The best Blue Note albums are tapestries, not solo showcases. From founder Alfred Lion's perspective, the leader of a Blue Note date was of less artistic significance than the vibe and sound all the musicians created collectively. Which is why a musician who led a Blue Note recording session one week often was found recording the following week under the leadership of a musician who had just played on his date a week earlier. According to Lion, the individual was an interchangeable part; the sound that a carefully chosen group of great individuals created was not.
Part of Lion's gift was his intimate knowledge of each jazz artist's tonal personality and an uncanny ability to envision how their differences would sound together. So Lion paired the jagged Donald Byrd with the fiery Pepper Adams, and put the smoky Hank Mobley (left) together with the restless Horace Silver. For Lion, the art resided in combined textures—how one individual horn sounded pressed up against other individualists' expressions.
One of the finest examples of Lion's "quilting" technique is Leeway. The album's leader was trumpeter Lee Morgan, but the April 1960 recording could just as easily have been led by any of the musicians on the date—alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, pianist Bobby Timmons, bassist Paul Chambers or drummer Art Blakey. Each musician makes a vital contribution as a soloist on this album—but it's their collective sound that takes your breath away.
On Leeway, you hear a complex new sound that's more soulful and ambitious than previous Blue Note hard bop releases. Much of the album's beauty is in how the different artists sound playing as one. Morgan's machine gun trumpet almost mellows against McLean's sharp alto edge. In turn, McLean's phrasing takes on a air of salvation when combined with Timmons' strong church-like lines. And Timmons' playing is less percussive here than it is with the Jazz Messengers, thanks largely to the precise sound of Chambers' mid-range bass lines. Art Blakey does his part, keeping everyone moving with his nightstick drum patterns.
Leeway was recorded at a critical moment in the careers of these musicians. A month earlier, Morgan, Blakey and Timmons recorded The Big Beat with the rest of the Jazz Messengers. Two months' earlier McLean recorded Music from the Connection with Freddie Redd, in which McLean exhibited a more assertive and almost political sound on his alto. Three months earlier, Timmons recorded This Here Is Bobby Timmons, which heralded a new, neo-gospel piano style. As for Chambers, he had just returned from a rigorous spring tour of Europe backing Miles Davis and an increasingly independent John Coltrane.
What makes Leeway so exciting is that instead of the formulaic model Blue Note used with such great success in the 1950s, there's a funky, intellectual soul sound emerging that keeps the music interesting from the first note to the last. Much of this dynamism comes from the four songs recorded. Two of he best ones were written by Cal Massey (left)—These Are Soulful Days and Nakatini Suite. Massey was a trumpeter who spent much of his career writing modern compositions that leading jazz musicians embraced. Massey's comfortably assertive and harmonically complex songs were recorded by Coltrane (Bakai, The Damned Don't Cry), Philly Joe Jones (Fiesta), Freddie Hubbard (Father and Son, and Assunta), Cedar Walton (Lady Charlotte) and Archie Shepp (What Would It Be Without You) and others. One of my favorite Massey compositions is A Pilgrim's Funny Farm from Lee Morgan's The Rajah.
To give you a sense of Massey's breadth, he played trumpet on George Shearing's Satin Brass in 1959—and arranged Coltrane's Africa Brass in 1961. The fact that Massey was associated with two albums on opposite ends of the jazz spectrum—and that both had "brass" in their titles—is something else. Massey took risks that paid off, which is why he's so interesting. Sadly, Massey died of a heart attack in 1972, a day after attending the preview of Lady Day: A Musical Tragedy, which he scored.
In addition to being a superb example of Lion's collective artistic expression, Leeway is one of the first jazz albums of the 1960s to integrate harmony and dissonance in a way that anticipated the uncertain decade to follow.
JazzWax tracks: You can buy Lee Morgan's Leeway here. Cal Massey's only album as a leader, Blues to Coltrane (1961), which includes Julius Watkins on French horn and Jimmy Garrison on bass, can be found at iTunes for just $5.99.