REVIEW: Guy Barker Jazz Orchestra + Southbank Sinfonia — Miles Davis Symphonic: Kind of Blue at Cadogan Hall (2017 EFG LJF)

Giy Barker conducting Miles Davis Symphonic: Kind of Blue
Phoro credit: John Watson / jazzcamera.co.uk

The Guy Barker Jazz Orchestra + Southbank Sinfonia — Miles Davis Symphonic: Kind of Blue
(Cadogan Hall, 18 November 2017. EFG LJF. Review by Andrew Cartmel)

Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is the best-selling jazz album of all time and, remarkably, also the best. But its essence is so utterly bound up with small-group jazz playing that expanding it to symphonic proportions is a daunting notion. The seeds of this project were sown years ago when Guy Barker was playing with Gil Evans’s big band. One night for an encore, Evans distributed the score for So What from Kind of Blue and the young Barker was astonished to discover that what he’d always assumed to be an improvised introduction by the pianist Bill Evans was actually composed, and the handiwork of another Evans. “Gil Evans actually wrote that introduction,” recalls Guy Barker. And when the big band played it, “It sounded like a fanfare.” Barker began to wonder what would happen, “If I was to take a lot of those improvised solos, especially by Bill Evans, but also some by Wynton Kelly, and orchestrate them for the orchestra…”

Well, this afternoon at Cadogan Hall we had a chance to discover exactly what would happen. For So What there are vast opening notes on the tuba as it lumbers majestically, like hippo towards a water hole, then it joins the other instruments and the ensemble states the theme. Beautiful plucked double bass by Chris Hill performs a call and response with the reeds which raises the hair on the back of your neck. An orchestral blast yields to a tight rhythm section and then horns come in to make way for a silvery trumpet solo by Martin Shaw, adroitly climbing over the ensemble. Then the strings, played by the Southbank Sinfonia, rise like steam off a pool, warm and welcoming. Toes were tapping from the first note.

On Freddie Freeloader the see-sawing horn section and elegant exposition of the strings provide a high vantage point for Shaw’s solo trumpet. Brass stabs cue a delicate rising flight of flutes. A tenor solo by Per ‘Texas’ Johansson breaks surface and commands attention, illuminating the contours of the tune and suddenly making things urgent and personal. The tuba provides battering-ram backup as the horns enter in force, then draw back for a lilting string and woodwind passage that rises and falls with oceanic majesty. The cry of the brass evokes Stan Kenton as Guy Barker draws startling punches out of the ensemble before it subsides to allow piano (Jim Watson) and trumpet to make a final statement.

Diminishing string and woodwinds whisper the farewell for this piece. Out of the silence rises Blue in Green. Once attributed, like all the music on Kind of Blue, exclusively to Miles Davis, it is now generally acknowledged that Bill Evans deserves at least equal credit for this piece. Here it is introduced by shimmering impressionist strings which would have made Johnny Mandel proud. By now it’s very clear that Guy Barker has unlocked this tight small-combo music and expanded it into a considerable treasure trove of playing and experimentation. Rosario Giuliani solos on his alto sax with diffident passion and off-hand intensity. The piece has become a rhapsody for saxophone and a rich, late night, on-the-nod feel begins to evoke a big-city nocturne. The piano is sparsely supportive as the alto rises and rises, a subtle shiver of horns beginning to coalesce behind Giuliani with the whole ensemble tightening and growing louder in a slow, smoothly controlled explosion. It’s not surprising that various attempts have been made to add lyrics to Blue in Green because Giuliani’s alto sax reveals that it’s actually an intense ballad, a modal torch song.

The strings drop to a faint, melancholy glitter, then rise sighing to envelope the pulsing double bass and we’re now in All Blues. Chris Hill’s bass is so precisely rhythmic and irresistible that it’s almost impossible not to start snapping your fingers. A series of detonations from the horns clear the air for a crystalline piano solo by Jim Watson. The rhythm section (featuring Ed Richardson on drums) rules the stage while the orchestra wait, attentively poised, for their moment. The strings re-enter with subliminal subtlety, a blasting trombone takes a solo. When Martin Shaw starts playing the fantastic Miles Davis solo it’s like finding an old friend in an unexpected place. The piece tails off in a cool modernist cloud of strings which condenses into the heartfelt melody of Flamenco Sketches. This is another Miles Davis melody in which Bill Evans had a hand (it draws on Evan’s beautifully lyrical arrangement of the Leonard Bernstein song Some Other Time). Shaw’s muted trumpet presents its eloquent heartbreak against a flowered slope of strings. Rosario Giuliani plays another alto solo of harsh, raw lyricism, its beauty menaced by a sinister Spanish rattle of percussion.

The programme concludes with a dense, tense firework display of orchestral energy and focus. Barker’s achievement here is considerable, remaining true to the sparse aesthetic of the original small group sessions while making valid use of the combined forces of a jazz orchestra and a classical chamber orchestra. What could have been cumbersome and overblown is fleet, ecstatic, enthralling.


TRUMPETS: Nathan Bray, Mike Lovatt. Pat White, Martin Shaw
TROMBONES: Barnaby Dickinson, Alistair White, Mark Frost
TUBA: Dave Powell
SAXES:Rosario Giuliani, Sam Mayne, Graeme Blevins, Per Johansson, Ben Castle
RHYTHM: Jim Watson, Chris Hill, Ed Richardson, Rob Farrer

Categories: miscellaneous

3 replies »

  1. To be honest I think it was a bad idea to score Kind of Blue for massive forces like this. The charm and restraint of the original were completely lost. Can’t think Miles would have approved.

  2. I loved this concert. Hearing these famous and much loved pieces embellished with Guy Barker magic was wonderful and I wish there was a recording that I go on listening to.

  3. I was swept away by this performance. The bass playing was extraordinary but what was that massive farting thign that Per Johansson played towards the end. Incredible!

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