Limelight speaks to Jazz trumpet icon and Artistic Director of the Queensland Music Festival, James Morrison

The Queensland Music Festival is a beast of an event. With venues spread across the whole state, it covers the largest geographical area of any such event in the world, but it’s not just the footprint of the QMF that’s vast. From classical to jazz to world music, with a healthy amount of cross-genre fusion to boot, the variety of music on offer is also truly gargantuan. With a personality almost as big as the state of Queensland, Australian jazz trumpet icon and QMF Artistic Director James Morrison tells Limelight’s Online Editor, Maxim Boon, what’s in store this year.

It’s quite an impressive range, not just musically but geographically, that you have to cover with this festival. Is it a daunting challenge, pairing a specific performance with the right audience all over the state?

In this festival you’ve got everything from pop-up venues like the paddock, to QPAC. It’s what’s right for the place and for the people that’s crucial, and it’s a careful balance between giving people what they want but also challenging them – giving them something they might never have chosen, but that’s going to delight them. That’s why our programme is a real mixture. And that’s just when you’re providing a performance for people to attend, because of course a lot of the work we do is about encouraging the public to perform, through our community engagement projects

There’s also a lot of indigenous work and performances in remote parts of the state in the festival as well. Offering that access to a quality festival and to professional musicians must be a very important part of your curating process.

Absolutely. It all about access and excellence. Sometimes they happen at the same time, sometimes they happen individually, but they underpin everything we do within the festival. It’s not a case of in Brisbane you have the highbrow “excellence” and in the outback you’ve got the less formal “access.” Sometimes it’s the other way around. We do things like Keys to the City here in Brisbane, which is all about access in the most simple and fundamental way. We’re putting 10 pianos in train stations and anyone is welcome to play. Excellence? Who knows, but we’ll certainly get a brilliant range of styles and abilities! Meanwhile we’ve got Amber Hammond and Ian Cooper touring to Jundah and Boulia: a regional performance that’s all about excellence. Having [double bas virtuoso] Edgar Meyer come – it doesn’t get any better than that! As much as a piano in the station is access, that’s excellence. Some of the greatest string players in the world, like Yo Yo Ma, talk about Edgar as being the pinnacle. For him to come to Australia for the first time and to be coming exclusively to Brisbane is something we’re really proud.

Securing Edgar Meyer is a huge coup for the Festival…

And I’ve been a fan of his for years! That’s one of the delights of being an artistic director: you can think “who would I like to hear?” and then try and make it happen. I’ll also be joining him on stage during the festival, and that’s going to be great. The best part about getting to play with him is not the actual playing – I just want to stand that close to him while he plays, and it would be a bit weird in the concert if I came up and did it if I wasn’t also performing! He’ll also be delivering some masterclasses while he’s here too.

Edgar Meyer

You’re really getting your money’s worth out of him while he’s here!

It’s a very rare opportunity and we are of course going to make the most of it. We’ll be performing together with the QSO. On that night they’ll do Beethoven’s fifth symphony and he’ll be playing a concerto with me, but the real feature night for him is a couple of nights later when we put him with Camerata of St John’s and he does the Bottesini concerto, which is, dare I say it, his party piece. It’s far too beautiful to be called that, but it’s a piece he’s very celebrated for. Then he’ll play his own concerto, and that’s really, for the Edgar fans and those new to his playing, when they’ll get to hear what he can do.

You mention before that the joy of this festival is not just giving people what they expect or what they want but also offering them something new and surprising. The double bass is probably the string instrument least heard as a soloist. We’re far more use to seeing a violin or cello…

What Edgar can do with his instrument is astonishing. Shut your eyes and sometimes it’s a cello and sometimes it’s a violin!

When did you first come across Edgar’s playing?

I was commissioned to write a double bass concerto myself for a Brisbane bass player, Pat Marcella, who’s both a classical and jazz player. When he asked me to write it for him he said “Not that I can play like him, but I want you to check out Edgar Meyer.” When I heard Edgar for the first time I thought “Oh my God.” I’ve been a fan ever since. When he puts out new records like Goat Rodeo, which he recorded with Yo Yo Ma and Joshua Bell – just a couple of string players he found I’m sure on a Tuesday afternoon – It’s simply incredible.

Edgar is also a composer, and he’ll be giving the Australian premiere of his Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra in E. Tell me about that work.

That performance be one of those points where the audience will be taken somewhere they wouldn’t normally have gone. It draws on his breadth of musical interests. It’s a classical bass concerto but it’s not really. It’s got elements of jazz- he grew up with Béla Fleck, the banjo player from the Flecktones, the bluegrass guys – they’ve been here many times for the Bluegrass Festival. Growing up together Béla would say to him “Come on man play some Bluegrass, play some real music” and Edgar would reply, “Bach is real music. You’ve got to play Bach.” Hence the world’s greatest classical bass player plays bluegrass and you’ve got Béla fleck, the only banjo player in the world who’s ever recorded Bach fugues on Banjo. I think that’s completely fantastic! Edgar is one of the foremost classical players in the world but he has all these other influences, so when he writes a concerto for himself you can hear them in there and you can feel them in there. It’s got this distinctive lilt to it, that you just wouldn’t get with just a straight classical composer. 

Another highlight of the festival will be the Australian Voices and their musical settings of Australian political speeches, in a performance rather irreverently titled Unrepresentative Swill.

I am happy to claim that I came up with that! I love that line of Keating’s, but I have had some people saying “oh, do you think you should be calling our Prime Ministers unrepresentative swill?” But that’s not what I’m saying at all. They are representative, they’re elected, and that line was about the senate, which we don’t have in Queensland. So the tongue-in-cheek gag of this performance is “unrepresentative swill? None here!”. But it’s also a reference to the subject matter of the performance. Our politicians, and some of the speeches that are used in this performance are very moving; some of them are angry; some of them are funny. Nonetheless they’re all littered with great Australianisms and the way our Prime Ministers have spoken, whether it be Menzies or whether it be Keating, there’s this thread that they’re all Aussies. Musically it’s just fantastic –  Gordon [Hamilton] is fantastic with the standard of Australian voices is so high. The whole premise of the thing grabs me. I love the idea. I think it’s an Australian thing in and of itself, to take your Prime Ministers and set them to music with a bit of wry smile.

Of course there is a lot of classical in this year’s selection – like the Australian piano quartet, probably one of the most exciting new chamber ensembles to emerge in recent years, who have recently wowed audiences in Paris and London, but there’s also a huge amount of jazz and world music too. Do you find that they are all very different audiences or are people willing to explore different tastes?

Here’s the great thing about a festival: usually those audiences would be pretty divided, but when there is a festival on, for some reason, people wake up in the morning and instead of going, “I’m a jazz lover,” “I’m a classical music lover,” they go, “oh, look there’s a festival on. I think I’ll go and see that!” For some reason they allow themselves to go and try things out they wouldn’t normally consider. That is one of the fabulous things about a festival, not just what we get to put on great music, but the people treat it in a totally open minded way. Festivals somehow give people permission to step outside the box. That’s why we have to provide a lot of different genres and styles: so no matter which one they’re in, they can step outside it.

The Queensland Music Festival runs at venues across the state until August 2.