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Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas at the Royal Albert Hall 2019

Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas
(Royal Albert Hall. 19 December 2019. Review by Georgina Williams)

Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas at the Royal Albert Hall was a three-hour festive extravaganza. Because of its length, I’m forced to select my favourite moments from the concert. Special commendations must be given to the lighting crew – whilst the hall is already a feast for sore eyes, it was transformed into a Christmas wonderland complete with a huge disco ball which was lit for extra merriment.

Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas. Photo credit: Paul Wood

Guy Barker himself spent a good part of the concert conducting his Big Band, with BBC Radio 2 presenter Clare Teal  sharing the compering reins. The Big Band were joined by an exquisite string section – perfect for some of the slower Christmas ballads.

Clare Teal and Guy Barker. Photo credit: Paul Wood

Acoustically, the hall often presents a challenge – and there were moments where discrepancies between the powerhouse trumpet front line and the saxophones meant that it wasn’t always possible to hear everything clearly.

Barker did not shy away from giving his illustrious guests plenty of time on the stage. Clarinettist Giacomo Smith and the Kansas Smitty’s Big Four featured heavily in the first half. They played Guy Barker’s arrangement of Here Comes Santa Claus with the full band, and then spread joy with a  lively Sidney Bechet-style Frosty the Snowman.

Much appreciation was given to special guest Kurt Elling, whom Barker described as one of the best jazz singers of his time. Whilst his mid-tempo, fully orchestrated, swung numbers displayed his impressive vocal range (read: belt), I felt they lacked pace. The songs melted into one long full-on swinger. Potentially it was just me that felt this – the audience were certainly big fans. And Elling certainly commanded the large stage – no mean feat if you’re the only one moving.

Kurt Elling. Photo credit: Paul Wood

Several powerhouse performances came from singer Vula Malinga. As soon as she opened her mouth is was clear why she had been chosen. She brought the house down with an emphatic Gospel song which I had never heard of. My co-concert goer did note however, that if you are going to sing Gospel it would have made sense to have some backing singers. And whereas Malinga did perform a duet with other special guest Clarke Peters, it’s a shame all four singers couldn’t have spent more time on the stage together.

The production itself was very good – but it is always going to be difficult to arrange and perform Christmas music for three hours and keep the pace going. I would say overall, the concert did what it said on the tin. It was definitely a Big Band Christmas concert, and judging by the fairly homogeneous audience (lots of middle-aged, middle class families) most people wanted to come and enjoy light-hearted festive entertainment. It is only in its fourth year, but Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas is already beginning to feel as much a part of Christmas as the panto or The Nutcracker.

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