It is a conundrum as old as live popular music itself. A veteran act wishes to branch out, push forward, and defy expectations, but the fans want to hear the old favorites. That was the sort of challenge faced by the trumpet player Lee Morgan when he and his band played a two-week engagement at the famous Lighthouse jazz club just a short walk from the ocean in Hermosa Beach, California, in July 1970.
Morgan was best known to jazz fans as the prodigy who had recorded for Blue Note, played with Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane, and joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, all by the time he was barely out of his teens. His 1964 album The Sidewinder and its title track were smash hits, crossing over to the pop charts and almost single-handedly saving Blue Note from insolvency.
Such were the impact and success of The Sidewinder that Blue Note insisted on releasing follow-up albums with sound-alike tunes, shelving albums’ worth of material Morgan recorded which didn’t fit the mold. What’s more, as with too many of his contemporaries, Morgan became mired in severe drug addiction. By the time of the Lighthouse engagement, he had hit the skids and come back multiple times, forced to re-learn his instrument due to a fight over money that left his mouth on the receiving end of a lead pipe. He drew packed houses, but this was mainly due to name recognition and hits that were years and relative lifetimes in the past.
Not surprisingly, Morgan wished to record the Lighthouse gigs for a new live album that would signify a fresh start. His band included old Messengers cohort Jymie Merritt on bass and relative newcomers in pianist Harold Mabern and drummer Mickey Roker. On tenor sax, flute, and bass clarinet, Bennie Maupin had been with the group for only a matter of months.
A total of 12 sets were recorded, four each from a Friday through Sunday. The original Live at the Lighthouse, released in March 1971, was a double album consisting of only four typically lengthy selections. In 1996 an expanded edition was issued featuring one take of each of the 12 different compositions the band played over the three nights. This new boxset includes everything that was recorded—all 12 sets in their entireties. Adding up to 12 LPs or eight CDs, six hours, and no small amount of money, is it worth the expenditure?
Live at the Lighthouse is unlike any other Lee Morgan album. It is his only official live recording as a bandleader. While Morgan wrote nearly all the material on his studio albums, Live at the Lighthouse features only two Morgan compositions; most of the rest were written by his bandmates. That is likely partly because Morgan was trying to break away from his highly melodic boogaloo and hard-bop past. At the very beginning of the first set on the first night, he asks his audience for patience and understanding: “You will be hearing a lot of new material, so please keep this in mind. We are recording. All the things we already have out, you can’t be asking us to play because that wouldn’t make too much sense.” On the contrary, even jazz artists routinely released live recordings of their best-known material. Morgan didn’t want to, and therein lies most of Live at the Lighthouse’s fascinating nature.
Fans of Morgan’s signature work will be shocked and possibly horrified right from the beginning. Mabern’s “The Beehive” lives up to its title. It is recognizably hard-bop, but it is even harder, more forceful, more aggressive than anything Morgan fans would expect. Propelled along by Roker and Merritt, the band play with breakneck speed and intensity. As is the case with much of the material, the soloing by both Morgan and Maupin dives headlong into the kind of modal jazz that listeners might know from John Coltrane’s mid-1960s experimental works.
To a non-muso, modal jazz means that the soloing is based on alternative, often Eastern scales and modulations rather than traditional chords and root notes. The effect is frenetic, skronky, and often dissonant when compared to more conventional forms. Nearly all the Live at the Lighthouse performances stretch past the ten-minute mark, and many push twice that length, giving the band time to explore multiple moods and tempos within a given song.
Maupin was a big proponent of this style, and he looms large over the entire engagement. His compositions are featured more than any of the others, and he often overshadows even Morgan, who much of the time seems to be following Maupin’s lead.
Still, there is enough melody and traditional performance to encourage more risk-averse listeners to hold fast. Mabern’s “I Remember Britt” highlights the entire engagement, a bucolic, flute-driven tune with Latin underpinnings. Pair this with Merritt’s trippy, bipolar “Absolutions” and Maupin’s manic, emphatic “416 East 10th Street”, and the band cover quite the stylistic gamut on these recordings. And toward the end of Friday’s third set come the signature breakbeat, funky bass, and staccato horn blasts of “The Sidewinder”. The song’s only appearance, it’s stretched out and rendered with an increased tempo and alternate bouts of powerful directness and whimsical noodling. The band seem not so much resentful of the tune as determined to get the most out of the one performance and move on.
Throughout, the playing is full-on, prodigious, and often breathtaking. The chemistry is palpable and seemingly subliminal at times. Aside from pure thoroughness and historical merit, this chemistry is the strongest argument for the complete collection. Across the unfolding, chronologically accurate sets, one really gets a full sense of the power of this ensemble, of the vigor with which they tackle their repertoire, and of the joy it gives them.
Naturally, there is repetition, but maybe not as much as one would expect. Most of the twelve songs are given a few different airings. The band’s set-closing theme, the Morgan-penned hard-bop ditty “Speedball”, gets seven. Various takes of any tune reveal some variations in tempo or mood, which aficionados will appreciate, but others may find less significant.
The packaging is excellent, with extensive liner notes from producers and interviews with the surviving band members. Morgan, alas, is not one of them. He was murdered by his live-in girlfriend less than two years after Live at the Lighthouse was recorded, making it his final album to be released during his lifetime.
In any configuration, Live at the Lighthouse is not the definitive Lee Morgan album. As a crucial part of any in-depth study of his career, the 1996 version is the most anyone will need, giving a full picture of what Morgan had to offer at the time. But there is no question this complete edition comes the closest to putting the listener right there in a packed little seaside club, in front of an authentic jazz great and his redoubtable band.