Alto sax player James Morton and his career is very much on the up, and despite the Bristolian playing many gigs out of his home city, he frequently makes sure to regularly come back home and entertain the local fans. Originally he started playing (and recorded his debut album) with his backing group ‘James Morton’s Porkchop’, a funky sax-organ-guitar-drums outfit that found a near perfect blend between jazz, soul and funk. Though more recently Morton has been playing with other groups, and different line-ups and sounds, he always comes back to the soulful sound he loves best – after all it is what he excels at.
February 7th then saw Morton play a quartet gig at Bristol’s still new Fringe Bar (quality jazz gigs every Thursday people). Advertised as The James Morton Quartet, it was the same instrument combination as his Porkchop line-up, but with a different roster of musicians. Clive Deamer, known to most for his work with Get The Blessing and Radiohead, provided drums for the night, while keys wizard Dan Moore supplied some grooving Hammond Organ, and together they created an alternately tight and loose funky rhythm team. The real revelation in the group though was local guitar hero Kit Morgan, who flitted convincingly between George Benson-esque jazz guitar and more rock god stylings.
Cracking opening number ‘Burk’s Work’ was a gloriously soul-drenched blues piece that got off to a flying start, with Morton throwing everything he had into it, and all four members of the group getting to show their admirable chops. As the song entered its final stages it also became a light-hearted trading blows contest between Morton and Morgan, with the guitarist having fun unleashing his fastest shred, and Morton’s alto sax more than keeping up to the task, much to the delight of a very happy and entranced audience.
From there on in the gig only got better and better, with Morton and all of the group showcasing that not only are all four virtuosos, not only are they adept at improvising great melodies,but also that they clearly enjoy playing for an appreciative audience and do so with a great deal of fun and humour. Throughout the gig Morton lead the group superbly, gesturing with his free hands, giving subtle nods, and more frequently wooping and hollering with approval. Not only was it good bandleading, but the shouts and wild exclamations helped work the audience and up the already strong atmosphere. In between numbers too he came across as relaxed and charming, with a nice line in easy humour.
For the die-hard jazz fans, there was much to smile about too. A funked-up version of Miles Davis’ unmistakeable ‘Flamenco Sketches’ received nods of approval and built into a gig highlight, while some name-checking and a cover of the under-rated tenor sax man Eddie Harris was a nice gesture to Morton’s less well-known influences.
The second set though closed with another highlight, courtesy of an unexpected guest spot from Bristol singer Celestine. Choosing a familiar number such as Nina Simone’s ‘Feelin’ Good’ was a bold move, but Celestine’s strong and soulful vocals were a revelation and she gelled with the band perfectly. An incredible vocal range and carefully controlled performance, it’s amazing she hasn’t yet made the big time. She certainly deserves to.
We went to this gig expecting something good, but within the first five minutes there were smiles and cheers all round as we very quickly realized we were at something much more. James Morton is a clearly brilliant alto player, but it’s his personality, literally and musically, that really make him the stellar performer. He lays down a terrific jazz gig, but at the same time creates a fantastic atmosphere and engages his audience so that even non-jazzers will enjoy the classic soul stylings. James Morton is clearly a rising star, but he deserves to rise much higher, and a great level of success. For a fun and energetically enjoyable jazz gig you’d struggle to find a better performer. Check him out as soon as you can.
Sadly no photos as I was too busy enjoying the gig...