Saturday Night Tunes: The Sidewinder

When I was writing up last week’s album, which had Lee Morgan on trumpet, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t yet done an actual Lee Morgan album. So this week you get his 1964 (recorded in December 1963) classic, The Sidewinder.

Lee Morgan’s story parallels Clifford Brown‘s in that both were amazingly gifted jazz trumpeters whose lives were tragically cut far too short, and who would probably be better remembered for their genius today if they’d lived longer and had longer careers. In Brown’s case, of course, he died in a car accident at 25; Morgan died at 33, shot in a domestic dispute and then left to bleed out while waiting for an ambulance in difficult winter driving conditions. What makes the parallel a little eerier is that Morgan had briefly been Brown’s student in the mid 1950s, and Brown, along with Dizzy Gillespie (who gave Morgan his first steady professional gig), was one of his greatest musical influences.

In addition to being one of the stalwart figures in the development of hard bop and one of the core members of that style’s most preeminent group, the Jazz Messengers, Morgan gets credit for helping to create one of the most popular hard bop offshoots, soul jazz. There are people who will tell you that soul jazz became its own unique style, and then there are people who will tell you that soul jazz is just hard bop that’s been funkified, with a little more emphasis on the blues. I don’t really care, I just like the music. Defining what is or isn’t “soul jazz” seems impossible anyway, since it depends on parsing totally subjective descriptions like “soul,” “funk,” and “bluesy,” but some basic soul jazz characteristics include that emphasis on the blues, gospel influences, and heavy rhythms.

The Sidewinder was one of the earliest albums be placed, well after the fact, in the soul jazz canon, alongside things like Song for My Father and Cannonball Adderley’s Mercy Mercy Mercy (which, now that I think about it, would be a good choice for next week), and even a little Ray Charles (although now we’re dancing on the equally undefined line between “soul jazz” and “soul”). Alongside Morgan is Joe Henderson on tenor sax, Barry Harris on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums. Everything here was written by Lee Morgan.

First up is the title track, and while nailing down a definition of “soul jazz” is probably impossible, whatever “soul jazz” is, this is it. I’m biased because I used to play tenor, but Henderson’s solo here is my favorite:

“Totem Pole” alternates a heavy Latin rhythm with a swinging middle bridge, and man Henderson is really great here too (so is Morgan):

“Gary’s Notebook” is an interesting tune, written for a buddy of Morgan’s named (wait for it) Gary, who would often scribble things down in his (wait for it again) notebook. It’s a blues that starts off as a waltz but then moves into a more straightforward swing:

“Boy, What a Night” is another blues, but this time it’s in 12/8 meter, which does some interesting, funky things to the rhythm:

Finally we’ve got “Hocus-Pocus,” which isn’t a blues at all but instead is a basic, medium tempo AABA swinger. They repeat the theme twice at the end, the first time with the horn line essentially punctuating Higgins’ drum solo:


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