Cult Classic: Lee Morgan-The Rajah.

In 1964, twenty-six year old hard bop trumpeter Lee Morgan’s career was transformed when he enjoyed a crossover hit with The Sidewinder. Instantly recognisable and incredibly catchy, it became a jazz standard and nowadays, is regarded as Lee Morgan’s best known composition.

Buoyed by the success of the single, Blue Note Records released The Sidewinder album in July 1964. It became the label’s biggest selling album and  reached number twenty-five in the US Billboard 200.  In doing so, it transformed the career of the prodigiously talented Lee Morgan.

It should’ve been a time for celebration for the trumpeter who had just celebrated his twenty-sixth birthday, and  had broken sales records at Blue Note Records. However, Lee Morgan wasn’t happy when He had discovered that Chrysler was using The Sidewinder as background music on a  commercial that was being shown during the Word Series. There was a problem though. 

The car giant hadn’t asked his permission, and it was only  after he threatened to sue the company that they agreed not to show the advert again. It was a moral victory for Lee Morgan.

Little did  he know that he had just enjoyed the biggest single and the most successful album of his career. Buoyed by the success of The Sidewinder, Lee Morgan and many other artists were encouraged to try to replicate the track’s boogaloo sound. They were essentially trying find a formula for a hit single, and took this further firstly with Lee Morgan’s  future albums.

Blue Note Records wanted Lee Morgan to follow a similar formula for future albums. They decided that his future albums would open with a lengthy, funky blues and he would follow this with a number of hard bop compositions. This was dubbed as: “the Sidewinder lineage.”

This included the Andrew Hill composition The Rumproller which lent its name a new album that Lee Morgan released in mid-January 1966. Later that year, the tittle-track was released as a single. However, neither the single nor album were the commercial success that Blue Note Records had hoped.

Despite this, Lee Morgan continued to make the journey to Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, where he continued to record new albums. This included The Gigolo June the ‘25th’ and July the ‘1st 1965. The recording of Cornbread followed on September the ’18th’ 1965 and Infinity on November the 16, 1965.  This brought to an end another busy year for Lee Morgan.

He recorded Delightfulee on April the ‘8th’ and May the ’27’ 1966. Five months later, he recorded Charisma on September the ‘29th’ 1966. Then just two months later, Lee Morgan recorded The Rajah on November  the ’29th’ 1966. It was the last album Lee Morgan recorded in 1966.

For The Rajah, Lee Morgan only contributed one track, The Rajah. The rest of the tracks on the album were cover versions. This included Cal Massey’s A Pilgrim’s Funny Farm;  Walter Davis Jr’s Davisamba and Duke Pearson’s Is That So?; They were joined by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s Once In A Lifetime  and Gilbert Bécaud’s What Now, My Love? These five tracks were recorded by a quintet led by Lee Morgan.

Recording of The Rajah took place at the Van Gelder Studio on November the ‘29th’ 1966. The session was produced by Alfred Lion and Rudy Van Gelder took charge of engineering duties. He recorded a band that featured a rhythm section of drummer Billy Higgins, bassist Paul Chambers and pianist Cedar Walton. They were joined by a front line that included tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley and trumpeter Lee Morgan. It took just a day to record the five tracks that became The Rajah.

Once the album was completed, normally albums would be released within a year. However, sometimes, for no apparent reason Blue Note Records would postpone the release of an album. This was the case with The Rajah  which was shelved and never released during his lifetime. 

Sadly, Lee Morgan’s carer was cut tragically short on February the ‘19th’ 1972. That night, he was booked to play two sets at Slug’s Saloon jazz club in New York’s East Village. Between the two sets there was an altercation between Lee Morgan’s common law wife Helen Moore and the legendary hard bop trumpeter. Initially, Lady Luck was smiling on him as it wasn’t a fatal shot. However, that night, it was snowing heavily and the driving conditions were treacherous and the ambulance took so long to arrive that one of jazz’s great trumpeters bled to death. Lee Morgan was just thirty-eight.

Lee Morgan was a prodigiously talented trumpeter whose star shines the brightest on his career-defining album and hard bop classic The Sidewinder, which is a reminder of one the greatest trumpeters in the history of jazz. However, it’s just part of the rich legacy that Lee Morgan left behind.

In 1984, twelve years after Lee Morgan’s death, Blue Note Records’ discographer, writer and record producer Michael Cuscuna discovered the master tapes for The Rajah. The long-lost session was rediscovered in the Blue Note Records’ vaults and was released for the first time a year later in 1985.

Opening The Rajah is A Pilgrim’s Funny Farm which features a masterclass from Lee Morgan. There’s a clarity to his playing which veers between powerful, loud, expressive, emotive and rhythmic. He’s a versatile,  inventive and innovative trumpeter whose playing compels and captivates. Especially when augmented by musicians of the standard of Hank Mobley and Cedar Walton this example of hard bop which sets the bar high for the rest of the album.

Very different is the Eastern funk of The Rajah where Lee Morgan’s trumpet soars above the rhythm section. It’s joined by Hank Mobley’s tenor saxophone and the pair bring out the best in each other. Then they trade the choruses while Cedar Walton’s fingers dance across the piano keyboard. In doin so, the three men play a starring role in the sound and success of the track.

During Is That So? Lee Morgan’s questioning, probing and ruminative trumpet is answered by Hank Mobley’s tenor saxophone. It proves the perfect foil before they both drop out and Cedar Walton’s bittersweet piano takes centrestage. Straight away, the mood changes until the horns return. Later,  Cedar Walton makes a welcome return  and is accompanied by Paul Chambers who plucks at his bass before  the band are reunited and play as one during what’s one of the poppier tracks on the album wit is also one of its highlights.

Light and airy describes Davisamba which bursts into life  with the rhythm section and piano adding a Latin backdrop before the horns enter. The track proves to be the  perfect vehicle for Lee Morgan’s trumpet and Hank Mobley’s tenor saxophone. However, again, Cedar Walton plays in important role and is playing is assured and confident. Later, he joins forces with the horns and together they combine to create a truly memorable example of Latin jazz. 

It’s all change on the ballad What Now My Love? Lee Morgan’s rasping piano takes centrestage while flourishes from Cedar Walton’s piano fill in the spaces. Hank Mobley drizzles his sultry  tenor saxophone across the arrangement, before the arrangement is stripped bare and just the understated rhythm section and piano remain. Cedar Walton enjoys his moment in the sun before Lee Morgan unleashes a soul-baring solo on this .beautiful wistful ballad.

Closing The Rajah is Once In A Lifetime. It as a dramatic driving introduction as the piano and rhythm section lock into a groove. Soon, the horns enter and this irresistible, upbeat and joyous track unfolds. It sounds as if it has been inspired by Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers and is one of the oft-overlooked hidden gems from Lee Morgan’s impressive back-catalogue.

It’s sad that The Rajah wasn’t released during Lee Morgan’s lifetime. This was one of a number of albums he recorded that were shelved and belatedly released in the eighties. He wasn’t alone.

Many artists made the journey to Van Gelder Studio to record albums with producer and Blue Note Records’ co-owner Alfred Lion. Not every album was released and often albums were postponed and projects were shelved. It was only much later when the master tapes for  these The long-lost sessions were rediscovered in the Blue Note Records’ vaults.

That was the case with The Rajah, Lee Morgan’s long-forgotten hard bop session from 1966. He was backed by a crack band on an album that was only rediscovered in the Blue Note Records’ vaults in 1984. The following year, 1985, The Rajah was belatedly released thirteen years after Lee Morgan’s tragic and untimely death. 

When Lee Morgan died on February the ‘19th’ 1972 jazz lost one of the pioneers of his hard bop. Jazz was in mourning at the loss of a talented composer, respected bandleader and one of greatest trumpeters of his generation. Tragically, his career had been cut short and he was never able to fulfil the potential that had been evident since he made his debut as a teenager. However, Lee Morgan left behind a rich musical legacy including his hard bop cult classic The Rajah, where features the Philly-born trumpeter at the peak of his considerable powers .

Cult Classic: Lee Morgan-The Rajah.

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