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JAZZ REVIEW

Morgan's Concert Shows Path of His Career

February 29, 1996|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The best jazz improvisers reflect a lifetime of experience when they solo. Alto saxophonist Frank Morgan's life in jazz, a journey marked by both triumph and difficult times, was at the center of his performance Tuesday when he opened a six-night run at Catalina Bar & Grill.

The 62-year-old Morgan was an early disciple of Charlie Parker and among those expected to carry the bebop torch after Parker died in 1955. But Morgan never quite fulfilled this destiny, falling prey to drugs. After Morgan reemerged on the scene in the mid-1980s, clean and eager to succeed, his sound still embraced bebop, but came with an intensity of expression that mirrored the struggles the saxophonist had faced.

Tuesday's appearance showed that Morgan has further deepened his biographical intent. Working with a Los Angeles-based rhythm section, the Milwaukee resident presented a most predictable first set--"A Night in Tunisia," " 'Round Midnight," "What Is This Thing Called Love?"--but stamped all with his own personality. Each solo suggested the path of his career, moving through involved passages of struggle and temptation before breaking through into triumphant climax.

While Morgan often utilized the kind of fleet, formidable runs associated with bop, they were delivered with understated volume and a certain delicacy that belied their difficulty. More lyrical statements were nestled in between these displays, often decorated with plaintive cries that could suggest both pleasure and pain.

Morgan's tone also spoke volumes. When beginning numbers with brief, introductory lines, his sound was wide and glowing. As the band joined in, it took on a harder edge.

Drummer Carl Burnett and bassist Richard Reid delivered strong, direct accompaniment, with Burnett proving especially responsive to Morgan's demonstrative ways. Pianist Otmaro Ruiz backed the saxophonist with spare, sometimes quirky chords and trills.

No doubt Morgan will expand his repertoire into less familiar territory as he and the rhythm section become more attuned. But even when playing the most familiar numbers, Morgan makes their story his.

* Frank Morgan plays Catalina Bar & Grill, 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood; tonight through Sunday, 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. $12 cover. (213) 466-2210.

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