“The Sidewinder” by Lee Morgan accomplishes the rare feat of hitting on every tune. Recorded in 1963, and released in 1964, it is a perfect example of the hard bop style. With catchy compositions and solos, the album can certainly be defined as a Jazz classic that anyone can listen to and enjoy.
The blues influenced title track, “The Sidewinder,” has an infectious groove that envelops the listener and gets his or her feet tapping through its repetition. Piano player Barry Harris’ chordal pops set up the horns beautifully as Morgan, on trumpet, and Joe Henderson, on tenor saxophone, enter for the song’s second chorus. The open and bluesy structure of the tune allows every musician, including bassist Bob Cranshaw, to stretch out and explore during the solo section. “The Sidewinder” concludes with a restatement of the main melody and a fade on the same great groove that opened it. Every part of the tune fits together into a great package. The interplay between the musicians is stellar, and although the song is listed at over ten minutes it does not feel that long.
For the second song, “Totem Pole,” the feel of the album changes and becomes more exotic while keeping its roots in the blues. It again opens with the rhythm section, but this time with a rangy bass line and a piano solo instead of just chords. Morgan and Henderson join following the introduction, matching each other perfectly yet still keeping their own styles. The song lives up to its name as the horn players layer parts of the melody, creating what is in essence, a musical totem pole. Alternating between the exotic rhythm of the opening, and a more straight-ahead swing, drummer Billy Higgins ensures variety to keep the tune interesting. Solo space is filled perfectly by Harris on the piano, and the horn players use repetition expertly in their solos to keep them interesting. Like the tune that precedes it, “Totem Pole” is a ten minute song that never feels its length.
After back to back rhythm section introductions, the third tune breaks up the repetition with a tense horn intro. Written in a straight ahead style, “Gary’s Notebook” features exceptional unison playing, angular lines, and use of tension and release, which are the hallmarks of a great hard bop tune. Harris accompanies Henderson with relentless piano chords as Henderson begins the solo section using the lower register of his tenor saxophone to great effect. Repetition is again used to keep the solo section fresh as each soloist plays exactly what the listener’s ear wants to hear. The intensity does not let up until the song comes to a close.
“Boy, What a Night,” the fourth tune, conveys exactly the message of the title with a bluesy, nostalgic opening played by Harris. Straight ahead drumming by Higgins and soul inspired chords give this tune a “jump-and-shout” feel. This is a song that makes the listener want to dance. During the solos, Morgan demonstrates a trumpet technique called half-valving, which he uses to strain some of his notes. The technique is never over-used and adds great texture to Morgan’s solo. In a traditional blues style, the song ends with a slowing of tempo and some last second improvisation on the piano amidst a roll of cymbals.
The closer to “The Sidewinder” is a tune called “Hocus-Pocus.” This straight-ahead tune is an upbeat and positive conclusion. Cranshaw walks a great bass line from beginning to end and supports the piece to keep it lively. While still a solid tune, “Hocus-Pocus” isn’t the strongest on the album. A highlight of the song is the solo trading that occurs between the band and Higgins before the beginning of the final melody chorus. Higgins uses his kit wisely, and makes his solo fit the style of the song even though he is the only one playing.
Featuring a great collection of songs and excellent playing and soloing, “The Sidewinder” is a highlight of the 1960’s and a great way to become familiar with hard bop. The album’s construction was duplicated many times by Blue Note records, the label it was recorded under, but none of these duplicates were as successful as the original. Its success speaks volumes, and is what truly makes “The Sidewinder” a Jazz classic.
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