When Lee Morgan’s Live at the Lighthouse was originally released, in March 1971, it was a double-LP set with four sidelong selections. When it was reissued in 1996, it was expanded to a three-CD set, offering one version of each of the 13 tunes Morgan and company played that July 1970 weekend in Hermosa Beach, California.
But now, with the release of The Complete Live at the Lighthouse, we get the whole kit and caboodle, every note that the quintet played during their three-night, 12-set stand (except for a rendition of “Ceora” on which recording was stopped a minute in to save tape). With more than seven-and-a-half hours of sound stretched across eight CDs or a dozen LPs, it’s a gargantuan release, easily on the scale of Miles Davis’ The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965. Except where that set gave a glimpse into the onstage chemistry of one of Davis’ best-documented bands—the Shorter/Hancock/Carter/Williams quintet—Morgan’s Lighthouse recordings are the only ones he made with what might have been his greatest band.
Start with Bennie Maupin. Although the multi-reedist had recorded with Morgan before, on Taru and Caramba! (both from 1968), he wasn’t the presence there that he is here. Morgan gives Maupin the first solo in every number, an opening salvo he uses to set the bar for the rest of the band. When playing up-tempo, Maupin tends toward furious runs that strain at the edges of the chords, occasionally breaking the flow with honking asides or wailing interjections. In mid-tempo, he’s more lyrical, making deft use of sustained tones to add emotional impact to his harmonic ideas. Morgan, following, is invariably on his toes, using all his technique and rhythmic acuity to match, or very occasionally one-up, his reeds man.
But it’s the rhythm section that really takes this to another level. Like Maupin, they’d each played with Morgan before. Bassist Jymie Merritt spent years with him in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers; drummer Mickey Roker was in several Morgan ensembles from the mid-’60s; pianist Harold Mabern joined him on The Procrastinator as well as various Blue Note sessions. Each was a strong player in his own right, but together they were a juggernaut, driving the music with invention and unflagging energy. Mabern’s huge hands offer a cushion of chords through punchy, densely voiced comping, and his solos often reach McCoy Tyner-worthy peaks of intensity.
Still, it’s Merritt who dominates the groove. In part, that’s because his electric Ampeg Baby Bass has a big, woofy tone that, on the bandstand, must have felt like an upright on steroids. But it’s also because, rather than laying down a straight quarter-note pulse, his lines are busy and melodic, dropping accents that mesh perfectly with Roker’s polyrhythmic patterns. And when Jack DeJohnette, in a night off from Miles Davis’ band, sits in for “Speedball,” there are moments when that familiar boogaloo groove seems about to explode, so frenzied is the interaction between bass and drums.