Australian jazz dynamo James Morrison & Kurt Elling on tour in Australia

It’s a good thing James Morrison knows how to drive fast cars and fly his own plane. With an overflowing schedule and commitments that span the globe, time is at a premium.
When we talk he’s in Sydney, driving (within the speed limit, he assures me) from the airport to the city, doing a mental run-through of his current to-do list. Most pressing is International Jazz Day – a UNESCO-initiated celebration each April 30. The highlight of the worldwide event is an All-Star Global Concert, held in a different location each year.

This year, it’s Melbourne’s turn and Morrison – who bid for the event on behalf of Australia – is the event’s co-artistic director, along with Herbie Hancock. More than 30 high-profile artists from around the world will perform at the invitation-only concert, while millions of viewers will watch via a free webcast.

Then, from Friday, Morrison will direct Generations in Jazz, the world’s largest youth jazz festival, organised by his music academy in Mount Gambier (where he also teaches and runs a jazz club). And after the festival wraps on Sunday, he’ll be on the road for a national tour with acclaimed American jazz vocalist Kurt Elling.

“Yeah, if I thought too long about everything that’s going on at the moment, I’d just curl up into a ball,” laughs Morrison.

Elling also knows a thing or two about demanding schedules. “You’ve caught me on one of the five days a year when I’m at home,” he says from New York.  Elling’s itinerary will align with Morrison’s for several weeks, as the Grammy-winning singer is performing at the All-Star Global Concert and Generations in Jazz before touring with Morrison and his band.

Their musical paths have crossed several times in recent years and mutual admiration finally led to the decision to collaborate. First came a successful four-night run at Birdland in New York in January, performing songs associated with Elling’s vocal heroes including Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, Joe Williams and Billy Eckstine. The concerts were recorded and the resulting album, Live in New York, will be released to coincide with the Australian tour. Live in New York is a sparkling testament not just to Elling and Morrison’s individual artistry, but their creative compatibility on stage.

Elling describes Morrison as a creative genius, pointing to “his total dedication to the music, the brilliant sound that he gets and his ability to basically play anything, on any instrument with a mouthpiece”.

Morrison is equally complimentary about Elling. “Kurt’s one of those rare vocalists who thinks more like a jazz instrumentalist – and yet is still so much the jazz singer,” Morrison says.

“He can sing a lyric like the greatest vocalists who’ve ever lived, and then take an improvised solo and sound like the greatest horn players who’ve ever lived. To me, he’s the most complete jazz musician – who happens to be a vocalist – that I’ve heard.”

Elling and Morrison also share a deep love of (and commitment to) the audience, which makes the constant travel worthwhile.

“At the end of the day it’s about the feeling people get when the music affects them,” says Morrison. “And the audience can’t have that feeling if you don’t, you know? So my job is to actually go out there, be inspired and have a wonderful time. I’m obliged to do that,” he laughs. “It’s not bad, is it?”

James Morrison and Kurt Elling perform at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall on May 6, South Brisbane’s Queensland Performing Arts Center May 7, Adelaide Town Hall May 8, Perth Concert Hall May 9, and the Sydney Town Hall on May 11. The International Jazz Day All-Star Global Concert on April 30 will be webcast at jazzday.com