Thursday, November 21, 2013

Shades of Mrafu [UPDATED]

 Nate Morgan
Aquarius, Fire Dragon. . .
Mentor, teacher, brother . . .
Horace Tapscott through Frank Zappa . . .
Gentle giant, humble and fierce - piercing, poignant, pointed, unabashed . . .
Cosmic chords that sing forever . . .
Nigritian Knight in space flight . . .
From his heart he speaks the truth, through his hands he plays our lives . . .
And to see him smile is truly beautiful!
We treasure you dear friend!
Carlos Niño

We just heard that the great pianist Nathaniel Morgan has just died this morning, five years after he suffered an incapacitating stroke. Morgan, the very definition of the oft-used phrase “musician’s musician,” was a cornerstone of Horace Tapscott’s Ark (it was he who told a teenage Jesse Sharps about this cat named “Horace” and this band he practiced out in front of the Watts Happening coffeehouse) and led the famous late-night jam sessions in the mid-nineties at the 5th St. Dick’s Coffeehouse. He spent a few years in the 1970s with Rufus and Chaka Khan and collaborated in the early 90s with rappers Bone Thugs N’ Harmony. He is also one of the best-kept secrets of Los Angeles jazz: besides his frequent residencies at Charlie O’s in Van Nuys, Morgan most often popped up in a private home salons in Encino given by writer/historian Mimi Melnick, spinning his intoxicatingly (heavily influenced by Stanley Cowell and McCoy Tyner) on a prime-condition 1922 Steinway with the likes of Arthur Blythe, John Heard, Charles Owens, Onaje Murray, Michael Session, Roberto Miranda, Nedra Wheeler and Sonship Theus. (See the end of this post for a listof Morgan's credits.) He provided some of the salon’s best moments, including a memorable “double piano” duet with Elias Negash and a 2-hour solo performance that many who attended consider the best live show they have ever seen, especially when Morgan played his ode to the late Horace Tapscott, “Tapscottian Waltz,” a song that has never been recorded. “I think it’s one of the most beautiful compositions I’ve ever heard–and the way he played it that day, everybody was crying,” writer Steven Isoardi recalls. “I had to get up and leave. I was pacing in the front room. It was just too overwhelming.”

Prayers + Peace to Nate's wife Philomine and his children. Check out our photos from a benefit for Mr. Morgan held last year, as well as our pal Greg Burk's account of the same concert on his blog MetalJazz. Below are some collected remembrances:

I first met Nate around 1996 when I first became obsessed with jazz. I would go see him play whenever possible and was amazed at how organic, cosmic, sincere, deep and unique his approach to modal and spiritual jazz was. He clearly was heavily influenced and inspired by transcendent visionaries like McCoy Tyner and Alice Coltrane, but at all times he sounded like himself. Nate is an example of a master musician who meant every note he played and was seriously striving to reveal the true and transform the undesired. Nate was the first person in my life that I actually sought out as my music teacher. I would go to his house in Watts and jam and get lessons. We would talk about Woody Shaw, Coltrane and McCoy a lot. He was the first person to turn me on to the Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns by Nicholas Slonimsky and I was proud to share with him my copy of Prokofiev's complete piano sonatas, Nate said out of the classical cats, he thought Prokofiev was particularly moving. Soon, Nate had me playing my first jazz gigs ever as a part of his band. He introduced me to KPFK and my new best friends Carlos Niño, by way of him having me perform live on Carlos' radio show in the late 90s. Nate lifted everyone up around him everywhere he went. He had a joyful, solemn, humble, noble, giant, graceful, very strong, rooted but flexible encouraging and luminous presence. His eyes always reminded me of the ocean.

The last time that I performed with his band was at the 2008 Jazz at Drew festival. The band featured the legendary drummer Alphonse Mouzon. I'll never forget the feeling of disbelief and awe when Nate told me after that gig that he had plans to record an album under his leadership featuring me, Alphonse on drums, and reuniting Alphonse with his Weather Report bandmate, the sublime bassist, Miroslav Vitouŝ, as well. Nate is a beacon of light and will forever be. Thank you, Nate. I love you eternally brother. (Miguel Atwood-Ferguson)

He was a big man and a big talent, big enough to take over the keys when piano great Horace Tapscott was conducting the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, big enough to write songs with Rufus, big enough to encompass most of jazz history in his fluid, soulful and technically unassailable keyboard expression. His gruff demeanor could not hide a generous heart, and a lot of people in his South Los Angeles community loved him, as evidenced by several benefits held during his long illness -- events where dozens of his musician friends donated their services and many more contributed to the fund. He will be long remembered. (Greg Burk)

Nate Morgan has slipped away. He’d been ill for some time, his playing days behind him. But those were some days. You’d have been hard pressed to find a more inspired and exciting jazz piano player in all of L.A. There were nights at Charlie O’s that were extraordinary, and nights at the World Stage that defied my powers of description. That was his scene, Leimert Park, going way back. I always thought that was where you saw the real Nate Morgan. It was at the World Stage that he truly connected. And I’m so happy I got to see him all there those times, and that I later even got to know him, gruff and silent and smartassed in that jazzman way.

The thing about jazz is that it’s so improvisational and when you hear something, no matter how brilliant, you’ll never hear it again. Certainly not live. Of course you can listen back over and over if it was recorded. But like most LA jazz players, especially our black jazz players, his recorded legacy is thin, so thin. There was an era when a Nate Morgan would have had a dozen albums, maybe two dozen. They’d be classics, too, all of them. Now instead you have to hear him playing up a storm on other people’s records. And it’s hard to find most of those, even.

L.A. jazz just disappears with the players anymore. Everything they were on their instruments, all that glorious music they pitched into, it just disappears. Fades with the time. People talk and remember and tell their stories. They relive in their heads the magic nights in Leimert Park or Charlie O’s. But even we rememberers will be gone too, eventually. And what happens to jazz when those that remember it are gone? I don’t know.

But for now I’ll remember big, hulking Nate Morgan spinning those incredibly beautiful solos of his. I’ll remember his perfectly understated comping, the hints of the melody dropped in just right. I’ll remember too the sheer intelligence of his playing, the grace in his fingers, his fearless improvisation. But mostly I’ll think back on those truly memorable nights when Nate Morgan seemed like one of the greatest piano players you had ever heard. (Phil "Brick" Wahl)

 (Partial List)

Azar Lawrence - Prayer For My Ancestors (2011)
Build an Ark - Love, Pt. 2 (2010)
John Carter/Bobby Bradford - Mosaic Select: John Carter & Bobby Bradford (2010)
Phil Ranelin Group - Reminiscence: Live! (2009)
Azar Lawrence - Speak the Word (2009)
Dr. Richard Allen Williams - The Doctor Is In (2009)
 George Harper/Karen Evans - The Harper and Evans Project (2009)
Carlos Niño/Lil Sci - What's the Science (2008)
Build an Ark - Dawn (2007)
African Spirits: A Spiritual Jazz Journey Looking Back to Africa (2005)
Dwight Trible & The Life Force Trio - Love Is the Answer (2005)
Ammoncontact - New Birth (2005)
Nate Morgan - Journey into Nigritia (2004)
Ammoncontact - One in an Infinity of Ways (2004)
Build an Ark - Peace with Every Step (2004)
Najite Olokun Prophecy - Africa Before Invasion Prophecy (2003)
Nate Morgan/Jeff Littleton/Fritz Wise - Live in Santa Barbara (2003)
Sweet Baby J'ai - Evolution (2002)
L.A.'s Unsung: Nimbus West Compilation (2001)
Kamau Daa'ood - Leimert Park (1997)
Sweet Baby J'ai - The Art of Blue (1997)
Swamp Dogg - The Best of 25 Years of Swamp Dogg (1996)
Swamp Dogg - I'm Not Selling Out, I'm Buying In (1981)
Gary Bartz - Love Affair (1978)
Buddy Love & the Love Family - This Song Is for You (1978)
 John Carter/Bobby Bradford - Secrets (1972)

A "Release Party" for Nathaniel Morgan will be held this Saturday, December 7, at 10am. The location is the New Life Community Christian Center (11333 Atlantic Blvd., at Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Lynwood, CA 90262). Viewing will be at South Los Angeles Mortuary (1020 W. 94th St., at Vermont Ave., LA, CA 90044). Both are open to the public.

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