With Hersch as Co-Pilot, Vocalist Scott Morgan Soars in NYC


Fred Hersch (left) and Scott Morgan perform at The Kitano in New York on Sept. 15.

(Photo: Brian Zimmerman)

In jazz, sometimes a newcomer can provide a completely fresh take on old standards. That’s especially true in the realm of singers of the Great American Songbook, who tend to treat the pages of that decades-old tome as scripture.

It was therefore tremendously refreshing to hear Scott Morgan—a Johnny-come-lately among jazz vocalists in New York—perform for an intimate crowd at The Kitano on Sept. 15.

Appearing alongside his life partner and musical director, Fred Hersch, the vocalist offered material from his recently released debut album, Songs Of Life (Miranda Music), a sparkling collection of covers and originals drawn from a broad range of contemporary sources, including pop classics, vocalese originals and Broadway masterpieces past and present.

Morgan is an artist whose passion for music dates back to childhood stage performances in his native Sarasota, Florida. After stints in musical theater and apprenticeships with vocalists René Marie and Kate McGarry, Morgan, who arrived in New York in 2001, began his quiet introduction into the city’s pulsing jazz scene, carving out a reputation as an open-hearted vocalist as comfortable with Andrew Lloyd Webber as he is with Gershwin.

The Sept. 15 performance cast the vocalist’s sweet, creamy timbre and graceful diction against a vivaciously swinging rhythm section. Hersch, who arranged many of the songs, remained on piano throughout, helming a trio rounded out by Matt Aronoff on bass and Mark Ferber on drums. Tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm, who galvanizes just about any setting he’s dropped into, joined the group on several numbers.

Though brief, the set served as a powerful showcase for a singer who excels at bending pop standards toward a jazz light. He floated elegantly above the placid scenery of Lennon/McCartney’s “I Will,” which the group transformed into a slow-motion dance, and caressed the elegant contours of James Taylor’s “Secret Of Life” with meditative calm, carefully examining each lyric.

Morgan’s voice, which blossoms in the higher register, bears a passing resemblance to Taylor’s, if only for its ease of delivery and friendly, guileless tone. Morgan fared especially well on “Everyone But Me,” an original composition that bobbed and dipped against a lilting swing. The song’s message of self-deprecating loneliness—”Spring has sprung for everyone … but me”—found its foil in the group’s cover of Jimmy McHugh’s waggish “I Just Found Out About Love,” which the singer chirped with a boyish, love-struck wonder.

The latter song appears on Songs Of Life, which also includes a poignant cover of “Lost In The Stars,” from the Broadway musical of the same name. Morgan’s rendition of the tune—with lyrics conveying existential angst in poetic detail—demonstrated a dramatist’s ear for nuance, as he peppered his delivery with fragile whispers and delicate melisma.

The night’s other high-water mark was Morgan’s cover of “Acaso (No Tomorrow),” a swift bossa nova by fellow vocalist Peter Eldridge. The song had a warm, radiant glow, and featured Morgan emitting wordless vocals against a shimmering 3/4 ostinato by Hersch. As the song reached its midpoint, none other than Eldridge himself walked into the club and settled into a seat. Morgan, barely missing a beat, cheerfully acknowledged his friend and mentor. “Good timing, Mr. Eldridge,” he said.

The same can certainly be said for Morgan, 53, whose solid debut is a wonderful example of “better late than never.”

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