What I know about all that jazz

Joseph Smith

James Morrison is regarded as Australia's best known jazz musician.

Besides the trumpet, the multi-instrumentalist plays trombone, euphonium, flugel horn, tuba, saxophones, and piano.

He has played with many of the legends of jazz including Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway, George Benson, Ray Charles and B.B. King. 

Morrison says that his introduction to the genre was through what he calls "gospel jazz'.

"I first heard jazz music performed by a minister playing the trombone in a church. That was Neil Gough in Sydney when I was seven years old," Morrison says.

Now more than 30 years later James presents his first album of gospel classics "  Gospel Collection " which includes renditions of Joyful Joyful, Amazing Grace, Blessed Assurance, The Old Rugged Cross, What A Friend We Have In Jesus and two new songs penned by Morrison himself.

James Morrison spoke to Joseph Smith, discussing his faith, his music and his future.

What was life like growing up?

JM: I am the son of a Methodist minister and mum played the organ in church. My earliest memories are sitting on the organ stool next to mum and watching dad preach.

Was church an important part of your upbringing?

JM: For most families, church was a Sunday thing, but for us it was there all the time. We were living in a house behind the church, and everything centred on church life. There wasn't a moment where you decided to be part of the church " you just were.

Was Christianity always a certainty?

JM: At the same time, our Christianity wasn't unquestioned. On the contrary, mum and dad encouraged myself and my brother to question and verify our faith all the time " to think about where we were going and what we believed.

When did you make your own commitment to Christ?

JM: It was a gradual awakening. The pennies dropped over time. I didn't have a "Paul on the road to Damascus' conversion where a light came down and everything was different. It was an awakening. Growing into a life I already had in me.

Was there a time when you turned away from Christianity?

JM: Often the first thing a rebellious teen does is stop going to church. I was rebelling and going against what my parents said but still I would be there on Sunday to lead the band and write my hymn arrangements. The rebellion was short lived. Even though I was playing in clubs at the age of 13 I was still coming back home and back to church all the time.

Was music what you always wanted to do professionally?

JM: At 19, I decided I wanted to preach. I did a lay preacher's course and discovered not that I was bad, but that I had much more of a gift with an instrument in my hands. So I decided my calling was to witness through music.

Does your faith play a part in your performances?

JM: It's interesting. I will be playing at a secular concert that's supposed to have nothing to do with Christian music or gospel music, then I will play a gospel number or two and people will be moved. Even people who profess to have no Christian faith and say "That stuff is not for me'.

I find that guys in my band " great musicians with no professed faith " would turn to me and instead of saying "I am not comfortable playing Christian stuff,' the reverse has been true. They say, "That's amazing. I really started to feel something amazing, but I don't know what.' Music " carrying the message that it does " can really move the people that are playing it.

Do you get the opportunity to share your faith with band members?

JM: We have all sorts of discussions on the road. A band is like a family. Even when we are going to play gospel music, the ones not comfortable with Christianity still want to be there. Playing the music is a journey for them. It allows them to come into the gospel through the music. Music helps people get in the right frame of mind to understand all sorts of things, none more so than in the case of gospel.

Is Gospel Collection your first gospel album?

JM: Yes, this is the first full album of gospel numbers.

Why make an album of gospel numbers now?

JM: I don't know if the question should be "Why now?' or "Why not before?' I say that because it's been an obvious thing to do and has been a thing on my "to do' list for a very long time. Every time I record a gospel number on another album, people say "I love that track. You have to do a full album of that,' and I say "I know, I must and I am going to'. It was just about having the right musicians around me ready to play and record this music.

I have come to a time in my journey where I am ready to the make most of the opportunity of having an album like this. If I recorded it 20 years ago, I don't know whether I would have been as able to answer the questions we are talking about today. If you are going to release a gospel album, it's an opportunity to make the most of. Perhaps only now am I now ready to talk about and express meaningfully why I have done the album and what it means to me.

What is your favourite track on Gospel Collection?

JM: It is hard to choose one favourite track. They are all gospel, all Christian and all express different sentiments and parts of the faith. So it depends on what's going on and my mood.

There is definitely a time in many people's lives when "Amazing Grace' is the song that says it all. Same goes for "Jesus Is The Way'.

On a quiet night putting on "His Eye Is On The Sparrow' is wonderful, while "Cabin In The Corner' with the big band might be a bit much. My favourite song changes all the time but I do have a special feeling for "There's A Place'. It's a track that really speaks to me. The moment I wrote it, my feeling was that sometimes people need that reassurance with so much going on in the world and people asking "What's the point?' " this song appeals to that question.

What church do you attend?

JM: As the son of a Methodist minister I will always be a part of that church. But nowadays, I could be anywhere in the world on any given Sunday. So I have the onerous but exciting task of staying somewhere new and taking the opportunity to be in different churches. I might walk into a Baptist, Seventh Day Adventist or Christian City Church. The privilege of worshiping in churches from all different perspectives is illuminating.

What are your career highlights?

JM: One of the highlights would be playing with Ray Charles and travelling with him around the world for three months. I am very fortunate that in any discussion of the highlights of my career it is a long list. I have had so many wonderful things happen.

I can't leave out being asked to write the opening fanfare for the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Standing there at the ceremony with a lone trumpet at the beginning of the Games in my own country was amazing. Jazz musicians don't often play to a crowd of 2 billion " it's hard to fit that many into a jazz club

So what's next on your "to do' list?

JM: Next thing on my list is to clean the garage " and that's one we know I am never going to get to. But as far as the career goes, there are all sorts of things I am always working on " lots of projects that bring new challenges. There is the joy of presenting great young players on my own record label.

Will you do another full Gospel album?

JM: I see the Gospel album as just a volume one. There were lots of songs and ideas that I had to leave off and songs that I would like to write and record in the future.

Will you be touring in support of this album?

JM: I am on tour all the time. People ask "How long is the tour you're on?' and I say "So far it's been 25 years'. One tour seems to run into the other. I will embark on another round the world trip shortly through Eastern Europe, London and the United States. I've already done 14 overseas trips so far this year.

I would like to do a tour to support this album. It would be a tremendous thrill to play these songs live, but I need the people who appear on the album to tour with me to do it properly. It sounds highly unlikely, but I believe that it's meant to be so that means it's a certainty.