Briežkalns: I’ve Never Met a Person as Talented as James Morrison

Briežkalns: I’ve Never Met a Person as Talented as James Morrison
Mārtiņš Otto, Riga 2014
Kaspars Zaviļeiskis
25-11-2014 Latviski A+ A-
On the 28th of November, one of the main jazz events of the “Riga 2014” Programme will take place at the Riga Congress Centre – a concert by the Australian multi-instrumentalist James Morrison and the Latvian Radio Big Band, where Latvian folksongs arranged by the artist will be performed. We meet Māris Briežkalns – the organiser of the concert, head of the Latvian Radio Big Band, head of the Latvian Radio’s record studio, and artistic director of the “Rīgas ritmi” music festival – to discuss the upcoming concert.

Māris is a monumental figure in Latvian jazz. Not only is he an excellent drummer and concert organiser, he is also very passionate about what he does, which in his case, of course, was, is, and will be jazz, and especially his big band. But let’s take one thing at a time.

Concerts, and an album too

This particular “Riga 2014” project is titled “Mare Balticum”, and the idea for the project goes back some three years when Māris and a few other Latvian musicians were performing at the legendary “Blue Note” club in New York. “We were playing together with the American trumpeter Brian Lynch and American saxophone player Chris Potter, who later visited Riga together with guitarist Pat Metheny. We were playing Latvian music – compositions from our “Latvian Evergreens” project.”

Māris was greatly surprised by the American musicians’ take on compositions from Latvia that they knew nothing about: works by Arvīds Žilinskis, Alfrēds Kalniņš, Emīls Dārziņš and others.

It was such a fresh approach! To us, the Latvian music heritage is associated with a lot of stereotypes – hard life, slow singing. We just cannot shake it off. But they performed with a completely different attitude. That is when we had the idea that this experience has to be repeated somehow.

It just so happened that the “Riga 2014” Programme offered us the right time and place. Māris had already achieved a dream he had been cherishing for a long time – the renewed Latvian Radio Big Band. Hence the idea that a world-popular virtuoso – someone who is not just a good performer but can also do arrangements – should be involved. “We had already collaborated with Morrison in 2005 when he performed at the “Rīgas ritmi” festival. I could think of no other person as colourful and gifted as Morrison to be offered to participate in the “Mare Balticum” project. In addition to playing almost all instruments, he also runs his own festival, he has just opened a music academy, and he is a great showman. And I could go on and on.” Māris emphasises that there is literally no other musician in the entire world who would play with such ease. “It is also noteworthy that he has his own studio, and this project will be recorded and released. It will not be recorded in the studio, however, but during two concerts in Riga and Rēzekne (on the 29th of November, “Mare Balticum” will be at the Latgale concert hall “GORS”).”

Conquering the world of jazz

The name of the project does not necessarily mean that it only deals with Latvian sailors’ songs. Māris sent James a total of 15 Latvian folksongs on various subjects, of which James picked 11. “Morrison also had to write one composition that would be titled “Mare Balticum”. He says the Latvian folksongs inspired him, and he also remembers his time in Riga.” Morrison accepted the offer to participate in the project right away, no persuasion was necessary as he was obviously interested, even with his busy schedule.

This is not the first time, however, that foreign jazz musicians meet Latvian folksongs and their adaptations. For instance, back in 2000 English saxophone player Stan Sulzmann performed “Blow Wind Blow”, his version of the popular folksong “Pūt, vējiņi”, at the “Jūrmalas ritmi” festival. Such projects carry great added value, which is especially true of James Morrison. “First, there are new arrangements, which is a great addition for not just our orchestra but for the Latvian musical heritage in general. Second, our own songs are added to the repertoire of the Big Band. Third, the songs are performed by an outstanding soloist who brings them to the world. And, fourth, the recording will be mixed and mastered at Morrison’s studio in Australia. We are gradually entering the international and the world of jazz.”

A new way of thinking

One has to learn a lot to be successful in the world of jazz, more than is taught at school and academy. Master classes by foreign stars offer invaluable experience, which is why Māris has made it a precondition to guest artists at “Rīgas ritmi” that they also have to host master classes. Morrison, too, will give a master class in Riga, at Studio 1 of the Latvian Radio on the 27th of November. “A master class is often a very intimate matter, and not all jazz artists are willing to give master classes. But we’ve been able to achieve this, and the master classes are always greatly anticipated. I’d mention the master class by the American bass guitarist Victor Wooten as an example. When you’re in the audience, all that’s happening on the stage is laud, brilliant, virtuoso. But here you have to play for someone standing just a metre away, and playing loud is no help, you have to demonstrate what you actually can do. We’ve had several such fantastic master classes, but the idea is not to teach someone to play. It’s all about changing the way of thinking.”

Morrison’s master class will deal with the development of one’s talent, without focussing on one particular musical instrument.

In Riga, you can often observe that musicians play for themselves. And it is a common belief that jazz is primarily meant for jazz musicians who play it. At the festival, however, we strive hard to have the musicians play for the public, show their talent to those who are listening.

“James is a super example. He just oozes talent, there’s plenty of it for the public. I can safely say that those who come to the concert will feel that he is playing especially for every one of them.”

Tickets are on sale for the master class and the concerts, but Māris emphasises that the former will be free for students from several music schools, who will be able to come and learn.

More information is available at the website of “Rīgas ritmi”!

A video that Māris recommends everyone to see: James Morrison in a concert playing a piano and a trumpet at the same time!

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