It’s been a quiet few weeks, music wise. I haven’t picked up a whole pile of new stuff, and I’ll hopefully be heading off on holiday quite soon (I should be there when this article hits the web actually) so I’m taking a little look back at some old albums I haven’t really got around to writing about yet. This particular album has been frequenting my recently played list recently, I can’t quite pinpoint a reason why it’s specifically there, but I figured seeing as it was I should make you good people aware of it. It’s actually very well known in jazz circles, but in this day and age that’s more or less like saying it’s the football champion of the Conference South.
Actually, The Sidewinder as an album is probably much less known than the title track. Legend has it that, needing one more track to fill up the album, Lee Morgan went to the bathroom, had a sudden brainstorm and returned with the groundwork of the track. Born on the toilet, the opposite of Elvis, and just as fat. In fact it was so ridiculously catchy that it propelled the album to the mainstream charts, was used in a number of commercials and appeared as a single in its edited form. It also became the best and worst thing to happen to Morgan up to that point, as the funky 12-bar blues opening track became a blueprint for numerous subsequent albums, both by Morgan and for his peers on Blue Note Records. Nevertheless, The Sidewinder remains a composition to be truly praised. The simple staccato piano theme and the effortlessly cool bass lay the groundwork and keep the piece sizzling hot for the ten minutes of its duration. The two horns in unison – Morgan on trumpet and Joe Henderson on tenor sax – further develop the theme, sounding both humorous, cool and effortless all at once. Morgan kicks off the soloing in his flashy, but not at all prideful style, sticking close to the melody at times and delivering some dazzling, clean runs. At only 25, he already had a commanding voice on the trumpet, beyond many of his contemporaries. Henderson was actually older than Morgan but wasn’t quite as musically advanced, (in my humble opinion) and his solo adds much spice to the track but just lacking something of Morgan’s finesse. Nevertheless, over that catchy melody it still sparkles. Further shorter piano and bass solos add a bit of blues, calm down the fire a little and give way to a stop-start recapitulation of the theme, as in the opening, and fades out, leaving you wondering where ten minutes had gone and wondering if you’ll ever get the song out of your head. Morgan’s career has been overshadowed by this piece, but quite frankly it deserves to be. I’m not one for appraising “one hit wonders” (although Morgan was far from that) but The Sidewinder is just a stunningly infectious and accomplished composition that any jazz musician would have yearned to have a composing credit for. The problem for the rest of the album is that the title track is so outlandishly different to it. At least, it’s a problem for me. After hearing such a sprawling blues I was expecting to hear something treading the same water, I thought Morgan might have changed his standard tune, but not so. The rest of the album is a hard bop work out – typical of the era and typical of the style of music he was playing at the time. There’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever, but to give the album a bit of consistency it might have been nice to carry on in the blues style of the title track, but oh well. As it turns out, the proceeding tracks are among Morgan’s best compositions anyway. The cheekily titled Boy, What A Night is upbeat and sassy: a bouncing melody, some harmoniously inventive soloing by Morgan and rolling, audacious piano from Barry Harris, who we really didn’t get to hear enough of on the title track. He really shines here. Elsewhere, Totem Pole is quite mysterious and introspective, and Hocus-Pocus ends the album with another complex and clean horn melody, leading into Henderson doing his best to outshine Morgan on a solo, and finally succeeding, I think.
Aside from the title track, The Sidewinder is a good hard bop recording for those of you into that sort of thing. It’s very accomplished and certainly very good, but it’s not a million miles away from some of the work other artists were doing at the time, and it’s probably not going to convince anyone who doesn’t like jazz to go crazy and buy a load of albums. The title track, on the other hand, is one of those pieces that’s impossible to get out of your head and difficult, although not impossible, to really like. Its catchy melody and inventive soloing (but mostly the catchy melody) make it stand out head and shoulders above the rest of the album, and indeed much of the jazz going on at that time. For something that little bit different, go on and try it, and prepare something even more catchy to play once you’re done so it won’t be stuck in your head all day.
Words – Adam.