It’s an enigma as old as live popular music itself. A veteran act wants to branch out, move forward and defy expectations, but fans want to hear from old favorites. It was the kind of challenge trumpeter Lee Morgan faced when he and his band played a two-week engagement at the famed Lighthouse jazz club just steps from the ocean in Hermosa Beach, California in July 1970.
Morgan was best known to jazz fans as the prodigy who recorded for Blue Note, played with Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane, and joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, throughout his teenage years. His 1964 album The Sidewinder and its title track were smash hits, crossing the pop charts and almost single-handedly saving Blue Note from insolvency.
Such has been the impact and success of The Sidewinder that Blue Note insisted on releasing follow-up albums with similar tunes, setting aside the albums’ value of material recorded by Morgan that did not fit the mould. Moreover, like too many of his contemporaries, Morgan became mired in serious drug addiction. At the time of the lighthouse engagement, he had hit the pads and returned several times, forced to relearn his instrument due to a fight over money that left his mouth on the receiving end of a lead pipe. It drew sold-out crowds, but that was mostly due to name recognition and hits that were relative years and lifetimes in the past.
Unsurprisingly, Morgan wanted to record the Lighthouse concerts for a new live album that would mean a fresh start. His band included former Messengers cohort Jymie Merritt on bass and relative newcomers pianist Harold Mabern and drummer Mickey Roker. On tenor saxophone, flute and bass clarinet, Bennie Maupin had only been with the group for a few months.
A total of 12 sets were recorded, four each from Friday to Sunday. the original Living at the Lighthouse, released in March 1971, was a double album consisting of only four usually lengthy selections. In 1996 an expanded edition was released featuring one take from each of the 12 different compositions the band played over the three nights. This new box set includes everything that was recorded, all 12 sets in their entirety. Add up to 12 LPs or eight CDs, six hours and not a small amount of money, is it worth the expense?
Living at the Lighthouse unlike any other Lee Morgan album. It is his only official live recording as a bandleader. While Morgan wrote nearly all of the material for her studio albums, Living at the Lighthouse features only two compositions by Morgan; most of the others were written by his bandmates. That’s probably partly because Morgan was trying to break away from his highly melodic boogaloo and hard-bop past. At the very beginning of the first set of the first night, he asks his audience for patience and understanding: “You will hear a lot of new material, so keep that in mind. We record. Anything we’ve already released, you can’t ask us to play because it wouldn’t make too much sense. On the contrary, even jazz artists regularly released live recordings of their best-known material. Morgan didn’t want to, and that’s where most of Living at the Lighthouseits fascinating nature.
Fans of Morgan’s signature work will be shocked and possibly horrified from the start. Mabern’s “The Beehive” lives up to its title. It’s clearly hard-bop, but it’s even harder, more powerful, more aggressive than anything Morgan fans would expect. Powered by Roker and Merritt, the band plays with dizzying speed and intensity. As is the case with much of the material, Morgan and Maupin’s solo dives headlong into the kind of modal jazz listeners might know from the experimental works of John Coltrane in the mid-1960s.
For a non-muso, modal jazz means that the solo is based on alternate, often oriental scales and modulations, rather than traditional chords and root notes. The effect is frenetic, skronky and often dissonant compared to more conventional forms. Almost all the Living at the Lighthouse performances stretch beyond the ten-minute mark, and many push twice that length, giving the band time to explore multiple moods and tempos in a given song.
Maupin was a big proponent of this style, and it features prominently on the entire engagement. His compositions are featured more than any others, and he often eclipses even Morgan, who mostly seems to follow Maupin’s lead.
Still, there are enough traditional melodies and performances to encourage more risk-averse listeners to hang in there. “I Remember Britt” by Mabern highlights the whole commitment, a bucolic, fluty air with Latin foundations. Pair it with Merritt’s trippy, bipolar “Absolutions” and Maupin’s maniacal, emphatic “416 East 10.”and Street,” and the band runs the stylistic gamut on these recordings. And near the end of Friday’s third set, comes the signature breakbeat, funky bass, and staccato horn sounds of “The Sidewinder.” The song’s only appearance, it’s stretched and rendered with an increased tempo and alternating bouts of powerful directness and whimsical noodles. The band doesn’t seem so irritated by the melody as determined to make the most of a performance and move on.
Throughout, the game is comprehensive, prodigious, and often breathtaking. The chemistry is palpable and sometimes subliminal. Besides pure rigor and historical merit, this chemistry is the strongest argument for the complete collection. Throughout the sets that unfold, chronologically precise, we feel the power of this ensemble, the vigor with which they approach their repertoire and the joy it gives them.
Of course, there is repetition, but perhaps not as much as one might expect. Most of the twelve songs receive a few different airings. The band’s closing theme, the hard-bop ditty “Speedball” written by Morgan, gets seven. Various takes of any track reveal variations in tempo or mood, which aficionados will appreciate, but which others may find less important.
The packaging is excellent, with plenty of liner notes from the producers and interviews with the surviving band members. Morgan, alas, is not one of them. He was murdered by his girlfriend at home less than two years later Living at the Lighthouse was recorded, making it his last album to be released during his lifetime.
In any configuration, Living at the Lighthouse is not Lee Morgan’s definitive album. As a crucial part of any in-depth study of his career, the 1996 version is what everyone will need, giving a complete picture of what Morgan had to offer at the time. But there is no doubt that this complete edition is the one that comes closest to immersing the listener in a small crowded seaside club, facing an authentic great jazzman and his fearsome band.