A Christmas show doesn’t have to be cosy – it can be swinging, unpredictable and even edgy, as John Fordham explains:
Back in the distant day, before war engulfed the planet in 1939, a slick orchestral form of jazz – big-band swing – was the world’s pop, and fans all across the United States and Europe danced to it, queued around the blocks for it, and worshipped its glamorous stars. But after rock ’n’ roll erupted in the 1950s, the music that had set the world jitterbugging retreated into being a hobby for buffs, or older fans with sentimental memories of shy first dances with sweethearts.
But every generation spawns creative artists who can recapture old spirits afresh, and then throw in something special of their own. The Royal Albert Hall’s now annual big band Christmas extravaganza is directed by just such a dynamic force in Guy Barker – one of the UK’s most accomplished jazz musicians for over 30 years, and one of its most enthusiastic and informed big-ensemble composer/arrangers. Since its launch in 2016, Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas has been showing thousands of music-lovers from across the generations how the cosiest of Christmas ditties can take on a swinging, unpredictable and even edgy new life, how exhilaratingly the classic big-band jazz of Count Basie or Benny Goodman can reach out to modern audiences, and how many barely-known but unexpectedly eloquent Christmas songs deserve a wider hearing.
As a trumpet virtuoso, Guy Barker has played in the big bands of such legendary leaders as Gil Evans, Carla Bley and John Dankworth, and for all manner of 20th century musical pioneers from Ornette Coleman to Sting. He later developed a second career as an orchestral composer and musical director for the EFG London Jazz Festival’s Jazz Voice, BBC Radio 2’s Friday Night Is Music Night, and for the BBC Concert Orchestra. But when the Royal Albert Hall’s Artistic Director Lucy Noble asked him to invent a jazz Christmas show for the hallowed London venue, he was doubtful at first.
“I thought, wait a minute, I’ve played with Ornette Coleman and Evan Parker, really uncompromising jazz originals. I can’t do this. Jazz tends not to be sentimental, sometimes it subverts songs that people know and love. But then I started thinking of how to expand a big band, have two pianos and two drummers, add a string section – and after that I began wondering if there were any hip Christmas tunes, and I found that Ramsey Lewis had done a wonderful Christmas album, there was a great Count Basie version of Jingle Bells, and a hilarious 1930s Louis Prima song called What Will Santa Claus Say When He Finds Everyone Swinging.
“We also had the great Kurt Elling in the lineup, who released a Christmas album that year” (the indefatigable Barker is also collaborating with Elling on the music for the American singer’s jazz drama The Big Blind at New York’s Lincoln Center next March) “and with ingredients like that I began to see how much could be done with it.”
The 2018 concert features the return of vivacious swing vocalist and radio presenter Clare Teal, a capella group Accent, and the bluesily soulful and spectacular Incognito singer Vanessa Haynes. This year’s lineup also features UK clarinet star Adrian Cox from the retro but eclectic Kansas Smitty’s House Band, and Strictly Come Dancing vocalist Tommy Blaize, a performer Barker describes as “a revelation”.
“When I did a rehearsal with Tommy for Friday Night Is Music Night a while ago, he blew us all away,” Barker observes with feeling. “He idolises Louis Armstrong, and you can hear it in his spontaneity and ease with any material, he can sing anything. I’m really looking forward to doing the show with him, and with Vanessa, and Clare – who knows so much about this music, and is so positive and encouraging, and so good with a crowd – and so many other people I love making music with.
“And, like every year, we find fascinating new songs that fit the bill – a Billy May version of Rudolf The Red Nosed Reindeer, a fantastic Jingle Bells by Stan Kenton’s arranger Pete Rugolo, a piece called Bakerloo Non Stop that the late Kenny Baker used to play with the Ted Heath orchestra, which we’ll put in the closing big band medley. Some great pieces of music might go out of fashion, but they come back for new audiences hearing them afresh without preconceptions. I love hearing that happen, and it’s what makes this gig such a lot of fun.” (pp)
Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas is at the Royal Albert Hall, 7.30pm on Friday 14 December.