‘The Cooker’: How Lee Morgan Became Blue Note’s Hottest Young Star

Recorded when Lee Morgan was just 19, ‘The Cooker’ sees the young Blue Note trumpet star transcend his influences to find his own voice.

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Lee Morgan The Cooker album cover web optimised 820
Cover: Courtesy of Blue Note Records

Lee Morgan hadn’t even celebrated his 20th birthday when he ventured into Rudy Van Gelder’s recording studio at Hackensack, New Jersey, on September 29, 1957, to record The Cooker. Originally from Philadelphia, Morgan (1938-1972) was a wunderkind trumpeter who idolized Clifford Brown (the groundbreaking hard bop horn blower who had perished in a car accident in 1956) and served his musical apprenticeship playing in the horn section of a short-lived big band led by another notable trumpeter – a puff-cheeked wind machine who went by the name of Dizzy Gillespie. That was in 1956, when Morgan was just 18.

Listen to The Cooker now.

Later the same year, he was offered a recording contract by New York’s Blue Note Records, then the leading jazz indie label, and recorded his inaugural LP for them, Lee Morgan Indeed!. There followed a spate of intense recording activity that saw the young trumpet prodigy record five more LPs within a period of ten and a half months. But as well as leading his own projects, news of Morgan’s prodigious, preternatural talent spread fast and he found himself recording as the trumpet foil to tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, who was also signed to Blue Note. And, perhaps more significantly, just four days before he went to record what became The Cooker, Morgan was in Van Gelder Studio playing alongside rising tenor star and fellow Philadelphian John Coltrane, featuring on what is universally acknowledged as the saxophonist’s first truly great album, Blue Train.

After the intense discipline and concentration required for the Coltrane session, Morgan desired to embark on a more relaxed kind of vibe in the studio. Dispensing with the notion of high-art concepts and carefully thought-out arrangements, he opted for a good old-fashioned blowing session, where the participating musicians could demonstrate their flair and talent in a spontaneous, informal manner.

Released in March 1958, The Cooker was different from Morgan’s previous Blue Note outings (Lee Morgan Sextet, Lee Morgan Vol.3 and City Lights) in that he used a smaller group. It was, in fact, a quintet, featuring the potent engine room of Miles Davis’ celebrated five-piece band in the shape of bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones. On piano was another young musician from The City Of Brotherly Love. His name was Bobby Timmons, and he would go on to become an important hard bop composer (he wrote the classic songs “Moanin’” and “Dat Dere”). Timmons, like Morgan, would eventually join Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Morgan’s studio band was completed by the addition of baritone sax specialist Pepper Adams, whose resonant sound added a different, darker, dimension to the music, especially when blending with Morgan’s horn.

Opening The Cooker is “A Night In Tunisia,” Morgan’s take on a 40s bebop staple co-written by his erstwhile boss, Dizzy Gillespie. The song is often rendered at a frantic, breakneck pace, but Philly Joe Jones’ pummeling tom-toms, which open the nine-minute performance, begin at a fairly medium tempo. A gentle yet percussive groove is established by Chambers, Jones and Timmons, before Adams blows a snaking figure over which Morgan enunciates Gillespie’s famous eastern-flavored melody. Then begins a series of solos, with Morgan shining brightly as he blends darting chromatic runs with vibrating tremolos. Pepper follows with a molten solo that embellishes the original theme with inventive melodic twists and turns, and then Timmons weighs in with a series of fleet-fingered piano runs.

A Night In Tunisia

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“Heavy Dipper” is one of Morgan’s own tunes: a fierce swinger featuring some fine soloing as well as cohesive ensemble work that also allows Philly Joe Jones some brief moments in the spotlight with short solo drum passages.

Heavy Dipper (Rudy Van Gelder Edition/2006 Digital Remaster)

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Pepper Adams lets rip with a high-velocity first solo on a supercharged take on Cole Porter’s song “Just One Of Those Things,” which is also notable for Paul Chambers’ power-walking bassline. Morgan’s solo spot doesn’t arrive until three minutes into the song, but when it does, it’s easy to understand why the young Philadelphian, then just 19, was regarded as one of jazz’s rising stars.

The group cools down with a languid – but, crucially, not lethargic – rendition of the bluesy romantic ballad “Lover Man,” a song indelibly associated with, and written for, Billie Holiday. Initially, we hear just Morgan’s burnished horn and bassist Chambers, before the rest of the ensemble enter. Peppers Adams’ solo is particularly arresting due to its husky eloquence.

Lover Man (Rudy Van Gelder Edition/2006 Digital Remaster)

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The Cooker closes with “New-Ma,” the second Morgan composition on the album. It’s a mid-paced groove with a walking bassline whose relaxed gait stylistically anticipates the feel of pianist and fellow Blue Note recording artist Sonny Clark’s classic hard bop number “Cool Struttin’,” recorded four months later.

Sometimes when you hear how mature Lee Morgan sounds on these vintage recordings, it’s easy to forget that he was still a teenager who had a lot to learn, both in life and in music. Even so, The Cooker reveals a young man who was beginning to break free from the shadow of Clifford Brown and establish his own sound and musical identity.

The Cooker can be bought here.

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