Guy Barker is returning to the Royal Albert Hall this December for the sixth year of his Big Band Christmas, and it’s back to full capacity. Interview by Mary James
LondonJazz News: After the first Big Band Christmas concert in 2016 (picture above) Sebastian Scotney wrote: “Whisper it quietly, but this could just possibly be the start of a new tradition”. How does that make you feel now that you’re into your sixth Big Band Christmas show at the Royal Albert Hall?
Guy Barker: I feel incredibly happy that this is happening. When I was first asked to do it, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do a Christmas concert. It’s the Albert Hall, it holds 5,000 people. I wasn’t sure I could draw a crowd that big and then somebody said to me: “You don’t have to worry Guy, you’ve got two enormous stars on the bill already – the Albert Hall and Christmas – they’ll sell your tickets!” We are already talking about next year, so it seems to have become a regular Christmas concert.
LJN: It’s the 150th anniversary of the Royal Albert Hall this year. Have you been given a specific brief?
GB: They invited me to look in their archive – they have kept all the programmes going back years, in pristine condition. I saw that Benny Goodman did a gig in 1971 and I remember my Dad taking me to that concert, it was my first trip to the Albert Hall. For this year’s concert to celebrate the 150th, I’ve taken moments that celebrate jazz and Big Band concerts that have taken place over all these years, as well as all the Christmas music.
LJN: It sounds like you have great affection for the Hall.
GB: When you walk into that amazing space it feels really special. You don’t just do a concert there, it becomes a special occasion. The view from the stage is spectacular. It’s so enormous, it looks like it could swallow you up but in a very welcoming way! And as you walk through the “Bull run” to the stage, it opens up, and every time it looks like it’s welcoming you.
LJN: So who’s going to be playing this year?
GB: As always, the 38-piece band, plus guests. Clare Teal will be there. Liv Warfield from Chicago, she’s a spectacular performer. And Joe Stilgoe, Tony Momrelle and Giacomo Smith, all of whom are stars in their own right.
LJN: You’ve got Jazz Voice coming up on 12 November. How do you keep on top of all this work?
GB: You just have to do it and keep on top of it. I get up, practise the trumpet for two hours every day, then I write. It’s a necessity.
LJN: So what else have you been working on?
GB: I’d always wanted to write a concerto for Giacomo Smith because he’s one of the most inspiring musicians I’ve ever met. He’s done three of the Christmas shows. And as I started to write the concerto, I got an email saying that John Cumming had died and I was desperately upset by that. We were really good friends. I even found a programme from a gig he booked me for, in the Hammersmith Town Hall when I was 20 or 21 so I’ve known him since then. So I knew I had another reason to do this concerto. I’ll dedicate it to John. We were going to perform it in 2020 but couldn’t, but I’ve got a chance to rehearse it soon with the Southbank Sinfonia and it will be premiered next year.
LJN: I last saw you live in 2019 at Cheltenham Music Festival in the Town Hall with Brass for Africa.
GB: That was fun! There was a youth band and Brass for Africa and they were all set up in brass band formation. I’ve got a picture, of the back row of third cornets and it’s me, Alison Balsom and Wynton Marsalis!
LJN: And it was such a joyful concert. What is going to bring us joy at your Christmas concert?
GB: The audience will probably feel it coming from the stage. The musicians have started to work again but we’ve not been in the Albert Hall with that kind of audience for two years so there’s going to be a buzz. And with the material we’ve chosen, there’s nothing to depress you. It will be fun, there will be a few surprises and I hope everybody will have a good time.
Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas is at the Royal Albert Hall, 7.30pm on Friday 10 December 2021
LINK: Info and tickets