Staying true to his own musical vision has always come first for PJ Morton. So when he expressed his desire to squeeze a 10-piece string section behind the Tiny Desk for his three-song performance, we were more than happy to oblige him.
Morton showed off the soulful Fender Rhodes chops that helped him earn a mentor in Stevie Wonder and membership to Maroon 5, while backed by percussion, bass and the same Matt Jones Orchestra that accompanies him on his soulful solo releases, Gumbo and Gumbo Unplugged.
He began prepping what would become his noteworthy pot of musical stew after moving back home to New Orleans from L.A. a couple of years ago. The preacher’s kid with the gospel roots wound up collecting two 2018 Grammy nominations for music from Gumbo, his fourth studio LP. Ironically, those industry accolades came as a direct result of Morton choosing to go his own way.
“So many people didn’t want me to be myself,” he told the Tiny Desk crowd during the intro to “Claustrophobic,” a song about the attempts major labels made to box him in. “But I decided I was going to be PJ no matter what people told me and tried to get me to do.”
They tried some strange things, too. One record exec interested in signing him even suggested pairing Morton with popular West Coast hip-hop producer DJ Mustard. “It was so far off base,” he told NPR’s Michel Martin last January. Instead, he started his independent music label, Morton Records, with the vision of creating a new Motown in his hometown.
New Orleans’ musical lineage seasons the entire set of his Tiny Desk performance, including the second song, “Go Thru Your Phone,” on which Morton’s joined by backing vocalists The Amours. All together, it made for a total of 15 musicians squeezed behind Bob Boilen’s desk — not to mention Matt Jones, conducting off-camera. The industry may not have seen the vision, but from where we stood it was a perfect fit.
- “Go Thru Your Phone”
- “First Began”
PJ Morton(lead vocals/rhodes), Brian Cockerham (bass), Ed Clark (percussion), Matt Jones (Matt Jones Orchestra Conductor), Clayton Penrose-Whitmore (Violin), Arianne Urban (Violin), Olya Prohorova (Violin), Alexandria Hill (Violin), Danielle Taylor (Violin), Istvan Loga (Viola), Caitlin Adamson (Viola), Seth Woods (Cello), Malik Johnson (Cello), Victor Ray Holms (Bass), Jakiya Ayanna (background vocals), Shaina Aisha (background vocals)
Producers: Rodney Carmichael, Morgan Noelle Smith; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Khun Minn Ohn, Maia Stern, Bronson Arcuri; Production Assistants: Catherine Zhang, Téa Mottolese; Photo: Eslah Attar/NPR.