For the second time in a month I found myself boarding the ferry headed for Taronga Zoo and another spellbinding twilight show – this time featuring the extraordinary, trumpet wielding James Morrison Big Band.
This time, I didn’t make the same mistakes as the naïve first timer:
Step 1: Get there early. As opposed to peering sheepishly over a sea of people sipping wine on picnic blankets, this time I was among them. Besides, the event is as much about the atmosphere as it is about the music – few places provide a better feel than Taronga Zoo.
Step 2: Actually bring a picnic. Although I was almost welling up a little at the sight of picnic baskets around me, wishing I had enough money to afford pastrami, the classic cheese and biscuit combo was more than enough. With a better seat, some sweet potato dip going down very nicely, the show was about to start.
Before it had even started, the audience got a glimpse of what was in store. Lines of shiny and matted instruments lined the stage inside the little, brightly lit cornucopia stage promising an explosive sound. As soon as the first song Garn started, the audience fell silent in awe. James stood out the front of the big band, fulfilling roles as both conductor and main attraction, ripping solos at every opportunity available. What amazes me when seeing such a senior band is the lack of mistakes – especially with James. Not a single off-key note was heard that night, even when he was defying what a trumpet could really do. Once a song was over however, it turned into a comedy show – if you find your dad’s humour funny that is. Anecdotes flowed, telling the audience that he tried to explain the meaning of the word ‘Garn’ (the first song name) to an audience of Germans, describing it as slang for ‘to continue with what one is doing’. The German audience then proceeded to shout ‘Garn’ instead of encore at the end. With these stories (and many, many more) he traversed the fine line between lame dad and funny – but accordingly had the crowd laughing and smiling all night.
He then transitioned into Up A Lazy River, a Louis Armstrong classic that he rearranged for Armstrong’s 100th anniversary before slowing it down with a lazy number. As a former trumpet player myself, it is hard to believe the sounds that one person can extracted from a small, brass instrument. What makes it so impressive is the ease of which he does it. By the third song, I could feel the burning of his mouth, how sore his muscles must have been. The challenge with trumpet playing is the fact that there are just three keys on a trumpet to produce octaves of notes.
Olivia Chindamo provided soulful vocals for the night, impressing the audience with some lightning quick scatting. She earned the hearts of everyone watching with a cover of L.O.V.E. at the start of the second half. Jazz singers are an entirely different species of singer, needing an enormous range that has to appear effortless, such is the laid back nature of jazz. Every note she sang threatened to fall off the beat, but clung on with brooding indifference. Despite his solos, James never took too much attention away from the band – with half a dozen soloists coming to the front of the stage for their own limelight. The most prolific of these was Geoff Clayton, who left school to tour with Stevie Wonder back in the day. His duets with James dazzled, so much so it brought an elderly mother and her daughter to dance adorably in front of the stage for a song or two. The duet was like cat and mouse, one initiating an improvisation and the other trying to top it. Classic highlights were Gee, Baby, Aren’t I Good To You and It Don’t Mean A Thing. However, there was plenty for everybody with a fun cover of the Flintstones theme song.
He reflected later that being a musician was something that you don’t choose, but is rather something that you are. Throughout the night he tamed his instrument, making it growl, crescendo to unfathomable peaks, and fire staccato machine gun bursts of notes that I wasn’t even sure was possible. The intensity rose to it’s highest by the end, with the drum solo from Caravan, now made famous again through Whiplash, and another few improvisation battles. By the last note, there were fireworks – literally – as Darling Harbour lit up across the harbour. After so many years wanting to see James live, it was a performance bursting with cheeky fun, hilarity and of course brilliant music.