My interview with Mornington Lockett was originally published in London Jazz News.
One of the highlights of this year’s Herts Jazz Festival is a concert put together by one of the UK’s most accomplished jazz saxophonists, Mornington Lockett, in celebration of the music of one of his heroes, the late great Scottish saxophonist, Bobby Wellins.
The concert, which closes the 3-day festival on Sunday 15th October, features Mornington with a variety of top British players, including long-time Wellins associates, Clark Tracey, Spike Wells, Art Themen, Andrew Cleyndert, and Mark Edwards, as well as the Purcell School of Music Big Band.
I spoke to Mornington about this unmissable event:
Mike: You studied jazz saxophone with Bobby in the 80s. How did you find him as a teacher, and what were the most important lessons you learnt?
Mornington: When I first heard Bobby live in 1981 he was flying high. He had just landed a Composer in Residence post at York University and his new band with Peter Jacobsen was the hippest thing around. For me it was as if all the light bulbs had been switched on at once in a darkened room. It was all about sound, colour, harmony, swing, but most of all that visceral emotion that pierced you through the heart like a laser. I was desperate to learn how it was all done. Bobby was incredibly generous both with his time, and in sharing his secrets. I used to go and stay at his house in Bognor Regis and the lessons would basically last a whole day. Bobby even gave me a vintage metal Selmer mouthpiece as a present, to help me get a better sound. I still use some of the things he taught me every day.
Mike: When did you first play professionally with Bobby?
Mornington: I did not play with Bobby properly, I don’t think, until I became involved with the Stan Tracey operation. We played as a quintet a number of times, which was a fantastic experience, and back to school again for me every gig. I will always remember Bobby playing ‘Three Blind Mice’ in a major key over a minor blues and glaring into the crowd, as if to say: “What do you think of that, folks?”. That was Bobby all over, and Stan taught me that too: you make up the music as you go along, not according to anyone else’s rules.
Mike: What was special about Bobby’s style of playing?
Mornington: Bobby had a thoroughly original style and approach. Like his great contemporaries Don Weller and Art Themen, Bobby taught himself, as there were no jazz colleges. Bobby worked out all those Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter chords on the piano, his own way. His theoretical concept was completely thought through, from the bottom up. However it was the emotional depth and honesty in Bobby’s sound that set him apart. Very few musicians speak to you like he could. Perhaps the starkest Miles Davis ballads from the late 50s come close but I can’t think of anything else.
Mike: The first half of the special Herts Jazz Festival concert begins with you leading a quintet, together with Art Themen, playing tunes composed by Bobby.
Mornington: Clark Tracey approached me out of the blue to put on this concert, after the emotional Bobby Wellins memorial concert at the 606. It is a huge honour, but also a massive ‘ask’. Bobby was a renaissance master of British music, a Da Vinci, and here I am with my little paint-by-numbers kit! Luckily I have secured the services of the legendary Spike Wells, from the original quartet, one of those few musicians, like Bobby, who can elevate the whole experience onto another plane. Mark Edwards and Andrew Cleyndert will also be joining me, who both have a long association with Bobby, and the great Art Themen will be helping us to recreate the wonderful quintet Bobby had with Don Weller. There is a wealth of amazing music to chose from. Bobby’s daughter Fiona has been kind enough to lend me some original scores, and has suggested a couple of pieces we might include.
Mike: The second half will feature the centrepiece of the concert, Bobby’s composition The Culloden Moor Suite where you will be joined by The Purcell School of Music Big Band.
Mornington: The Culloden Moor suite was written as a sextet, with Lol Coxhill on soprano, and Bryan Spring (joining Spike Wells) as a second drummer, playing Scottish snare drum and a variety of exotic percussion. Pete Jacobsen played piano and Fender Rhodes. The result was incredibly exciting and evocative music, I have never heard anything quite like it in any genre. The modern big band version is very ably orchestrated by Florian Ross, but is rather a modern, airbrushed version of history, where nobody gets hurt. I am hoping to combine both versions of the suite, by sending Spike Wells and Art Themen headlong into the fray, together with the Purcell School Big Band, conducted by Simon Allen. I think we have the chance to do something very special here, hopefully a worthy, certainly a heartfelt tribute to the great Bobby Wellins, a musician and man much loved, revered and missed by us all.
The Herts Jazz Festival takes place on 13-15 October 2017 at the Hawthorne Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. You can see a complete list of who is appearing at the festival on the website: http://www.hertsjazzfestival.co.uk. The special concert in celebration of Bobby Wellins is on Sunday 15 October at 7:45 pm.