The Remarkable Mr Morrison– The Virtuosity and Versatility of Australia’s Master Musician (Melbourne Books)
by Mervyn E. Collins
Review by John Shand
Biographers tend to set to work because they are fascinated by their subjects, the odd can’t-say-no commission aside. Whether that fascination takes the form of admiration or abhorrence, however, the writer is expected to bring some objectivity to bear in trying to make a subject’s life and character three-dimensional. Mervyn E Collins is such an unabashed fan of trumpeter, trombonist and multi-instrumentalist James Morrison that in his opening sentence he tells us that Morrison ‘first dumfounded me back in the late 1980s’. By page two his subject is ‘a man for whom “virtuoso” seemed too small a word’, and by the fourth page he is a ‘musical genius’ of ‘freakish abilities’.
These early references (combined with the title and subtitle!) set the tone for a book in which Morrison’s greatness is treated as a given, and Collins is as much cheerleader as biographer with his constant stream of praise and accolades. The fact that Collins is himself a brass player certainly lends weight to his assessments of Morrison’s technical prowess, but he is overly inclined to equate this prowess with artistry. To be fair he does quote some observations from reviewers who have been critical, although his subtext often suggests that the reviewer’s fixation on introverted, non-popularist forms of jazz is at fault rather than anything in Morrison’s playing.
This is a pity, as herein lies a crucial issue that any serious biographer of Morrison needs to fully confront. No one could doubt that the man has an extraordinary natural gift for making music, or that his level of proficiency on multiple instruments is remarkable. But, just as a writer may string words together elegantly yet have nothing to say, Morrison’s innate ability is partly undermined by his seemingly having little he wants to communicate to his audience beyond ‘Get a load of this!’ followed by a dazzling high G on a trumpet.
Yet it is not Morrison’s desire to give the people what he perceives them to want that has drawn criticism so much as it is the sense that he does not know what he wants. The consequence has too often been brilliantly played music devoid of real content, and laced with crowd-pleasing musical acrobatics bordering on the vulgar.
If we put such matters to one side and accept Collins’ book as the enthusiastic writings of a fan, it is, in fact, often immensely entertaining. Whatever defects one might quibble about in relation to Morrison the artist, Morrison the man is extremely likable and has lived an immensely rich life. Engaging anecdotes abound, including how Morrison met his future wife, Judi Green, in the celebrity race at the 1987 Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide – even if Collins mistakenly has Morrison’s right foot controlling a Formula One engine! Even better is the account of the period that Morrison and his brother John spent living on a boat in Manhattan while launching an initial assault on the New York jazz scene.
Morrison has cooperated in the writing of the book, and one of the most fascinating segments has him talking about using sleep to further the learning of an instrument. Of course he also been extensively – and commendably – involved in more conventional music education, and his contribution in this regard is well documented.
Collin’s research has been considerable, if by no means exhaustive, and his prose is fluent and eminently readable. Morrison’s legion of fans will find much to enjoy.
An ebook edition is available online through Amazon