Big band shakes up the Green Mill

It isn’t often that a 19-piece big band squeezes onto the stage of the Green Mill Jazz Club and puts forth a mighty roar from Down Under.

But the robust ensemble that packed the house Friday night did just that, giving listeners a taste of what Australian youths are up to, and it sounded as if they’ve been practicing. A lot.

 As its name suggests, the James Morrison Academy Jazz Orchestra is a student ensemble led by the hyper-virtuoso Australian multi-instrumentalist. Its technical elan and conversance with an array of musical idioms, however, marked this band as professional in the best sense of the word: It reaches a high level of performance.

That came as no surprise considering that it’s directed by Morrison, a musician who all too rarely gets to this part of the world. The last time I heard him, in 1991, he was playing a tiny, long-gone room on North Sheffield Avenue.

“The remarkable virtuoso who breezed through Chicago over the weekend is not yet a household name, but if there’s any justice, he will be,” I wrote back then.

Whether Morrison holds that status these days depends on the nature of the household, but he’s widely admired in the realm of jazz, particularly for his wizardry on trumpet. Little wonder that any student ensemble bearing his name would hew to the rather exalted standards Morrison long has held for himself.

Having just performed at this year’s Jazz Education Network conference in New Orleans, Morrison and the band headed north for a quick swing through Chicago and a rare one-nighter “at the legendary Green Mill,” as Morrison so aptly put it.

The band, which serves as the top-tier ensemble at the James Morrison Academy of Music, opened with Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind.” But this was not a relaxed, meditative rendition of the sort we associate with Ray Charles’ landmark interpretation and others influenced by it.

Instead, the ensemble hit hard, its staccato, fortissimo blasts surely heard well outside the century-old walls of the Mill. Morrison led the charge on trumpet, his phrases punctuated by full-throated exhortations from his proteges.

Morrison’s big solo, of course, evoked a long line of leather-lunged trumpeters such as Maynard Ferguson, Arturo Sandoval and Charlie Sepulveda: big sound, nimble technique, larger-than-life conception.