REVIEW: Guy Barker's Big Band Christmas 2017 at the Royal Albert Hall

The Guy Barker Orchestra
Photo credit: Paul Wood

Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas
(Royal Albert Hall, 10 December 2017. Review by Andrew Cartmel)


Judging by the packed house, arranger and trumpeter Guy Barker’s Christmas Big Band show at the Royal Albert Hall is in danger of becoming an annual fixture. Setting out his stall briskly, Barker’s setting of Tidings of Comfort and Joy released descending strings which yielded to the trombones taken at a big band clip then segued into wild hot Hammond organ by Jim Watson with staccato percussion and an exultant horn section. But it was the crazy, looping chords of Watson’s Hammond that raised the roof. Martin Shaw’s trumpet solo sealed the deal.

Clare Teal
Photo credit: Paul Wood
On Jingle Bells schmaltz was kept at bay by a scorching tenor solo. This band is big but it moves like a solo entity, and it swings wildly, with Watson on the Hammond again. In support of Clare Teal’s gutsy rendition of Cool Yule, Guy Barker blew a powerful Dixie-influenced solo on his trumpet. Please Send Me Someone to Love by Percy Mayfield was introduced with sleepy, bluesy brass which supported Tony Momrelle’s soulful school-of-Sam-Cooke vocals, as the strings maintained the blues strain. The drums and the brass section came down like a hammer while the strings rose in a sweetly soulful keening. The song concluded in a Joe Williams-Count Basie tropical storm.

Mica Paris
Photo credit: Paul Wood
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town saw Guy back on trumpet, paired with Giacomo Smith’s clarinet. It was like Christmas Carol with the ghost of Glen Miller turning up. Joe Stilgoe’s singing had a terse sophistication which — again — worked to counter the corniness of the material. Merry Christmas Baby got an agreeably raucous screech of an intro from the orchestra. Watson’s Hammond was back to reinforce the R&B flavour which fitted Mica Paris’s gritty molasses-sweet vocal to perfection. Fat, fertile chords from Al Cherry’s electric guitar rose swelling and swaggering to fill the Royal Albert Hall. Mica Paris’s singing was soaring, gospel gutbucket. Add Ray Charles to the Ghosts of Christmas Past.

Georgie Fame
Photo credit: Paul Wood
The young Guy Barker’s first letter to Father Christmas was a request for the single The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde by Georgie Fame, and he went on to work with Fame — for 27 years and counting. Fame’s Yeh Yeh is irresistibly groovy, with rapid fire, toe-tapping rhythm. Tasteful and tasty string writing added immensely to the song, as did the tumbling tenor and wild, wailing alto. It’s the essence of hip. Slinky piano and melancholy, diaphanous strings set the mood for Going to Kansas City with Fame on vocals again. The song was taken slow, with moments of suspension to savour the mood. It segued into Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid which kicked off as a piece of compact, precision swing, Fame bouncing his vocals off stabs from the brass section.

Frank Loesser’s What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve featured Clare Teal’s honeyed singing, and Barker’s gift for integrating this large band to achieve a graceful, poised and focused sound was tremendously in evidence here. These orchestral forces could easily be overwhelming, but they’re anything but. The deft, concise clarinet solo was by Martin Williams.

Winter Wonderland was taken at a hell of a lick and has a badass, big city vibe, setting the scene for Giacomo Smith’s high speed clarinet. At this pace, even the straightest of jazz blowing begins to acquire a boppish urgency and compressed complexity. With Jim Watson’s Hammond adding colour and weight, this was another example of a piece where the kitsch factor had been cunningly defused. Smith’s final cry on the clarinet landed us somewhere between the land of Raymond Scott and the territory of the great blues shouters.

Joe Stilgoe
Photo credit: Paul Wood
Sleigh Ride saw Joe Stilgoe playing the piano as well as singing, and his flowing vocals entwined with Giacomo Smith’s clarinet to intoxicating effect. A radical slowing of pace and the most ethereal shimmer of strings made this an unlikely highlight of the evening. We Three Kings was given a remarkable film noir makeover and showcased Jim Watson on Hammond again, but the real hero here was Alistair White’s trombone. The band’s pleasure in these charts was palpable. For Hallelujah I Love You So Mica Paris returned and the orchestra sounded like a tight and on-the-ball R&B unit — no mean feat. While it might be the guest stars who grab the headlines, the really outstanding achievement of this evening is Barker’s big band writing and the way it avoids the seasonal scourge of saccharine. A festive treat to savour.

Nathan Bray trumpet
Pat White trumpet
Andy Greenwood trumpet
George Hogg trumpet
Martin Shaw trumpet solos
Alistair White trombone
Nichol Thomson trombone
Winston Rollins trombone
Mark Frost trombone
Graeme Blevins alto saxophone
Sam Mayne alto saxophone
Martin Williams tenor saxophone
Alex Garnett tenor saxophone
Jessamy Holder baritone saxophone
Jim Watson piano and organ
Peter Edwards piano
Chris Hill bass
Al Cherry guitar
Sebastian de Krom drums
Ed Richardson drums
Tom Rees Roberts bonus trumpet
James Copus bonus trumpet
Ryan Quigley bonus trumpet
Danny Marsden bonus trumpet
Clare Teal vocals
Georgie Fame vocals
Tony Momrelle vocals
Joe Stilgoe vocals and piano
Mica Paris vocals
Giacomo Smith clarinet
Guy Barker trumpet, conductor, arranger

LINKS: Preview of the 2017 concert
Review of the inaugural 2016 concert

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