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Lee Morgan’s ‘Live at the Lighthouse’ was a masterpiece that turned out to be a farewell

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“Live at the Lighthouse” was to be the start of a new chapter for Lee Morgan in 1970. As someone who hasn’t slowed down much since he first picked up the trumpet in his early teens and is become a star of the jazz scene of the ’60s, the jazz virtuoso would finally come of age at age 32 with this album.

As the 1960s drew to a close, the revolutionary spirit of the era was so pervasive that it imposed much more on artists, especially in jazz. With many of his studio releases, Morgan regularly sounded like he had a lot more to say musically that couldn’t quite fit on record. Not only did he become more introspective as a young black man, but as an adult Morgan became politically active as one of the leaders of the Jazz and People’s Movement, which called on television networks to hire more of black jazz artists and musicians.

“Live at the Lighthouse” would give ample room for Morgan’s vision and the raw ideas of his musically burgeoning band. In a year that has seen other equally progressive releases – Ahmad Jamal’s “The Awakening”, Jackie McLean’s “Demon’s Dance” and Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” – “Lighthouse” not only embodied the turbulence of these changing times, but also allowed Morgan to redefine who he was at what would tragically turn out to be the twilight of his career.

With expansive tracks like “Neophilia” and “Absolutions” (written by multireedist Bennie Maupin and late bassist Jymie Merritt, respectively), over their two weeks at the Lighthouse Cafe, together these men would deliver a work of both pre- forward-thinking and highly cathartic.

“I just noticed he was thrilled to be in California,” said drummer Jack DeJohnette, who sat down with the band at the Hermosa Beach club on Morgan’s “Speedball” composition. “His plan represented that dose of freedom, being in California and by the ocean, just being more relaxed and feeling optimistic about the future. He was really in a good mood and thanking Helen [Morgan] for everything she had done to help bring him back. It was a good time for everyone. »

This moment is collected in its entirety on “The Complete Live at the Lighthouse”, an expansive box set of 12 LPs and eight CDs released by the iconic Blue Note label. This document of their engagement at the famed Hermosa Beach jazz club includes Morgan telling his audience that he wouldn’t play any of his old hits and wouldn’t take any requests.

The original album was the last released during his lifetime, as he died less than two years later in an incident that remains controversial. Although a bittersweet final recording, these performances show that at this point in his life, Morgan was still looking ahead.

Already a weekend pro at the age of 15, Morgan was co-managing his own band with bassist Spanky DeBrest, and they soon had the opportunity to play with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers during one of the stops on the group in Philadelphia. Later, Dizzy Gillespie hired Morgan to replace Joe Gordon in his big band. While working with Gillespie, he had ample opportunity to shine with several unforgettable solos, notably on “Une nuit en Tunisie”.

When Clifford Brown, one of Morgan’s main stylistic influences, died in a car accident at age 25, it created an opening to join the band. With the demise of Gillespie’s big band in 1958, Morgan quickly completed the third iteration of The Messengers, contributing to some of their breakthrough albums like “Moanin'” and “The Freedom Rider”. Several of the Messengers often backed Morgan on his later outings as frontman, particularly pianist Bobby Timmons and saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Hank Mobley.

Between 1956 and 1971 his prolific output for Blue Note culminated in 25 albums as frontman and nearly twice as many recordings as sideman and star player, Morgan always balancing his early influences and seeking new directions.

“I think the reason the Blue Note catalog has been so extraordinarily relevant and enduring is that the artists who have recorded with the label, by and large, have been artists who have assimilated all the music that has come before them” , says Don Was, president of Blue Note Records.

“[They] understood the foundation that the music was built on, and not only had the knowledge and the chops, that alone doesn’t,” Was continues. “But [also] the big, charismatic in-game attitude that transcends time and transcends fashion, that jumps so big it’s timeless and relevant at all times. It’s not a question of technique or notes. It’s a matter of attitude, eloquence and emotion in the ability to touch people.

His recording of the now classic “The Sidewinder” in 1963 marked a turning point for Morgan. After temporarily quitting his heroin habit for the first time, he quickly emerged with a 10-minute driving blues number that he reportedly jotted down on toilet paper during the session.

Featuring bassist Bob Cranshaw, drummer Billy Higgins, pianist Barry Harris and tenor reedist Joe Henderson, the title track combined Morgan’s hard-bop sound with elements of funk and blues. “The Sidewinder” not only became his biggest-selling hit, hitting the pop charts, but it was also used in a Chrysler ad campaign and as a theme song for TV shows, and made him into something akin to Blue Note’s cash cow.

“They were putting him in every possible combination because they thought, ‘Lee is our guy, and he’s going to get a bigger audience for the label,'” says Jeffery McMillan, author of ‘Delightfulee: The Life and Music of Lee Morgan.” “They had him with a sextet; they had him with a septet. They put him in front of a big band. He even records a soundtrack and organ groove recordings with Dr. Lonnie Smith and Larry Young – they tried it in all different combinations.

In no time, the focus had shifted from an artist creating powerful tracks that spoke of tumultuous times to being pressured to deliver another “Sidewinder” caliber hit for the label. “He suffered for a while when he recorded so many similar-sounding sessions in the mid-’60s, and many of them were shelved and released years after they were recorded,” says Kasper Collin, director from “I Called Him Morgan,” a 2016 documentary.

Morgan finally came clean in the late 60s, with the help of his common-law wife Helen Morgan (née Moore), and was determined to turn his life and career around with a vision. He soon formed a new band, continued to tour and perform locally, and staged his first-ever West Coast tour as a frontman. “The only thing [Blue Note] hadn’t done, what Lee really wanted to do was document as a live band with an audience in the room,” McMillan explains.

Produced by Zev Feldman and trumpeter David Weiss, the reissue of “The Complete Live at the Lighthouse” contains all 12 sets from Three Nights of 1970, recorded by Blue Note between July 10-12.

Morgan’s stellar band included pianist Harold Mabern, drummer Mickey Roker and bassist Jymie Merritt. Bennie Maupin played tenor saxophone, flute and bass clarinet, and is the last surviving musician of this group.

“We were actually in rehearsal, looking through Horace [Silver’s] music”, recalls Maupin of his first meeting with Morgan. “The door opened from the hallway, and it was Lee Morgan. He walked in smiling, and everyone was really excited that it was him. He told Horace he just wanted to talk to me for a sec. , then right in front of everyone, he asked me if I wanted to do a recording with him. That’s how I met him.”

At the end of his tour with Silver, Maupin decides to call on Morgan on a whim. While chatting with him, Morgan told him that George Coleman was about to leave the band and asked Maupin to replace him. “It worked really well for me because when you’re not working in a band and you come back to New York, you kind of have to start all over again. There was no lag with that. I was able to start working with Lee [right away] and repeat with him. He was very open to me bringing my music. I brought something to rehearsal one day, and he liked it. He asked me if I had any more. In all, I ended up recording five of my original tracks [for] ‘Lighthouse.’ ”

Performances at the Lighthouse released the freedom Morgan craved, which the band immediately shared and felt. “It was great because above all, we play my music as well as his music and that of Jymie Merritt”, continues Maupin. “Everyone wrote songs except our drummer Mickey Roker. But Mickey brought those compositions to life, so in a way he’s like the fifth writer.

The newly formed group never realized their promise and potential. Just over a year after “Lighthouse” was originally released, Lee Morgan was shot dead by Helen Morgan outside the Slugs’ Saloon in Manhattan on February 19, 1972. He was just 33 years old. She served a short prison sentence for the murder. The relationship between the two is explored in Collin’s documentary.

Morgan would fight many battles, both personally and professionally, in his lifetime. He enjoyed a modicum of success and notoriety that many of his musical successors enjoy today. While his legacy was primarily shaped by a handful of his early studio outings, Morgan was able to deliver perhaps his most evocative statement as an artist during his final months.

“I found an interesting interview, which was never published, that the brilliant British writer and photographer Val Wilmer did with Lee in the fall of 1971,” Collin says.

“I remember from this interview that he was very happy with this live recording and the following studio album [“The Last Session”] which would become his final album. He was happy that these recordings represented a new phase in his life. When “Live at the Lighthouse” came out in late 1970, it actually represented the sound of Lee Morgan in 1970. That’s a pretty big thing.

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