About 25 years ago after we first started Twist and Shout I was standing behind the counter one evening when a guy walked in whom I recognized as one of the guys who ran Kingbee records in the 70’s. I frequented that store as a bashful youth and thus held this guy in fairly high esteem. He traded in some CDs and we started chatting about personal history and music. He claimed he remembered me as a customer but I seriously doubted it. I was playing some Charles Mingus when he came in and he seemed to be digging it pretty well. He pulled a CD out of the stack he was selling and told me to listen to it if I liked jazz. I said “oh yeah …good?” He made a motion with his hand like his fingers were lit matches that needed to be shaken out. I listened to Lee Morgan’s Cornbread that night and a quarter of century later I’m still talking about it.
It is first worth mentioning that when this record was made in 1965, Blue Note Records was riding a wave of success that had been getting bigger and bigger for a number of years and had in many ways come to define the sound of jazz in the late 50’s and 60’s. With a legacy dating back to the late 30’s, Blue Note was home to many of the hippest players on the scene and with the legendary Rudy Van Gelder engineering the bulk of their releases and a cool, understated look to the album covers Blue Note is one of the few labels in history that transcends industry circles and permeates public consciousness. Blue Note records look and sound unlike any others. The original pressings of this era of Blue Note LPs are highly prized by vinyl collectors because they are sonically nonpareil. Van Gelder was so adept at setting up and recording the tiny room in New Jersey they used for the majority of these albums that nothing quite sounds like them. The instruments all lay in the recording field with lots of space around them. Every instrument is discreet in the mix the whole time yet one really feels as though you are standing in a room with a live band playing at full volume. It was an era when recording technique was as much a part of the art as the music itself.
That said, this was my first entrée to the label and my first experience with Lee Morgan. The album opens with the title track, and for me, it was love at the first notes. “Cornbread” bops out with Larry Ridley’s pumping bass line introducing one of the great horn sections of all time; Lee on trumpet, Jackie McLean on alto sax and Morgan’s long time sparring partner Hank Mobley on tenor sax. The other monumental personnel on this date are Herbie Hancock on piano and the great Billy Higgins on drums. “Cornbread” is nine minutes of bliss chugging along with Morgan taking the first solo and immediately proving his status playing with excitement, wit and technical brilliance. He pays tribute to his hero Clifford Brown by approximating Brown’s tone and punchy delivery, but the ultimate effect is all Morgan. Lee Morgan was one of the most relatable and melodic trumpet players ever. His style is immediately recognizable and his generous band leading style led the best players to his sessions. Each track is a master class of perfectly constructed material allowing different members of the band to shine as a soloist and to perform in one of the great ensembles of the era. Take, for instance, Morgan’s lovely composition “Ceora” a mid-tempo number with a Bossa Nova beat that allows Herbie Hancock to dominate the mood of the song with his dream-like soloing, yet also sees him beautifully backing the soloing by Morgan and McLean. “Our Man Higgins” sees Morgan again soloing his ass off, but he leaves plenty of room for the other horn players to take memorable outings and for the outstanding rhythm section to show some muscle. Throughout his tremendously long and esteemed career Billy Higgins proved himself among the greatest straight-ahead jazz drummers - the ultimate accompanist.
If you are looking for one of “those” jazz albums - one that fits the mood perfectly, whether it’s a rocking house party or a contemplative rainy afternoon - Lee Morgan’s Cornbread has something for you. Each cut is a journey to an Elysian Field of masterful performances, arranging and recording. This has remained one of my go-to albums for 25 years and has lost none of its luster since that night it was put into my hands, appropriately enough, by another record store guy. If you want to really experience a mind-blowing audiophile experience, seek out the original mono LP. It’ll be hard to get and cost a lot, but it is one of those times when you will be able to say, “it’s like hearing music for the first time.”- Paul Epstein