Last night to RNCM Manchester to see the Guy Barker Jazz Orchestra perform The Amadeus Project. I was a bit trepidatious – kind of expected jazzy improvisations on Mozart themes. However, the evening was an unqualified joy: the music was all straight-ahead jazz originals by Barker. The first half of the concert was part of a suite based on characters from Mozart operas. The second half was a re-writing of The Magic Flute in the hard-boiled style of a Mickey Spillane thriller, with narration written by Barker’s friend, the thriller writer Robert Ryan (who appeared onstage to introduce the piece). After I bought the CD, autographed by Barker.
As well as being an excellent trumpeter, Guy Barker has developed into a fine composer. Here he performed both as soloist and conductor of the band assembled to tour The Amadeus Project, which – as he explained in opening remarks – was the result of commissions in 2006 by San Diego’s Mainly Mozart Festival and BBC Radio 3 (strange coincidence!).
The band were: Guy Barker, Nathan Bray, Tom Rees Roberts, Byron Wallen (trumpet), Baraby Dickinson, Alistair White (trombone), Mark Frost (bass trombone), Rosario Giuliani (alto & soprano sax), Graeme Blevins (tenor sax, clarinet), Per ‘Texas’ Johansson (tenor sax, flute, contrabass clarinet, clarinet), Phil Todd (baritone sax, tuba, flute, piccolo), Jim Watson (piano, organ), Phil Donkin (double bass) and Ralph Salmins (drums).
The first half of the concert was The Amadeus Suite, pieces inspired by characters from Mozart’s operas. The band kicked off with the rousing ‘Wolfie’, the opening number from the ‘Amadeus Suite’, which showcased their musical strengths: precise ensemble work, with compelling and contrasting solos.
The second half was dZf, described by Guy as a retelling of The Magic Flute in a ‘Jazz Noir’ style, featuring the actor Michael Brandon as narrator. There were fine solos from all the band, particularly alto saxophonist Rosario Giuliani, and the compositions had a cinematic echo. In this piece Barker’s role as conductor was accentuated – ensuring both musicians and narrator Brandon came in on cue and soloist.
dZf was originally commissioned for Radio 3’s Jazz Line-Up, its inspiration a Johnny Staccato-type update, written by Robert Ryan, of the plot of Mozart’s last opera, The Magic Flute (extraordinary storyline!).
Dave Gelly wrote in the Observer:
Not content with being probably the greatest trumpet virtuoso that British jazz has ever produced, Guy Barker has grown into a quite phenomenal composer. The first disc of this two-CD set, entitled ‘dZf’, consists of a re-telling of The Magic Flute as a film noir tale, with Michael Brandon narrating Robert Ryan’s sparse, laconic script. Barker’s atmospheric score simply bursts with melodic and orchestral invention, his own sizzling trumpet setting the pace. The second disc (‘The Amadeus Suite’) contains a set of equally impressive pieces inspired by characters from Mozart operas.
This is British jazz with all its virtues and a few of its faults. It’s big, brassy and confident. If you like flutes and Hammond organs you’ve got ’em. If you like clarinets and trombones you’ll find them too. While it’s slightly rough round the edges in a couple of places, you can’t fault its ambition, creativity or sheer rumbustiousness.
Barker’s own playing throughout is unflagging, technically impeccable and shows a mastery of all styles and tones. All in all, it’s impressive.
John Fordham in The Guardian wrote:
Guy Barker is a world-class postbop trumpeter, but his composing skills have only recently blossomed. This Mozart-inspired double-CD features a work called dZf, which he calls a “jazz-noir” rumination on The Magic Flute, and a suite inspired by characters from across the operas. But it’s cinematically evocative contemporary jazz, not jazz/classical crossover music, with dZf framing a thriller story by Robert Ryan, narrated in downbeat gumshoe tones by Michael Brandon. Fire-breathing Italian postbop saxophonist Rosario Giuliani is also a key component, alongside Barker in front of a cracking UK big band. Sometimes the music recalls the pumping contrapuntal jostling of a Colin Towns orchestra, sometimes a Ray Charles R&B band, sometimes the slinky mean-streets insinuations of the 1940s soundtracks Barker loves – and there are also episodes of shimmering delicacy. The Amadeus Suite has the edge, for its broader idiomatic references and because the spoken storyline of dZf is somewhat cheesy. But Barker’s trumpet blazes over all the music, and the writing is consistently terrific.