Sunday, December 23, 2007

Frank Morgan's alto legacy

alto saxophonist Frank Morgan"Kiss the kids and wake the neighbors."

In a lyrically deep voice, that's how alto saxophonist Frank Morgan concludes one of his albums.

Frank Morgan, born in 1933, lay down his alto sax for the last time on 14 December 2007.

I heard Mr. Morgan play in person, once, at the One Step Down jazz club (now closed) in Washington, D.C., in the winter of 1988.

At the time I was the manager of a restaurant on the other eOne Step Down Jazz Clubnd of town. Dinner service concluded, I closed up, and hopped a taxi. I arrived at One Step Down with minutes to spare before the 1 am start of the last set.

Mr. Morgan, in a clear tone that had strong echoes of Charlie Parker, played only one tune for that set — Duke Ellington's A Flower is a Lovesome Thing.

But he played that one tune for over an hour, never repeating, finding new ins and outs, and over and over building long periods of beautiful tension and then finding release in the 8 note phrase which corresponds to the syllables of the song's title.

I'm a lover of jazz — and I went on to work for awhile at One Step Down — but I had never before heard anything at that level, and never have since.

Here's how the New York Times, in a 1987 piece, described his art:

Frank Morgan's alto saxophone improvisations proceed with the relaxed pacing and solicitous empathy of a conversation between old friends. Just as a complex phrase is winding down, he thinks of something else, another angle, and so he adds an aside. Sometimes the asides take such an unexpected turn that the fabric of the conversation threatens to unravel. That's when Mr. Morgan pauses, smiles and gives the music the chance to reorient itself. Like all good conversationalists, Mr. Morgan is listening even when he's talking.

But the ease and fluidity of Mr. Morgan's playing do not entirely conceal its turbulent depth. There's a lifetime of hard work and hard knocks behind every spiraling phrase.

Mr. Morgan fought heroin addiction for a long stretch of his life, finally going straight in the 1980s. That victory speaks to redemption and resolve. I believe I can hear those qualities — tempered by sharp beauty — resonate throughout Mr. Morgan's music.

So, "kiss the kids and wake the neighbors." Life is too tenuous not to.

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