Feature/Interview (PP)

Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas 2020

It may have been the year when the bin went out more than you, but the Albert Hall is aiming to defy Covid gloom to mount a season of socially distanced festive shows in December, including Guy Barker’s roof-raising annual big-band bash. John Bungey learns what he’s cooking up for Christmas…

Publicity Photo.

If this had been a normal year Guy Barker‘s Christmas would have started during the long days of June. That is when the trumpeter, arranger and composer usually starts rootling through the dustier corners of the internet looking for old, overlooked jazz arrangements of Christmas tunes to be revived for his annual festive big-band show at the Royal Albert Hall – the more crazy, the more colourful the better. It might be Charlie Parker riffing on White Christmas or “the first song that made me want to do this”, Louis Prima’s band bouncing through What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swingin’).

Those finds helped launch the first show five years ago (REVIEWED HERE) and the good news is that Barker and his 38-piece band will be back for 2020 – two drummers, five trumpets, organ, piano, strings, Christmas tree and all – albeit positioned a little farther apart on the August old stage. “We’ve got Tommy Blaize [vocalist on Strictly Come Dancing], Vanessa Haynes, Joe Stilgoe, and Clare Teal will be co-hosting as well as singing. “Because of social distancing we won’t have lots of guest trumpets so we’ll have duelling clarinets instead – Giacomo Smith and Adrian Cox.”

The hall, Barker says, will be half full but he’s confident that won’t poop the party. “I went to Ronnie Scott’s a couple of times when they were re-opened and they were on 50 per cent audience. But people were glad to be there and just loving it. I had the feeling that the noise they were making at the end of each song was twice as much as normal.”

As for repertoire, he says: “I’m still looking but I’m halfway there. I did find Danny Kaye and Nat King Cole doing a version of Jingle Bells for a TV special in the Fifties that’s very hip.” He’s also happy to reprise some favourites. “I’ve had a request to do the Louis Prima song again. It’s something I just thought was hysterical. Somebody said it’s perfectly all right to do repeats. It’s like having brussels sprouts.”

Guy Barker at the Big Band Christmas 2016. Photo courtesy of Royal Albert Hall

If the music is good enough he’s happy to enlist tunes with more tenuous yuletide links. “There’s a Lionel Hampton boogie-woogie thing from the Forties with a four-piece vocal group called The Turkey Trot. I thought, well that’s close enough.” The only thing that’s banned is schmaltz. “After the first year one of the critics, who had obviously enjoyed it, said, ‘This was Christmas without the cheese.’ I was very pleased about that.”

If his festive show is going ahead, there is an awful lot from Barker’s year that, of course, hasn’t. He lists concerts from Hong Kong to Detroit to Dublin felled by Covid. But the hardest-working Brit in the jazz business kept working hard. He wrote a commissioned piece for the Hong Kong-based guitarist Eugene Pao and followed that with a clarinet concerto for Giacomo Smith. When the annual Jazz Voice gala for the EFG London Jazz Festival was confirmed – now to be shown online – he began planning that. Lately, not only has he been working on this year’s Albert Hall concert but looking forward to the already-confirmed show for 2021. “Next year is the 150th anniversary of the hall, so I was invited into the archive and they suggested that next year’s Christmas concert included a homage to all the jazz concerts at the hall.”

The archive has programmes going back to 1920 when the Southern Syncopated Orchestra arrived from New York. In 1926 the hall hosted a “Charleston Ball” with Jack Hylton and Fred Astaire as judges. Billie Holiday sang with the English bandleader Jack Parnell in 1953. And for all those Generation X-ers who think they invented the all-night rave Barker picks out a “Jazz Jamboree” from the late Fifties. “They had all the mainstream guys of the time – Chris Barber, Alex Welsh, Acker Bilk, Humphrey Lyttelton … The concert started at 10.30pm and the last act was at 6am. The programme was fantastic – like, Humph on at 2am. At the end of it, it said: ‘7am: The Queen.’ The Albert Hall full of 4,500 jazz fans who’d been up all night. I’d have loved to have heard their rendition of the National Anthem.”

Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas 11 December 2016

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Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas is at the Albert Hall, London SW7, on December 11.

For tickets, click here

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