Talking tape: Lee Morgan’s seminal album The Sidewinder from The Tape Project

For a jazz fan, this is a ‘must have’. It’s a classic Blue Note recording and one that’s considered one of their backbone titles. It’s also listed on many Best Jazz Albums lists – and rightly so, in my view!

It’s taken me a good while to get my hands on a copy though, as every time I went to The Tape Project’s website it would tell me it was currently out of stock. Stupidly, I didn’t click on the ‘Join Waitlist’ button – until finally, in exasperation, I did – and a few months later I got an email saying there was stock (note to self: if you’re interested in a tape, always click the Waitlist button if there is one – then wait patiently for your reward!).

The Tape Project

Any self-respecting lover of tape owes a debt of gratitude to The Tape Project. They were probably the first of the growing number of companies currently issuing music on tape, and as such were pioneers and leaders in the now burgeoning tape revival. Stupidly (again!) I completely missed them in the early days of my tape journey. My first discoveries were Opus 3 and Horch House (or Lutz Precision as it was then called). When I eventually came across The Tape Project and realised that they’d been in the game for years already, many of their titles – which I was dying to get my hands on – were showing as ‘out of stock’ so I resigned myself to not getting to hear them. Then I found someone who was selling off their Tape Project collection secondhand. I bought 12 albums and was totally knocked out and hungry for more – but still, it took me a bunch more time before I cottoned on about clicking that ‘Join Waitlist’ button (we live and learn!).

Anyway, of the 19 Tape Project albums I now own – all of incredible quality – there’s one that gets more play than the others and it’s this one. Spoiler alert: it may even be my favourite copy master tape. But I’m not really into ‘top’, ‘best’ and ‘favourite’ lists so don’t quote me on that!

Lee Morgan & The Sidewinder

Morgan was a bop trumpet stylist who studied under Dizzy Gillespe and Art Blakely and was a notable member of the 1960s / 70s jazz scene. Here, he plays with Joe Henderson on tenor sax, Detroit pianist Barry Harris, bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Billy Higgins. This is hard bop at its best!

The album was recorded by none other than maestro jazz producer Rudy Van Gelder, at his Englewood Cliffs studio, for Blue Note records in 1964.  The recording is tight, intimate, close and incredibly like ‘being there’. The whole band are so realistically captured, nothing sounds more like ‘the band is in the room’ than a good Van Gelder recording. Believe me, this is it, the real deal!

In the video below I chat a bit more about the album, and also about how the copy master tape has been made – which gives you an insight into why it sounds as good as it does.

The listening experience

Right from the get go, the opening title track has such an infectious groove. That’s it’s prime weapon really, I challenge anyone to remain unhooked by this! The flow, the banter between the trumpet and sax, honestly, they really speak to you. The sound, the texture, the colour, the expression, shape, the feel of every note is so palpable. The drums, bass and piano are all equally on it. Everything is resonant – alive, almost. The contrasting textures of each instrument, the way the band plays together, it’s all utterly superb.

Sidewinder playing on my Studer A80

As the first track draws to a close the bass has a ‘solo’which isn’t quite a solo as the whole band plays support to it, but the bass takes flight, full and funky, amazingly well recorded and stunningly well played. As Cranshaw bends the last note before the band comes fully back in, it’s just delicious, you really do feel as if you’re there.

Track 2, Totem Pole, opens with a beautiful, colourful atmospheric bass and piano combo. The cymbals (far left) are so deliciously delicate. You just don’t get sound like that from CD, or even vinyl. Then the two horns come in, conversing and harmonising with each other. There’s no question in my mind at this point that, for me, Morgan is a definite #2 in my ranking of trumpeters – only Miles Davis can eclipse him. As the song progresses, the trumpet wails, the drums roll, and the band grooves and boogies along before a final layered harmony on sax and trumpet.

On track 3, Gary’s Notebook, once again I find myself thanking my lucky stars that I’m listening on tape, as there’s detail here you just wouldn’t get to the same degree on any other format. The piano has a creamy, valvey sound. The trumpet is vivid but never harsh. The bass drum is clear and powerful but not overly loud, while the toms and snare are tight, sensationally dynamic, and textured. The cymbals, well, they’re quite frankly staggeringly subtle and, again, utterly delicious. The bass is clear and rounded, and every note is fully and faithfully reproduced: you hear its start and its decay, whether that be a sudden stop or a sustained decay.

And so it continues, on track after track. As the album unfolds, you realise that you can hear how every note of every instrument is played, and you become more and more aware of the fact that you’ve never heard anything like this other than on tape. At times I even found myself wondering, is this the most transparent recording I’ve ever heard?

Maybe it was my imagination but I swear I could hear the colour of the mixing desk, the room – Rudy’s Hackensack studio. And oh my, is it a good colour, it’s an intimate and enveloping space. But now I’m also convinced that I can hear the intent, the vibe, the soul of each and every player, and the way they interact with and respond to each other – every subtlety and the nuance.

Anyway, you get the picture!

There’s only one small ‘but’ on this one – but for heaven’s sakes don’t let it stop you from buying the tape. The first batch of Tape Project albums I got were all on Recording The Masters SM468 tape. However, that tape has sadly been discontinued and so The Tape Project are now using ATR Master Tape. It sounds just as good in my opinion (which is the main thing), but it does have one drawback: it doesn’t spool as well as the RTM tape does. It’s not a big deal and certainly wouldn’t stop me buying a tape, but I’m just flagging it up as you’ll want to use ATR tapes only on reels, not on pancake plates. I’m not sure why the ATR tapes don’t spool as well – I’d be interested to know if anyone has had a similar experience? I have four R2R machines and the effect can be seen on any of them. Drop me a line if you have any insights…

Join the waitlist

I’m afraid The Sidewinder is now back on The Tape Project’s waitlist, but the good news is that the ‘Join Waitlist’ button is still there at I think the idea / process is that when enough people express an interest via the Waitlist button, this triggers a decision on which albums to prioritise making further copies of next. So, if you’re in the market, go click on that button, and The Tape Project will email you when the album’s available to order.