Photo Credit: Charlie Chan
Trumpeter/ conductor/ arranger GUY BARKER will be directing and co-hosting “Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas” at the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday December 11th. It is billed as a “soulful celebration of big band music from Count Basie to Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Louis Prima with a Christmas twist.” Participating will be KURT ELLING, CLARE TEAL (also co-host), SOWETO KINCH, actor/singer CLARKE PETERS from “The Wire”, “Notting Hill” – and playing Nelson Mandela in “The Prison Years.” Also appearing are VANESSA HAYNES and the a capella group ACCENT.
In the run-up to the show, Guy Barker spoke to Dan Paton:
How does he maintain such momentum? ‘Whenever I put the pencil down, something else comes in’, he says, more with genuine gratitude than exasperation or exhaustion. ‘This year has been very busy. I wrote a lot of orchestral arrangements for Clare Teal’s album, I did my annual Cheltenham Jazz Festival gig and I wrote a violin concerto which was premiered in Bucharest with Charles Mutter. I’m now working on a Cello concerto as well. I love the challenges of all these things. There are times when it is easier than other times, especially when you’ve been travelling. There was a time I remember doing a Miles Davis project for the BBC Big Band and Philharmonic at the same time as I was doing Jazz Voice – I was waking up in the night out of fear and panic!’
Fortunately, Barker does not seem even remotely fearful about his current workload, even after Jazz Voice, which he admits can be all-encompassing. He explains the slightly circuitous route by which he came to be doing a Christmas concert, the event having origins in a very different project. ‘I got a call from Lucy Noble who runs the concert schedule there and she asked me what I would do if I could do anything at all.
I’ve worked with an author called Rob Ryan a lot and we wanted to do something inspired by a circus fire that took place in the 40s. There’s a Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs book that we were looking at (And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks). Unfortunately, some of the soloists’ touring schedules meant we couldn’t get it together but Lucy was very keen not to lose the project completely. In the meantime, she asked me how I’d feel about doing a Christmas concert. She had seen the swing prom with Clare Teal and was probably thinking along those lines.’
Some jazz musicians might run for the hills at such a proposition, but Barker is adept at moulding ideas to his own creative concerns. ‘We knew it had to be in contrast to regular Christmas material – immediately we wanted to avoid The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol, he explains. ‘I also wanted the band to look very different from the Jazz Voice concert as they were only a month apart.’
This directed Barker towards expanding the band to include two drummers, two pianos and an 18 piece string section, among other developments. He also started investigating the lineage of Christmas themed jazz and found some surprising rewards (he becomes animated when discussing a Charlie Parker Christmas Day live radio broadcast).
He takes evident delight in the way great jazz musicians were able to develop even the most familiar and predictable of Christmas material. ‘I heard a fantastic arrangement of Jingle Bells that Ernie Wilkins arranged for the Count Basie orchestra and there was a Louis Prima song from the 30s that just made me laugh so much (What Will Santa Claus Say When He Finds Everyone Swinging) and I searched for jazz artists who made successful Christmas albums. It turns out that there are quite a few – the Ramsey Lewis one is particularly great.’ This research also helped Barker shape the brief to focus on his existing musical relationships and enthusiasms. He invited Clarke Peters due to his deep knowledge of Louis Prima and Louis Jordan and, for a more contemporary perspective, contacted the great singer Kurt Elling who himself has just released a Christmas album The Beautiful Day (Sony Okeh) a couple of songs from which will feature in the Royal Albert Hall programme). More broadly, the concert is taking Barker back to formative influences, some of the music he heard as a teenager when his father took him to see Count Basie and Benny Goodman concerts.
Barker clearly sees no mutual exclusivity between the demands of entertaining a large audience and finding creative satisfaction from his work. He repeatedly emphasises that the Big Band Christmas concert will be ‘a lot of fun’ but has also judiciously selected his special guest performers for their specific musical contributions. He describes Soweto Kinch as ‘a fantastic musician’, emphasising the work ethic Kinch had when first hitting the scene as a teenager, and how hearing Charlie Parker had ‘ignited a fire’ in the young saxophonist. He claims that Vanessa Haynes, who has just finished touring with Incognito, ‘tends to bring the house down’ and commends Clare Teal not just for being ‘a great singer and personality’ but also for being ‘incredibly well organised’ and able to make subtle but significant suggestions that often make a show work much more effectively. Also keen to recognise new and less well known talent, Barker has also enlisted the international vocal group Accent.
Working with a wide variety of vocalists has clearly become one of the pillars of Barker’s work. He credits the meeting with John Cumming from Serious that initiated Jazz Voice as being a major turning point in his career, marking a shift from trumpet playing and bandleading to composing and arranging. Does working with singers have an impact on the process of arranging? Does it present any specific responsibilities? ‘They are the person that has to shine’, he states clearly. ‘You want the arrangement to work itself but it’s very important that the vocalist feels you’ve done something special for them. When you run it in rehearsal and they hear it for the first time and smile, that’s when it feels we’ve got there.’
He also discusses the range of experiences when working with different singers. Sometimes he begins from scratch and at other times he works using existing recordings as a starting point. When developing the arrangement of Like Someone In Love that Lizz Wright performed at this year’s Jazz Voice, conversation was the main catalyst. Wright had ‘talked about the concept of the ballad. She seemed like someone with such a good soul – just the few conversations we had got me playing with ideas.’
Sometimes, Barker embarks on collaborations that might initially seem surprising, such as his work with Paloma Faith that put him in ‘Film Noir territory’ (which he loved) or his more recent work with Lady Leshurr at Jazz Voice. ‘To work with Lady Leshurr was incredible’, he enthuses. ‘An orchestral version of rap – how on earth was I going to do that? Fortunately, there were some sampled strings that gave me a starting point, then I wrote the introduction to be big and dramatic – I wanted her to have a great time.’
As well as working in the service of his collaborators, Barker is also keen to highlight what the musicians he works with can do in developing his music and how this can feel as a conductor in front of a large ensemble. ‘It can be a lot of meaningless dots on a piece of paper until you put it into the hands of amazing musicians’, he says. ‘They tell you how it’s supposed to go. That’s the bit I love. Sometimes people play things in a way you wouldn’t have thought of or expected and they take it on as their music.’ Whilst Barker remains busy with other forthcoming arranging projects, including working with Billy Cobham, he also looks forward to working on something more personal in the not too distant future. If anyone can make time in an already intense schedule for something new, it’s clearly Guy Barker. (pp)
LINKS: Kurt Elling’s A Beautiful Day
DETAILS / BOOKINGS: Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas at the Royal Albert Hall