Lanny Morgan Quartet
Audiences around the world have heard Lanny Morgan, they just may not have recognized him. Pacific Standard, the 62-year-old alto saxophonist's debut recording for Contemporary, and only his third as a leader, will change that. Morgan has been ubiquitous in American music for more than 30 years-recently, as the lead woodwind player for Natalie Cole; for 23 years as alto saxophonist in the internationally popular jazz group Supersax; and, since the early 1960s, as multiple reed virtuoso with the big bands of Maynard Ferguson, Bill Holman, Bob Florence, Bill Berry, and others. Moreover, his successful career as a most valuable studio pro has put Morgan's sound on recordings by everyone from Steely Dan to Shirley Horn.
But as Pacific Standard proves, Morgan truly thrives at the helm of his own straight-ahead quartet. "I have to admit there's nothing quite like playing with a big band behind you," grants the multi-instrumentalist, who has been in demand for his doubling talents on saxes, clarinet, and flutes. "But it's so limiting, jazz-wise, no matter how liberal the leader is. You might get to play only 16 bars or a chorus, at the most. Whereas if you have your own group, you can set policy and play as long as you want until the rhythm section wears out. It is very liberating."
Born in Des Moines, Iowa, Morgan was an accomplished child violinist long before he picked up a saxophone. His father played sax and clarinet as the leader of a radio orchestra, but his mother, wary of the carousing lifestyle associated with musicians during the Depression, sought to steer young Lanny clear of jazz. "I think she made my father promise not to bring his horns home," he recalls. "When I got into the first grade, I came home with a violin, and I played that for 16 years."
When he was ten years old, Morgan moved with his family to Los Angeles, where the bebop scene would soon come into bloom. In junior high school, Lanny started playing the clarinet, and by the time he graduated from high school, he had added alto to his arsenal. "I found myself walking to my violin lessons whistling 'Groovin' High' or 'Hot House,'" he remembers, "and I listened to Gene Norman's 'East Side' radio show. It knocked me out and I knew I had to play jazz." Upon graduating from Los Angeles High (as a math/science major), Morgan enrolled at L.A. City College, whose pioneering radio and recording orchestra provided a pool of musicians for Southern California bandleaders. In 1954, Morgan was hired by Charlie Barnet, and he never looked back.
Before being drafted into the Army in 1957, Morgan had briefly played with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson. After his discharge, he discovered that Ferguson had moved the band to New York. In March 1960, though, Morgan received the call to replace Jimmy Ford as lead alto saxophonist in Ferguson's big band. "That was the most exciting time for me, in New York from 1960 through the middle of '66," Morgan says. "It was such a vital time in jazz. We used to play all the clubs and festivals, opposite so many good people. I think the first time we opened at Birdland it was opposite Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Other times we were billed with Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, and Miles Davis."
After Ferguson temporarily broke up the big band in 1966, Morgan picked up work around town, leading his own sextet and quartet and doing a wide variety of freelance work. "I was doing pretty well, but I was working about 90 hours a week to make a living," he says. "The jazz scene in New York was beginning to fade into nothing. The Five Spot closed, the Jazz Gallery closed, Birdland closed, and I found myself doing anything I could to make a living." A friend in Los Angeles who had become a major musical contractor for the Hollywood studios told Morgan that if he was ever going to return to California, now was the time. In 1969, Morgan moved his young family back to Los Angeles, where he has made his home ever since.
In addition to becoming a permanent member of Supersax in 1975, and working with the big bands of Bob Florence, Bill Holman, Frank Capp, and others, Morgan found himself in constant demand in the studios. His reeds have been heard on more than 100 albums, 75 movie soundtracks, and 20 television shows. But he did not record his first album as a leader until the 1980s, when Palo Alto Records issued It's About Time. In 1994, VSOP released The Lanny Morgan Quartet, and those two works have comprised Morgan's personal catalog until his signing with Contemporary. (A live album recorded for Palo Alto, featuring Cedar Walton, Slide Hampton, Mickey Roker, and Buster Williams, was never released.)
Much of Morgan's time in the 1990s has been taken up by recording and touring with Natalie Cole. Their musical relationship began when Bill Holman, hired to write a half dozen charts for Cole's Unforgettable, brought Morgan into the session, and it has resulted in appearances on three subsequent Cole albums and concert tours through Asia, Africa, and South America. But with the release of Pacific Standard, Morgan's sound finally gets the solo spotlight it deserves. Although rooted in bebop and influenced by Charlie Parker, Art Pepper, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball Adderley, and Gene Quill, Morgan's seasoned style is nonetheless strikingly individual. "You have to be careful because there are so many voices in jazz who are really distinctive," he notes, "but sometime ago, somebody heard something on the radio and said to me, That sounds like you.' And I thought, Gee, maybe I do sound like me, maybe all these things I have absorbed through some sort of osmosis have come out sounding like somebody with a voice of his own." Pacific Standard is a giant step in linking that unique voice to the name Lanny Morgan.