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USA 2014
Directed by
N.C. Heikin
84 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Sound Of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story

Synopsis:  A documentary about jazz saxophonist Frank Morgan, a musician who came to the fore in the 1950s and was considered by many the best alto sax player of his generation.    

Prior to watching this documentary I had never heard of Frank Morgan, a gifted saxophonist who played with the foremost jazz musicians of his day, the 1950s.  A considerable cause of this, I now realize, is that Morgan was also a heroin addict who fort most of his adult life was incarcerated in jail for crimes committed to feed his habit.

Jail and in particular San Quentin, the California state prison in which Morgan did much of his time for car theft, burglary, fraud and bank robbery, is the primary setting for N.C. Heikin's documentary. The film intersplices a 2012 memorial concert for Morgan, who died in 2007 at the age of 73, with an informative account of his rise to jazz heaven in the company of Charlie Parker and Billy Holliday, his 30 year battle with heroin, and his eventual redemption in the last phase of his life.  

Using the traditional resources of archival photography and interviews with Morgan and friends and various talking heads, Heikin gives us an overview of  Morgan's life from his beginnings as the son of Stanley Morgan, a member of the famous vocal group, The Inkspots (and, as his daughter points out, “a pimp”), who started playing professionally in his teens during the 1940s, at one time being touted as heir apparent to Parker before being swallowed up by his addiction.

Aside from giving us Morgan’s story Heikin’s film will be of interest to jazzheads as it sheds light on the LA music and art scene of the late ’40s and ’50s which rivalled New York for its be-bop innovations but which was also the locus of widespread heroin use, most notably by Parker himself who died of an overdose  in 1955.

Entirely appropriately the film’s greatest strength is in its recommendation of Morgan’s musicianship. There clearly is very little historical footage of Morgan in performance so Heikin relies on selections from Morgan’s recordings most of which made from the 1980s onwards and the tribute concert, emcee’d by trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis and including pianist George Cables, saxophonist Grace Kelly, a protégé of Morgan’s, bassist Ron Carter, saxophonist Mark Gross and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith.  This works well, particularly as the audience of overwhelmingly black inmates clearly respond strongly to the music, giving Kelly a standing ovation for her emotive reading of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”.  

The film ends with a poignantly soulful ballad from Morgan.  I am sure anyone who sees this film will be seeking out Morgan’s recordings and that pretty much means that for Heiken, it’s “job done”.




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