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Star Saxophonist Who Straddled The GenresCopyright © 2000The Scotsman, 2000
British jazz has lost one of its best liked and most respected musicians with the death of saxophonist Dick Morrissey from spinal cancer. He had been confined to a wheelchair in recent years, but his spirit had remained high, and he would occasionally play in impromptu sessions in his local pub in Deal, often with his son, Jasper Morrissey, on drums.
In August this year, Morrissey joined the Glasgow-born guitarist Jim Mullen in a reunion of his best known project, Morrissey-Mullen, at the Astor Theatre in Deal. Mullen reported that they received a standing ovation before we had played a note, an indication of the affection and respect in which Morrissey was held. Tenor saxophonist Dave Lewis had travelled from Germany in case Morrissey was unable to play the whole concert, but his services were not required as he rose to the occasion in characteristically sparkling style.
He was born Richard Edwin Morrissey in Horley, and took up clarinet at Sutton High School in his mid-teens, where he had taught himself to play a number of instruments (he eventually played all the saxophones, and also flute). He joined the Original Climax Jazz Band, playing in a Dixieland style on clarinet, but his next engagement would bring about a profound shift in his musical alignment.
He joined the band led by trumpeter Gus Galbraith, where he met alto saxophonist Pete King. King introduced him to the records of his hero, Charlie Parker, and Morrissey became a convert to bebop. He switched to tenor saxophone as his main instrument at the beginning of 1960, and gave up his apprenticeship as a jeweller to become a professional musician later that year, leading his own quartet.
He recorded his debut album, Its Morrissey, Man!, in April, 1961, a disc which is now considered something of a classic. He spent the winter playing with the Ashley Kozak Quartet at the Trincas Restaurant in Calcutta, where they played three two-hour sets every day. The intensity of that experience greatly advanced his already impressive technical capacity on the instrument, and also allowed him to begin to refine the fluency and rich, broad sonority which characterised his mature style.
He formed a new quartet on his return to Britain, working with musicians like pianists Michael Garrick and Harry South (also a member of the Calcutta quartet), and the great drummer, Phil Seaman. He played regularly at Ronnie Scotts club, and worked with a number of visiting American musicians in London, including trombonist J. J. Johnson and blues giant Jimmy Witherspoon, with whom he made a highly regarded live album in 1966.
As the decade progressed, however, shifts in musical fashion toward free jazz and fusion began to dry up the demand for mainstream swing and bop players. Morrisseys response was to grab the bull by the horns and tackle the new developments head on. He chose jazz-rock fusion as the most appropriate alternative outlet for his musical leanings.
He co-founded the band If with guitarist Terry Smith in the late-60s, and they based themselves in Sweden for a time. He recorded several albums with the band prior to its eventual break-up in 1974. He worked with organist Mike Carr in the summer of 1975 (an association which was often renewed in the ensuing years, including a classic organ-jazz recording which also featured Jim Mullen, Good Times and The Blues, in 1993), then travelled to America with Mullen to join the Average White Band, the successful Scottish jazz-funk outfit who were by then based in America. He spent eight months in New York, and also worked with flautist Herbie Mann in that period.
His association with Mullen continued on their return to Britain with the formation of Morrissey-Mullen in 1976. The band straddled the genres, from straight bebop to rock, soul and funk, and established themselves as one of the most popular crossover bands on the UK jazz scene. They recorded several albums in the susbequent decade, and won a big following in both the jazz and rock camps, but never succeeded in establishing the firm foothold in America which would have allowed them to expand their activities.
Eventually, feeling that they had done as much as they could in Britain, they called a halt to the group in 1985, but continued to work together in occasional projects over the years, often convening under the simple name of Our Band.
He led his own bands in the late-80s and early-90s, reverting to a more mainstream bop-based approach, but illness began to curtail his activities as the decade progressed, leading to his eventual confinement to a wheelchair.
Morrissey will be remembered as one of the best jazz improvisers to emerge on the UK scene, but he was a highly adaptable player throughout his career, and contributed as a session musician to many pop and rock recordings, including working with singers Peter Gabriel and Roy Harper, and with Paul McCartney on The Long and Winding Road. He also played on film soundtracks, notably Ridley Scotts Bladerunner.