From newly independent nations of Africa to locations in the Far East and remote cosmos, jazz from the mid-1950s onwards imagined liberation through distant places and spaces. In a new series, Derek Walmsley journeys through the sketches of these new worlds. First call: Lee Morgan's "Search For The New Land"
“There are other worlds (they have not told you of)” – Sun Ra
Before free jazz broke through in the 1960s, you could read a desire for liberation unfolding in the titles jazz musicians gave their compositions from the mid-1950s onwards. In previous years, players might have dedicated a piece to a woman or a passed colleague. Now, they were naming them after newly independent nations of Africa, to underline their Afrocentric solidarity; after locations in the Far East, to flaunt a growing interest in Eastern philosophical systems; or after cities in the Middle East from before Western countries changed the history of that region. From bebop to hard bop to modal jazz, many albums of the era had a blues, a ballad, a swinging workout, and another piece, sometimes a mere afterthought, namechecking a far-off land.
Often these were places the musicians had never been, and might never go: “Angola”, “Basra”, “Isle Of Java”, “Saturn”, “Utopia”. But the locations themselves are less important than the ideas they stood for in the minds of the players. These titles are social manifestos, polemical provocations and utopian hypotheses all rolled into one. A complete index of the freedoms which jazz musicians desired – political, spiritual and aesthetic – can be read through these geographic fascinations and the music that they inspired.
Lee Morgan’s 1964 piece “Search For The New Land” might be read as an unofficial anthem for this mode of jazz. Its title makes explicit the subtexts of liberation and movement already present in John Coltrane’s “India” and “Africa”, and its open-ended structure attempts to reboot the vocabulary of jazz in a manner as radical as Coltrane’s Ascension or Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz.
“Search For The New Land” wasn’t released the year it was recorded; Blue Note had their own search to worry about. Distributors and record shops were demanding a follow-up to Morgan’s 1963 jukebox smash “The Sidewinder” causing his album Search For The New Land to be delayed until 1966. Blue Note had spent the years in between trying, and failing, to replicate the hit formula Morgan established on “The Sidewinder” with mediocre jams like “The Rumproller” and “Cornbread”.
There’s a poignancy in how Morgan’s search itself ended up lost. He was perhaps the most lauded trumpet player of the post-Miles Davis era, but his life and work had been brutally derailed by drugs and fame. In the late 50s and the mid-60s he scraped a living by recording constantly, sometimes reportedly finishing the sheet music in a taxi on the way to a recording session. Like many hard bop players, his more adventurous work often took a back seat to the kind of orthodox workouts that kept the pot boiling. At that time, Blue Note was not above letting junkies churn out quick albums to make a modest profit for all involved.
“Search For The New Land” looked beyond all of this. The cover of the album alone marks it out as different. Morgan is usually depicted as a player of inscrutable cool, blowing his trumpet with eyes closed and a cigarette in hand or tucked into the pipes of his instrument. Here, he is caught in an unguarded moment, looking vulnerable as he gazes contemplatively back at the camera.
The contours of the track are extraordinary. Running for 15 minutes, it takes up most of the first side of the original LP, and each solo (saxophone, trumpet, guitar, piano) lasts several minutes. The group don’t begin to play so much as let their instruments start to gently appear on the horizon. It opens with no rhythm, just a deep bass vibration from Reggie Workman and cymbal washes from Billy Higgins, while Herbie Hancock weaves clouds of modal trills. The piece returns to this starting point between each solo, leaving the pulse behind as if the players are trying to stretch time and space.
Morgan had long explored the possibilities of under- and overblowing his trumpet to expand his tonal vocabulary, as well as to distract attention from a youthful recklessness in his solos. Tom Perchard, in his book Lee Morgan: His Life, Music And Culture, writes how “air… seeped out around the sound’s edge like blue, unlit gas”. At the end of his solo Morgan restates the main theme twice, the first time so gently that the air seems to leak back out of the trumpet and drag the tone down, the second time overblowing so the sound distorts into pure tone. The deliberate exploration of extended techniques connects him to a continuum running from Louis Armstrong in the 1920s to Radu Malfatti in the 2000s.
“Search For The New Land” has simple, shuffling chord changes over which the players improvise modal melodies. But its wide-open spaces give them licence to explore in radical ways. Guitarist Grant Green alights on small figures and repeats them obsessively, and when he states the main theme, he pulls off away from its notes as if he is searching for the microtones between.
Morgan and his ensemble were attempting to leave chord changes and melody behind as decisively as the practitioners of free jazz. The new land they create is impeccably democratic – everyone has their say, and no one is shackled by everyday time constraints – but the role of each instrument is fluid and up for grabs. Like many of the more adventurous pieces of the time, “Search For The New Land” was obscured by the relentless treadmill of bread and butter recording sessions. But with the benefit of hindsight, many others were on the same page. Following this search for new lands takes us to Africa, to Jackie McLean and Wayne Shorter’s evocations of freedom struggles in Ghana and Angola, and Herbie Hancock imagining the birth of man in Tanzania; to the Middle East, via the exotic rhythms of Pete LaRoca, Bobby Hutcherson and Horace Silver; the rarefied heights of John Zorn’s Masada and to the cosmos and outer space, via the planetary harmonies of Sun Ra and the imaginary worlds of McCoy Tyner and Yusef Lateef.