A one-man band like no other: James Morrison

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One-man band, ca. 1865

Historically the one-man band has been a form of low entertainment with one person playing multiple instruments at once. It dates back to the combination of pipe and tabor (a three-holed flute played with one hand and a drum with the other) in the 13th century. Nowadays, clever performers can make contraptions combining a dizzying array of different instruments, using their knees and armpits to play some of them. No one has ever considered such a one-man band to be art.

As soon as recording studios began to record separate tracks and mix them together, ambitious performers began to record multiple tracks in order to perform ensembles by themselves. Colloquially, the term one-man band is often applied to this kind of recorded performance.

The recorded one-man band is every bit as artistic as the performer and genre of music as a whole. In rock, performers including Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Prince, and many more have issued recordings on which they sing and play all the instruments. My local classical music radio station loves to play a Wynton Marsalis record on which he plays all eight trumpet parts of a Biber sonata. The technique has become so commonplace I would be surprised if any of my readers can’t think of multiple other examples.

James Morrison has recently issued his own recording, called Snappy Too, playing multiple instruments. He plays trumpet, trombone, saxophone, piano, guitar, and bass very well and decided to issue a recording of himself playing almost an entire 17-piece big band. Apparently he forgot to learn drums along with everything else, so he’s not quite a one-man band.

This new jazz CD demonstrates Morrison’s impeccable musicianship. The sound, ensemble, rhythm, intonation, and balance are all anyone could ever expect from any recording. He accompanies his own very well-conceived solos with suitably unobtrusive background playing.

So how is a person who wants to introduce a new one-man band recording supposed to set himself apart from all the others? Morrison came up with a truly breathtaking answer. He issued a promotional video. We see five different saxophones, four different trombones, four different trumpets, rhythm instruments, and except for the drummer, one face.

As Morrison stands to play a solo, Morrison, seated next to him, gazes at him admiringly. Visually, the band looks every bit as tight and together as it sounds. If you haven’t seen this amazing tour de force, take five minutes to look at it now. If you’ve already seen it, look again!

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Photo credit: Wikimedia commons.

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