Alto saxophonist Frank Morgan, born in 1933, is one of the last great bop storytellers and living connections to that age of music. He’s also one of the last musicians left from the glory days of Los Angeles’ Central Avenue scene, a school-of-the-streets from which Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus, Art Farmer, and many others graduated. (Check out “The Champ” on the Rhino box-set to get a taste of Morgan’s youthful Bird-fueled flights.)
The story of Morgan’s three-decade-long absence from the jazz world has been told many times–how drug addiction and imprisonment sidelined him from 1955 to 1985, though he continued to play while in jail; how from 1985 on he finally began to fulfill the potential that had made Duke Ellington want to take him into his orchestra when the saxophonist was only 15. For 13 years Morgan recorded and performed to critical acclaim, until a stroke in 1998 took him off the scene again. Once more he overcame adversity and returned to playing and eventually to making new recordings. HighNote Records has recently released the third in a series of live CDs, A Night in the Life, featuring a rhythm section led by George Cables (a pianist I’ve grown acquainted with over the years in the company of various other saxophone colossi such as Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper), with Curtis Lundy on bass and Billy Hart on drums. Morgan finds some new ways to stroll along “Green Dolphin Street,” underlines “It’s Only a Paper Moon” with a tone of acerbic wisdom, and pays standard and often-spirited homage to the Charlie Parker/bebop songbook with “Confirmation,” “Billie’s Bounce,” “Half Nelson,” and “Hot House.”
Piano Jazz recently re-aired Morgan’s 2004 appearance; it’s our good fortune that many of the program’s episodes are now archived (other guest programs available in the archives include trumpeter Jack Sheldon and saxophonist Bud Shank). Morgan in his late period has become an extraordinary balladeer, and I particularly enjoyed his delivery of Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.” (For a very good mid-1990s Morgan ballads CD, see Love, Lost and Found, where the saxophonist is joined by pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Billy Higgins.) In addition to the appearance with Marion McPartland, Morgan also discusses some of the musical and personal challenges he’s faced throughout his career in this 2004 interview at All About Jazz.
This post was prompted not only by the pleasure of hearing Morgan on Piano Jazz, but also by our recent loss of several artists–Max Roach, Herb Pomeroy, and Art Davis–and the outpouring, in Roach’s case especially, of tributes and grief. Several years ago I ran into a drummer named Pete Amaral, who had played with Morgan a number of times, and he went on and on about the saxophonist, full of praise for him as a musician and a man. Remembering that makes me want to give some shouts and hosannas for the living as well.
Photo credit: Mark Sheldon