This could be the gift of the year for hard bop fans. Long considered one of the finest live albums in Blue Note’s historic catalog and the iconic trumpeter’s only live recording Lee Morgan as a frontman, his date at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California, July 10–12, 1970, was first released by the label as a 2-LP set with just four tracks, one title per side. Blue Note also released an extended 3-CD set in 1996. Now, thanks to the efforts of the producer Zev Feldman (aka “The Jazz Detective”) and David Weisswe have the complete recording of all three nights, 12 sets in all, spread over eight CDs and a dozen LPs.
The original has long been a favorite of this writer and many others of the hard bop era. Although to be fair, compared to Morgan’s ’60s Blue Note release, the music here had become more modal, Coltrane-influenced. Now we can immerse ourselves in over four hours of these bristling and energetic quintet performances. Remarkably, the sound is so pure you’re transported straight to the club to hear every set unfold like it did 51 years ago. Now a new generation can hear these performances perhaps for the first time. The unreleased titles represent 21 of the 33 in total.
Morgan’s quintet consisted of Bennie Maupin (tenor, flute, bass clarinet)pianist Harold Mabern, bass player Jimmy Merritt, and drummer Mickey Rocker. Maupin, who rose to fame with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, among his many other appearances, is the sole surviving member of this historic quintet. As Morgan’s foil and sparring partner on the front line, he doesn’t give an inch and practically eclipses the leader a few times. Yes, in the language of jazz, he was blowing. As viewers of the award-winning documentary, I called him Morgan, to know, the high-flying Morgan was tragically killed just months after those performances. Having battled substance abuse and addiction in the 60s through many excellent recordings under his name and with Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, these dates showcased a ‘clean’ Morgan in top form at his best. Also. Jack DeJohnettewho attended the show on Friday July 10, participates in “Speedball” in set 4.
As with all projects involving Feldman, the set comes with a comprehensive booklet containing new interviews with Bennie Maupin and the last in-depth interview with Jymie Merritt before his death last year. There are tests of Jeffery McMillan (author of Delightfulee: The Life and Music of Lee Morgan) and Michael Cuscuna. Statements from a host of musicians from DeJohnette to Wallace Roney, Nicholas Payton, Charles Tolliver, Eddie Henderson, David Douglas, and many more fill the pages.
The tunes here were composed by band members who knew their set each night was recorded. Only two come from Morgan, five from Maupin, three from Mabern and two from Merritt. Morgan’s “Sidewinder” and “Speedball” are from his 60s era and are more direct. The first has only one installment here, and its intensity is impressive. The latter appears more often than any other, as it served as the closer theme in seven of the twelve series. Mabern’s “The Beehive”, named after the South Side Chicago nightclub where Mabern heard Bird in 1955, remains one of the most enduring tunes and is a burner in all three renditions.
Surprisingly, they are on fire everywhere. Even though many pieces span lengths of 18-22 minutes, the improvisational solos and captivating interactions never drag on. The original recording established an identity as one of the finest jazz live recordings of this period and hearing all 12 sets in no way diminishes that. In fact, given the production qualities here, it reinforces that great reputation. Here are the tracks, minus Morgan’s intros which are cut out. The asterisk indicates not previously published. You will notice that there are only twelve compositions spread over the three nights but confirming that the excitement and power were present on all three nights is the fact that so far at
The importance of this release cannot be underestimated. It’s a monument to some of the best live jazz ever recorded, made all the more remarkable by how this quintet performed so tightly on a tiny stage. This put The Lighthouse on the map as a West Coast jazz destination. What Village Vanguard is to NYC, The Lighthouse is to West Coast Jazz. Morgan was only 34 at the time of these recordings, and it’s thought-provoking to think about what his career trajectory might have been. The two interviewees, Maupin and Merritt, used phrases such as these in their interviews – “developed such a heart-to-heart connection with each other,” “be in the moment and capture the moment, and “In a way, it’s sacred music…it was totally uncompromising music in terms of how it played out.”
If you clung lovingly to the original 2-LP or 3-CD set from 25 years ago, you still need this expansive set for those explosive performances and outstanding sound quality.