FOCUS catches up with James Morrison. With a love for music and performing since a young age James Morrison is an inspiration to other Jazz performers.
James, you’ve been playing instruments since the age of 7 and performing for audiences since 15. What impact did starting to play so early have on your career?
I guess it meant that I gained a lot of experience very early, and that helped me learn much faster. It meant that when I ran into people, like when I was 16 and met Don Burrows and was taken into his Quintette then and started to tour all over the country with him, by the time I was 16 I had been working for 3 years and had that experience under my belt. So bottom line, starting so young hurried things along – but I also loved doing it so much that I didn’t want to wait.
Why Jazz … what was it about this genre of music that inspired you?
It is just the feel of it. It is very hard to describe what it is, but you know it when you hear it. And also, one aspect of it I enjoyed is that so much of Jazz is an improvisation, and it’s the personal expression that I really like. I was never a kid who wanted to sit in school and be taught – I always wanted to learn it my own way. Like with the music, rather than reading what someone else wrote (although I do do that), I’d rather improvise.
Aside from the success you’ve had as a Jazz musician, you have also been involved in teaching children around the world to play music too. Tell us about that.
Well, firstly I love to do it, as I love teaching. But also, this music that I love so much, it survives because one generation passes it on to the next, and it is not something that you can learn out of a book, or just hear it on the radio or see it on TV all the time – it actually has to be passed on. So I look on it as the responsibility of someone who gets so much out of this music, that it’s what I have to do to ensure its survival. Also, it is a great privilege to be there and see when someone gets inspired … to be standing there when the ‘lights come on’ for someone, and being not just there for it, but being the cause of it. That is truly inspirational for me.
You have written numerous scores for movies and events over the years. Tell us about one that was a highlight for you …
Well, you don’t get a bigger gig than when they ask you to write the opening fanfare for the Olympic Games! I sat down to write it, and for some reason I started it with a solo trumpet very high. I said to them, “Ooohh, we’ll have to get someone to do that!” (Laughs.) “Have you got anyone in mind?”
But it was great to be asked to write it, and it is something you write that will be there forever.
How does the process of writing and composing evolve with such an important piece?
I got a fairly detailed brief and you know sort of what the piece has to do, but then you ask yourself, “Ok, how do I make it not just another fanfare? What is going to make it stand out that it was written by me?” … rather than someone who can just write a good fanfare, say. Obviously, it had to have a Jazz element to it and how was I going to get that into a fanfare?
For me, the process varies. I don’t have a ‘work time’ and it isn’t just sitting down to think about what I am going to do or how I am going to do it, as I have so much going on – more than just music. I like sailing and I fly and all sorts of things, so while I am doing all those other things, you never know when the ideas are going to come up. I always ensure I have a piece of manuscript paper with me, just in case.
You are coming to Port Macquarie for two shows, one at Panthers and one at North Haven Club. Is this part of a tour?
It’s funny you should ask that, as someone asked me the other day how long this tour is – and I answered, “So far … 38 years!” (Laughs.) I don’t know where one tour ends and the other begins!
I’ll be in Brisbane before these shows with my big band, so it is part of a tour in a way, but it’s more so that it was on our way south and we thought, “Yes, we can fit it in and get together in Port Macquarie”.
Regional playing is such an important part of what we do. I just finished a 6-night tour around South Australia. I really enjoyed it, and the audiences really enjoyed it too.
Importantly, for connecting with the youth in regional areas, who may not have the opportunities that you find in, say, Melbourne or Sydney, I like to redress that … go and play in places, so that we can have contact with those younger musicians out there. It is so often in a place like Port Macquarie or North Haven that you find the next wonderful young players.
What should audiences expect from these upcoming performances? Will you be playing anything new?
I never know exactly what we are going to do; we don’t plan it ahead of time, as we have such a large repertoire. We choose it based on the atmosphere of the night. Often when we are playing with the youth, that will change the colour of the night too. What I can say is come along on the night, and you are guaranteed a good time!