Review: Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas at the Royal Albert Hall

Whisper it quietly, but this could just possibly be the start of a new tradition. Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas virtually managed to virtually fill the Royal Albert Hall on its first outing. The formula is a balance between familiar and unfamiliar and it definitely works well, propelled along by trumpeter / arranger / conductor / mastermind Guy Barker’s instinct and knack for finding interesting and varied material, plus his talent and heroic work-rate (as outlined in this interview).
This is also a show which suits the building well, and the producers were clearly having fun with various coloured searchlights and a two-metre diameter glitter ball creating a wraparound snowflake effect. The Royal Albert Hall acoustic can be tricky, but on the basis of what I heard from my seat, I would certainly want to put in a word of praise for the sound crew.

Barker’s compositional and arranging palette can be very broad. In other circumstances he has proved himself capable of expressing grand guignol, horror, drama. This entire show, however, stayed on the feel-good side. And yet it never ran out of momentum or variety. In the second half, when it had really got into its stride, it had some quite wonderful moments.

The miracle Barker achieved was to create quite so many different kinds of positive heart-warming energy without it feeling like too much or too samey, and also to use the guests to such good effect.

Kurt Elling thrived in the knockabout humour of the (Jack Fox / Louis Armstrong) ‘Zat you Santa Claus?, performed as a duet with Clarke Peters. But he really came into his own in an arrangement by Barker of All the Way (previously done – link to video – in 2014), starting unaccompanied, and growing inexorably.

Clare Teal had a pivotal role too, as singer and co-presenter. Her rendition of It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, with a cappella group Accent captured the intrinsic happ- happ- happy vibe of the whole occasion ideally.

Soweto Kinch was used in the role of alto saxophonist rather than his other guises, most notably alongside Barker in a quintet version of White Christmas as performed by Charlie Parker and Kenny Dorham in 1948.

A powerful vocal presence came with every entrance onstage of Vanessa Haynes, and was particularly memorable in Stevie Wonder’s Heaven Help Us All.

The band, with pairs of pianists duetting (Jim Watson and Peter Edwards), trumpeters jousting (Martin Shaw and Mike Lovatt) and drummers battling (Matt Skelton and Ed Richardson) was a constant source of high voltage energy. The concluding, rousing episodes, a Benny Goodman medley including The Big Noise from Winnetka, and a final Jumpin’ Jivin’ feature which brought back the whole troupe of soloists, sent the audience home on a high.

Sebastian Scotney, London Jazz News 2016