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.Traditional Christmas songs are so replete with what makes many music-lovers flee to jazz’s bracing antidote – bland tunes, hokey emotions, irony-deficiency, piety – that they fight creativity all the way.
But Barker the master craftsman and the show’s illustrious guests won out in the end.
Barker himself arranged each piece and took on conducting duties, putting together a varied selection of pieces that mostly stuck to the Christmas theme but also included some jazz standards. A repertoire like this is perfect for these kinds of events; a mix of easily recognizable tunes with some less well-known ones, all performed in a similar style, makes it accessible to a slightly wider audience.
In 2016, Among the guests were international a capella group Accent, who performed on several numbers. Their vocal gymnastics were most effective in their rendition of “Keep The Faith” – unlike the rest of their songs last night this was done in their usual style, without backing from the band.
Overseeing events alongside Barker, as well as performing, was broadcaster Clare Teal. Renowned vocalist Kurt Elling provided an unexpected highlight with an original take on “Little Drummer Boy”, a song made famous by David Bowie and Bing Crosby – backed only by double bass and a pair of drum kits, with Elling indulging the audience in a spot of scat singing.
The show continued successfully in 2017 and 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.
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 flavor 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.
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.