How Lee Morgan Became Blue Note’s Sexiest Young Star

Lee Morgan hadn’t even turned 20 when he ventured into Rudy Van Gelder’s recording studio in Hackensack, New Jersey, on September 29, 1957, to record The Cook. Born in Philadelphia, Morgan (1938-1972) was a trumpeter prodigy who idolized Clifford Brown (the innovative hard bop horn blower who had died in a car accident in 1956) and got his musical apprenticeship playing in the horn section of a short-lived big band led by another notable trumpeter – a puffy-cheeked wind machine named Dizzy Gillespie. It was 1956, when Morgan was only 18 years old.

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Later that same year, he was offered a recording contract by New York’s Blue note foldersthen the first independent jazz label, and recorded his first album for them, Lee Morgan Indeed!. What followed was a wave of intense recording activity which saw the young trumpet prodigy record five more LPs in the space of ten and a half months. But as well as directing his own projects, news of Morgan’s prodigious and unearthly talent spread quickly and he found himself recording as the trumpet player for tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, also signed to Blue Note. And, perhaps more importantly, just four days before he went to record what became The CookMorgan was at Van Gelder Studio playing alongside the rising tenor star and fellow Philadelphian John Coltranefeatured on what is universally recognized as the saxophonist’s first truly great album, blue train.

After the intense discipline and focus required for the Coltrane session, Morgan wished to embark on a more relaxed atmosphere in the studio. Abandoning the notion of artistic concepts and carefully thought-out arrangements, he opted for a good old-fashioned blowing session, where the participating musicians were able to demonstrate their flair and talent in a spontaneous and informal way.

Released in March 1958, The Cook was different from Morgan’s previous Blue Note releases (Lee Morgan Sextet, Lee Morgan Vol.3 and city ​​lights) in that he used a smaller group. It was actually a quintet, featuring the mighty engine room of Miles Davis‘ Famous five-piece band consisting of bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones. At the piano was another young musician from The City Of Brotherly Love. His name was Bobby Timmons, and he was to become a major hard bop composer (he wrote the classic songs “Moanin’” and “Dat Dere”). Timmons, like Morgan, would eventually join Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Morgan’s studio band was rounded out with the addition of baritone saxophone specialist Pepper Adams, whose resonant sound added a different, darker dimension to the music, especially when blended with Morgan’s horn .

Opening The Cook is “A Night in Tunisia,” Morgan’s take on a ’40s bebop staple co-written by his former boss, Dizzy Gillespie. The song is often rendered at a blistering, frantic pace, but Philly Joe Jones’ tom-toms, which open the nine-minute performance, begin at a fairly mid-tempo. A soft but percussive groove is established by Chambers, Jones and Timmons, before Adams blows a serpentine figure over which Morgan lays out Gillespie’s famous oriental-flavored melody. Then begins a series of solos, with Morgan shining brightly as he mixes darting chromatic leads with vibrant tremolos. Pepper follows with a molten solo that embellishes the original theme with inventive melodic twists, then Timmons steps in with a series of fast-fingered piano tracks.

“Heavy Dipper” is one of Morgan’s own tracks: a fierce swinger with beautiful solos as well as cohesive ensemble work that also allows Philly Joe Jones brief moments in the spotlight with short drum parts in solo.

Pepper Adams lets rip with a high-speed first solo over a supercharged version of Cole Porter’s song “Just One Of These Things,” which is also notable for Paul Chambers’ powerful bassline. Morgan’s solo spot comes only three minutes into the song, but when it does, it’s easy to see why the young Philadelphian, then just 19, was considered one of the rising stars of jazz.

The band cools down with a languorous – but certainly not lethargic – rendition of the bluesy romantic ballad “Lover Man”, a song indelibly associated with and written for, billie holiday. Initially, we only hear Morgan’s burnished horn and bassist Chambers, before the rest of the ensemble enters. Peppers Adams’ solo is particularly striking because of its raspy eloquence.

The Cook ends with “New-Ma”, Morgan’s second composition on the album. It’s a mid-paced groove with a walking bass line whose relaxed gait stylistically anticipates the feel of pianist and fellow Blue Note artist Sonny Clark’s classic hard bop number “Cool Struttin'”, recorded four months later.

Sometimes when you hear Lee Morgan’s mature sound on these vintage recordings, it’s easy to forget that he was still a teenager with a lot to learn, both in life and in music. Nevertheless, The Cook reveals a young man who was beginning to break free from Clifford Brown’s shadow and establish his own sonic and musical identity.

The Cook can be purchased here.