James Morrison on Jazz, the MSO, and Trumpet playing


James Morrison, arguably the greatest Australian Jazz Trumpet player and multi instrumentalist of this generation. His career spans decades and genres. He has a large catalogue of recordings, many illustrating his musical roots and versatility. His current project involves an artistic collaboration with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) on the first concert of their MSO Pops Series: A Journey Through Jazz. Christopher McLeod of Aflatmajor.com was fortunate enough to send some questions through to James Morrison on his thoughts on Jazz, Working with the MSO, Artistic Collaborations, and his advice for young students starting their own journey into Jazz.

James Morrison
James Morrison

CM: James, in a recent interview with the MSO, you described Jazz as being a ‘sound and style’ and not a ‘standard’ Jazz band. How does working with the orchestra differ from an ensemble such as a Trio with String Bass and Drums?

JM: The difference is of course is a different setting. In one way there is certainly some less freedom because you can get with a small ensemble and say let’s play Duke Ellington ‘Let’s take the A train’ and you don’t have to have any music, you can just see what happens. You can’t do that with an orchestra. You’ve got to have a chart so there has to be thought beforehand, now that’s not a negative or a positive; it’s just a fact. You can say well that’s good because now you’ve got framework, and you can look at it and say that it’s not good because you don’t have a much freedom, so it depends on how you look at it. That’s not the real difference, that’s like a technical difference. For instance, the sound of the orchestra, there this whole other sound, it’s this fantastic palette so much bigger than the ensemble. In the ensemble all you’ve got is the Guitar, Bass, the Drums and whatever I’m playing and that’s it.

Suddenly you can colour this song with the sound of an Oboe, the sound of a Flute, the sound of the String section and the Percussion and of course all the Brass. But this is different to any Jazz band when you use to a large ensemble – what are you going to add Trumpet, Trombone and Sousaphone, no Strings, no Double Reeds no Flutes, no other Percussion or French Horns, no Harp. So there are so many sounds, the palette is so broad that you can do that thing. Here’s an example: you know a Walt Disney cartoon movie, not Mickey Mouse but “Fantasia” or something when they are coming through the forest and they come to the top of the hill and there’s this beautiful valley and you hear the music spread and everything is expanding that’s kind of the feeling one gets sound wise. When you start playing a jazz piece and the orchestra comes in and you go “ooooh it’s much bigger than I thought”.

 I know the history of the music intimately so I could sort of go let’s use these bits along the way to show the journey from Armstrong to Zaralone.

Everything expands. So the real difference is that. You’ve got this fantastic sound, that’s technically different because you’ve got to plan things, if that is a negative at all I say, because it’s not always. It’s a small price to pay for what you then get in return, which is this incredible setting for your music and I still improvise in a show like this for a number of measures. But two things always inspire my improvisation: the song, and the way it’s being played around you – these are the two things. And the feeling (reflecting on the additional sound the orchestra brings) I’m going to have because the orchestra is around me. It’s like a play land. Let me play in amongst this. It’s fantastic.

CM: James, your “Live at the Sydney Opera House” was the first album I purchased as a young trumpet student. What advice do you have for young players wanting to get into playing jazz?

JM: You’ve got to listen to a lot of it. That’s true of all music, but particularly of Jazz. If I want to become a Classical musician, I can actually go and get the written music for the repertoire for my instrument and start learning it and playing it and I’ll get a lot out of that I believe to be a great musician you’ll still need to hear whose played it before you and hear the pieces. But nonetheless, you can go along way with getting it off the page because if it was something written by Mozart or Bottesini. The way they left it to us was on a page. We haven’t got their recording of it, so all we’ve got is interpretations. That’s still taking it from the page. The original creator of that music left it to us on a page so hence you can go to the page and start your interpretation and go along way with that. I would advise hearing everyone else interpretation.

Where as with Jazz, firstly this music pretty much came into being after the advent of recording, so we have recordings of almost the easiest Jazz and certainly the real fathers of Jazz like Louis Armstrong. We have plenty of recordings of them and you can hear the source that’s one thing. Secondly, they didn’t leave it to us on a page anyway even if we have recordings of Mozart, he still wrote it down. But Louis didn’t write anything down and most of them didn’t. Even though Drew Kelly wrote down a lot of songs and even wrote arrangements of those songs, still what they really did well isn’t on the page and so you need to hear them to get it.

You can say well that’s good because now you’ve got framework, and you can look at it and say that it’s not good because you don’t have a much freedom, so it depends on how you look at it.

So for a Jazz musician the first thing is to listen. Listen all the time. It’s like learning a language. You can’t learn Russian out of a book if you’ve never heard a Russian speak. If you are listening to a Russian speak, then the book is absolutely fantastic because you need to learn all the sounds otherwise it will take you a long time to pick up what’s going on. But, with the book only, you will never speak Russian. Where as if you just went to Russia with no book and hung out long enough, you’ll end up speaking authentic Russian. The book just speeds the process up. So in Jazz I tell them, yes do the book study do the reading. It speeds things up but you’re actually going to learn it from listening to it. It’s a language and so the first thing is to listen, after then it’s do it a lot.

It’s the same as when you are going to and hang out a lot in Russia, you’ve got to listen all the time. But you’ll have to try it all the time or you’ll never get there. You can’t just listen. You’ve got to try it often and so listening and then trying and playing what you heard all the time, that’s the cycle. That’ll make you a good player. Then the thing is you’ve got to perform every chance you get. Your career in this music comes from performing. It doesn’t come from having a good resume or sending things or doing auditions. I’ve never even heard of a Jazz audition.

Which is funny because every Orchestra that has everyone sitting there, has done an audition and applied for a position.  I don’t think anyone has even gotten a job in a Jazz band by audition, not officially anyway. What they’ve done is been heard somewhere by someone who goes “he’s good, I’ll get him or I’ll get her” and so if you’re not out there playing in some fashion, it’s kind of a catch. How do I get playing in the first play place? You’ve got to hang out with some people and go to a jam session, get in a band and even if it’s at a much lower level than where you are at musically and you end up doing that playing in a local school band at a fete when actually you are ready to go into a professional gigs in a club. But you do that because someone who’s at the fete, who doesn’t want to be there because they have been given the kids today, actually owns the club. Do you know what I mean?

That’s the stuff, that’s an actual example that actually happened. Playing in a school fete and the owner of a Jazz club was there going “get me out of here” and then we went “hang on, listen to that band”. They spotted me in amongst the band and heard me and said: “Right you, do want to do something at the club?” That was one of the many steps along the way but every break, if you like, that I’ve had has come from performing in public somewhere in some fashion, almost always in a less than ideal situation.

You rarely get a gig because you had this fantastic gig with the “Melbourne Symphony Orchestra” and someone came up and said “he wonderful, let’s get him” because you are there with the Melbourne Symphony. They already know about you. It’s always when you are playing at the school fete or with a dreadful Rhythm section or a dive of an Italian restaurant in New York. So listen and play to get good at your craft, and then perform every chance you get anywhere with anyone. Answer the phone with ‘I’ll do it!’ and play as much as you can because that’s how you get jobs – by being heard. Every job you do is your audition for the next job.

CM: James, can you guide the readers of aflatmajor.com through the collaborative process between the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and yourself in regards to the upcoming concert?

JM: It’s fairly simple; I get with the artistic people at MSO and talk about a concept. They say we’d like to have, we want to do this thing, and will you come and do it?  More often with me, and the MSO particularly, they will say we would like to do something with you again, what will we do this time? And we start with a clean sheet and so the framework is, this is the MSO and James Morrison. Where does that leave us?

We could do so many things like a night of Latin music and so then, once we have come up with an idea, it’s an organic process tossing things back and forth and you hone it into something. We thought… what about a journey through Jazz? What about we do all the styles, because you start to think about if I’m going to do a Jazz thing with the Orchestra, that’s the first question! Will it be a Jazz thing, or will it be something else, or a cross over of things of some sort? Yes, it’s going to be Jazz, which style? Is really the next question, so the answer to the question this time was all of them! Well not all of them, but a selection and let’s do it chronologically.

Let’s do the journey that Jazz took, because to get to things like Weather Report doing Bird Land, Louis Armstrong had to play the Bass in ‘Street Blues’ because that led to this, which led to that. It’s the evolution of music. So the music itself had to take this journey, why don’t we go and take it? That was the thought. Let the audience take the same journey the music took or an executive summary of the journey of Jazz. You couldn’t do it in one night, you couldn’t do it in a week, but certainly you could touch on these main points and people will be able to experience how one style of the music lead to the other. I’ll be narrating too in between the pieces, and sort of saying well this happened because so and so heard that the music, went here, and then let’s have an example of it.

You rarely get a gig because you had this fantastic gig with the “Melbourne Symphony Orchestra” and someone came up and said “he wonderful, let’s get him” because you are there with the Melbourne Symphony. They already know about you.

Once we got there and said, “that’s great, let’s just choose some material”, there was a lot of back and forth. What about this? What about that? And when out of the wish list, which ones can we get charts for? Who will we get to write them? And you choose a range based on the style because we have so many styles – there are some guys who are going to do a much better job on a swing thing than they are on a funky. It is a really collaborative process and it’s one that’s a bit organic at the first stage. We don’t get together and say should we do Beethoven night? Yes, ok great. There’s a lot of work to be done though and a whole lot of musicality to be worked out for the program of a concert, particularly if it’s going to be that and some other pieces of that, though not the same at all. It’s quite organic.

Three months into it we are still deciding on what to do because based on what we know, we go “hang on, don’t we need this kind of piece then there now?” So it keeps evolving and then at the end of the day, we end up with this. What’s great about it is that we haven’t done this program before and I’m sure the orchestra has lots of programs that they have never done before, but no one’s actually done this program before. Someone somewhere has done this concept, let’s do a history of Jazz, but they haven’t done this program. They haven’t done these pieces or these arrangements. No one’s played these arrangements, well most of them. And this story, and the way we are going to tell the story, it’s a brand new thing. It’s really exciting to “create” with the Orchestra. Given all those things I’ve said about the incredible palette you’ve got sound wise to create with, now let’s see what we do with it. So even we don’t know. I know how wonderful the experience will be I can tell, and after this much time, so can the artistic team here.

Having someone like Ben Northey as a Conductor is absolutely essential because he is very comfortable with the Orchestra and they in turn, are very comfortable with him, and are completely comfortable with a Jazz band. So when I go “I think we need to do another half a chorus”, some conductors will say: “Hang on where’s that, what’s that, you want to put a repeat in where?” You can just tell they are uncomfortable. If it’s written, don’t mess with it. Where as he is like “yeah” and he even on stage during the performance, I’ve looked over at him sometimes and the things we’ve done and sort of done, you know, bit more, and he’ll just go with it and not bring the Orchestra in, and they are all looking at him saying our 16 bar rest is up. But they trust him and they are relaxed and he brings it in when it’s ready because something has happened organically over here – I’ve said this will be a better performance if we give this some more time, and that’s not a way many conductors are comfortable working and he really is.

CM: James, there is an illustrious and rich list of Jazz and Blues repertoire being performed for this concert. Are there pieces that you consider quintessential repertoire that didn’t make the list?

JM: It was the beginning and the end I usually think I like about any performance. Even if I’m just going to play in a club, I’m thinking what are we going to start with and what are we going to finish with, because then you know where you are going and you know where you’ve got to end up.  That sort of informs the whole thing.

I thought, “Journey through Jazz”, it’s going to be chronologically, it makes sense. It’s not just convenience, it’s not just a neat marketing idea, it’s a musical thing. The music itself had to pass through Swing on the way from Dixieland to get to Big Band, so we should too. We could just do it out of order, but for the audience to hear how the music developed, you’ve got to do it chronologically. I heard ‘Basement Street Blues’, and said, “It’s got to start there”. It could start earlier with some Ray Thomas, but to me, it’s Louis Armstrong ‘Basement Street Blues’. That’s really Jazz for me. Where do we go to because it’s still happening today and I said no… It had done this incredible journey and by the time it got to the fusion, I said let’s finish with ‘Bird Land’. I know the history of the music intimately so I could sort of go let’s use these bits along the way to show the journey from Armstrong to Zaralone.

The answer to that is both a yes and a no. There are so many pieces I love – there are all sorts of things that should be on there, absolutely, and there is more than one, there’s a number. At the same time, the answer is no, it’s fine because we’ve got the main points. Along the way we have got really good examples of those points.  It’s representative and there are all sorts of other off-shoots like Salsa. We touch on Latin Jazz with the influence it has on mainstream Jazz. There are so many different areas you could go to – you’ve got to touch on Miles Davis, but which part of his career? The only obvious missing thing is any free-form Jazz and that’s because by the very nature of what it is, you can’t do that sort of thing so easily with an Orchestra.

Having someone like Ben Northey as a Conductor is absolutely essential because he is very comfortable with the Orchestra and they in turn, are very comfortable with him, and are completely comfortable with a Jazz band.

You could write something for the Orchestra that sounds like Freeform Jazz – I won’t do that because it’s not Freeform. It’s written and that’s actually what that music is about. It’s not about the sound; It’s about how it is created. To ask the musicians of the Orchestra to improvise Freeform, you could do it but with many players it would be difficult. You could have Freeform Elements and write something for the Orchestra to go around your Freeform playing, but it’s not the essence of that music. All the styles of Jazz can be organized enough whilst still allowing plenty of room for improvisation. I think we have touched on enough to give you the journey in a couple of hours.

It’s a complete journey in that if you are not familiar with all of this music, you could get to anywhere in Jazz from what we are playing and it will give to junctions, if you like, for you to go on your own journey. This is not a complete journey, but it’s enough to get you anywhere. There’s nowhere you can’t get to from where we stop

The first concert in the MSO Pops series A Journey Through Jazz: From Louis Armstrong to Herbie Hancock will be held on Saturday 8th March, 2014  at 7pm, followed by a matinee on Sunday 9th March, 2014 at 2pm at the Arts Centre, Melbourne. 

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