Taking Off: James Morton

As the Bristol scene becomes increasingly self-confident and highly talented players pour out of the city seeking wider exposure, Frederick Bernas profiles the latest to make a splash, saxophonist James Morton.

“I don’t class myself as a jazz musician,” says James Morton. This 26-year-old saxophonist’s philosophy reflects the Bristol music scene that has nurtured him. The city has attracted recent attention in the jazz world, with The Blessing taking home the Best Album gong from this year’s BBC Jazz Awards and a string of ear-catching performances at Glastonbury’s Jazz Lounge. Morton, however, keenly emphasises its position as “a real hub of creativity in a very eclectic way” and his passion for other forms of music is crystal clear.

“I’m not one of those people who was obsessed by jazz from a really young age, although I was listening to it. I’ve always loved funk, reggae, soul, motown and dance music. Being a saxophone player, I think everyone has the expectation that jazz is the predominant thing, but for me it wasn’t that way. Jazz was secondary in my musical journey; it’s now very important to me, but I discovered it later.”

Growing up in Cheddar, a village near Bristol, Morton’s first instrument was the violin: “I started playing when I was five, but when I was nine I looked at the saxophone and thought it was sexy and tactile – I thought ‘yeah, I want to play that!’ A violin case doesn’t look cool, but if you walk around with a saxophone a few girls might look at you,” he says with a cheekily confident air. A couple of years later he was gigging regularly with older musicians, earning money and drawing inspiration from how “playing, rehearsing and performing became a normal part of life.”

After leaving school at 16, Morton graduated from the Guildhall jazz masters course age 22. He returned to Bristol and has been mentored by Andy Sheppard and Pee Wee Ellis, both of whom he is quick to acknowledge as major influences. Touring with Ellis’ African Tribute to James Brown project has been fruitful – “I’m learning an amazing amount. Every gig, every rehearsal, every moment I’m absorbing. It’s a few different categories: horn section playing, concentration, building solos, grabbing an audience, listening… I could go on forever.”

A productive relationship with Sheppard took off when the talismanic tenorman showed up at Morton’s residency in a small Bristol wine bar, Luna. “The first bit of advice he gave me was to get a stable house band, as I’d been using different people every week. When I did, he came and played a gig with us and I started hanging out with him more. We’ve done a few gigs now – the project is called ‘James Morton and the Luna-tics featuring Andy Sheppard’ and I feel very privileged to be working with him. He’s taught me a lot about approaching solos, jazz composition and even valuable skills like presenting yourself to promoters and that kind of business angle.”

This understanding of the need to pick up information from those with greater know-how was boldly apparent. When asked about his ambitions, Morton replies: “For now, I want to keep on working with really inspirational people who are more experienced than I am. I feel I am still very much learning about playing and writing music.” And he is adamant there is no better place to do it than Bristol.

“Bristol is kicking off musically. There are loads of young players coming through, getting better very quickly, and there’s some really good stuff going on. I don’t want to stick with the jazz thing – the scene is very diverse. There’s some great reggae music by Dub From Atlantis, which I’m loosely involved with. Edenheight is a 10-piece funk collective I’ve been working and recording with. James Gardiner-Bateman and Josh Arcoleo are talented sax players and look out for Bellatrix, a bebop-playing bassist and award-winning beatboxer who is currently studying in London.”

As for his own projects, in addition to the Luna-tics Morton currently leads a “nine-piece soul and hip-hop influenced jazz-funk thing” called The Rawness. “In between touring and gigging, I’m working hard to develop the band – it’s getting there, I’m still writing. I hope to have something finished by early autumn.” Once again demonstrating a full awareness of the challenges this can entail, he admits that “the way I recorded it the first time didn’t match the sound in my head, so I’m re-recording in a different way. You have to make mistakes; making records and playing gigs are two completely different sports. I’m learning a lot by doing things, not being happy, and doing it again.”

This calm level-headedness stems from an iron desire to succeed as a solo artist, rather than going down the hallowed session road. “I’ve always been headstrong about the things I do. I decided I wanted to make a living out of music and nothing’s got in the way.” Nominations for the Jerwood Foundation Take Five scheme and the Promoters’ Choice Award pay testament to his vision and drive. “I want to sell records, see my name in lights and be an amazing musician… with people who are better than me! I want to be able to choose the musicians I want to work with and the venues I want to play.” With a work ethic that produced 8-10 hours’ practice per day in the run up to his Guildhall audition, the alto player is obviously not lacking commitment.

Morton’s modus operandi also stresses the need for a fiery live persona: “To me there’s more than just playing notes, I like to perform and give people a show, which is part of communication and entertainment. I’m much more an emotional player than an intellectual player. I want to make people move without thinking about it. I want to make people dance, to give them tingles down their spine and make asses shake uncontrollably. That’s my thing. I’m not really a beard-scratcher, I don’t want to go down the beard-scratching audience route. I want to make music that sounds good and feels good and makes people happy.” Amen to that.

Published in Jazzwise, October 2008.