Trumpet star James Morrison returns to Auckland and the APO in August and this time he's bringing with his protégé Emma Pask, to celebrate one of the greatest duos in jazz. Phil News Editor caught up with him between gigs.
It seems that even a famous virtuoso trumpeter like James Morrison, with more than 40 years of touring and performing under his belt, is not immune to turning up to the wrong club for a gig.
Our scheduled phone interview immediately following a sound check for his gig that nights not to be; it turns out they went to the wrong, but similarly-named, club and then had to rush to get to the correct venue on time. James recounts the mixup when we talk the following day – he’s kindly made room in his extraordinarily busy diary to reschedule our call and is still buzzing about the performance with his quintet the night before. It’s clear that gigs like this one at Blacktown Workers Club in NSW are still as important to him as performing at the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms, opening the Sydney Olympic Games with a fanfare he composed, or even a whirlwind trip to St Petersburg in Russia earlier this year.
Morrison’s packed schedule meant that he was only able to stay in Russia for a weekend before flying back home to Australia, but he says an invitation to perform on International Jazz Day with musicians including Herbie Hancock and Branford Marsalis was too good to pass up. “It was a great gig with some wonderful musicians, so of course I take those opportunities, even if it does involve me flying across the world for just a few days. I have no plans to slow down,” he adds. “Basically I haven’t worked out how to say no to opportunities that are offered to me, yet!”
And even when he’s back home he doesn’t rest; aside from regular concerts and personal projects including recording albums, composing and arranging music, he teaches at the James Morrison Academy of Music in Mount Gambier, South Australia, which he established in 2015 as a dedicated jazz performance school affiliated with the University of South Australia. Morrison says throughout his career he had frequently participated in masterclasses with music students, and would often wonder about the progress of those students years later. “I’d go through life seeing music students come out of music education, and I’d say to myself ‘if I had a school I’d do it like this’,” he says. “Well, of course you end up with this great big long list of ‘if I had a school’, so in the end I went ahead and did it,” he laughs.
Morrison remains heavily involved in the music school, teaching regularly. “People thought I’d curtail the touring once I started teaching, but I haven’t changed my touring schedule at all. I might shift dates a bit, but I haven’t pulled back, I’m just busier overall.”
He admits he’s excited about the future of jazz coming out of his school, and out of Australia. It’s Morrison’s keen eye for talent that plucked Emma Pask out of a high school performance and onto a professional stage more than 20 years ago; Pask was then just 16 years old and Morrison saw her potential as a jazz singer.
Pask became his protégé, and performing alongside Morrison opened her up to a world of musical opportunities, including singing for the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and at Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban’s wedding, among many career highlights.
After 20 years of touring and performing together regularly, in recent years Pask has worked on her solo career which also included a stint on television singing competition The Voice Australia in 2013, mentored by Ricky Martin. At the time she was already a wellknown name to jazz fans in Australia, but says she entered the competition to bring jazz music into the mainstream. After narrowly missing out on a place in the finals, Pask refocused her efforts on performing, and recording albums.
Morrison says that many agents and event organisers have encouraged them to reunite after several years apart, and while they did want to perform together again, he and Pask couldn’t make their schedules match – until now. “This [APO concert] is a bit special for us,” Morrison says. “We hardly ever get the chance to get together anymore… we’re very excited to be reuniting at your place!”
The concert in August marks three years since Morrison’s sell-out concert with the APO in 2015; this time Pask joins Morrison to celebrate the musical pairing of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.
Morrison says in his opinion there is no greater jazz partnership than Satchmo and Ella. “They seemed made for each other; the way she sang, the way he played, and the music they loved just worked so well together.”
The addition of an orchestra will bring something unique to the music, Morrison says. “We almost never do this particular tribute unless we’re doing it with an orchestra. These wonderful arrangements create a whole new setting for these songs – it’s not just a recreation of what they did, it’s our version of it.”
He says that even though he and Pask have a long history of performing together, they are able to find something new in every performance. “When you know someone really well it actually allows you to try new things and make it fresh. I’m sure we’ll take some chances on stage – improvisation has always been part of our style when we perform together,” he says. “Obviously we’ll try not to upset the orchestra!”