Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lee Morgan - Search for the New Land

Though I'm gaining more and more of an appreciation for it, I still find jazz to be one of the most difficult genres to critically evaluate.  Since I'm not a jazz musician I have very little knowledge of jazz-specific theory, and though it's easy to tell when a soloist has particularly good chops from the speed, fluidity or emotion of his or her playing, if jazz albums were to be rated on the soloists' skills alone, there would be a lot of 5-star jazz albums out there (though learned jazz musicians may contend that there's a whole lot of space between "good" and "bad" in terms of soloist quality).  So, in evaluating jazz albums with a critical ear I tend to do so both from the perspective of my experience with other types of music and theory, but also more in the way that non-musicians evaluate most music--based on intuitive reactions and emotional response.  Though today's crop of conservative jazz élite probably feel differently, what I'm looking for isn't a theoretically-sound rehash of the same museum-piece territory that was first explored 50 years ago.  Like with most genres, if I'm interested in established ideas, I'd rather go straight to the source and experience them in their original form and hope that any new music I check out has something new to say to make it more worth listening to than the ideas' palpably exciting genesis in the aforementioned classics.  Right now I'm mostly fascinated with the birth and heyday of avant-garde jazz and free jazz in the 60's, and Lee Morgan's 1966 album Search for the New Land is probably a pretty good one to illustrate an album that features fine playing from a number of jazz greats but leaves my emotional and intellectual responses feeling a little cold. 

It's hard to pick holes in this album's lineup, which includes trumpeter Lee Morgan (close off the heels of his commercially successful The Sidewinder), Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Billy Higgins on drums, Herbie Hancock on piano, Reginald Workman on bass, and Grant Green on guitar.  Based on the intensely arty portrait on the cover and the title's provocative title, this should ostensibly be Morgan's foray into the "out" beyond.  Unfortunately, aside from the title track's majesty and moody atmosphere, there's little on here musically to indicate Morgan is interested in abandoning the comforts of hard bop.  For anyone who owns several mid-60's bop albums, the only real draw for this album is "Search for the New Land," which presents a mysterious melody with stately flourishes only to re-state the same melody with a speedier, boppier energy.  I dig this idea, especially since the melody's a good one.  What I don't dig, though, is that Morgan proceeds to show us that his idea of an epic track is just to repeat the same slow melody over and over, interspersed with solo sections for four of the players.  While the music is well-played, there really isn't a whole lot that happens in the track's 15 minutes, especially not in terms of development.  Guitarist Grant Green's solo is pretty simplistic--dare I say boring--and he's so poorly integrated into the arrangement (the only other thing he does is textural octave tapping in the melodic section) that it almost seems like Morgan just included him because "having a guitar seems out."  Hancock and Shorter both deliver enjoyable solos that fit the song's mood well, but I can't help but be reminded of Hancock's own "Maiden Voyage," which delivers a similar feeling with more of a natural feeling and compositional flair.

Aside from the opener, the rest of the album is a pretty straightforward bop affair--"The Joker" is finely-played but unmemorable (at least Green is better integrated into the ensemble and contributes more to the accompaniment and turns in a more interesting solo), while "Melancholee" is the stereotypical obligatory ballad that's easy to pass over unnoticed.  "Mr. Kenyatta" is one of the best tracks to my ears, subtly tense and edgy while at the same time laid back and swinging--exactly the type of composition I think the phrase "post-bop" applies to; not quite in and not quite out.  The closer, "Morgan the Pirate" is similarly satisfying, contrasting some Andrew Hill-like piano riffing from Hancock with a nice, bouncy bop melody. 

While there's far from anything objectionable about this music, it's neither a great hard bop album nor does it deliver on its implied promise to plumb some uncharted depths.  In my nascent attempts to try and articulate what separates a workmanlike, well-played jazz album from a really great one, this album is a god example and reference point to show that sometimes a great lineup doesn't quite click with the magic that elevates the best albums to those rarely-reached heights.  The great thing about jazz, though, is that even with a relative disappointment like this album, it's still a pleasure to listen to and achieves a pretty sizable amount of the pleasure that comes from all well-played jazz.

Get it here.

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