Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A Short Chat with Jazz Musician James Morrison


James Morrison, 51, is one of the greats of the contemporary jazz music scene. Having already achieved stardom in his native Australia for playing a breathtaking number of instruments including soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones, clarinet, flugelhorn, bass trumpet, trombone, euphonium, tuba, double bass, guitar and piano, he left for the US in search of greater success and found it, making waves by collaborating with bigger legends like Ray Charles and BB King. In town for the first ever Singapore International Jazz Festival in which he will be playing on a Steinway Concert Grand Model B, James Morrison discusses why it is the ideal piano for an evening of spontaneous jazz playing.

Hi Mr. Morrison, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Is this your first time performing in Singapore?

Nope, I've been to Singapore many times for the Brass Explosion! Festival, but this is the first time I'm performing in Singapore in an international jazz festival.

What will you be presenting in this concert?

I played in the opening concert with the big band. The great thing about being in an international jazz festival is that we have people coming from all over the world to do their own concerts but we got to put a lot of them together last night to make a big band. People from the UK Jazzmasters, from Incognito and local musicians, even some players from the Singapore Symphony all came together to form a big band for the opening concert. And then, I will do my own concert tomorrow night at the outdoor stage. I'm playing with musicians from here, which is always very nice. I always enjoy doing that.

Will we get to see you perform on many different instruments?

Yes, but I'm not sure exactly what they will be. Maybe the trumpet, trombone, saxophone, flugelhorn and piano.

So you haven't got your set planned out yet?

Yeah, we've had a rehearsal just now to get some things together, but its jazz. So it’s nice to live a little loose and see what happens.

So how did you find the piano that you have been rehearsing with so far? Like it?

Yes, the piano was wonderful! It was a Steinway B. With the different makes of pianos available today, some brands are brighter and some are heavier. The Steinway allows you to go either way as it encompasses both features. You can have the brightness you need, particularly important for jazz, but it also has some nice depth and warmth which is good when you are playing a ballad or slow number.

I find that with other brands, the touch and sound can be a bit heavy; they are good for those features but they do not have the sparkle, whereas some other pianos can be a bit light, so yes the Steinway seems to be capable of doing both. Obviously it’s also about how it’s tuned and regulated. It gives you all the sounds that you need for jazz.

You see jazz is not a style. It’s a genre, and there are many styles within it. And to play jazz, particularly in a festival where there are many different acts, you need a piano that can be used in many different ways and can really occupy all of those sounds. I find that with a Steinway, particularly a B, you can get all those sounds you need out of it, which is great.

I've seen you improvise on the piano and find that really amazing, and also considering the fact that you play so many other instruments in an equally breathtaking way. Do you have a preference as to the weight of the keys? Something heavier or lighter perhaps?

Again, I like a little of both; naturally the bottom keys of any piano are heavier; the hammers are bigger and the strings are thicker. But I like the fact that the Steinway B gradates from heavy to light in quite a linear way. Some pianos are quite heavy and the transition can be very abrupt as it goes up. I find often that with the Steinway, particularly a B, that it’s quite linear, which is good. Otherwise you become self-conscious about where these places are, where it changes on the piano. So either you play over it or you try to avoid it or something. When it’s linear, you are able to play anywhere with more freedom without worrying about how the touch is going to be.

And the touch suits the sound. Where it is light at the top, that is perfect. Because that is how it is sounding: it is brighter and lighter. And as it gradually gets heavier with the weight of the hammers and so on, so does the sound.

Of course while this is due to the manufacture of the piano, it is also really important to have good people to tune and regulate the piano and look after it, especially if you have to play outdoors in a climate like Singapore's. But even if the tuning goes out, because it is impossible for any piano to be in tune perfectly in the humid Singapore climate, that touch doesn't seem to change, which is nice.

It does give you more control...

Yes, more control over the sound that you want to make. Because Jazz is all about you expressing yourself! I know when you play classical music, it is still about the artist expressing themselves, but they are interpreting something that is written by Beethoven or Mozart or others. Whereas in jazz, although there are great composers that we are interpreting, it’s more about “How do I feel?”, and more importantly, “How do I feel NOW?” It is very spontaneous music making. So if you feel a certain way, you need to be able to get that sound.

Now you need to be able to trust that the instrument will be able to capture the sound or create the sound you want. And the palette of sounds available from a great piano like this [a Steinway] means that whatever you feel like playing at a certain time, you are going to be able to find it in the piano. If you were playing a certain piano concerto, you might choose a certain type of piano that is heavier and dark, because it suits the piece, but with jazz you don't know yet what you are going to need.

So it needs to have a more multi-purpose function?

You're right, but I hesitate to use the word 'multi-purpose' because most people think that if something can do everything then it is not good at any one thing. But that's not true.

It’s the flexibility that this piano offers?

It’s the flexibility because the Steinway is great for all of these things. It gives you the choice that even during a song when you say, I feel like doing this now, and you know that the piano will come with you. That's all you can want and ask for in a great piano.

What do you enjoy most about Singapore? Ever visited for holidays?

Not really. Being a musician I travel all the time, when I have a holiday, I stay home! But I've had the chance to look around Singapore. I love Singapore, it’s a fascinating place. We were playing at the Flower Dome the other night for a function. I was looking at the engineering and have never seen anything like this any place of the world. An air-conditioned forest! But I have to say that with all the fantastic things Singapore has, what it doesn't have until now is an international jazz festival. And I might be biased, but I think for a place to be a really iconic destination, it’s got to have a jazz festival. Now it has one!

The Steinway Gallery Singapore is located at Palais Renaissance 390 Orchard Road #01-02. Visit http://www.steinway-gallery.com.sg for more information.

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