Guy Barker with House Trio

November 19th, 2008
Dolan’s Upstairs
€15/12

 ‘He is that rare thing – a brilliant soloist, a born leader and a generous accompanist. He can play so your heart breaks or your head swivels.’

THE ESSENTIAL GUY BARKER
By Tom Neale

Anyone who has seen a film by Anthony Minghella (English Patient, Talented Mr Ripley, Cold Mountain), or heard him speak about film, theatre or opera, will appreciate that here is a man who knows and loves his music. So, you have to listen when he talks about trumpeter Guy Barker. ‘He is that rare thing – a brilliant soloist, a born leader and a generous accompanist. He can play so your heart breaks or your head swivels.’
 As usual, Anthony cuts straight to the heart of the player’s appeal. Guy Barker is a virtuoso, whose solos can be technically blistering and physically exhausting (you find your self trying to breathe for him), yet he has a tenderness and lyricism that appeals to the emotions. After hearing Guy’s ‘with strings’ album, What Love Is, Minghella used Guy to arrange the jazz standards in the memorable The Talented Mr Ripley – he even appears on screen in the jazz club scene with Jude Law and Matt Damon.
 But Guy is never one to stand still.  Since Ripley, he is playing as exquisitely as ever, but his writing has grown in ambition and evolved in scope, to the point where Sholto Byrnes of The Independent has said of his recent epic dZf, a re-imagining of The Magic Flute:  ‘The magic is certainly present in Barker’s magnificent new composition, and this is just the beginning.’
 But we are getting ahead of ourselves. It has been quite a journey getting to this point. Although primarily considered an out and out jazz player, there are few areas of modern music that Guy hasn’t left his mark on. From pop and rock (Paul Weller, Blur, Elvis Costello, George Michael, Van Morrison, Robbie Williams, Sting) through the Great American Songbook (Mel Torme, Liza Minelli, Sammy Davis Jr and Frank Sinatra, no less) to classical (Willard White, Lesley Garrett, the London Symphony Orchestra and London Brass), Guy Barker has been the man they turned to for a distinctive trumpet sound and deft musical input. No wonder he has been described as ‘a versatile and dynamic performer’ and ‘one of the UK’s best trumpeters’.  The Sunday Times said: ‘The ability of Guy Barker to adapt to vastly different environments is little short of astonishing.’
 This roll call of the great and the good comes before we even hit the motherlode, the jazz of his own internationally-feted groups, his albums (two of which have been Mercury Prize nominated) and his collaborations with Gil Evans, Clark Terry, Ornette Coleman, Georgie Fame, Carla Bley, Hermeto Pascoal, Quincy Jones, Martin Taylor, Joe Henderson, Nat Adderley, Jazz Jamaica and  Stan Tracey.
 Guy has also presented more than a dozen radios series for Radios 2, 3 and the World Service, including programmes on Chet Baker, Dizzy Gillespie, Jobim, Jazz at the Movies, Jazz on Stage and even a series on Rembrandt. Recently he composed the music for Zazie in the Metro, a one-hour radio play for the World Service. He has been musical director for the BBC Jazz Awards for three years, has presented highlights of the Brecon Jazz Festival for BBC TV and appeared and played trumpet in the London version of Lenny, with Eddie Izzard, directed by Sir Peter Hall.
 The  direction of his current music has its roots in an album released on Colin Town’s Provocateur label, called Soundtrack. It marked the point at which Guy’s compositional skills became an equal partner with his playing. The title slyly reflected Guy’s love of film and his own family connection with the form: his father was a stuntman and actor, his mother is an actress. The album also contained his first extended composition, Sounds in Black and White,  a 24-minute suite programmed around an imaginary film noir. The characters – think Alan Ladd, Bogie, Lauren Bacall, Barbara Stanwyck – were represented by the instruments of the septet, including Rosario Giuliani’s searing and sinuous alto saxophone and Barnaby Dickinson’s brilliantly fleet-footed trombone.
 As so often with Guy’s pieces, the recording was just the start. He spent three months enhancing, augmenting, extending and orchestrating the work and in 2003 Sounds in Black and White was performed at the Barbican (as part of the Only Connect series) and at Brecon Jazz Festival, both with the 60-piece London Metropolitan Orchestra. The Brecon concert was filmed and broadcast by the BBC.
 Sounds in Black & White gave notice of Guy’s desire to work on a larger canvas than the conventional jazz group. Another important piece on Soundtrack pointed in yet another direction. The punchy opening track, Underdogs, was based by Guy on a novel by Rob Ryan (who has also expanded – he is now published as Robert Ryan), which was set in Vietnam and in the underground tunnels of Seattle. This, too, grew into a larger, multi-themed piece, also performed at the Barbican and Brecon, with narration from the novel performed by Anthony Higgins.
 Soundtrack was a critical and artistic success, one of the pair of CDs, the other being Into The Blue, on Verve  (Guy was the venerable label’s first British signing of the 1990s) to be nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. ‘The most affectionately assembled, elegantly arranged, idiomatically diverse and well-played disc Barker has ever made.’ said The Guardian of Soundtrack;  ‘If you respond to searing rigorously imaginative music… then look no further than this excellent record,’ offered Mojo.
 Guy has toured with his bands extensively,  travelling to the Los Angeles, New York, Saudi Arabia, Chicago, Berlin, Paris, Hong Kong and Rome.
THE ESSENTIAL GUY BARKER
By Tom Neale

Anyone who has seen a film by Anthony Minghella (English Patient, Talented Mr Ripley, Cold Mountain), or heard him speak about film, theatre or opera, will appreciate that here is a man who knows and loves his music. So, you have to listen when he talks about trumpeter Guy Barker. ‘He is that rare thing – a brilliant soloist, a born leader and a generous accompanist. He can play so your heart breaks or your head swivels.’
 As usual, Anthony cuts straight to the heart of the player’s appeal. Guy Barker is a virtuoso, whose solos can be technically blistering and physically exhausting (you find your self trying to breathe for him), yet he has a tenderness and lyricism that appeals to the emotions. After hearing Guy’s ‘with strings’ album, What Love Is, Minghella used Guy to arrange the jazz standards in the memorable The Talented Mr Ripley – he even appears on screen in the jazz club scene with Jude Law and Matt Damon.
 But Guy is never one to stand still.  Since Ripley, he is playing as exquisitely as ever, but his writing has grown in ambition and evolved in scope, to the point where Sholto Byrnes of The Independent has said of his recent epic dZf, a re-imagining of The Magic Flute:  ‘The magic is certainly present in Barker’s magnificent new composition, and this is just the beginning.’
 But we are getting ahead of ourselves. It has been quite a journey getting to this point. Although primarily considered an out and out jazz player, there are few areas of modern music that Guy hasn’t left his mark on. From pop and rock (Paul Weller, Blur, Elvis Costello, George Michael, Van Morrison, Robbie Williams, Sting) through the Great American Songbook (Mel Torme, Liza Minelli, Sammy Davis Jr and Frank Sinatra, no less) to classical (Willard White, Lesley Garrett, the London Symphony Orchestra and London Brass), Guy Barker has been the man they turned to for a distinctive trumpet sound and deft musical input. No wonder he has been described as ‘a versatile and dynamic performer’ and ‘one of the UK’s best trumpeters’.  The Sunday Times said: ‘The ability of Guy Barker to adapt to vastly different environments is little short of astonishing.’
 This roll call of the great and the good comes before we even hit the motherlode, the jazz of his own internationally-feted groups, his albums (two of which have been Mercury Prize nominated) and his collaborations with Gil Evans, Clark Terry, Ornette Coleman, Georgie Fame, Carla Bley, Hermeto Pascoal, Quincy Jones, Martin Taylor, Joe Henderson, Nat Adderley, Jazz Jamaica and  Stan Tracey.
 Guy has also presented more than a dozen radios series for Radios 2, 3 and the World Service, including programmes on Chet Baker, Dizzy Gillespie, Jobim, Jazz at the Movies, Jazz on Stage and even a series on Rembrandt. Recently he composed the music for Zazie in the Metro, a one-hour radio play for the World Service. He has been musical director for the BBC Jazz Awards for three years, has presented highlights of the Brecon Jazz Festival for BBC TV and appeared and played trumpet in the London version of Lenny, with Eddie Izzard, directed by Sir Peter Hall.
 The  direction of his current music has its roots in an album released on Colin Town’s Provocateur label, called Soundtrack. It marked the point at which Guy’s compositional skills became an equal partner with his playing. The title slyly reflected Guy’s love of film and his own family connection with the form: his father was a stuntman and actor, his mother is an actress. The album also contained his first extended composition, Sounds in Black and White,  a 24-minute suite programmed around an imaginary film noir. The characters – think Alan Ladd, Bogie, Lauren Bacall, Barbara Stanwyck – were represented by the instruments of the septet, including Rosario Giuliani’s searing and sinuous alto saxophone and Barnaby Dickinson’s brilliantly fleet-footed trombone.
 As so often with Guy’s pieces, the recording was just the start. He spent three months enhancing, augmenting, extending and orchestrating the work and in 2003 Sounds in Black and White was performed at the Barbican (as part of the Only Connect series) and at Brecon Jazz Festival, both with the 60-piece London Metropolitan Orchestra. The Brecon concert was filmed and broadcast by the BBC.
 Sounds in Black & White gave notice of Guy’s desire to work on a larger canvas than the conventional jazz group. Another important piece on Soundtrack pointed in yet another direction. The punchy opening track, Underdogs, was based by Guy on a novel by Rob Ryan (who has also expanded – he is now published as Robert Ryan), which was set in Vietnam and in the underground tunnels of Seattle. This, too, grew into a larger, multi-themed piece, also performed at the Barbican and Brecon, with narration from the novel performed by Anthony Higgins.
 Soundtrack was a critical and artistic success, one of the pair of CDs, the other being Into The Blue, on Verve  (Guy was the venerable label’s first British signing of the 1990s) to be nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. ‘The most affectionately assembled, elegantly arranged, idiomatically diverse and well-played disc Barker has ever made.’ said The Guardian of Soundtrack;  ‘If you respond to searing rigorously imaginative music… then look no further than this excellent record,’ offered Mojo.
 Guy has toured with his bands extensively,  travelling to the Los Angeles, New York, Saudi Arabia, Chicago, Berlin, Paris, Hong Kong and Rome.
 Which brings us to dZf, or Die Zauberflote – The Magic Flute. For many years, Guy has had a parallel interest in classical music, notably Mahler, Stravinsky, Bartok and Honegger. During one of his visits to Hong Kong, opera and jazz fan Peter Thompson suggested that Guy write a suite based on characters from Mozart’s operas. Peter began faxing synopses and outlines. Guy liked the idea, but it remained on the back burner while he was touring.
 A few months later Guy received a call from conductor David Atherton, who was director of the San Diego Mainly Mozart festival. ‘We’d love you to come and play,’ he said. ‘But you know you’ll have to find a Mozart connection.’
 Funny you should mention that…
 The resulting Amadeus Suite consisted of five sections, each representing a different character. Although he admired Mozart, prior to this Guy had rarely listened to him in depth. As he says, candidly, ‘It was a chance to have some sun and fun in California with the band, rather than an initial fascination with the composer.’
 It was a great success (both the music and the sun’n’ fun). The San Diego Union-Tribune said the suite had ‘The same, wit, grace and joyous invention that characterised the legendary composer’s own work. A treat for anyone who enjoys music performed with spirit and sophistication.’
 As so often happens, he found Wolfie got under his skin. In 2006, San Diego called again, for a new set of pieces to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. For the second suite, Guy put together a nine piece band featuring pianist and composer Roger Kellaway. This version was described by sandiego.com as ‘witty, wacky, sexy, swinging and thoroughly enjoyable.’
 It was during this time, that Guy came up with the idea of transposing the whole of The Magic Flute to another setting and creating a jazz-dance piece. In his mind was something like Invitation to the Dance, Gene Kelly’s dialogue-less hoofing-fest from the 1950s. But what setting?
 He asked Rob Ryan to take a look at the story and see if it had any resonances, warning him the plot ‘made no sense at all’. This is, of course, an understatement. Ryan decided to go back to his thriller-writer roots, and imagined that Schikaneder hadn’t been around to write the libretto to The Magic Flute, so Mozart had to rely on Mickey Spillane to give him the outline and George V. Higgins (‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle’) for the dialogue. New York journo and former hard-drinker Pete Hamill came in to do a polish.
  The setting shifted to New York and opens in a version of The Red Lion, the legendary literary watering hole on Christopher Street in the Village, next to the 55 jazz club, where Ryan used to drink when he worked for the US GQ in the eighties. (The Lion, sadly, is defunct, the club remains). But was the kind of bar with plenty of tall stories and people to tell them, and one of them just might have been dZf.
 So instead of Prince Tamino, there appears a hot young trumpeter, Bobby Tamino; his love is a cigarette girl in a nightclub, called Pammy, rather than Pamina. Her mother, the Queen of the Night, becomes Harlem’s leading brothel madam, Queen Righteous; Monostatos is reborn as a gangster (Sid “the monster” Monesterio) and Papageno as the luckless Bird Carter.
 Guy secured a BBC Radio 3 commission to help with the writing and together they mapped out the nine major themes of the story, taking Bobby to the most magical, voodoo-drenched night of his life, when his playing could make Clifford Brown spin in his grave, to the finale, where poor, bereft Bobby sees the darkness waiting for him. (Ryan insisted that Jazz doesn’t do happy endings).
 Barker then went away and, over several months – during which time he took the new Amadeus Suite to San Diego -worked on the composition, honing and shaping a piece around the script, until he had over an hour of music that contains complex ensemble writing, heart-rending themes, daring instrumentation, joyous horn riffs and a narrator.
 The voice became an important component, another instrument almost, and getting the exact, authentic timbre was vital. Enter smoky-voiced Michael Brandon (Dempsey and Makepiece, Jerry Springer The Opera) who hit the ground running with the first gravely words (“This is the story..’). Ryan says his neck hairs stood up like iron filings the first time he heard his script spoken by the actor.
 The result was broadcast on Radio 3 in November 2006 as part of the London Jazz Festival. It was a tremendous performance, with too many fine contributions from the fourteen top-flight musicians to single any one out.
 Broadcaster Robert Elms told his radio audience: ‘It was simply stunning, some of the best playing and writing I have heard. If it is ever performed again, be certain to go and see it.’
 Well, in November and December 2007, dZf was performed again, to equally ecstatic audiences in Sheffield, York, Southampton, John Dankworth and Cleo Lane’s The Stables at Wavendon, Barnstable and Ronnie Scott’s in London. Also on the programme were numbers from the Amadeus Suite, which together with dZf makes up the double-CD called the Amadeus Project that Guy released to coincide with the tour. Response to the disc has been overwhelming, with reviewers tripping over their superlatives. Dave Gelly in the Observer said: “Not content with being probably the greatest trumpet virtuoso that British Jazz has ever produced, Guy Barker has grown into a quite phenomenal composer”; Vortex Jazz called it: “Rich, satisfying music enthusiastically but flawlessly played by a whip-smart ensemble” and GQ magazine voted the album number five in its list of 100 Best Things in the World. The accolades continue: in May 2008 it won CD of the Year at the 2008 Parliamentary Jazz Awards (voted for by the All Party Parliamentary Jazz Appreciation Group, a cross-bench club of MPs and peers).  The Amadeus Project is also shortlisted in the Best Album slot in the BBC 2008 Jazz Awards, a competition in which Guy is personally nominated in two other categories.
Amid all this, Guy has been in demand all over the world, travelling to Toronto, as part of the British contingent attending the International Association of Jazz Educators gathering and to concerts in Australia with Billy Cobham and Ernie Watts, to Korea to discuss a piece for jazz quintet and four traditional drummers, to be unveiled in Trafalgar Square as part of London’s Korean Festival.
Closer to home he was asked by the BBC to arrange and orchestrate music for a full symphony orchestra and big band (a total of 65 musicians) for a Tribute to Billie Holiday, which was broadcast on Radio 2. Part of the 2008 Cheltenham Jazz Festival, the project re-united him with Michael Brandon, who read the script by Anthony Cherry, detailing the tragic story of Lady Day’s life.
The pair will be back together again later this year, as the big band re-unites to take the Amadeus Project back out on the road, playing Wigan International Jazz Festival on July 13 and Aldeburgh Proms (August 31) and raft of dates nationwide in September, including a week at Ronnie Scott’s  (15-20 September). This latter will incorporate music spanning Guy’s career, including big band performances of his epic Sounds in Black and White and Underdogs  (both from the Soundtrack album) and will feature various special guests.
That week is in no way a coda, however, but a catching up. This is where I am now, it will say, and this is how I got here. It should be subtitled Guy Barker: The Story So Far, for as usual, he has plans for the future like dogs have fleas. For instance, dZf was originally envisaged as jazz-dance piece, so there is choreography to be added. There is intense interest in taking the Amadeus Project band to the USA, Hong Kong, Scandinavia and Australia. Discussions are also underway about turning dZf into movie.
 It has been a long ride for the trumpeter, bringing his music this far. And the journey isn’t over yet, not by a long shot.
c. 2008. Reprinted with the author’s permission. Tom Neale’s novels Steel Rain and Copper Kiss are out now in paperback from Headline.