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Lee Morgan's Search for the New Land
Thoughts on a Blue Note classic
Even by Blue Note’s standards, the album cover catches the eye. The camera of Francis Woolf is angled up at jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, casually yet regally dressed in a white dress shirt and ascot. His face is cast downward but his eyes looks straight into the camera lens and by extension, you. His gaze dares you to meet it and then, to hold it. The album title, Search for the New Land, is almost incidental to the intensity of Morgan’s stare and yet, it demands of you to ponder what it may mean to you to search for a new land, and to come to terms that your answer may be far different, and far less existential, than Lee Morgan’s.
Below the album title lists Morgan’s companions in the search: tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, guitarist Grant Green, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Billy Higgins. This is an imposing sextet, a collection of the jazz cutting edge circa February 1964. Hancock and Shorter were just getting started in negotiating the tightrope between the straight ahead and the avant-garde. Green was perfecting the single-line approach to jazz guitar. Like Shorter and Hancock, Workman was equally adaptable and at home in the wide range that defined the jazz mainstream in the sixties. Higgins was as close to a house drummer as Blue Note ever had, his deeply individual approach often favouring the snare to accent the beat and his cymbal work spreading the rhythm far and wide.
No wonder the program Morgan devised for the album never stays in one bag or another for too long. These compositions alternatively sigh or roar, chuckle or ponder, deal with the ethereal or are more concerned with the here-and-now. Above all, they collectively paint an artist in full flower.
For Morgan, the recording of Search for the New Land on February 15, 1964 came at a crucial inflection point in his career. Less than two month prior, he had recorded The Sidewinder, destined to be a commercial sensation upon its release in the summer of 1964. The song, a dancible delight soon to be codified as a jazz “boogaloo” charted in the Billboard Hot 100. The LP did even better, hitting the top 40 on Billboard’s album chart. Fairly unprecedented for a jazz indie label. Indeed, the success of The Sidewinder would have something to say about the fate of Search for the New Land.
The title track, which leads off the recording, is deeply ambitious and astoundingly successful. The opening theme statement slowly unfolds—Morgan and Shorter in front with Green, Hancock and Higgins offering a collective tremolo behind. Workman then establishes a pulse for a repeat of the theme in straight line before a recapitulation of the theme in rubato. The solos follow a two-part construction of straight time and then a rubato conclusion—the modal improvisations by Shorter, Morgan, Green and Hancock embody the search inherent in the title, and incorporate and comment on the cry in Morgan’s thematic material.
Shorter, Morgan and Green’s statements probe and pick around a similar melodic phrase while resisting the need for any resolution in their individual quests. Shorter offers moments of languid, long tones, Morgan methodically increases the temperature and Green dazzles with his rhythmic phrasing. What is accumulated here is wisdom; vital intelligence and knowledge that Hancock uses in a solo that eschews single-run lines in favour of a tapestry of chords, played well behind Workman and Higgins’ pulse. A series of arpeggios halfway through offers the promise of a breakthrough, one that is fulfilled in a torrent of sing-songy chords that dance along Hancock’s keyboard. As if to emphasize the good news, Hancock repeats the exercise one more time before the full sextet returns for a concluding rubato statement of the theme climaxing in a final cry of release—the possibility of an answer to the search or, at the very least, rejoicing at a key insight gained or a decisive step forward.
Though ‘Search for the New Land’ clocks in at 15 minutes, 45 seconds or so, it does not feel like it. It is absorbing and involving, the solos masterful (Hancock’s, in particular, stands as a highlight of his sixties work) and is quite possibly Morgan’s finest recording (it would be my pick without hesitation).
‘The Joker’ serves as a most appropriate chaser, a textbook hard bop line with a Monkian twist in the last two bars of the A section. Hear how Higgins pushes the theme forward with his snare work as well as the crisp solos by Shorter, Morgan and Hancock—a most satisfying palette cleanser before the heat of ‘Mr. Kenyatta.’
The song is a tribute to Jomo Kenyatta, then the first prime minister of Kenya and soon to be the first president of the country as it gained independence from Britain at the end of 1963. From subjugation to self-determination, another tie-in to a search for the new land. Morgan’s line has a celebratory air to it, and the chorus structure of building tension leading into a release of it spurs on inventive, charging solos by all. Notable as well is how Green’s comping, essentially doubling Hancock’s, adds further intensity, a key component of both a memorable song and performance.
‘Melancholee,’ like the ‘The Joker,’ offers respite from what we have just heard, perhaps, in its way, a warning that after an electoral win comes the real work: governing. Morgan’s ballad is both beautiful and dark, instantly hummable yet haunting, it almost foreshadows Shorter’s coming string of deeply meditative ballads as he began his Blue Note recording career in the spring of 1964. To these ears, there is a definite line of continuity from ‘Melancholee’ to a composition like ‘Infant Eyes,’ from Shorter’s seminal Speak No Evil.
The closer, ‘Morgan the Pirate,’ is like so many of Morgan’s pieces from the sixties: dynamic and straight-ahead with a profound logic in the flow of the line. For an album that begins on the edge, we end up straight in the middle of home base, the search complete for another day.
Search for the New Land, about as excellent a Morgan recording as there is, took two years to be finally released. A catalog number was issued but the runaway success of The Sidewinder starting in the middle of 1964 and stretching into 1965 set Blue Note brass intent on Morgan’s follow-up more closely replicating its format, which Search for the New Land does not. They eventually got their follow-up with The Rumproller, recorded early in 1965, a truly great album that I personally like more than The Sidewinder. It’s not as if the label wasn’t interested in taking chances. The composer of the title track to The Rumproller was Andrew Hill, an intricate, almost-impossible-to-categorize artist that had so captured label head Alfred Lion’s interest that he recorded Hill five (!) times in just six (!) months. But an indie label still needs to make some cash in addition to art, ideally striving to do both at the same time. Commerce without compromise. Leaving room and opportunity to stretch, to search, to quest.
Look at the cover of Search for the New Land again. Meet Morgan’s gaze. Realize he didn’t just want to search, he needed to. He had to.
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