Maybe it's because it's only rotation for a small part of the year, but the soundtrack to "A Charlie Brown Christmas" never loses its charm to me. The theme to "Linus and Lucy" or the Peanuts characters singing "Christmas Time Is Here" are probably the most recognizable tunes, but I'm partial to the vampy goodness of another Vince Guaraldi original, "Christmas Is Coming."
As you've probably read in a handful of other places, saxophonist Frank Morgan died of kidney failure this past Friday morning, December 14th. He'd been diagnosed with colon cancer after a recent European tour, which he completed in spite of earlier concerns about his health. And, in a way, this triumph mirrors his many other life accomplishments in the face of adversity. His heroin habit and prison sentences kept him out of the public eye for three decades before he made a comeback in 1985. He continued playing (contrary to medical predictions) after suffering a stroke in 1998. And his output was never more healthy and prolific as it was in his later years, even though his physical health was in decline.
The Minneapolis native began as a guitarist under the tutelage of his father, Stanley Morgan, who later became the owner of the Casa Blanca on Los Angeles's main jazz artery, Central Avenue. Stanley once took young Frank to see Jay McShann's band in Detroit, and according to Frank:
When Charlie Parker stood up to take his first solo, my father said that I turned and said to him, "That's it for the guitar, Pops." [from an interview with Jazz of Enchantment ]
Stanley introduced Frank to Bird, who suggested the young Morgan start on the clarinet before playing alto sax. By age 14, Morgan was playing at Central Avenue's famed Club Alabam. At 15 he had an invitation to join Duke Ellington's orchestra, which he had to decline because his father wanted him to finish school.
Unfortunately, Morgan's drug habit kept him in and out of prison from the mid-'50s until the mid-'80s. He was even able to play while incarcerated in San Quentin, however, in a band with Art Pepper and Frank Butler. Morgan certainly painted a peculiar picture of prison life in the liner notes of the 1991 reissue of his debut album:
They had clubs and civic organizations that would come over the Bay Area and pay $7.50 a head to tour the prison and hear us play. They would see the gas chamber and everything. This was every Saturday night and we had our tuxedos on, and they were very humane to us, at least for that evening.
Because he was so often trapped in the penal system, Morgan apparently didn't really get to experience New York until playing the Village Vanguard in 1986. He'd only made his sophomore album, Easy Living, the previous year.
But the stories of Morgan's sidelined career and finding himself again shouldn't obscure his art. He's an incredible player, if incredibly underrated. His buoyant, lyrical bop lines were thickened with a unique warmth. Because of his similarities to Bird, or because of his brief career, Morgan may not be widely regarded as influential, but his music certainly was beautiful and well worth remembering.
Interviews: AAJ (08.09.04) Jazz of Enchantment (a site with interview features on artists with ties to New Mexico. Morgan made his home in Taos for some time.) NPR (an obituary, plus past interviews with Terry Gross and Marian McPartland)
In this month's issue of Downbeat, I noticed a call for participants in a study conducted by my alma mater. They're looking for musicians (amateur or professional) to take a brief survey "regarding the unique challenges that musicians face."
When taking the survey, you'll notice that, in addition to the inquiries about your background, many of the questions or scenarios focus on stress, health, and self-perception. Having spoken to a number of aspiring and established jazz musicians myself, I can imagine anyone pursuing that kind of career would have some experiences to share. Results are confidential, of course, but they will publish the statistical data eventually.
Many wouldn't consider Portland, Oregon to be a jazz mecca, per se, but there's enough demand there to keep guitarist Dan Balmer busy and then some. In addition to his position on the music faculty of Lewis and Clark College, he holds court regularly at Jimmy Mak's with his own group and with veteran drummer Mel Brown's various bands-in-residence. His performance credits reveal he's shared stages with straight-ahead notables like Joey DeFrancesco, Bill Mays, Joe LaBarbera, but it takes just one listen to his playing to hear him link "the tradition" to more contemporary strains. His eighth recording as a leader, Thanksgiving, is a great example.
This record, and Balmer's playing in general, strikes a great balance between chops and atmosphere. The group cooks up the right blend for the groovy opener "Venus," with Gary Versace's swelling organ tones and Matt Wilson's wide-ranging percussive palette. Balmer's cool, gritty tone gives his bluesy licks an even more personal twist. And he has a big sound. "Just Like You" is awash in a full, fuzzy swathe of ringing strings. Balmer wrings out a great deal of emotion from his axe here, and his gauzy tone adds even more depth to his statements. Versace and Wilson work plenty hard, too, maintaining a mysterious ebb and flow. Throughout the session, in fact, the trio's interplay can give just a few minutes of music an endless variety of textures.
While it's easy enough to hear the album's sonic virtues, Balmer's compositional prowess might be a bit subtler, but it's a key ingredient for the session. "The Sea The Sea" and "Rain" have some haunting programmatic ambience as you'd expect, but they're also built on beautiful lines with intriguing constructions. The sunny, country themes of "Hearts of Steel" and "The Longest Day of the Year" inspire some infectious solo statements that could easily be melodies themselves. And the slouchy feel of "Allow Myself" or the off-kilter funk of "Greasy Kid Stuff" are practically built into the composition. These are some catchy tunes -- with a purpose.
And, of course, along with the sound-painting and well-turned melodic phrase, there's the incredible playing. I would have used the term "effortless" to describe it, but that seems to deny intent or thought. His performance unfolds naturally and confidently, but he also grows and develops even as he plays. And his modern vibe doesn't just come from effects and ambience but also from how fresh he keeps his ideas. The LA Times has called him "the model of what a contemporary guitarist should be." I whole-heartedly agree.
Thanksgiving (Alt rnativ Ja z) Dan Balmer (guitar) Gary Versace (organ) Matt Wilson (drums)
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