Lee Morgan: Tom Cat
Tom Cat continues Music Matter's program of re-releasing generally unavailable Blue Note sessions from the 1950s and 1960s on 45-rpm vinyl double albums. As Michael Cuscuna explains in the liner notes from the original 1980 release, Tom Cat was the victim of trumpeter Lee Morgan's unexpected crossover hit with The Sidewinder (Blue Note, 1964), which made the pop 100 charts. In the wake of this success, Tom Cat, recorded in August 1964, was shelved in favor of returning to the studio in hopes of replicating The Sidewinder's popular soul- and blues-tinged formula. As so often happened at Blue Note, Tom Cat didn't see the light of day until nearly two decades later.
The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD labels Tom Cat and many other post-The Sidewinder efforts by Morgan as little more than knockoffsformulaic productions meant only to score another pop smash. The fact that this album was recorded before The Sidewinder's unforeseen success is enough to make that critique something less than credible. But if doubt remains, jazz lovers need only listen to the music. For not only can it be argued that Tom Cat beats its more famous older sibling at its own groove-steady game ("Twice Around," the album's third track, is a hard bop blower as powerful as anything Morgan ever put on record), but it's also more varied, most notably in the inclusion of pianist McCoy Tyner's ballad "Twilight Mist." For all its glory, The Sidewinder has but one, hard-blowing mode.
Tom Cat kicks off with the title track, a masculine musical prowl laid out in deep register by Tyner. Its insistent stair-step pattern could serve as the underpinnings of a collegiate fight song, which it nearly becomes when Tyner is joined by a chorus of horns. Morgan then takes the lead, blowing a typically lively trumpet that takes the cat out of his cadence and into more playful abandon, while never losing the forceful, testosterone drive. And with each new soloist, the creature relocates his strut, then takes it into some new, open playground. Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean fluffs Tyner's steps with a dark, nighttime fray. His lines are less clean than Morgan's, squawking into chance, abrasive tones where the trumpeter might trill into a searing, but more controlled, upper register. Trombonist Curtis Fuller goes darker still, stretching the natural timbre of his instrument into a stalk. When Tyner himself solos, relegating the prowl beat to bassist Bob Cranshaw, the blues is so frenzied yet intelligent, sly and humorous as to signal an exploration of the cat's mind. The animal then returns in whole with the horns picking up their chorus. The cat turns down a dark alley and fades into the night.
"Exotique" begins as a soul-drenched dirge. But after stretching the theme for a minute, the tune pauses briefly before returning with a more upbeat, anthemic quality. Morgan and McLean take the opening solos, blowing aggressive, if unremarkable, bop statements. But they foster technical gems from Foster and Tyner: the trombonist trilling and swooping his 'bone into dashing, sax-like lines and the pianist displaying the mastery of left hand/right hand separation that has kept him at the top of his craft for half a century. When Morgan returns for a last go, the renewed energy in his attack is palpable.
Yet, as indicated, this is all just lead-up to the album standout, "Twice Around." Built around a standard, looping hard bop theme, the track is lifted far above the norm through an explosive group dynamic that doesn't quit. Rudy Van Gelder must've served up a mean pot of joe before the recording of this track. Each soloist is champing at the bit to get into the action, running over his predecessor's heels to have his crack. Fuller has the first go and, as with "Exotique," seems to be the special fire that ignites the rest. McLean leaps in with a melodic rush that lifts drummer Art Blakey into his most pronounced and varied accompaniment of the set. By the time Morgan takes over (a switch more metamorphic than serial), Blakey has long since worked his kit into a thundering fury, and Morgan doesn't shy from skillfully surfing the mad, rushing waves. Even when the horns drop out, the rhythm section pushes the tune ahead full-throttle. Morgan picks it back up in stride, but steps off again for a Blakey solo that simply won't be denied. The group slows for a dramatic finish that accentuates the listener's desire for time to turn back on itself and repeat.
The fourth and final side of the album (as always, the 45-rpm format of these reissues necessitates two records) starts promisingly with Tyner's "Twilight Mist," the only non-Morgan tune included. This pensive, sensuous ballad works especially well after the brash, gleeful beating of "Twice Around." Highly orchestrated, with Morgan's strong, bittersweet trumpet and Tyner's tender, ruminative piano often blanketed by swaying blue harmonies from sax and trombone, the piece enters dark, Andrew Hill territory. Unfortunately, Morgan doesn't leave us there to drift from the record and reflect. Instead he closes with "Riggarmortes," a formulaic vehicle that, apart from its inventive spelling, is largely dead upon arrival. Each of the horn solos feels workman-likea going-through-the-motions to wrap things up. Tyner and Blakey add some flourish, but the track as a whole puts a damper on what is otherwise a fantastic record.
Adding to the splendor of this reissue is its freshly designed cover art. Since the initial release of albums like Tom Cat was so long delayed, none had an "original" Blue Note cover per se. So, with full access to all of Francis Wolff's photos from these sessions, Patrick Roques at Music Matters has created his own, boldly expressive covers, modeled after the look of those classic Blue Note covers. The orange-tinged trumpeter that graces the front of this album gives fair warning of the musical heat contained within.
Tracks: Disc One: Tom Cat; Exotique. Disc Two: Twice Around; Twilight Mist; Riggarmortes.
Personnel: Lee Morgan, trumpet; Jackie McLean, alto saxophone; Curtis Fuller, trombone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Art Blakey, drums.