by Ian Mann
September 03, 2021
A highly enjoyable evening, with some excellent playing from all five participants. Barnes gravitated between his three instruments with an almost casual ease.
Alan Barnes, Kidderminster Jazz Club, Corn Exchange Room, Kidderminster Town Hall, 02/09/2021.
Alan Barnes – alto & baritone saxophones, clarinet, John McDonald – piano, John McKinley – guitar, Matheus Prado – double bass, Dan Wilby – drums.
Kidderminster Jazz Club’s third event of the 2021/22 season saw the Corn Exchange Room at Kidderminster Town Hall hosting the popular multi-reed player Alan Barnes, playing in the company of the Club’s excellent house band.
Barnes, one of club organiser Annette Gregory’s favourite musicians, had originally been scheduled to appear in 2020 and was one of several artists to have their original bookings honoured as part of the current season.
Barnes is a hugely popular musician with British jazz audiences, known to many as the wise cracking compère of Scarborough Jazz Festival, or as the hard working gigging musician traversing the highways and byways of the country playing standards sets as the guest soloist with local rhythm sections.
In addition to this he is a skilled composer and arranger who has issued several albums of original music, often conceptual in approach, such as his “Marbella Suite”, “Sherlock Holmes Suite” and “A Jazz Christmas Carol”.
More recently he has also collaborated with poet Josie Moon, with whom he has produced the ‘jazz and poetry’ suites “Fish Tales”, a work commissioned by Grimsby Jazz that told the history of the town’s fishing industry, and “A Requiem” a suite written as “a commemoration for all who have died in conflict over the century past and a call for peace”. My review of a live performance of “A Requiem” at The Hive in Shrewsbury in November 2019 can be found here;
But it’s the standards and bebop sets that represent Barnes’s musical bread and butter and he has also recorded numerous albums featuring this material in the company of many of the UK’s leading jazz musicians, among them trumpeter Bruce Adams, pianists Brian Lemon, John Horler and David Newton, guitarist Martin Taylor, trombonist Mark Nightingale and fellow saxophonists Tony Kofi, Gilad Atzmon and Dave O’Higgins, to name but a few. Many of these appear on his own Woodville Records imprint.
Barnes was also a leading light at the much missed Titley Jazz Festival, which ran for five years at a location in rural Herefordshire from 2010 to 2014. I saw him play there many times as leader and sideman, in a variety of formats. Other regular Titley visitors included Stan and Clark Tracey, Peter King, Art Themen, Jim Mullen, Andrew Cleyndert and many, many more.
Tonight’s set at Kidderminster was one of those standards / bebop themed sets and teamed Barnes with the very classy house quartet, a group of musicians that had played an outstanding set the previous month with vocalist Tina May. Review here;
Barnes had not worked with any of the musicians before, with the exception of Prado, who he had once encountered during the bassist’s student days at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama (RWCMD) in Cardiff. However the shared language of jazz quickly brought them together with Barnes calling the standard “I Remember You”, once a pop hit for Frank Ifield, as the opening number. This saw Barnes stating the familiar theme on alto before stretching out accompanied by Prado’s rapid, propulsive bass walk, the comping of McDonald and McKinley and the subtle drum promptings of Wilby. Further solos came from McKinley on guitar, Prado on bass and McDonald on piano, all fluent and highly accomplished soloists. Barnes then engaged in a series of quirky and playful exchanges with Wilby. This had been an energetic and engaging start and served to establish the blueprint for the evening.
Written by Johnny Frigo and the jazz guitarist Herb Ellis the song “Detour Ahead” is probably best remembered as a vehicle for the late, great pianist Bill Evans. This was the first of a number of excellent ballad performances and saw Barnes continuing on alto. The performance was introduced by a passage of unaccompanied piano from McDonald and subsequently featured the plaintive sound of the leader’s alto and Wilby’s brushed drums. McDonald’s own solo featured an Evans like lyricism before Barnes was featured again at the close with a solo alto sax cadenza.
Barnes moved to baritone for the rarely heard Jimmy Van Heusen song “Suddenly It’s Spring”, a tune that Barnes had worked upon during lockdown. This was introduced by a striking low register dialogue between Barnes’ bari and Prado’s double bass, before the addition of piano, guitar and drums helped to establish a lightly swinging groove. This provided the springboard for more conventional jazz solos from Barnes, McDonald, McKinley and Prado, the last of these leading to a second bass / bari duet, which rounded off the performance.
Barnes has always exhibited a remarkable fluency and agility on baritone, doubtless influenced by the great American baritone saxophonist and composer Gerry Mulligan (1927-96). He is also capable of investing the instrument with a rare tenderness on ballads, as he demonstrated on a version of the Duke Ellington composition “Tonight I Will Sleep With A Smile On My Face”. Barnes’ sensitivity on the ‘big horn’ was complemented by correspondingly lyrical solos from McDonald on piano and by McKinley on guitar, with Prado and Wilby, the latter wielding brushes, offering suitably sympathetic support.
The first set concluded with Barnes taking up the clarinet for an arrangement of the Antonio Carlos Jobim composition “A Felicidade”, the title translating as “Happiness”. Humour has always been an important part of Barnes’ presenting style, so the English title prompted a series of jokes about the Ken Dodd song of the same name, with McDonald entering into the spirit of the evening by playing a short quote from Ken’s hit on the piano. The performance itself featured a samba style rhythm, with solos from Barnes on clarinet, McDonald on piano, McKinley on guitar and Prado on double bass. Finally Wilby enjoyed a series of colourful drum breaks in a further exchange of choruses with the leader.
This brought an enjoyable first half to an end and during the break Barnes roamed the venue chatting to fans, and specifically making time for some of the younger members of the audience. He’s a great ambassador for British jazz and for the music in general.
The 2021/22 season at Kidderminster Jazz Club has a Charlie Parker theme, with each performer requested to perform a couple of tunes associated with Parker, usually one in each set. As an alto player Barnes is inevitably a great Parker fan (Cannonball Adderley is another primary influence) and although he waited until the second half to release the ‘Bird’ we had the bonus of no fewer than three Parker associated tunes after the break.
Appropriately the first of these was Parker’s own “Ornithology”, a bebop classic ushered in by Wilby at the drums and featuring solos from Barnes on alto, McDonald on piano, McKinley on guitar and Prado at the bass. The piece ended with a lively duet between the leader’s alto and Wilby’s drums.
Barnes followed this with a ballad associated with Parker, “This Isn’t Sometimes, This Is Always”, written by the jazz vocalist Earl Coleman (1925-95) and recorded by Parker in 1948. This was introduced by a passage of unaccompanied piano from McDonald and offered another example of Barnes’ skills as a ballad player on baritone sax as he shared the solos with McDonald and McKinley, the guitarist delivering arguably his best solo of the night.
Barnes remained on baritone for Dexter Gordon’s “Cheese Cake” (from Gordon’s classic 1962 Blue Note album “Go”), conjuring up a genuine hard bop sound during the course of a quote laden solo that included a snippet from Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing…”. Prado’s rapid bass walk and Newby’s crisp drumming helped to propel McKinley’s guitar solo, with Prado eventually taking over. Barnes then switched back to alto as he and McDonald subsequently traded ideas with Newby, before the young Birmingham Conservatoire graduate enjoyed a more extended drum feature.
Barnes confessed to finding the clarinet increasingly difficult to play, but readily admitted that his ability to double on the instrument has served him well over the years. The instrument made its second appearance of the night on Luiz Bonfa’s “Gentle Rain”, played by the band in a subtle bossa nova style with solos from Barnes on clarinet, McDonald at the piano and McKinley on guitar.
Annette Gregory had little difficulty in persuading Barnes and the band to play a deserved encore, this being a version of the standard “The Song Is You”, another tune once played by Charlie Parker. “Go nuts on the drums for a bit!”, urged Barnes as Wilby introduced the piece, setting the mood for a frantic bebop style work out with Barnes on authentically Parker-ish alto and with subsequent features for all the musicians.
I didn’t feel that this performance quite hit the heights of the Tina May event but it still represented a highly enjoyable evening, with some excellent playing from all five participants. Barnes gravitated between his three instruments with an almost casual ease and his presentation style was peppered with his usual acerbic and self deprecating wit, very much from the ‘Ronnie Scott School’. There was arguably a bit too much reliance on the head/solos/head format, but given that this was essentially a one off band this was eminently understandable. I suspect that few of the other audience members had any such reservations and overall the evening was a hugely successful one for Kidderminster Jazz Club, with the highest attendance yet in the current season as audiences continue to grow in confidence and come out to see live music once more.
It was clear just how much Barnes had enjoyed it, a natural performer and a highly sociable animal he had clearly found lockdown difficult, despite being highly active and productive online. But live music is clearly the environment in which he feels most at home, interacting with other musicians, bantering with fans and playing the music that he loves. As one of the hardest working musicians on the UK jazz scene his gig schedule is starting to fill up once more, and one gets the feeling that’s just the way he likes it – personally, musically and financially.
My thanks to Alan Barnes, Matheus Prado and Annette Gregory for speaking with me.
Next month (October 7th 2021) sees the visit of vibraphonist Roger Beaujolais playing with the House Band. For details and tickets please visit http://www.kidderminsterjazzclub.co.uk
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