AFTER HOURS/DICK MORGANWashington, D.C., a city of monuments, is second to none when it comes to celebrating its own. And the jazz aficionados in the nations capital have come to think of Dick Morgan as their private monument to the artistry, excitement, soul and just-plain joy that is the essence of this music America invented.
Year after year, this world class pianist has packed Washington area nightspots and energized its jazz festivals. He has been known to bring audiences to reverent silence with ballads that evoke the sophistication of Bill Evans and Ellis Larkin. . . . then incite them to toe-tapping and finger-snapping with the percussive left-hand rhythms of Erroll Garner and rapid, two-handed runs of Oscar Peterson . . . and finally bring them to their feet by transforming his small combos into a force that seems to have the power and drive of Count Basies big band. But even most who know Dick Morgan well as a hometown institution dont know some of the key facets that contribute to the drive, pride, and understated ways that are the making of the artist and the music he makes. Born in Petersburg, Virginia, Dick was a child who amazed adults by showing he could play anything hed heard. That got him his first grand gig -- his own local radio show at the ripe age of 10. Soon he was playing with well-known jazz artists whod joined the Army and were stationed nearby at Fort Lee. "I was lucky," says Morgan. "Until then, my thing was just playing what I heard. They taught me how to play jazz. I learned from the best." He was also admired by the best -- and compared to the best. Tommy Dorsey liked what he heard and set up Dicks first big-time gigs. Julian "Cannonball" Adderley arranged for Dicks first recording contracts on the Riverside label, where Dicks recordings became part of a piano-jazz sampler that also included Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, and Billy Taylor.
Today, audiences that know him well as Dick Morgan, pianist, may not know that he is also Dick Morgan, lawyer. Nor that he put himself through Howard University Law School by day while playing Washingtons jazz circuit at night -- and earned his law degree not as a young collegiate, but as a middle aged fellow whod already earned the first flecks of gray in his temples. What made him see a law degree at a time when most of us are seeking a soft couch? Morgan no doubt will cringe to read this in his CDs liner notes but the fact is that he simply got tired of the way many club owners and others, coast to coast, treat jazz artists as unsavvy folks of whom advantage can be taken. So he quietly earned his degree -- and earned their respect. And that is part of the drive and pride the we can all hear in his music.
The choice of this albums title -- After Hours -- conjures an image of musicians gathering in a dimly lit jazz joint, after hours, jamming just for the joy of it after the paying customers have gone home. Not quite, this time. It is my duty to report to you that Dick Morgan and this super combo he assembled did their jamming for this CD on a goat farm -- yes, I said a goat farm! -- in Olney, Maryland. Thats where the recording studio named "Foxhaven" is located, in Jon Millers farmhouse, in rolling countryside that is out beyond the Washington suburbs, way beyond the famous Beltway, just about an hour up the road from the White House.
It was on this farm that is home to the Miller family, 14 goats and one pig, that Dick Morgan and his colleagues set about replicating the after-hours nightclub jazz groove. That is, after all, the groove you of course expected to hear (and indeed will hear, now that youve managed to wrestle this CD from its infernal plastic wrap). The musicians had a masterful advantage: Morgan had invited Washingtons monumental jazz talent, bassist Keter Betts, to handle the chore of digging that jazz groove and build the combos firm foundation. Betts has performed with a world of jazz greats and was the legendary Ella Fitzgeralds bass player from the late 1960s until her retirement. And nowhere was his contribution more valuable than on the title track, pianist Avery Parrishs blues classic, After Hours. With Betts laying down on-the-beat drive track, Morgan was free to fill the air with his assortment of lightly spun lace and true gospel grit. Guitarist Steve Abshire eases smoothly into the blues mood.
Time out for a brief confession: I must admit that I cringed when I first saw that the list of tunes for this CD included Cocktails for Two; Ive never been able to hear the song without my head replaying that wacky Spike Jones version of it, complete with sirens, whistles, gunshots and gargling. So as it began -- even as Morgan, Abshire, and Betts whipped through their opening two-bar exchanges on the tunes surprisingly tricky theme, especially at this revved tempo -- I braced myself to survive a round of "Cocktails" that I figured will always leave the aftertaste of sour mashed corn. But wait! -- suddenly we feel a swinging sensation; it surrounds us and takes hold of us (much the way cocktails do). At times its an all-percussion combo: Morgan opts for a rhythmic and percussive piano; Abshire pushes his rhythm guitar; Betts, drummer Lenny Robinson and hand-drumming percussionist Sam Turner all drive with authority. And you cant miss Keters bass solo that somehow manages to be firm and floating at the same time. Result: This song of corny-repute winds up a pleasantly swinging tune -- right up to its sharp staccato ending.
Classical composer Ferde Grofe surely didnt have jazz in mind when he created his Grand Canyon Suite, but under Morgans trail-blazing, On the Trail, indeed becomes classic jazz. This "Trail" is well marked -- beginning with Betts firm footsteps, percussionist Sam Turners hoofs-on-the-path patter, and Lenny Robinsons feathery drum strokes. Morgan layers in shades of blues and even gives us a about four seconds of Chopins Minute Waltz. From beginning to end, this trail is a grand groove.
Morgans original ballad, Reflections, opens with a shimmering of bells, tambourines and triangles from percussionist Sam Turners bag, set against the background of gentle, easy melody. The effect is not unlike moonlight glistening on the surface of a country creek; perhaps not unlike the little creek outside Petersburg, VA that young Dick Morgan used to visit in his quest for a bit of quiet time. A listener feeling a sense of Erroll Garners "Misty," especially when Morgan eases into one of his favorite Erroll-like grooves.
Fascinatin Rhythm/Rhythmic Fascination is Morgan at his fast-driven fascinatin best. One minute he is skipping lightly over the top of the melody, next he is all percussion and invention (youll catch a quote from "On the Trail"). Then suddenly "Fascinating Rhythm" becomes Morgans Latin-pulsed interlude -- call it "Rhythmic Fascination" -- fueled by the added percussion of Allison Miller, a professional musician who recently graduated from the University of West Virginia. The effort works in large part because of Betts driving bass line and Abshires equally driving rhythm guitar. Betts treats us to a solo that is as playful as it is masterful-- slapping and sliding, and of course, he resists the contemporary clich?` of playing his instrument up in the octaves of a piccolo and does his soloing down deep where a bass belongs.
Morgans version of the standard, Am I Blue?, becomes a blues experience bordering on gospel. Indeed, listeners may be so caught up in the mood that they may not think to wonder how a solo so slow and soulful can actually contain so many notes, played so fast and yet enhancing that languishing feeling of all blues. And then there is Abshires trademark guitar solo -- he loves to hold a note and wring it `til it all but cries real tears. Listen for the way Morgan opens his final solo by picking up where Betts solo leaves off, as though his piano were but an extension of his partners bass.
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Joy Spring is a delightful jazz classic that Morgan allows to flow the way the legendary trumpeter Clifford Brown wrote it. Morgan uses the subtle changes in tempo and time (from four-beats into three and back again) to give us a tune that sings in our heads long after this track has reached the end of the line. Betts firm bass pushes the tune from beginning to end; he makes it all happen, which allows Dick Morgan to be, well, Dick Morgan. Subtleties abound; when Abshires guitar introduces the concluding restatement of the theme in a slowed tempo, note that the pending change is first foreshadowed by a few rapid beats from Lennys drum. It may not seem like much, but it was a key that made the ending work -- something Robinson suggested in mid-recording that won unanimous on-the-spot approval from his colleagues.
Whatll I Do? Is another of those old tunes that seems new when Dick and Keter combine to give it their jazz waltz swing treatment. Morgan starts it as a blues in two, and lets it slide easily into a jazz waltz in three-quarter time.
Eleanor Rigby, a John Lennon and Paul McCartney song, is played here as a rhythmic composition, unlike anything performed by the Beatles. It is done as a bold and deliberately dragged-out blues.
Dick offers two piano solos. His own composition, Morning Meditation, a gospel-based tune that is carefully uncomplicated. It is just right as an exercise for clearing the mind of extraneous clutter at the start of a trying day. And he performs a fulsome version of Michel Legrands How Do You Keep the Music Playing? This is Dick Morgan in his unabashed Romanticist mood, long on interpretation, short on improvisation.
So it was that, for a few hours on a hazy day in July, Dick Morgan and his talented combo managed to transform Jon Millers farmhouse in the rolling countryside of Maryland into a swinging "After Hours" jazz club with a big city feel. Their feat was applauded by a handful of Morgans invited friends seated as a studio audience -- but frankly, the sheer joy of their jazz was not properly appreciated by the S.R.O. audience gathered outside: those 14 goateed-but-ungroovy goats and that unhip pig, who clearly didnt care a feather or a fig if he was swinging with a star.--Martin Schram
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