I met the trumpeter, composer and arranger Guy Barker at a concert by Ian Carr, who was launching his biography of Miles Davis, then again after one of his own gigs, when we discovered we were neighbours. He have me a copy of his album-with-strings What Love Is. I gave him a copy of my novel Underdogs (which has a lot of sly jazz references in it). I merely played the album and enjoyed it; he sat down wrote a fabulous theme for the book – a kind of Mingus meets Lalo Schifrin piece – which is still in his repertoire today, although as a roaring big band piece for 16 piece jazz orchestra (you can find the original on his Mercury Prize-nominated album Soundtrack). We eventually collaborated on a narrated version of Underdogs that ran to 50 minutes. When Guy was invited to create some classically linked jazz for the mainly Mozart Festival in San Diego, he produced a suite based on characters from the Mozart operas (but without using any of Wolfgang’s themes – he is not, as a rule, a fan of jazzing up classics). When they invited him back the following year he asked me to re-work The Magic Flute, which I did by setting it in a New York bar and having actor Michael Brandon (Jerry Springer the Opera, Dempsey and Makepeace, Episodes) narrate it in his inimitable Brooklyn accent. It was Mozart as if re-written by Damon Runyan and Mickey Spillane. The result, dZf, is one part of Guy’s two-disc Amadeus Project, which again is all original music. We have kicked around other ideas for working together once more over the years but it looks as if the next collaboration will be something for Benjamin Britten’s centenary in 2013.
Well it was indeed and it was pretty epic. The BBC Concert Orchestra and the Guy Barker Big Band, with jazz singer Kurt Elling and actress/singer Janie Dee, who were both wonderful. You can see and hear them talking about it here:
Since then, Guy and I have worked on A Soho Symphony, a sort of tone poem about a day in the life of the district, and a piece for trumpeter Alison Balsom called Lanterne of Light (I wrote the storyline).
Jack Johnson on bactrack.com had this to say about it:
“The world première of Guy Barker’s trumpet concerto The Lanterne of Light proved revelatory. The work is based on an anonymous English tract which provided a classification system based on the Seven Deadly Sins, establishing that each sin had an associated demon, responsible for implementing its temptations among the human race. Barker was aspiring to write highly programmatic music, and the accompanying notes expand in great detail a journey from the fall of Lucifer through the abyss to confrontations with envy and greed and finally to a dark coda depicting the place where the Seven Deadly Demons reside. There seemed to be an inherent risk starting with such a big, literal idea, but fortunately the realisation was marvellous, and the narrative worked.
The virtuosity and purity of tone of many musicians have inspired composers for centuries, so it is interesting to note that the genesis of this concerto involved quite the opposite. Alison Balsom is, of course, regarded for the striking purity and clarity of her trumpet playing, but this is precisely what Barker was trying to avoid in his piece. This worked wonderfully as the degradation of Balsom’s tone mirrored Lucifer’s fall from grace. From them on Balsom inhabited the work with a snarling, twisting, angry tone. Barker’s experience as a jazz composer was evident, particularly in the sleazy fourth movement depicting lust and gluttony, yet there were also moments where he conjured a big, orchestral sound with finesse. It was possible to feel completely at ease witnessing Balsom’s playing and the orchestra’s dynamic and virtuosic accompaniment, they were often at war with one another but in a way that was completely assured.”