Thursday, February 18, 2016

Chris Barber Live in East Berlin, 1968

Along with Humphrey Lyttelton, Ken Colyer, Kenny Ball, and Acker Bilk, among others, trombonist Chris Barber is one of the elder statesmen of British trad jazz, which was all the rage in the United Kingdom throughout the 1950s and would spawn and help popularize other styles such as skiffle and the British beat of the 1960s. Yet though his music is undeniably inspired by the classic New Orleans tradition, Barber has always had the ability to change with the times, which explains why he's managed to build up a following and stay current for such a long time. That may also go a long way toward explaining the international appeal of his band, which, as we can see from the title of the album we're presenting here, extended even beyond the old Iron Curtain. Barber was born in Hertfordshire in 1930, and after developing an interest in New Orleans jazz and the blues, he formed his first band while still a teenager. Barber had his biggest hits in the 1950s, among them the smash "Petite Fleur," with a memorable appearance from Monty Sunshine on clarinet. Scottish banjoist Lonnie Donegan played with Barber for several years, and his version of "Rock Island Line" hit the charts while he was still a member of Barber's outfit, thereby prompting the short-lived skiffle craze of the mid-'50s. The sound of Barber's band was always tight and exciting, and his affinity for the blues led to many gigs backing American bluesmen who were on tour in Britain. Barber even organized some of these tours, helping bring excellent blues artists such as Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy to the British Isles and helping pave the way for R&B-inspired bands like the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones.

The first time I ever heard Barber was on a two-volume vinyl album that my father had and that included a late-'60s live appearance by his band in East Berlin, and I was impressed by the irresistible sound of a band that seemed to be having a ball on stage that day at the Friedrichstadt Palast. Fortunately, that concert was reissued on CD by the Black Lion label in 1990 as Live in East Berlin, with excellent sound, and from the very beginning of the record we quickly realize that we're in for a treat. The band uses "I Never Shall Forget" as a vehicle for a German announcer to introduce each musician individually, after which they launch into an infectiously joyful reading of "Royal Garden Blues." Barber, of course, is on trombone, and the group includes fine trad musicians like trumpeter Pat Halcox, altoist / clarinetist John Crocker, guitarist John Slaughter, banjoist Stu Morrison, bassist Jackie Flavelle, and drummer Graham Burbridge. The repertoire includes New Orleans staples such as "Royal Garden Blues" and "Wild Cat Blues," some popular standards like "Lazy River" and "Makin' Whoopee," and even some sacred numbers such as "Over in Gloryland" and "God Can Do Anything." There are tips of the hat to Barney Bigard ("Saratoga Swing"), George Lewis ("St. Phillip Street Breakdown"), and early Johnny Hodges ("Sweet as Bear Meat"), and there's even time for Barber's own "Battersea Rain Dance." Barber uses Hoagy Carmichael's "Lazy River" to showcase his warm, blues-inflected trombone style, and Bigard's "Saratoga Swing," one of the many highlights of the concert, becomes a nine-minute tour de force with outstanding bluesy solos from Halcox and Slaughter. For over sixty years now, Chris Barber has been leading one of the best jazz outfits to come out of Britain, and this live recording in East Berlin catches the band in its prime in 1968 and is as good an introduction to Barber's sound as any compilation of his studio recordings.

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