Every Set Is a New Horizon

On Lee Morgan's The Complete Live at the Lighthouse

To a clubowner or promoter, the list of tunes Lee Morgan and his quintet played over 12 sets on the weekend of July 10-12 1970 at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California might look like a challenging “sell.”  

It’s mostly new originals. There’s exactly one version of the trumpeter’s biggest hit, “The Sidewinder” from 1964, and none of the also-popular subsequent variations on its soul-boogaloo rhythm (viva “The Rumproller”!). There are no standards. One of Morgan’s most enduring compositions – the hard-swinging “Speedball,” its name drawn from the drug cocktail of heroin and cocaine – is used mostly as a break tune. It’s a logical choice, of course, but when this blistering band plays it “in full,” to close the fourth (!) set on Friday night, you can’t help but want to hear a few more versions. A full hour of “Speedball” might not be enough.

One of the many delights of this set – which benefits from the careful research and sharp aesthetic sense of archival record producer Zev Feldman – is hearing the musicians confront challenging material night after night (or at least more than once) in a short three-day span. Diving into the tunes to get past the “first thought/best thought” stage.

We talk about the “chops” of jazz musicians, the technical dexterity necessary to execute difficult leaps and inconceivably intricate lines. Equally important is the willingness to abandon all that technique to fully engage and respond in emotionally true ways to whatever transpires in the room as a tune unfolds. At the Lighthouse, these musicians are listening on high alert; several times, drummer Mickey Roker can be heard transitioning from full four-limbs thunder to minimal and almost hushed timekeeping. The others follow Roker’s lead, creating vivid slopes and dynamic contrasts that might return when they revisit the tune the next night. And might not.

Pick any of the recurring tunes – “Absolutions,” “Peyote,” the gorgeous bass clarinet showcase “Neophilia” – and listen to them back to back from the Friday sets to the closing Sunday ones. There are (of course) slight differences in tempo and melodic inflection, and eruptions that draw something different from each player. Also audible are slight almost para-musical hints that these master improvisors -- Morgan, Roker woodwind master Bennie Maupin, pianist Harold Mabern and bassist Jymie Merritt – are growing more comfortable with the material (and each other). They’d been playing most of these tunes for a solid month, first two weeks in San Francisco then two in Hermosa Beach, and as a result, the roadmaps are well established. There’s a shared general sense of how things might unfold.

But behold the resourcefulness at work: Nobody repeats ideas or falls back on practice-room material. Hustling to keep pace with the spitfire Morgan, they’re all inventing on the fly – and not just for some quaint 90-minute concert with an intermission, but for four sets a night. Some pet strategies inevitably recur – you’ll catch Lee Morgan firing off staccato single notes in syncopation, one of his most distinctive trademarks, in several solos. Yet he approaches that calling-card differently each time, using razor-sharp articulation and a variety of smart reharmonizations as springboards to new variations. Every individual and collective gesture here is alive with the energy of  seeking – as new melodic ideas inspire new ways of thinking about group expression, and that leads to more ideas.

The original Live at the Lighthouse has long been regarded as one of Morgan’s landmarks; this expansion puts a wider lens on the creative environment Morgan established within this short-lived band, and the highly individual ways each player responded. It’s loaded with galvanizing interplay –check the way Roker balances breezy timekeeping with the kind of rapid-response commentary that jolts soloists into higher gears.

A few other random insights inspired by this Lighthouse time-travel, which is out Friday:

Though he was often recorded in more conventional hard-bop settings, Mickey Roker expertly navigated and enriched this open, churning, shape-shifting atmosphere. It sounds like his natural habitat.

These Morgan compositions are modern standards that should be circulating more widely. They’re simple yet brilliant, alternating challenging chord sequences with moments of chill reflection.

This is peak Bennie Maupin. The woodwind specialist left Morgan to work with Herbie Hancock, and while many would say that collaboration brought out the best in Maupin, there’s a driving intensity to his soloing here that is unlike anything he recorded subsequently.