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The Alan Barnes Octet featuring Josie Moon

The Alan Barnes Octet featuring Josie Moon,  ‘A Requiem’, The Hive, Shrewsbury, 09/11/2019.

Photography: Photograph by Hamish Kirkpatrick of Shrewsbury Jazz Network.

by Ian Mann

November 13, 2019


This had been an excellent evening of words and music, with the timing of the event, on the eve of Remembrance Sunday, giving it an extra poignancy and sense of meaning.

The Alan Barnes Octet featuring Josie Moon, “A Requiem”,
The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 09/11/2019.

Alan Barnes – baritone saxophone, clarinet, Dean Masser – tenor saxophone, Gilad Atzmon – alto & soprano saxophone, Neil Yates – trumpet & flugelhorn, Robbie Harvey – trombone, Pat McCarthy- guitar, Dave Green – double bass, Seb de Krom – drums, Josie Moon – voice

Alan Barnes is probably best known to many jazz fans 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.

Barnes is all these things and more, a highly skilled professional musician with a command of all the instruments of the saxophone family, plus clarinet. But as well as the standards and bebop sets Barnes is also a skilled composer and arranger who has issued several albums of original music, often conceptual in approach, such as his “Marbella Suite” and his “Sherlock Holmes Suite”.

One of the most successful of these was “Fish Tales”, a suite commissioned by Grimsby Jazz that told the history of the town’s fishing industry. The music for the project was written by Barnes and guitarist Pat McCarthy and their musical compositions were complemented by the words of the poet Josie Moon, whose poetic narrative formed a central part of the “Fish Tales” project.

To play the music Barnes and McCarthy assembled a stellar octet of UK based musicians featuring themselves, Atzmon, Masser, Green and de Krom plus Martin Shaw on trumpet & flugel and Mark Nightingale on trombone.  This line up, augmented by Moon’s voice, released the “Fish Tales” album on Barnes’ own Woodville record label in 2017. The project proved to be extremely successful and toured widely, with Neil Yates subsequently replacing Shaw in the line up.

“Fish Tales” came to The Hive for a Shrewsbury Jazz Network promotion but it was a performance that I was unable to attend as it clashed with my annual visit to the EFG London Festival. This year Barnes and his octet visited a week earlier, which suited me well and also tied in neatly with Remembrance Day as they toured their new work “A Requiem”, a suite written as “A commemoration for all who have died in conflict over the century past and a call for peace”.

Once again the work features music by Barnes and McCarthy allied to words by Moon, the music and text both making allusions to the Requiem Masses of classical music. The accompanying recording, again issued on Woodville,  features a band comprised of Barnes, McCarthy, Masser, Atzmon, Yates, Nightingale, Green, de Krom and Moon and the work was again supported by Grimsby Jazz and by Arts Council England.

Tonight was the last night of a tour that began in July and saw Nightingale replaced by the young trombonist Robbie Harvey, who acquitted himself brilliantly, having only arrived in Shrewsbury about ninety minutes before the performance and with no prior knowledge of the music. His assured performance was a credit to his sight reading skills and to his overall musicianship.

Moon’s liner notes explain that “A Requiem” was originally her idea, conceived around the time of Remembrance Sunday in 2017 after witnessing homeless military veterans on the streets of Grimsby. “I wanted to write a requiem for the war dead of the century that had passed” she explains, “but more than that I wanted to write something that raised questions about war and the act of remembrance. I thought about what a Two Minute Silence means, given the global state of perpetual war and the brinkmanship of so many world leaders intent on using war as a solution to international tensions”.

Again collaborating with Barnes and McCarthy she knew that the work would not be finished in time for the 2018 commemorations of the end of World War 1 but the decision was taken not to rush and for the work not to be defined by one particular conflict. The album is dedicated to “all beings caught up in conflict and war, wherever they are in the world. May there be peace in our time.”

Barnes’ enduring popularity with jazz audiences ensured a near capacity crowd at The Hive and the audience paid rapt attention as the ensemble performed “A Requiem” in full, with the performance divided into two ‘Acts’ separated by an interval. A free four page programme had been printed for the tour, which ensured that listeners could easily follow the progress of the work – a nice touch.

The performance began with the octet playing “Epitaph”, a brief horn chorale that saw Barnes on clarinet and which functioned her as a kind of ‘overture’.

The first poem to be read by Moon was “Prelude”, also a kind of scene setter that made reference to “the Crow Men”, her term for politicians and war mongers, and in this instance perhaps First World War generals. It was an image to which she was to return – a jazz and poetry equivalent to Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”.

The next musical piece was “Waves”, which featured Moon reciting her words above the sensitive accompaniment of the octet.  Besides musing on the origins of life itself Moon’s poem also seemed to allude to British troops crossing the Channel to fight in the trenches of World War One. Tonight’s performance expanded on the recorded version to include a solos from Yates on trumpet and a shorter cameo from Barnes on clarinet.

“Seek the Light In The Darkness” presented Moon’s thoughts on acts of remembrance, particularly the Two Minutes Silence. While we in the West hold our breath on Remembrance Sunday wars still continue in other parts of the world. The poem also made reference to the famous Christmas Day truce in the trenches, a window of sanity quickly closed again by the orders of the Crow Men. The piece also made reference to those homeless veterans in Grimsby and of the town’s NEED to remember.

The band’s performance of “Inter-Trench Conversation” was a musical depiction of that famous truce, symbolised by the dialogues between the various instruments. Centred around McCarthy’s guitar motif and with Green and de Krom providing an impressive impetus the composition encouraged the discourse between the horns, with Barnes featuring on baritone sax. More extended solos came from the impressive Masser on tenor, Yates on trumpet and McCarthy on guitar.

“In Memory of Marion Scott and Ivor Gurney” represented Moon’s tribute to the troubled Gloucestershire composer and poet Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) and his close friend and literary editor Marion Scott. Gurney was wounded in the trenches during the First World War and later suffered from ‘shell shock’, although he had exhibited symptoms of what we now know as ‘bi-polar’ behaviour since his early teens. Moon’s poem again evoked the imagery of the Two Minutes Silence and The Crow Men before she handed over to the band for the Barnes’ composition “Gurney”, which included impressive solos from Harvey on trombone and Atzmon on soprano sax plus a shorter cameo from Masser on tenor.

“The Return of Shadows” represented Moon’s meditation’s on the flawed Treaty of Versailles and the growing unrest of the 1920s and 30s as the Crow Men eventually took the World back to war.

This was followed by McCarthy’s composition “Songs Without Words”, a reflective lament with a nocturnal, almost hymn like feel with Yates featuring on flugel and Barnes on clarinet. A more upbeat second section brought solos from Barnes and from Masser on tenor. I wasn’t previously familiar with Masser’s playing but throughout the evening he impressed with the robust beauty of his tone and his fluency as a soloist.

“Appeasement” represented Moon’s allegories on Neville Chamberlain and the failure of the peace negotiations, thwarted by the “Advance of the Death’s Head” and the “Wheeling of the Crow Men”.

The advent of the 1939 conflict was expressed musically by the strident sounds of the Barnes composition “Theatre of War”, with the five horns of the ensemble playing with the power of a ‘mini big band’ and creating a mightily impressive sound.
Moon then joined the band to recite her poem “The Days of Wrath”, her voice shadowed first by trombone and then by guitar. This ‘shadowing’ of the voice by different instruments was a device that was to be deployed again at the close of Act 2. Moon’s words here used Latin phrases in a direct parallel with classical Requiem Masses. The poem also featured some of her most striking verbal imagery - “the grudges of old men play out in the bodies of the young”.

The first Act then concluded with a reprise of “Waves”, featuring concise solos from Yates on trumpet and Barnes on clarinet, this followed by Moon reading the poem “How Peace Works”.

A shorter Act 2 commenced with the Barnes composition “Peace Returns”, a suitably warm sounding composition featuring the velvet fluency of Yates on flugel and the smooth elegance of McCarthy on guitar, plus Barnes himself on baritone, exhibiting an astonishing agility on the ‘big horn’.

Moon’s poem “When Souls are Returned to the Stars” was presaged by the startling fact that there has only been one true month of global peace since the end of World War 2 and that there are currently no fewer than forty wars going on in the world. The poem itself addressed death, loss and widowhood.

Barnes’ “Dark At The Edges” was centred around the composer’s insistent baritone sax vamp in an arrangement that featured Yates on muted trumpet and Atzmon on soprano sax. Powerful solos came from Masser on tenor sax and Harvey on trombone, with de Krom enjoying a series of fiery drum breaks. At times the piece reminded me of a Charles Mingus composition, which is praise indeed.

Moon’s poem “The Holy Places of the Earth” brought the war story right up to date and included a litany of names that we are used to hearing in the news – Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus, Gaza, Basra.
While we remember Coventry and Dresden war continues elsewhere - “Cursed are the Crow Men, for they have inherited the Earth”.

McCarthy’s composition “Sacred Music” evoked something of a swing era jazz feel in a warm Barnes arrangement featuring Yates on muted trumpet and with a plangent alto sax solo coming from Atzmon.

The poem “Lambs at the Slaughter” represented Moon’s condemnation of the horrors of war and was subsequently complemented by Yates’ trumpet sounding the “Last Post” as part of a concise band arrangement by Barnes.

Light is a theme throughout the work, the concept of “lux aeterna, luceat eis”, that no matter how dark things become light always returns, a concept that informed Moon’s poem “Faith to Find The Light”.

In a diversion from the recorded version the octet now performed a composition called “All Quiet”, a piece that doesn’t actually appear on the CD. This then represented a considerable bonus, particularly as it contained a stunning, beautifully melodic double bass solo from Green plus an incisive alto sax solo from Atzmon, this followed by a more mellow feature from McCarthy.

Act 2 concluded with a segue of McCarthy’s “Liberation” and the Barnes/Moon collaboration “Deliver Me”.
McCarthy’s piece was vibrant and uplifting, with the octet again sounding like a ‘mini big band’.
A surging, swinging bass and drum groove fuelled vivid solos from Barnes on baritone, Yates on trumpet, Masser on tenor, Harvey on trombone, Atzmon on alto and McCarthy on guitar. All of these outstanding instrumentalists seemed to relish the chance to stretch out and there was even room for a brief feature from de Krom.
“Deliver Me” was more considered with Harvey and Masser taking it in turns to shadow Moon’s words, the work concluding with the phrase “when the darkness falls let us search for light”.

The audience, who had been quiet and attentive throughout gave the performers a terrific reception. This had been an excellent evening of words and music, with the timing of the event on the eve of Remembrance Sunday giving it an extra poignancy and sense of meaning.

I haven’t always been convinced by jazz and poetry collaborations but this one worked very well. Moon’s words were thoughtful and evocative and she delivered them with confidence, her recitative well served by Barnes’ sympathetic arrangements.

The band themselves were superb. I loved the rich timbres of the five man horn section, who brought even more colour to the already finely nuanced and textured compositions of Barnes and McCarthy. Within a tightly structured framework there was still room for some fine soloing, with every musician impressing in this respect at some point in the proceedings. Several listeners singled out Masser’s contribution on tenor, in particular his wonderful tone on the instrument.

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter Barnes still found room to inject a little humour into the proceedings, particularly during his band introductions, but it was good to see him stepping out of his comfort zone and tackling something weighty.

As an event this performance was highly impressive, and, in its own way highly enjoyable, particularly with regard to the superb musicianship. It dealt with some pretty heavy subject matter, but did so with a pleasing lightness of touch. The content, allied to the timing of the performance, certainly gave the listener plenty of cause for thought and reflection.

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