of blues serenity.
Miles Davis based Half Nelson on the chord changes of Tadd Dameron's "Lady Bird" and recorded it in 1947 for Savoy in his first session as a leader. Charlie Parker, as Miles's sideman, played the date on tenor saxophone in a way that led as inevitably to Sonny Rollins as flowers and bees lead to honey. The logic and beauty of the changes and the support of the rhythm section inspire Morgan to his longest performance of the album, incorporating a series of exchanges with drummer Williams. Kendrick, a master of ellipsis, seems to introduce into his solo Wynton Kelly, Monk, and, in the manner of Thelonious, an elbow for low notes.
To this day, Parker's 1946 recording of Lover Man plays to divided opinion. He made it during a physical and emotional collapse and was furious with Dial's Ross Russell for releasing it. Others, including Stan Getz, considered it one of Bird's most moving performances. Morgan's evaluation is clear; his opening phrase, in mood and tone, evokes Parker's. His "Country Gardens" tag is one that Bird used in a variety of ways. It runs so deep in the jazz language that musicians of all instruments find that it sneaks up on them and plays itself.
Gillespie recorded Monk's 52nd Street Theme for RCA Victor with a seven-piece band in 1946 (it was a very good year). Many of the groups who worked The Street adopted Monk's line as a set-closer, hence the title. Morgan substitutes improvisation for the intricate bridge section written by Monk, but he captures the inventiveness and humor of the era in which musicians concocted dozens, maybe hundreds, of tunes on the changes of "I Got Rhythm." They should have made George Gershwin an honorary bebopper. Feeling exploratory and devil-may-care, Morgan concludes his survey of bop's past glories with a solo that is full of his present optimism and endless innovation.