Oh, what a sly fox is Frank Morgan. There he was at Catalina Bar & Grill Tuesday night, the quintessential be-bop saxophonist whirling through a program rich with Charlie Parker classics, the player described by many as the legitimate heir to Bird's be-bop throne.
So did Morgan display all the chromatic runs, double-time riffs and off-beat rhythms that are essential to the style? Has the new king really been crowned?
Well, yes and no. From the very first surprisingly laid-back note of "Now's the Time," there wasn't the whisper of a doubt that Morgan is one of the finest bopsters of this or any other generation. He confirmed that fact again and again throughout the set with brilliantly soaring solos in, around and against the changes of such classics as "Confirmation," "Night in Tunisia" and "Yardbird Suite."
His accompanists--Ronnie Matthews on piano, Tony Dumas on bass and Larance Marable on drums--laid down the kind of precise, surging flow of rhythm that energizes and propels a soloist. And Matthews took a few moments for a thoughtful tour through Monk's too-rarely heard "Crepescule With Nellie."
Great stuff, all of it. But be-bop wasn't the only thing that was taking place in Morgan's playing. In the last few years he has subtly and skillfully used his bop roots as the foundation for a remarkable artistic evolution. His work on "All the Things You Are," for example, clearly resonated with Parker's energies. But the solo echoed other sounds and places as well: the swirling "noise" components of the '60s; the roving fusion of the '70s; the pop-funk of the '80s.
And always, no matter how lightly Morgan floated above the rhythm, there was the blues--the element that closed the circle, that took his playing from Bird, through the present and back to his source.
Morgan's claim to the Parker crown is authentic--not because he is a superb be-bop player, but because, like Bird, he has carried the music forward, encapsulating the world around him as he has done so. And that's a very crafty accomplishment, indeed.