James Morrison and Allan Zavod in Munich at Trumpet Concerto 2002



Article by: Allan Zavod;
Extracted From Australian Musician Magazine

Most people in Australia know of James Morrison as an exceptionally talented trumpet player. Fans of his music will also know that he is a multi instrumentalist, as comfortable on trombone as he is with a trumpet or any number of other brass instruments. Fewer people again would be aware of the amount of time James spends annually overseas trading licks with some of the world's finest jazz musicians. Morrison has just returned to Australia having completed his new album "The European Sessions", a jazz recording of a quartet he put together featuring Ali Jackson on drums (Winton Marsalis), French bass player Pierre Boussaguet and local guitarist and long time friend, Peter Zorg.

Regular Australian Musician contributor and respected international piano maestro Allan Zavod, spoke to Morrison soon after his arrival back into the country. Zavod composed a concerto for trumpet jazz trio orchestras which he performed with Morrison and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra last year. They are currently discussing performing the work overseas with some of the great orchestras of the world and musical giants like Lalo Shifrin.

In this exclusive interview Allan asks James about the concerto experience, the development of a secret new electronic trumpet and of course the new album.

Allan: Tell me about "The European Sessions". You've put a 'band' together for this as opposed to hiring individual session musicians...

James: You would know in the world that we're in there is a gig and you've got a bass player then you need someone on piano then it's not necessarily a band, but a collection of very fine musicians, but it's not a band. So once you get to a stage that the guys write material for those musicians, and when I wrote things I did it in mind that Pierre would be playing and so on. So you write for that band and everything that band plays is written for the band by the band and it has a different feel than who is on bass tonight and what do you want to play.

Allan: What's the approach to the recording technique. Did you all play live and straight down?

James: Yep. We just needed to be that way for the type of music. We actually started with a bit of isolation. We did it at the Bauer Studios in Germany and, of course, there's lots of history in that place. I've got several recordings of Miles Davis there. So we got in there and we started with some isolation, you know, like a bit of a booth around the drums. Engineers often like to do that. We started and then we stopped and we said this is not working musically and we ended up setting up so that we were all actually facing the one way. Just like we would in a gig, close together, and then it all happened musically. I said you can capture the sound, I don't need the isolation, because if we play like this you are not going to want to drop anything out because it's not that sort of music, and it worked wonderfully.

Allan: Sounds like you needed a live audience in there.

James: Just about, yeah. We all faced the one way, rather than at each other and we were looking at the control room and there were several people in there having a listen and we basically played to this audience of six. But it was great and it was in the middle of a tour which is always great. The night before we had been in concert somewhere and we had been on the road for sort of a week or two and it was a performance in the middle of the tour captured. You're really relaxed and warmed up and you get into this rhythm of playing each night and we travel together and eat together. You get this sort of feeling that it's like a family. If you have a night off, you get this funny feeling that we all should be doing something. We had the day to just sit around and eat and do other things and talk about it and we went in just like we were going to a gig and that was the rhythm. It was time to play.

Allan: You wouldn't happen to know what type of studio equipment you were using to capture that like what kind of microphones for example?

James: We mainly used Neumanns, especially on my horns. We didn't use a pick up on the bass and plug that into an amp then mic it or anything like that. We just put a microphone quite away away, like where you would stand like five or six metres away from the bass sound. So that's where we put the mic to capture the sound because if you put your ear next to the f hole on the bass it doesn't sound like it does when you stand a few feet in front of it. It actually sounds better.

Allan: So does that apply to horns?

James: It does to a certain extent. I probably had quite a distance from the mic to the horn compared to what you might normally see, but to do that of course you have to have a great room. Or if the room's very dead then the sound isn't that great a few feet away, you tend to mic it close and then get into the digital reverb and all that. But we had great sounding room.

Allan: Does it have an echo room. You know an empty room, just behind you where it's just picking up natural echo.

James: There is natural echo, but it's not done like that. There are different surfaces in the room. You get advice from the engineer on where to set up and we got this great sound. He just stood there and said yeah the band sounds great here, now all we've got to do is capture that with the microphone. So you just put them where you would stand to listen to it, to a certain extent. That's just another way of approaching it and he was recording on a 48 track digital Studer It's nice to see a Studer. After all those years, I'm sure many of us have done recordings on the Studer analogue recorders and it's nice to see a modern digital Studer, which means that they're staying in the game. For a while there they just sort of went digital. So we know everything is going digital, if it hasn't already gone, but a nice machine. Right down to the sort of woodgrain on the controls. You know totally unnecessary, but a bit of tactile sensation there.

Allan: Did you use a producer?

James: Basically we do it ourselves in the situation like that. I mean it's not like a situation where you would go to the control room and talk to a producer and say I think this and I think that because it's a performance and what it is is what it is and there may be some things in there that technically speaking, I don't mean from a recording point of view, I mean from a playing point of view that aren't perfect, but I don't produce it and say come on let's have another go at that because that note was a bit ... that takes away from what that sort of recording is about.

Allan: It's what it is that's the key to it?

James: Yeah, there are recordings where you do do that, you go and fix notes and you do this and you do that and that's for a different reason, but this is about a feeling, a groove, and a vibe. You know that's not a fix for that type of situation.

Allan: It's a feel?

James: And that feel is more important than whether I split a note. I mean Miles (Davis) made a career out of splitting notes and it sounded great.

Allan: You have a beautiful album then... Are you happy with it?

James: Yeah, yeah, I am. It does what it was supposed to do, you know, I mean I don't think you ever listen to anything where, and I'm sure you are the same where you go, gee I could have done this better or that better or I would like to do that differently, but the fact of the matter is that as we just said it's now what it's about it does what it was supposed to do and it captures how we were playing and how we were feeling at that time.

Allan: Great, let's talk about the electronic trumpet that you are developing in Newcastle. Can you describe it for us?

James: To a certain extent it is in development.

Allan: Is it a secret?

James: Yes, it is. The details are a secret, obviously because it's a technological work in development. But the idea behind it is that there are all these wonderful worlds of sounds available ... and instruments that you can create and this is very exciting to me, but you have to be a keyboard player to access this. There have been certain things you know ... Akai made some. I've got one of the Akai trumpets and one of Yamaha's saxophones.

Allan: They are a force.

James: Yeah, Nothing yet, as a trumpeter has really done it, you know what I mean.

Allan: You mean like a kind of keyboard sound?

James: And it just doesn't quite take advantage of your breath and your lip position and everything enough and none of them really accepted standard trumpet fingering to a great extent.

Allan: So can you create harmonies and chords with it?

James: Yes you can. But what we're really looking for is that a trumpeter can pick this up and whilst, of course, it's not a trumpet, it will have certain controls and things that are necessary for a trumpet to have. It will respond and feel like a trumpet, but then be able to access all these other sounds, and one of the biggest things it can access is like an eight octave range. You know that you just can't access on a trumpet and things like that and so we're working on getting around the technicalities without making it a technical thing to play.

That's the trouble with any of them that I have tried so far, they end up being like typing rather than playing, so we're trying to make it work like that, plus it's got to have a vibe about it, like an instrument. Like when I pick up a trumpet and look at it with that big flared bell and you know it looks like a gun, you know. It looks like a weapon, it looks like an instrument of some sort of energy. Most performers do, like when you pick it up. You know if you got a person from another planet and said well have a look at this, I mean it looks like it's for blowing in one end and sound coming out the other. It's got this thing about it. I think that's somehow important to a musician, when you pick up a thing that looks like a stick with buttons on it you have already got this feeling like I am now going to control the sound from here down rather than make the sound here.

Steve Marshall is the guy that I am working on it with. He's the boss and he is one of these electronic and engineering wizards and I'm sort of the musical side of things and the trumpet player, although he is an amateur trumpet player himself, so this is why he got interested in it in the first place. But what we are trying to do is create an instrument that looks serious and you go, hey this is something for playing and makes you feel a certain way about the music before you pick it up and that what it is more of an holistic approach to this rather than sort of the approach of starting with silicon chips and working back.

Allan: Tell us about your experiences with the concerto for trumpet jazz trio orchestras that we did together for the Adelaide Symphony orchestra last year...

James: When you get together to make music with one other person it's a whole different world than doing it on your own of course and then as you add more people there is collective music being made. To me the whole idea of standing there with the number of musicians that you are with in itself creates an atmosphere.

Then the fact that you are taking the symphony orchestra, which has a vibe all of its own and it's got this huge sort of tradition and as well as apart from the actual sound that is available, it is just this thing, that sitting in front of the symphony orchestra things get serious. Mixing that with a jazz trio and a soloist straight away to me is either going to go one way or the other.

It's either going to be... well you are going to say well you know let's just try to put these things together, but they don't really go together, and that I've heard happen many times unfortunately. Here's a bit of trio, here's a bit of symphony, here's a bit of trio. Or it's going to go the other way and somehow, and I'll tell you how in a sec, it excels and it becomes a new instrument. The symphony orchestra, the trio and the soloist is an instrument. If that happens then it's greater than ...some of its parts and it's very exciting to be a part of and the way that it happens is the composer.

We can interpret it, we can put ourselves into it as we do, but if the composer hasn't given us this instrument to play and he has given us two instruments that don't go together well then it's all lost at the start, and in this case, of course, it just worked from the word go. The trio played differently than they would have in any other time and the orchestra played differently than they would have in any other time, and we met.

We met, not in the middle, but we met in another place. We met on planet Zavod. (laughter all round) It took us all to a new place. You created a setting for us to meet at. So yes, in essence, in a long answer to your question. It is a major thing because the chances of that happening are so slim and it happens in so few times in your life that when they do it is a major event. It is a musical event that is not only a gig, but far more than that it is one of those things that shapes your musical being.

Allan: How do you see its future as part of your repertoire?

James: Well I guess there are two sides to that. One is ... the more opportunities for us to play it and for people to hear it is very important. That is the upside. The downside is of course that the nature of the work, if it was a thing for piano and trumpet we could do it every night of the week starting tomorrow, but the fact is that it does require a symphony orchestra and a lot of rehearsal and a lot of logistics which means that it is not going to happen every night.

In a way perhaps there is a place for that too. It just makes it all the more special when it does happen. Not something that you just do at the drop of a hat. You know just one other thing for the magazine about things like this... there is a need... there is a hunger for them. People are looking for new works, innovative works.

Things that they want to be fantastic. It will always to be wonderful to hear the great classical composers played by a symphony orchestra and it will always be wonderful to hear jazz groups playing Duke Ellington, but people want to hear this century's and this time's Duke Ellingtons so far.

Mozart couldn't write a symphony orchestra in jazz trio with a soloist. It didn't exist. So that's really what it is. People say well where is the next thing coming from. They want to hear new music.

Allan: Now tell me a bit about the scholarship fund you have just been doing. It is now a very well known thing, but I'd like to discuss it with you. I know your heart is in it too.

James: It is the James Morrison Jazz Scholarship. It is presented by a group of people called Generations in Jazz and the reason they exist as the names suggests is that is started with a bunch of, as they call themselves old blokes, who have been playing jazz all their lives and they wanted to do something to foster young talent. So under their auspice it was set up. Now this year is now the tenth year of the scholarship. And we're really thrilled about how it has gone and grown over the years.

Along the way we set the six finalists and soloists to come and there is one winner. We wanted to involve more people and they said well what about the next level down from there is stage bands. A little bit younger than that kid. Well then what are they doing? Well they are in high school playing in stage bands. So we started a national stage band competition and that started out with five or six bands, which was around 100 kids and that's grown over the last five years, this year we had 21 stage bands from all over the country. They get in buses and some travel 12,000 kms to come.

Allan: Where is it?

James: In Mt Gambier it takes place.

Allan: I see, so that's where you've just been on the weekend.

James: Yeah. So all that is taking place and they have some pieces of their own choice to do and then I also write like a test piece, a set piece for them all to do each year. It's just wonderful the involvement. Of course the great thing is that all those young kids who are in the average age of 14-15 in these stage bands can just sit there and watch the 19 year olds who are the soloists perform and they are the ones going for the scholarships. That inspires them.

We have found now that over the last few years that some of our finalists, quite a few of them now are former stage band people that have been before. It's creating this sort of path, if you like, that where do I go if I love jazz, but I'm just in a big band at school what do I do next? Well now this is just pointing the way of other things that they can do to help further their career.

I think what jazz is about as far as this side of things goes is maybe ... call it jazz education, and sometimes I hesitate to use that term because you don't really teach people to play jazz, but what it is about really is that jazz is a old tradition that is passed on from generation to generation. You don't learn jazz out of a book. There are some wonderful books to read to get some insights, but in the end you listen to people play who are further down the track from you and get inspired to learn from them and so on and so on, for generations, this is what has been happening, and that's what it is about and really I look at the greatest opportunity here is just how it happened for me getting to play with older musicians and people that had been doing it longer and better than me.

Now there is an opportunity, as you say, for young kids to hear what we do because we perform for them on the weekend too and on it goes and one day the 14 year old who played a great saxophone solo that I heard and I got him up on the last day to do a bit of a blow with us. Well one day he is going to be 55 and he's going to be playing and young people are going to be listening to him and getting inspired and saying well I want to sound like that. I just think that that is the survival of the music.

Allan: Well you learned to play both classically and in a jazz way. You had no formal classical training. Would you recommend formal music training?

James: Well yes and no. It's a sensible question, but one that doesn't really have a valid answer. Well what it is is that there is no practising technique as such. In retrospect there is, but there is no approach to it that way. I mean, it is kind of like saying that someone went to school and learned carpentry and learned how to make a chair and another guy was given a chair. If you sit there and look at how a chair is made long enough and have several goes and the first ones won't work... but after a while if you keep looking at this chair, this good one and trying, you will find a way of making a chair. Once you learned a way to copy that chair and go right back and say now I want to make a chair like I want, but I've learned how to make chairs. That's really all I did, just listened to these people and tried and played. You know sometimes it would be woeful, and you get better and better and you strive for this sound, and you say look I want to sound like that, I want to do this and after a while you go okay, now I know what they are doing, here's what I would do and you gain the skills first. It's really just like that.

There is nothing terribly difficult about it. There is no great mystery to it. You know just look, listen, learn and try and eventually you will work out what is going on rather than sitting down formally and having someone explain it to you. And practice this and this will lead you to be able to do that. You have just found your own path.

Allan: I find some academic training doesn't hurt for some.

James: Not at all, for some people it's essential, for others it's just a nice addition, but no, I don't think it hurts at all, because we are all heading for the same place. What I say to them is take every opportunity. If someone says we have got a formal arranging lesson and would you like to come, say yes please. If someone says well actually what I am doing tonight is just jamming with no changes, do you want to come. Yes I do. Take it all, experience it all from every angle.

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