Recording Date: Jun 12, 1985-Jun 13, 1985
After nearly 30 years off the scene, altoist Frank Morgan made a remarkable comeback. Despite his years in prison and obscurity, he had not lost anything in his playing; in fact, he had grown as an individual. Teamed with pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Tony Dumas and drummer Billy Higgins, Morgan (still just 51) digs into songs by Walton, McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter and Antonio Carlos Jobim that had not been written when he had last recorded; in addition, he plays versions of three standards that recall his main inspiration, Charlie Parker. Morgan's improbable comeback after such a long period was fortunately permanent. This set (originally released by Contemporary) has been reissued on CD in the Original Jazz Classics series, and in addition to being a historic date, the music is excellent.
All Music Guide
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Frank Morgan's return to records is an event as welcome as it is long overdue. Although he made brief appearances as a sideman on albums with Benny Powell and L Subramaniam in 1979, as well as an '84 Subramaniam date, the two sides you are now about to hear represent, incredibly, his first complete LP as a leader since 1957.
Frank's maiden voyage on records was a session under the leadership of Teddy Charles (with, among others, Wardell Gray and Sonny Clark); at the time (February 1953) he was 19 years old. Born December 23, 1933, in Minneapolis, raised in Milwaukee from the age of six, he moved to Southern California in 1948 with his father and stepmother. (Morgan Sr., a guitarist, gained prominence working in Las Vegas and touring with the Ink Spots.)
During his high school years in Los Angeles, Morgan studied at Jefferson High with a teacher named Samuel Brown, whose students included Dexter Gordon and other future eminences. Before he had finished school he eased into professional playing around town; soon he was working the Sunday afternoon sessions run by Gene Norman, for whose GNP label he made his first album as a leader in 1955.
The timing of that emergence on records seemed propitious; the LP was issued shortly after the death of Charlie Parker. Perhaps inevitably, Frank Morgan was hailed as "the new Bird," though the slogan was also to be applied to Cannonball Adderley, who was in a better position to take advantage of it; among other reasons, he was based in New York, which enabled him to elicit more critical attention; but no less relevantly, he did not have to deal with the personal problems that wrought havoc with Morgan's career and for many years relegated him to oblivion.
Such was the total obscurity surrounding him that in 1977, when Gene Norman called me to write notes for a reissue of the 1955 album, we both assumed he was dead. Only a long series of inquiries produced evidence to the contrary; finally Frank, newly out of jail, called me and told me with complete honesty the harrowing story of his long battle with narcotics, which had variously found him in San Quentin, Chino, Synanon, and other locations not conducive to a successful career in music.
By the time we met soon afterward, Frank had straightened out his life and for the next two or three years was a welcome presence in concerts and clubs from Carmelo's in Sherman Oaks to the Sidewalk Cafe in Venice. There have been a couple more upward and downward curves in his career since then, but at the time of writing he was in good physical shape again. No less significantly, when Dick Bock's Aura Productions was able to team him with the Cedar Walton Trio for this date, he was in peak form, his chops and attitude together and his accompaniment clearly worthy of him.
The Dallas-born Cedar Walton has racked up many credits as a leader after achieving prominence in the 1960s with Art Blakey, Abbey Lincoln, Freddie Hubbard, Eddie Harris, and others. His piano solos have long been respected for their use of sensitive articulation, structure, harmonic and melodic maturity.
Billy Higgins, a charter member of the pioneering Ornette Coleman group in the late 1950s, has worked often with Walton and with countless other small combos: Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, Clifford Jordan, Dexter Gordon, Mal Waldron, to name a few among possibly hundreds. As this was written, he was in Paris taking part in the jazz film 'Round Midnight'.
The youngster of this quartet (or leader-plus-trio) is Tony Dumas. Born in 1955, he took up bass at 16 in high school, toured with Freddie Hubbard for a year, then worked for Carmen McRae, Grover Washington, and Hubert Laws; recorded with Walton, Art Pepper, and George Cables; and toured Japan with J.J. Johnson.
The program opens with "Manha de Carnaval," also known as "A Day in the Life of a Fool." With its light bossa nova beat established by Higgins, the 1959 melody from the Brazilian movie Black Orpheus provides a gentle vehicle for Frank in his melodic groove (opening chorus) and for his even more personal improvised statements (choruses 3 and 4). Walton and Dumas have a chorus apiece, both maintaining the understated mood established by the alto.
"Yes and No" is a bright, simple upbeat Wayne Shorter tune (from his old Ju Ju album on Blue Note), in which the three-chord pattern against the main melodic phrase lends the work its basic character. Again Morgan is relaxed and able to show without any undue force or violence his innate capacity for swinging. Note, too, the neat contribution of Walton and the cool, brief statements by Higgins.
"Easy Living" has been a prime-time ballad in jazz circles since Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson recorded their classic version in 1937. Frank knows enough to leave a fine melody undistorted; Cedar's chorus is busy yet relaxed.
"The Rubber Man" is a Cedar Walton original for which the adjective "catchy" seems the most apt characterization. Walton is represented as composer again in "Third Street Blues," for which the tricky phrasing of the head contrasts with the free-blowing solos that follow, capped by the series of piano and alto fours with Higgins on the ageless 12-bar pattern.
"Three Flowers" is a delicate piece in waltz time, providing Morgan and Walton with what is arguably the most attractive composition in this generally well-chosen set. McCoy Tyner will be delighted to hear how sensitively these artists have interpreted his blithe melody.
"Embraceable You" has been dealt with literally hundreds of times on records; thus the challenge for Frank was to find his own way while paying his respects to the Gershwin concept. His emotional climax during the second half of the last chorus illustrates how intelligently and inventively he handled the problem. Tony Dumas's bass lines are noteworthy throughout.
Finally we have "Now's the Time," which of course shares with "Third Street" its basic blues foundation, though on this cut the feeling is more boppish, fittingly in the light of the tune's Charlie Parker origins. Again there are fours with Higgins, and again the performance maintains a rhythmically propulsive spirit.
While it may be impossible to make up entirely for lost time, we can safely assume that Frank Morgan's artistry throughout this session will earn him at least a measure of the respect he has long deserved in the international jazz community.