Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas: Timeless classics rescued from blandness

There was a point about 20 minutes into bandleader and arranger Guy Barker's Christmas big band show – probably after the tom-tom-thundering overture that merged Good King Wenceslas, Jingle Bells and a swath of other seasonal ditties, Clarke Peters had laughed his way through What Will Santa Claus Say When He Finds Everyone Swinging, and Christmas Is Here Again and its “small faces all aglow” had lit up the stage, – when this critic began to consider whether leaping off the balcony of the Royal Albert Hall's second tier would hurt very much.
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's affection for the smoky sax harmonies of film noir soundtracks brought the show's first laid-back moments, his classy 40-piece jazz/classical orchestra simmering beneath Peters' rich baritone as the singer crooned his way through the Preservation Hall Band's May Every Day Be Christmas, and the mirrorball set vast snowflakes of light drifting through the crowded house. The remarkable Incognito vocalist Vanessa Haynes delivered Otis Redding's Merry Christmas Baby as a resonant fusion of soul-blues power and quivering high tones, followed by the great American jazz singer Kurt Elling on his punchy signature song Steppin' Out, and the scat-swerves, startled shouts and swooping falsetto leaps of his bebop remake of The Little Drummer Boy, a virtuoso reappraisal so audacious as to win over even the most cordial loathers of the song. The young multinational close-harmony group Accent applied their agile polyphony to Michael Jackson's Keep the Faith, before Haynes' gospel-declaiming On Revival Day made a roof-raising first-half finale.

Rumbling low drums, tidal Hammond organ sounds and hooks traded between brass and reeds powered Barker's incantatory account of God Rest You Merry Gentlemen to introduce the second set, and the versatile bandleader beautifully played the Kenny Dorham muted-trumpet foil to saxophonist Soweto Kinch's plaintive, imploring Charlie Parker on a visit to those departed legends' 1948 version of White Christmas.

Singer and co-presenter Clare Teal's secure swing timing and warm-toned directness preceded Elling's return to the stage with a transfixing account of All the Way (reconceived in boldly elided deep tones, subtle rhythmic tweaks and Mark Murphy-like flights), and swing-era fan Teal was joined by trumpet maestro Mike Lovatt for a vivacious celebration of Anita O'Day's 1940s hits with the Gene Krupa band.

Haynes signed off her all but show-stealing contribution to the evening by sounding more powerful than the band and her Accent accompanists put together, and Barker and the orchestra took off on a flat-out tour of Count Basie's and Benny Goodman's timeless classics that enraptured the hall's many big-band fans before the whole cast took to the stage for the final seasonal knees-up.

Four stars: ★★★★