A single track born of a year of deprivations: lockdown restrictions, travel restrictions, social distancing, and the inability to practice or perform together. Still, with all those chains in place, beautiful music has emerged. Whether because of the constraints or in spite of them (or both), sax player and leader Oli Morris has been inspired by his travels in India in addition to his love of soul and jazz and where they intersect. “Bimal” is the audacious result. A shimmer of cymbals, a strong and tight beat, powerfully delicate vocals and the sweetest weaving of sax fully engage the listener and subject them to a smooth, warm and colorful world of sound.
Why did you start playing the sax?
I started getting really serious about it in university when I realized I could get more work in my area as a saxophonist than a guitarist/songwriter. I picked up tenor when I was about 20 (I’ve started with alto when I was 8), went to the local jam sessions to start shedding jazz standards and never looked back. As I picked up tenor I started transcribing and listening to older records from Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane and Joe Henderson. So I guess the passion and the convenience sort of just went hand in hand!
How would you say jazz and neo-soul differ and what do you like about combining elements of both genres?
I think neo-soul borrows a lot of elements from jazz music but there’s a big movement for it now: there’s this mystical aura to it that’s appealing to a lot of people. Robert Glasper and Terrance Martin combine elements of both genres so well. Deep diving into artists such as J Dilla and Madlib completely changed the way I played music in more ways I thought possible. It’s hard to say how it differs from jazz as it changed so much since the beginning of the 20th century. I suppose neo-soul is a bit like funk to me as well. It uses the same colorful harmonies in jazz music but gives the groove a bit more drive. Combining the two together kind of gives it a more contemporary vibe, which is what I was going for when I wrote “Bimal.”
What inspired “Bimal” and what is the spoken word in the very beginning of it?
So that’s Bimal at the beginning speaking! We found this guy in Goa under a banyan tree teaching these singing lessons in Sanskrit with a sitar and we asked if it would be cool to join his circle. He’s a great musician but he also talked a lot about philosophy during his lessons. I managed to get a few recordings on my phone from his talks. That section where’s he’s talking about how the media are always portraying the negative in life and how nonsensical it is. That’s left a big impression for me, and I realized that all the bitterness I felt about traveling getting lost, scammed, the chaotic traffic…all the negative stuff shouldn’t reflect my entire experience. I look back now and I feel so fortunate to be able to have had that experience. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a teenager but just never really had the confidence to go for it. Coming back home after traveling around India was a real transitional period of my life and I feel so fortunate to be able to travel in 2020 given the circumstances.
What feeling are you trying to capture here?
I see the song divided into three different parts. The first part outlines my frustrations and anxieties getting around the country alone and how that’s affected me emotionally. The second is of gratitude and positive reflection on my trip. The final part is all instrumental with a frenzied solo between me and Andee (the drummer) at the end. With the sound I went for I was trying to demonstrate an introspective dream-like quality because that’s pretty much what my whole experience in India feels like right now. I still can’t believe I was actually able to do that.
How did you come to collaborate with the vocalist and what does she add to the music?
I’ve played in Chrissie’s band for about two years now. She’s a great friend of mine and an incredibly talented musician. I really love the sound of smooth and clean vocals over a gritty hip-hop grove. Chrissie was just perfect for the job. She also traveled around India a few years before I did so she was able to relate to a lot of what I went through. All the lyrics you can hear on the track were written by her. It took her less than a day to finish them and she nailed what the track is about perfectly.
How did you meet the other members of your band and why have you decided to perform together?
I’ve met all the other members of the band in Bristol, either with other projects or in jam sessions. I had this idea just to virtually form a supergroup of some of my favorite musicians and see what it would sound like to merge them all together. It really brought the track to life!
What is the scene like in Bristol today?
Oh man. It’s so great. I think the awesome thing about the Bristol music scene is that it just feels like a community, of going to jam sessions and then ending up in the pub until 3 in the morning talking music with some great people. There are some awesome bands here doing big things like Snazzback, Waldo’s Gift, Run Logan Run and Ishmael Ensemble and then there’s also this awesome underground scene built from jam sessions. Some musicians have managed to (safely) host these collaborations together in parks and outdoor venues recently to adapt to the current climate. I try and go to as many as I can, they’re so much fun. It’s such a creative force and I feel so fortunate to be able to be a part of it.
What is your favorite place to perform in the UK?
I love the music nights James Koch puts on at the Galliamaufry in Bristol. It’s such a quirky venue and it just showcases the best talent in Bristol. The sound is always great when I play there and there’s some lovely people that work there too.
If I’m ever up in London I love jumping in at jams at Troy Bar and Ronnie Scott’s. They’re a bit more intense but it gives me that challenge that lets me reassess what I need to work on in the practice room.
Do you have other performances lined up for 2021?
I do! I’ve got a busy summer ahead which is a really nice transition from our last lockdown. I’ve featuring at Chrissie’s upcoming gig at the Grain Barge on July 1st (a day before the release date of “Bimal”) as well as a 20+ show tour with Cut Capers this summer.
What is your dream gig – location, personnel, etc.?
Marcus Gilmore, Brad Mehldau and Christian McBride. Sharing the stage with either Mark Turner or Joshua Redman. Those guys are all my heroes.
Location wise: any jazz festival. Probably Montreux. The cool thing about festivals is that you get to share the bill with some incredible musicians which leads to collaboration opportunities. I think that’s how Axis (Josh Redman, Mark Turner, Chris Potter, Chris Cheek) formed. It’s just a matter of musicians being free in a massive creative space and being inspired to collaborate.
This track was so much fun to make. I’ve never done anything like this before. It literally just started off as a four bar loop over some minor chords. As I was writing it I got pretty bored of programming the drums through Logic so I just hit up my friend Andee Lieu to lay down some drums in his studio. Things just went from there and I started hitting up more of my friends online to see if they wanted to collaborate remotely together.
As a saxophonist I found it difficult to compose while simultaneously representing a part of me, but that’s the best part of writing music with musicians you’ve played with before because that just comes out more organically. This is unlike anything I’ve been a part of before, and I can’t wait to share it with everyone soon.
For more information visit https://olimorrismusic.com/.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist. Top photo (c) Sam Gould.
(c) 2021 Debbie Burke