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After Brown’s death, the search for a “New Brownie” filled column inches in jazz rags across the land. One brash youngster, confident enough to covet the title and good enough to earn it, stepped forward. At 18, Lee Morgan was an anomaly. As the liner notes to Morgan’s Complete Blue Note Fifties Sessions make clear, it wasn’t so common in the ’50s as it is today for teenagers to be leading sessionsespecially not with as much talent, charisma, and daring as Morgan exhibits over these four discs.
Just as Brown was a mixture of Gillespie and Navarro when he began, Morgan was a combination of Gillespie and Brown. His sound was fat, bright, and brash. He mixed bluesy runs with swaggering, off-center riffs that redirected the momentum of a tune but never killed the groove.
The roots of Morgan’s later, funkier style are in these discs, distinctly shaped by saxophonist Benny Golson’s compositions. And just as the Navarro collection highlights Dameron’s skills, Morgan’s box set is a testament to Golson’s. The six albums represented here (Indeed, Volume Two, Volume Three, City Lights, The Cooker, and Candy) show Morgan tackling 14 Golson compositions with appropriate enthusiasm (“Reggie of Chester”) and pathos (“I Remember Clifford”).
The Buddy Johnson ballad “Since I Fell for You,” which begins Candy, is especially representative of Morgan’s unswerving confidence. Even today, ballads are considered the true proving ground for jazz youngsters ready to demonstrate that their harmonic thinking is equal to their chops. Morgan is more than up to the task, drenching the tune in soothing warmth.
Morgan’s ’50s sessions see him absorbing his influences and stepping into the spotlight, rather than exploding with innovation. In 1958, he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, becoming their musical director in 1960. He left the jazz scene in 1961 for several years because he favored not only Navarro’s melodicism, but also his drug of choice. The mid-’60s brought Morgan his greatest success as he wedded soul and jazz to form hyperfunky jukebox hits.
Superstition says death comes in threes, and Morgan’s fulfilled the prophecy. It was 1972, and Morgan’s biggest hit, 1964’s “The Sidewinder,” was far behind him. Jazz-funk had taken over, inspired by Morgan’s soul jazz, yet Morgan was still playing, however sporadically. He was shot by his common-law wife (or mistress, depending on the account you read) at the ironically named Slugs Saloon in New York City. He was 33. But Morgan had the most years of any, and while he tended to rewrite “The Sidewinder” for much of the ’60s, his incessant hard funk sound never grew tired.
In-depth liner notes by Bob Blumenthal, evocative photos by Francis Wolf, and Mosaic’s typically thorough presentation make Morgan’s box the most exquisite collection of the three. But those on a budget interested in the essential recordings are advised to seek out the Navarro compilation, Brown’s two Night at Birdland discs with Blakey, and Morgan’s Candy. (Mosaic Records releases are available only through mail order. Call (203) 327-7111 for a catalog.)CP