Guy Barker’s annual big band Christmas spectacular has become a fixture in the jazz calendar. This year’s, the fourth, features vocalists Grammy-winner Kurt Elling and Quincy Jones collaborator Vula Malinga, clarinettist Giacomo Smith and Kansas Smitty’s House Band, with Clare Teal co-hosting. The distinguished trumpeter, composer and arranger discussed its return with Andrew Cartmel:
London Jazz News: It’s great to have a chance to talk to you. I’ve been following your career ever since I first heard you play in an intimate little two man gig with pianist Roger Kellaway at Lauderdale House.
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Guy Barker: I spoke to Roger a week or two ago, he’s approaching his 80th birthday next month. He’s an amazing musician. He wrote the music for the play Lenny by Julian Barry, about Lenny Bruce. When it was staged in London, Julian and Sir Peter Hall, the director, decided to use a real stand- comedian to play the stand-up and real jazz musicians to play the musicians. The band included Peter King, Clark Tracey and myself. It was a terrific gig. We got to play Roger Kellaway’s music and work alongside some great actors and Eddie Izzard used to change Lenny Bruce’s routines every night. He would improvise like a jazz musician, and it was magic.
LJN: You made the transition from top trumpet sideman and soloist to arranger and composer. Was it a natural progression, was there a crucial turning point?
GB: Writing is something that was always there and always intrigued me because I spent so much time working with people who were great writers like Stan Tracey, Mike Westbrook, John Dankworth, Gil Evans and Quincy Jones. I always remember sitting on the end of trumpet sections in the studios and hearing the great, legendary trumpet players next to me commenting on the writing. And that kind of intrigued me, and I wanted to find out more.
Years later I was touring with my own band with the pianist Bernado Sassetti. He was an outstanding composer and he and I always used to talk about composers, writing and how great it would to live the life of a composer. Stan Sulzmann steered me towards Jeffrey Wilson. I took lessons with him and it became this crazy obsession. And then my life changed when John Cumming from Serious rang me up and we created the very first Jazz Voice concert at the London Jazz Festival. It involved an orchestra of superstar musicians and I got to write all the arrangements. After that the BBC Concert Orchestra called me to do a whole series of more things, and I never looked back. Two or three years later I took my trumpet out of the case and the valves were all stuck from not being used…
People would still call me up to play and I’d d say no because I felt I wasn’t match fit. But the trumpet is still always there. In fact, a couple of years ago I decided I really wanted to get back into playing properly again. I got a couple of new instruments and I’ve been practising hard ever since. But the writing is there all the time and it always will be. In fact there are projects lined up for the next two or three years.
LJN: I know you have an interest in film music. Is that a compositional and arranging influence?
GB: Definitely. Without a doubt it always was. The first big orchestral piece I wrote was called Sounds in Black and White and it was inspired by film noir with each of the instruments representing a Hollywood idol — the tenor sax was Cary Grant and the alto was Lauren Bacall, etc. At the Barbican I got my first opportunity to do a really big orchestration, of that piece.
But when you’re arranging a song, the lyrics give you a story to tell and I’ve always enjoyed that. The first arrangement I wrote for the Jazz Voice concerts was for Melody Gardot. It was an arrangement for Black Coffee and my introduction must have gone on for two minutes (I had so much fun with that). I saw Melody and the song as a kind of movie.
LJN: The Christmas shows at the Royal Albert Hall are now in their fourth year. How did they begin?
GB: Lucy Noble who runs their programming basically said to me, “If you could do anything you like what would that be?” I told her I had been working with my friend Rob Ryan who is a writer, a novelist, to tell this story of a circus fire in Hartford Connecticut in 1944. It involved a big band, an orchestra, a choir and a cast of soloists. And as much as we all wanted to do it, it didn’t end up coming off. Lucy then came back again and asked me how I’d feel about doing a Christmas concert. My heart sank and I said, “I’m not sure if I’m the man for the job.”
But then I started investigating what had happened in the world of jazz that was to do with Christmas and I came across things by Ramsey Lewis, and Jimmy Smith with Oliver Nelson that I loved. Then I discovered this Louis Prima song from the 1930s What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swingin’) and I fell about laughing. I began to see a way to do the concert and I agreed to do it so long as I could make it different from anything I’d done before. I wanted it to look different and feel different. And it became fun.
We did the first one and I thought nobody was going to come, but it was rammed. I knew we’d got it right when it was well received and one of the reviewers said: “This is Christmas without the cheese.” And I punched the air.
This year we’ve got Kansas Smitty’s House Band. They’re an amazing bunch of young guys, you’ve got to check them out. And I’m really happy to have the great Kurt Elling back again. He’s as good as you can get.
LJN: What’s it like playing at the Royal Albert Hall?
GB: It’s my favourite venue in the world. And I’ve played there many times and it’s always been a thrill, whether it was the Proms, or with John Dankworth, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minelli or Sammy Davis. It’s not like just doing a gig. It’s an occasion when you play there. The thing that is so distinctive is that when you look out from the stage you see this huge space, and you feel you could be almost swallowed up. But the feeling on stage is very intimate, which is so special. (pp)
Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas is at the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday 19 December 2019.