Scott Wegener talks with a man who likes his music with two kinds of “gospel.”
Signs of the Times cover article, September 2005.There’s no denying the musical talent of James Morrison. Not only does he play several instruments, he can play them with amazing rapidity, multi-octave versatility, creative improvisation and, most importantly, emotion. (Just listen to his rendering of “The Old Rugged Cross,” for example.) Taken together, it’s not surprising, then, he’s among the best-loved musicians in the world.
James has been playing since the age of seven. He formed his first band at nine, and has played professional gigs since he was 13. But it’s possible he may have taken a different career path.
“When I was in my late teens I thought I would preach, because my dad’s a preacher,” he says. “I did a lay preachers course and fairly quickly decided I probably had more to offer with a trumpet in my hands than behind a pulpit. I have been playing ever since.”
Though brought up and initiated into the trumpet jazz style as a youth at church, now, 30 years and more than 15 albums later, he’s produced the first fully gospel album of his own.
“On my secular albums I’ve often included a track of a gospel number,” he says. “The response to that has been people saying, ‘That’s fantastic, we love that. Why don’t you do a whole gospel album?’ It’s been on my list of things to do. I’m sure you have a list too, and you look after five years—and some things are still there!”
James is supported on the album with vocals from Emma Pask, the group Idea of North, and Neilson Gough—the son of Neil Gough, whose jazz trombone playing intrigued James enough to lead him to taking up jazz when he was just a kid.
While the album is titled “Gospel Collection,” by definition the album could have been called “Gospel Gospel Collection.”
“Gospel music—the term really has two meanings,” James explains. “One is a way of saying Christian music or music about the gospel. Another meaning is gospel as in the style of music. Not all Christian music is gospel music. You can have folk, rock, jazz or gospel music that is Christian. This gospel collection is Christian music, but it’s specifically also gospel-music style, with the right kind of rhythm section, horns and choir making a gospel music sound. I grew up with gospel music, meaning both Christian and the style, and that’s very much what I wanted to do with this gospel collection.”
Making the jump from a secular album to an entire gospel (Christian) album may not be considered by many as a recipe for success. But James says that depends on your definition of success.
“Success is the effect it has on each individual. If only one person ever heard this album, how would we measure that success? After hearing it, did they get the message, did they get the inspiration, and did they feel what all the other musicians and I felt when we played and sang it? If they did, that’s a success. So far, people who have spoken to me look and sound inspired. So we’re doing well.”
The idea of gospel (Christian) music in heaven seems to make sense. However, the music we’re to look forward to in heaven is often portrayed as white-cloud-sitting, solemn-harp-playing. But James has his own idea.
“Heaven’s got to include a lot of trumpets,” he laughs. “In the Bible it keeps saying ‘and the trumpet shall sound.’ It never says ‘and the guitar shall sound’ or ‘the piano shall sound,’ so I figure there’s got to be lots of trumpets.
“Gabriel plays the trumpet, we’ve got angels playing the trumpet, we’ve got trumpets sounding every time something happens—I don’t know where the harp thing comes from, but it certainly mentions trumpets.”
As a trumpeter myself, I know that music can have your toes tapping with delight or your eyes watering with tears. And James can play a style to evoke any emotion. But how does this happen? How does one become so emotionally involved in a song? After all, it’s just soundwaves congregating in our ears. James says it all depends on the feeling and intent of the performers.
“Sound is a physical thing, but music is not,” he says. “Music is an emotional and spiritual thing. Sound is just waves in the air. When we sit and listen to music, there are soundwaves travelling through the air and hitting our eardrums, and so on. However, the important thing going on is the emotion or the spiritual feeling of the person performing the music. They then transfer it to the person listening to the music. Perhaps the sound is a carrier of the feeling, but it isn’t the important thing. This has been something I’ve been very aware of when I perform in front of audiences. You can tell when they are picking up on how you feel about the music and not just the notes you are playing.”
So if music is the transferring of feelings and emotions, this gives credence to the saying “be careful what you listen to.” When we say this, according to James, we are really saying to be careful what the performer’s intentions and feelings are.
“If someone’s intent is to play all about how much they hate something, then that’s what they are sending to you. That’s why it’s a good idea to listen to gospel music,” he says.
In the past few years, James has been involved in developing the Morrison Digital Trumpet with talented designer and inventor Steve Marshall, a trumpet-playing multi-instrumentalist with an extensive knowledge in robotics and software design.
“I was playing one of the old Akai EVIs, and I just liked the idea that I could access all those sounds that were available to keyboard players and play them on a trumpet,” James says. “One day Steve Marshall came to me asking me to have a look at a prototype he’d made. Some things about it were better then the Akai. I suggested he needed to change this, this and this, and the next thing I knew, he asked if I wanted to develop it with him. I said, ‘Absolutely, let’s go!’ We then spent a number of years trying all sorts of things, making different prototypes, until we finally came up with what works so well.”
While many trumpet players might use this instrument to allow them to be able to play for as long and as high as James, he, who can play a “real” trumpet arguably to its limits, enjoys playing the MDT because of its expanded sound capability.
The trumpet gives acoustic trumpet players an easy “pick-up-and-play” experience. It makes no sound on its own, but triggers any MIDI-capable sound device, such as a synthesiser or sound module. You don’t have to buzz, as with a regular trumpet; you just blow, making for dramatically increased player endurance.The harder you blow, the louder the sound.
A player can switch between the sound of a trombone, clarinet, flute, guitar, string bass, mouth organ, piano, bagpipes and so on. The sound possibilities are endless. And using headphones means you can practise without disturbing the neighbours!
“It doesn’t matter what you do with a regular trumpet, it’s still a trumpet. The thing with the MDT is you play it like a trumpet—but of course it doesn’t just give you a trumpet with more range. You can play with all sounds you can’t come close to on a regular trumpet. I don’t think of it as a digital trumpet, as in it should have a trumpet sound, but because you play it with trumpet fingering and with a trumpet mouthpiece. Soundwise I only use it for making sounds I can’t make with a trumpet.”*
kids and music
James started his musical journey at an early age, something many kids experience in childhood, whether because of parents wanting them to learn or because the child themself nags their parents to buy them a guitar. But it doesn’t matter what the reason, James says learning music as a child has many benefits.
“Apart from the fact that there’s things like motor skills and mathematical abilities that are proven to be enhanced by playing a musical instrument, there’s the whole thing of communicating an idea or emotion, which you send to someone else through music. I think it’s important for kids to play sports. When you’re kicking a ball to each other, you’re doing all sorts of good things with your body. Your mind is on a strategy level—it’s a team getting together to try to defeat the other team. But with music, no-one’s being defeated. It’s not about that. The object of a game of soccer is not to get the other team to feel what you’re feeling that day, whereas in music it is.
“I think it’s vitally important for kids to play music to experience that. It’s a type of communication, often a much deeper communication than with words. No-one would deny we should get them to read and write stories to get them to communicate. I think music is a very big part of that. It shouldn’t be just a specialist pursuit just for those who are interested in music or are musical. Everybody should experience this.”
Having said that, I just had to ask James if it were, then, a reasonable thing for me to have skipped maths class to be in the school band.
“Oh, absolutely!” he responds without hesitation. “That’s more than reasonable; it’s desirable!”
So what’s it like being James Morrison, musician?
“One of the great things about my life musically is that I get to do so many different music things. Playing in small venues up to big concert halls, events like the Olympics to you-name-it, playing in churches—it’s all great. It certainly doesn’t get boring.
“Being a musician is not something you do, it’s something you are. If I never played again, I’d still be a musician, just one who’s not playing.”
So does James Morrison consider his amazing musical talents to be God-given? “Absolutely!” he says. “As is everything.”