Guy Barker Big Band, Royal Albert Hall, London: Opulent

With a scene-setting sweep of strings, mellow street-corner brass and a sizzle of cymbals, Guy Barker's celebration of big band music “with a Christmas twist” settled into an opulent fantasia that, for the most part, avoided cheesiness. This was Christmas, New York-style, reconstructed through mid-century big-band Americana, stretching from ballroom swing to Hammond organ blues, and played with refreshing conviction. Barker's arrangements delivered a gripping escapism that, spiced by top-drawer guests, fully engaged a full Royal Albert Hall.
Barker's 40-piece orchestra packs the punch of two drummers and balances brass with strings. Here, the snap of a snare synchronises a short brass stab or cues a sudden drop in volume when a blaring brass riff is answered by a shimmer of strings. Both sets began with a seasonal theme. “Jingle Bells” cruised along with a Count Basie chug to open the first; “God Rest You Merry Gentleman” began the second with full-on Hammond crunch, Jim Watson powerfully channelling his inner Jimmy Smith.

The evening progressed through largely vocal guest spot cameos. Kurt Elling was incomparable, as ever. Clarke Peters, smooth, hip and assured, covered three artists named Louis — Prima, Jordan and Armstrong — and gave Santa-themed novelties bite. Vanessa Haynes scorched the blues with a stunning cover of B.B. King's “Merry Christmas Baby” and Clare Teal's voice soared over mighty big-band brass on Gene Krupa's “Let Me Off Uptown” — trumpeter Mike Lovatt's high-note antics provided a fitting climax. Lone instrumental guest Soweto Kinch delivered the frisson of dissonant modernist sax.

Indeed, you never really knew what lay around the corner. As in his recent Ronnie Scott's residency, Elling reworked “Little Drummer Boy” into a transcendent celebration of rhythm. Pianist Peter Edwards transformed a tinkling “When the Red Red Robin” into a funky blues, while “Winter Wonderland” came as a boogaloo and featured Kinch. And in the second set, Barker joined Kinch to recreate small-group modern jazz with Charlie Parker's version of “White Christmas”, confirming what a fine trumpeter he is. The only off note was the preachy internet-based a cappella band Accent, whose underpowered lead vocals failed to match their disciplined harmonies.

Although Elling's a cappella “All the Way” was a highlight, the evening's climax was a romp through instrumental ballroom-era swing and a show-stopping drum battle finale. The encore, an all-hands-to-the-pump “Jump 'n'Jive”, merely whetted the appetite for more.

Four stars: ★★★★