Review Summary: A good if inconsistent album from an often overlooked trumpeter.
Lee Morgan: Trumpet, Band Leader
Joe Henderson: Saxophone
Barry Harris: Piano
Bob Cranshaw: Bass
Billy Higgins: Drums
Lee Morgan, like many jazzmen, had a tenuous relationship with hard drugs that was as long as his jazz career. For long periods of his life heroin ruled him and when he would kick the habit for a year or two much of the time was spent getting his chops back. The Sidewinder, his most famous and successful album, came out during one of these breaks which was catalyzed when Morgan heard a tribute show for him on the radio that was made with the assumption he was dead. His heroin addiction continued off and on until 1972 when in between sets at a club he got involved in a three-way argument involving his girlfriend, his drug dealer and himself. It must have been one hell of an argument because it ended with Morgan being shot in the heart by his girlfriend.
Similar to his own life The Sidewinder is an inconsistent ride but nevertheless has moments of brilliance. Morgan's efforts were greatly enhanced by his lineup highlighted by rising star Joe Henderson. His backup contributes greatly to the playing but Morgan wrote all of the tunes which is regrettable as I'm sure the other members could have added some variety.
A lack of variety is my biggest critique of the album. All of the tunes are blues based except for Hocus Pocus which is forgettable anyway; while listening to the album and taking notes I didn't write a single thing about it. The blues tunes are mixed up with different styles and different progression bar lengths but remains disappointingly watered down and tepid throughout (with one notable exception I will discuss later.)
The opener The Sidewinder became infamous as a result of its wild popularity. It was so popular that record label Blue Note started opening all of their albums with an extended funky blues number that may as well have been the same song. For this reason The Sidewinder is often vilified unfairly because although it started this trend the song itself is an excellent blues that happened to be often imitated but never successfully. Morgan puts in a great solo which sticks just close enough to the melody, expanding and teasing in the way truly great jazz musicians do. You'll hear him using plenty of his signature half-valve techniques to great effect. Henderson also puts in an excellent solo.
The highlight of the album is Totem Pole which is in my opinion Morgan's greatest composition and recording wrapped in to one. The head is a delightful ABA structure alternating between dark minor latin and swinging major, a fun transition that the soloists use to their advantage keeping the playing fresh and exciting. The melody is drop dead beautiful and has to be heard, it will be stuck in your head for weeks guaranteed. This track contains Morgan's standout solos. His first sticks closer to the melody but his second solo is extremely aggressive and kicks the entire band up a notch. It is the highlight of the album. Henderson especially stands out on this track with an outstanding performance. He and the rest of the band are clearly having fun with this track.
It's unfortunate the rest of the album couldn't keep the pace of the first two tracks. I often find myself stopping it before the end out of boredom. The rest of the tracks can't hold up giving the impression of a fast run out of the gate before getting slogged down in mud. It's a shame because Morgan and Henderson are outstanding together during The Sidewinder and Totem Pole but they can not reach the same level due to the material . There's a reason why only two songs from this record became standards.
I always think of this album as one that mirrors Morgan's own career; full of promise early on with a terribly disappointing finish. It's a real shame that Morgan couldn't stay clean during his life. That said this remains Morgan's greatest achievement and is worth picking up for bop fans that are aching for blues tunes.