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Thursday, June 03, 2021
A Legendary Stand by the Lee Morgan Quintet Finally Sees Full Release, as 'The Complete Live at the Lighthouse'
Lee Morgan — one of WBGO's Top 100 artists, as selected by our listeners — was a trumpeter who led his share of combustible bands. When his Live At The Lighthouse was first reissued in the U.S. in 1996, many listeners had their first encounter with his working group of 1970, featuring reedist Bennie Maupin and the piano-bass-drums rhythm team of Harold Mabern, Jymie Merritt and Mickey Roker.
That collection expanded the original double-LP release from four extended tunes (each occupying one side of vinyl) to 13 tracks across three CDs. Morgan's band was a dynamically hard swinging quintet. They made their listeners feel every note as they explored a unique songbook of original compositions based in blues, bop, modal, odd meter and even a slight tinge of the avant-garde.
The liner notes for the 3-CD set contained a full chronological rundown of every night's set list. Ultimately, there were 12 sets recorded, and nearly four hours of the Lighthouse material still remained unissued. Would fans of the group ever get the chance to hear all of that material, as they had heard Miles Davis' The Complete Plugged Nickel Sessions or Bill Evans' Turn Out The Stars: The Final Village Vanguard Recordings?
The answer, finally, is yes. The Complete Live at the Lighthouse — a mammoth 12-LP or 8-CD set containing every note the group played over three nights of recording — will arrive July 30 on Blue Note Records. The label announced its release this morning, and released one track from the set: a previously unreleased version of "The Beehive."
Mabern wrote this song in dedication to a Chicago jazz landmark of the mid-1950s that featured performances by the likes of Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown and Max Roach. As Morgan's band captures the spirit and lineage of those icons and one of the many stages they soared from, the song is a showcase for their distinct group language.
From the first beat of Mickey Roker's take-no-prisoners drum intro through the tune's concluding fermata, all five musicians burn with a vengeance on "Beehive." Whereas the master version may have a firmer grasp on the melodic cues that trigger the chord changes during the solos, this "new" Beehive performance pushes a tad more aggressively with the rhythm, sizzling with an even rawer energy.
There is certainly a jubilation in the swing of Mabern, Merritt and Roker — but there's also a tension that carries through the entire performance. Performing in California was often cited by musicians at the time as a respite from the intensity of The Big Apple, but the playing on this track contains a New York pulse all the way. Maupin, on tenor saxophone, is relentless. His muscular sound and knack for combining rhythmic and exploratory sonic figures with the language of bebop distinguishes him alongside contemporaries like Pharoah Sanders, Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter.
After Maupin comes Morgan. Straight out of the gate, he starts his solo journey with the same rhythmic figure that Roker used to end his drum break. Next, the trumpeter issues a dazzling combination of melodic fragments from the main melody that he recasts, pulls apart, and uses as launching pads for new ideas. Morgan was on the tail end of recovering his embouchure after an incident a year or so earlier, but he sounds firm and confident here. Most technically impressive are a few unbroken lines that echo the wizardry of Clifford Brown.
Perhaps the most incredible peak of this performance contains an occurrence just beneath the surface. When Morgan plays the cue that should announce the chord change, he plays it in the original key instead of the new one. At this tempo and energy level, Morgan's move may have caused a bobble (or an all out wreck) with lesser players, but he's in the best hands with this group. Mabern and Merritt stay with Morgan in the original key and he pours out even more ideas until he slightly disguises and recasts the cue again in the new key, and everyone moves seamlessly forward together. Morgan, Maupin, Mabern, Merritt and Roker are conducting the best possible clinic here, and their covert chops and listening are just as strong as their overt mastery."
Monday, May 24, 2021
Wednesday, May 12, 2021
Vincent Herring: Not the End of the Line The saxophonist’s life and livelihood were seriously threatened by the coronavirus, but he’s determined to carry on
“After months of suffering from the impact of COVID-19 on the jazz economy, things got worse for alto saxophonist Vincent Herring: He contracted the disease itself.
“It felt like the flu,” he recalled in a recent interview. “I was tired all the time, but I wasn’t coughing, and I didn’t have any respiratory problems. After less than a week, I felt totally fine.” But Herring’s health troubles were just beginning. The COVID-19 aftereffects he suffered would last far longer, rendering him barely able to play his horn and almost forcing him to cancel the sessions that produced his latest recording on Smoke Sessions, Preaching to the Choir. The experience has given him a hard-won new perspective on a phenomenally successful career.
Herring’s COVID ordeal began last August. He traveled to Las Vegas to take part in a centennial celebration for Charlie Parker, the subject of his 2019 recording Bird at 100, a collaboration with fellow top-tier altoists Gary Bartz and Bobby Watson. Herring suspects that he contracted the disease on the flight back to New York. Although the symptoms of the potentially lethal virus didn’t fell him, before long he was feeling something else: pain in his joints.
Initially, the 56-year-old saxophonist chalked up this new discomfort to the vagaries of aging. “I remembered some comedian talking about when you get to be over 50 you get aches and pains, and when you tell the doctor they’re just like, ‘Yeah, it happens,’” he said. “So I didn’t think anything of it. But then it got progressively worse. My doctor had me do a blood test and she told me I had rheumatoid arthritis. And it was a gift from COVID.” Worse still, some of the most severe pain was in his fingers.
What followed was a nightmarish succession of doctor recommendations and specialists in joint inflammation. The specialists disagreed on the dosage of a steroid. Herring’s kids got involved researching remedies too. Meanwhile, on a scale of one to 10 “where 10 [means] jumping out of a window because you’re in so much pain,” Herring said he was a nine.
Finally, after weeks of trial and error, Herring’s physicians settled on an approach. He smiled as he described it. “My pain and discomfort level is controlled, through a medication cocktail,” he said, holding up one hand as if in triumph. “That works for me, as long as I take it on time, everything’s good to go,” he added with a sheepish smile. “And of course you learn to take it, because the pain threshold goes up very quick. Right now, I’m feeling okay because I took medication and, just as important, my fingers are working well. But boy, it sure is a thin line between that and catastrophe.”
“MY LIFE AS A JAZZ ARTIST IS OVER”
Adding to the drama of the situation was that Herring was in the middle of recording Preaching to the Choir. Some of the tracks for the album—which features stellar accompaniment by pianist Cyrus Chestnut, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and drummer Johnathan Blake—were already in the can, but a second session had been planned. Suddenly, Herring was uncertain he could manage it.
In the end, he said, “we made that second date, but I didn’t record as many original compositions as I wanted. Was I in my absolute peak form for playing saxophone? No, because I couldn’t practice but a little bit, but I was overcome with joy that I could play. So that added a sense of purpose to the recording—you know, I’m grateful to be able to do it.”
Before hitting the studio, he got dire news from his physician. “My doctor told me there’s no cure. No cure.” During our interview, he grimly shook his head when repeating those words for the second time. “So I’m sitting there thinking, well, my life as a jazz artist is over.”
Herring thought of the great pianist Donald Brown, his friend for many years, whose performing career was cut short by rheumatoid arthritis and rotator cuff surgeries. “I never really got it until I was confronted with the same thing. I don’t want to say I was super-depressed; it was just another turn in your life, you know?” But he felt the existential threat, and he began thinking about alternatives: “I felt like, ‘Man, I’m gonna have to do something else in life, what else can I do?’”
Over the last couple of years, Herring had enjoyed some success trading stocks, so he figured he could sustain himself that way. “Nevertheless, it was still really jarring to think that your life’s going to change that much. It was bad enough that I was going through a divorce and just getting over that.” He paused for a second and smiled. “It’s funny—my ex and I, we don’t really speak. But when the kids told her about this, she actually reached out to me!”
He is reflective about the experience. “It centers your purpose on music. I don’t want to say it makes it urgent, but it definitely puts another level on it, you know, both as a player and performer. And then you have the depression, of not being able to play and perform. As many goals as I’ve fulfilled, there’s still things that I want to do. And I still have goals that I can reach. I feel like I’ve been given a second chance.”
I understood the message. Seven years ago, I’d faced down similar fears. Journalism, my bread and butter for three decades, had all but vanished from my personal economy, and the food business, my preferred means of alternative income, had grown dicey; in addition to that, the rigors of being on my feet all the time—a necessity in the food biz—felt far different than it had in my thirties. The gigs that used to help me make ends meet instead seemed to be killing me. By 2014, I was walking with a cane most of the time, wondering how I would work next week, much less next month or year. I made it through in part by recalling the energy from happier days, and Herring’s music recalls those days too. Much of his new album bristles with the same kind of energy that I loved in my early New York City jazz experiences, attending free shows in the late ’70s and early ’80s sponsored by Jazzmobile, where players preached, if not to the choir, then with impassioned aim to convert newcomers.“