Alan Barnes’ unique musicianship, indefatigable touring, and warm rapport with audiences has made him uniquely popular in British jazz. Alan has received over 25 British Jazz Awards and twice been made BBC Jazz Musician of the Year.
I interviewed him recently near his 60th birthday:
MR: Over the years, you have composed and recorded a number of jazz suites many of them based on literary works. What attracted you to doing this?
AB: The main advantage to me of composing around a theme, especially a literary one like ‘ A Christmas Carol” is that it instantly gives you a structure to work with and suggests titles which make composition a lot easier. ‘The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come” depicts the scenes when Scrooge is frightened out of his wits. I took a minor chord and raised the 5th upwards by step to the 6th and back down, a device used in Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare” and “The James Bond Theme” which gives a feeling of suspense and unease.
Over this, the tune is scored in 4ths to give that cold feeling with clarinet in the high register and the trumpet in an edgy harmon mute as part of the ensemble. The result sounds terrifying to my ear.
Dickens is a master of structure. I based the shape of the suite exactly on the novel and it works especially well when readings are given between each piece. I’m an old ham so I love doing these bits. We have a description of Dickens writing from his daughter; he would improvise each scene, taking all the characters’ parts in front of a mirror then run to the table to get it all down on paper. His writing as a result has the same spontaneity as great jazz.
I discovered the Sherlock Holmes novels at exactly the same time as I discovered jazz and became equally enamored of Baker Street and 52nd Street. My portrait of Moriarty, ‘The Napoleon Of Crime’, depicts the criminal at the helm of his empire. A dark driving blues riff seemed to capture this with plunger trumpet wailing over the top.
MR: Tell us a bit about ‘New Jazz Portraits’ which you will premiere on our Jazz Study Day.
AB: I’m taking the same approach as with the other suites but this time the inspiration is coming from real people — the long serving members of my octet. Each player has a very strong character and without always knowing why, I immediately knew the type of setting I wanted to place each player in. Bruce Adams is a master of playing with trumpet mutes so I’ve placed him in an Ellingtonian background, Karen Sharp always suggests waltz time to me and David Newton is best given lots of space to get down to some uncomplicated swinging. Robert Fowler’s big tenor tone demanded a ballad. Mark Nightingale is such a virtuoso on the trombone that I’ve given him a Bossa Nova in the fruity middle register so we can hear his lovely tone. Simon Thorpe has a cheeky bop line on the bass and Clark Tracey’s piece will have some tricky accented passages for him to show off his crisp and crackling technique.
MR: You must know the musicians in your Octet pretty well. Do you ever surprise each other when you play together?
AB: Well we are not out to surprise each other, but the musicians often come up with stuff that moves me — I’d rather be moved than impressed. I like playing music with people I know very well — it means you can try things and they will be forgiving to a point if it doesn’t work. Also when you get a group sound, you don’t want to change it. With Karen and Robert, I’ve got two very contrasting individual sax styles, and the rest of the band are all unique-sounding individuals so I could explore that for the rest of my days. I do play with other groups of musicians but all my line-ups are ongoing. I don’t want to play with someone I wouldn’t like to have a pint with.
MR: Is it different today for young musicians trying to make a jazz living than it was when you started out?
AB: When I started out there were many more opportunities to play straight ahead gigs and lots of established bands to work in. Now, jazz covers a whole lot of different music, often with a lot of European influences. My own tastes are with swinging, harmonically rich music, presented in a way that draws an audience in. One thing is for sure there are lots of superb young players getting into all kinds of new stuff, which is as it should be.
MR: You have over the years undertaken a role as ‘educator’. Tell us about how you have gone about teaching/helping/advising individuals and groups of musicians.
AB: I think you have to reach the stage where you are happy about your own abilities and limitations to really teach well. I was not a natural musician and had to work hard to develop my playing; knowing how to do this is something you can share with others. The first thing a listener hears is the sound of the instrument, so you have to work at making that sound as big (not meaning loud) and as beautiful as possible. After that it’s the ‘time feel’ or rhythm that’s important. Note choice comes third. Often jazz is taught in reverse order with emphasis on harmony and scales first. I like to teach shapes and phrases rather than scales.
MR: Your career has encompassed all elements of the jazz business. How did these different roles develop? And why did you establish your own label?
AB: All the different aspects of what I do have come about because I want things to be right. If you were being uncharitable you might say I was a “control freak”.
I recorded for a lot of labels before starting my own and I wasn’t always happy with the choice of which take they used, the mix and sound, and sometimes didn’t like the covers, so I was persuaded by Barry Hatcher, then a record executive at Sony, to start my own label. It’s the same with composing and arranging and band leading — it just means you get the results you want.
MR: Finally, do you have any ambitions or plans you can share with us for, say, the next 5 years?
AB: I have loads of ideas for the future as well as touring all my projects: my twelve piece band, the octet, the quintet with Bruce Adams, collaborations with Poet Josie Moon and the duet with David Newton.
I’d love to make a short ballet suite out of ‘A Jazz Christmas Carol” — I think it has real potential. I just keep writing as things occur to me. The Damon Runyon stories would be great to adapt. So more of the same really.
Join the Jazz Study Day 17th September 2019 in London for details go to https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/u3a-jazz-study-day-2019-tickets-61221289525