Melbourne’s Hamer Hall became home to jazz royalty last night in the special event of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, A Celebration of Ella and Louis.
In a collaboration between Grammy-award winning American vocalist, Patti Austin, and Australia’s own James Morrison, the legacies of two great jazz giants were ignited in a powerful partnership with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Northey.
Celebrating the centennial of Fitzgerald’s birth, Austin and Morrison performed timeless hits from the Great American Songbook, paying tribute to the musical match that reigned over the 1950’s jazz scene.
From the first number, the decadent Hamer Hall was brought to life by the symphonic underlay of the MSO, a big band addition of horns, a swinging rhythm section, grand piano, and the centre stage occupied by the unrivalled talent of Morrison and Austin.
Jazz hits including ‘Let’s Do It’, ‘Too Close for Comfort’, ‘You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr Paganini)’ and ‘A-Tisket A-Tasket’ left audience members clapping and cheering in recognition of their favourite tunes, juxtaposed with modern arrangements of old classics; ‘Birdland’ was revamped in a Latin style with percussive interjections and half-time feels that had everyone tapping their toes or swinging in their seats.
Accurately described as a virtuoso trumpet player, James Morrison stood out as a shining beacon of unthinkable skill and musicianship. Projecting notes that exceeded ridiculous range, he honoured the work of Louis Armstrong with sheer brilliance. His vibrant tone floated effortlessly over the melody of the New Orleans favourite, ‘Up a Lazy River’, and dazzled throughout the programme with his unfaltering arpeggio runs, screaming high notes, syncopated fills and dynamic ability that brought laughter as the only reaction to what could otherwise be described as disbelief.
As the other half of the powerhouse duo, Patti Austin emanated a wealth of experience and gifted the stage with her soulful vocals and the exuberance of the great entertainer that she is. Interweaving the stories of Ella’s troubled childhood living on the streets of New York, and unexpected rise to fame between her renditions of iconic songs, Austin paid tribute to the “The First Lady of Song” with eloquence and humour. Describing defining moments in Fitzgerald’s life, from her discovery at the Apollo Theatre at the age of 16, to her heartbreak and failed marriages, Austin brought to life the truths behind the music.
Morrison and Austin’s on-stage interaction was relaxed and inviting, the pair sharing jokes and taking turns to transport the audience to a place of soulful nostalgia. During the numbers, they took it in turns to hold the limelight; Austin entering into scatting sequences in which she mimicked the brass, woodwind and percussive sounds in true Ella style, Morrison responding with his own freefalling series of blues improvisations, finishing each song with a punctuated 180-degree flip of his trumpet.
The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra uncharacteristically carried the jazz style with ease, prompting Austin to end the show in admiration, exclaiming “If you didn’t think these suckers could swing… well now you know!”
The Celebration of Ella and Louis will undoubtedly remain a highlight of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, Austin and Morrison illuminating the history of two jazz legends in a transcendent collaboration of their own.