One advantage to making a belated debut is the depth of life experience that enriches an artist's work. Scott Morgan may be a name new to listeners outside of New York City, where he's garnered a devoted following for his moving live performances, but Songs of Life reveals a vocalist with a lifelong passion for and immersion in music. The title reflects both a songbook developed over a lifetime's listening and performing, but also Morgan's expressive interpretations, deeply imbued with the loves and losses that accumulate over a life well lived.
The repertoire on Songs of Life (September 12 via Miranda Music) span the spectrum from Great American Songbook standards to pop classics by revered songwriters like James Taylor and The Beatles to more recent contributions by pianist/composer Fred Hersch, Morgan's partner in both life and music. Hersch's sensitive accompaniment can be heard throughout Songs of Life, along with the singer's flexible, supportive rhythm section of bassist Matt Aronoff and drummer Ross Pederson. The impeccably eloquent tenor saxophone of Joel Frahm graces three tracks, while Manhattan Transfer's Janis Siegel is Morgan's duo partner for the soaring "I'll Follow," with lyrics by Morgan to Hersch's piece "Mandevilla."
"Every song has its own story," Morgan says, "and I hope that when people listen to the record they can identify with some if not many of the songs in a personal way. Everybody's had unrequited love as well as fulfilling relationships. And I imagine most people have suffered existential angst as well - so Songs of Life is a musical photo album of the touchstones in our lives."
Some of the songs in particular offer snapshots of very vivid memories from Morgan's past. The breathtaking coupling of Dave Catney's "Little Prayer" and the Lerner and Loewe standard "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" is a particular standout. The first half is the work of a jazz pianist/composer who passed away from complications of AIDS, sung by Morgan in memory of a friend lost to the disease in the 1980s. The latter half wistfully captured the imagined dreams of a woman that Morgan met while traveling in Tanzania, widowed by HIV and living in a mud hut. "She took me into her house and fed me though she had nothing at all," he recalls. "I thought that from her perspective, wouldn't it be lovely to have heat, chocolate, someone to care about."
Morgan brings the same profound humanity and empathy to all of his work. In part, his gift for storytelling and capturing character in song stems from his earliest experiences with music, performing in musical theater productions in his native Sarasota, Florida. "Without my musical theater background I wouldn't be able to tell the stories the way that I'm able to tell them, particularly in live performance," Morgan says. "It's very easy for singers to just get up and run through the songs jazz singers are expected to sing, but I try to make every song special and really engage the audience with what's going on in the story."
After playing piano and singing throughout his time at Florida State University, Morgan took a 15-year break from music while he concentrated on his career in the technology and then in the nonprofit sector, a pursuit that continues to be rewarding off the stage. It was his arrival in New York City in 2001 that led to his reengagement with music, which was only fueled further a few months later when he met Hersch and was ushered into the thriving NYC jazz scene. He studied with influential modern jazz singers like Kate McGarry, Peter Eldridge and Rene Marie, gaining confidence from their encouragement and from the enthusiastic response of audiences as he performed live. Hersch says, "I always knew Scott was a great musician - I am glad that he is now finding that out for himself."
"I've always been close to music, and I was looking for a creative outlet to round out my life," Morgan explains. "I felt like all I was doing was working, working, working, so music started calling me back. I never thought it would turn into anything initially, but I gradually got more serious and my desire to do something more with music than just sing around the house started to grow."
If the arc of Songs of Life can be seen as the story of a life, then it's clear that in Morgan's view love, in its many facets, is central to existence. The album begins with a brisk romp through "It's You or No One," a lively ode to fidelity by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne with a dazzling vocalese lyric by Morgan to a classic Chet Baker solo. New romance is celebrated on "I Just Found About Love" and "This Heart of Mine," while Dori Caymmi's bossa nova classic "Like a Lover," performed in an intimate duo with Hersch, luxuriates in the morning light on a lover's face. The first of two James Taylor compositions on the album, "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," becomes a poignant plea for connection. The second, "Secret O' Life," resonates with Morgan's Buddhist leanings in its celebration of being present in the moment.
The album closes with The Beatles' "I Will," rendered in Morgan and Hersch's duo performance as a tender promise of devotion. Its sentiments are echoed in Morgan's lyrics to Hersch's music on "I'll Follow," with Morgan and Siegel painting a vivid portrait of two people in love worthy of a Broadway stage. "It's a story about how when two lives and loves intertwine with each other, things can happen in a beautiful way," Morgan explains.
All of the moments that have inspired Songs of Life are expressed with the same sense of beauty and passion. Like the love stories woven throughout the album, Morgan's auspicious debut combines the thrill of the new with the wisdom and depth of feeling that can only come from a lifetime of experience.