Graded on a Curve:
Lee Morgan,
“The Roulette Sides”

The list of hard bop trumpeters is extensive and the artistry of its practitioners deep and wide; amongst Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Art Farmer, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Kenny Dorham, Donald Byrd, and Booker Little, Lee Morgan’s achievement stands tall. This does not mean every nook of his ample discography has been given its proper due; backing this up is Warner Music Group’s “The Roulette Sides,” which tucks three tracks from a 1960 session onto 10-inch vinyl. Akin to Warner’s recent John Coltrane reissue program, the results are presented in mono, and it’s altogether a tasty Morgan appetizer. Featuring tenorman Wayne Shorter and pianist Bobby Timmons, it’s out now.

Due to consistent accessibility and a disdain for stagnation, the appeal of Lee Morgan’s brand of jazz has extended right up to the present. Additionally, his profile has been given a current boost through I Called Him Morgan, Kasper Collin’s 2016 documentary spotlighting the trumpeter’s life and untimely death at age 33 at the hands of common-law wife Helen.

As with any successful mid-20th century modern jazzman, the points of entry into the Morgan’s oeuvre are vast. He recorded a ton as a leader, beginning in 1956 with the double-shot of Indeed! for Blue Note and Introducing Lee Morgan for Savoy, and his discography grows substantially when sideman dates are added; by ’56 he was in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, but the crown jewels of his ’50s work as accompanist are John Coltrane’s Blue Train (’57), Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ Moanin’ (’58), and Jimmy Smith’s The Sermon! (’58), all released by Blue Note.

Moving chronologically through Morgan’s work means it’ll take a while to get to the remarkable combo punch of ’63’s The Sidewinder, which provided an unexpected dalliance with the R&B singles chart through a two-part 45 of its sublimely grooving title-track, and ’64’s Search for the New Land, a disc that captured Morgan at an expansive highpoint (if securely within an advanced bop framework) with the assistance of Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, guitarist Grant Green, bassist Reggie Workman, and drummer Billy Higgins.

Nobody would be blamed for jumping ahead to that pair of masterpieces, but in doing so one runs the risk of overlooking the smaller but still significant pleasures comprising “The Roulette Sides.” Its three cuts debuted on wax through The Best of Birdland: Volume 1, a 1962 split LP shared with The John Coltrane Quartet, notably in its initial lineup with drummer Higgins and bassist Steve Davis in the roles soon filled by Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison. The material Trane’s Quartet Mk 1 recorded was given a Record Store Day release in April, also on 10-inch, also in mono, and also titled “The Roulette Sides.”

Curiously, neither Coltrane nor Morgan’s slim recordings for New York-based Roulette have gathered a strong reputation; contrary to the title of the split LP, they weren’t cut live at the Birdland club but in studio, with the personnel for Morgan’s date overlapping with the contributors to the Jazz Messengers’ 1960 classic A Night in Tunisia; Art Taylor takes Blakey’s place on drums, while Jimmy Rowser steps in for Jymie Merritt on bass.

These replacements do nothing to lessen the whole. Taylor may not have Blakey’s name recognition, but alongside Higgins, Max Roach, and the Joneses Elvin and Philly Joe, he’s one of hard bop’s cornerstone rhythm men, and if Rowser didn’t accumulate as many sessions as Merritt, he was still in demand, notably with Red Garland, Ray Bryant, Illinois Jacquet and a long stint with Les McCann.

The set begins with the Shorter composition “Suspended Sentence.” After an opening theme emphasizing Morgan’s melodic strengths, the saxophonist dives right into a succinct yet fully developed solo; at it unwinds, deft lyricism is blended with touches of edgy gruffness, and the short foghorn honk that ushers in the trumpet is a swell capper. Morgan’s improvisational stretch is no less rewarding (if slightly more concise) as it combines the dexterous with the tuneful, segueing into a crisp turn from the always reliable Timmons.

Taylor’s drums provide energy and momentum with an individual touch across all three tracks. The way he finesses the cymbal in tandem with the supple largeness of Rowser’s bass at the start of “A Bid for Sid” is a treat, setting up a clean line from Timmons as the horns dish the head. It’s Morgan’s tune, but Shorter steps forward first, though the trumpeter’s solo is the most dynamic of the three. Still, hearing Timmons fall into an expressive groove with Rowser and Taylor behind him nearly steals the show.

Timmons shines brightest on his own tune “Minor Strain,” his compositional skills at elevated bop serving as a platform for Morgan’s richness of tone and melody during the opening theme. The pianist’s soloing is also impeccable, and indeed, the interactive soloing of Morgan, Shorter and Timmons reaches its highest point here, as Rowser and Taylor lay the foundation with panache.

The main limitation of “The Roulette Sides” is durations that somewhat hinder the band achieving full flight, but “Minor Strain” manages to transcend that circumstance, and the whole goes down without a hitch. It would serve as a fine introduction to the creativity of Lee Morgan, and is sure to deepen the shelf of longtime fans.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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