Interview: Guy Barker

guybarkerwebGuy Barker’s Jazz Voices is the London Jazz Festival’s signature opening-night gala, returning this year for the seventh time with its era-spanning celebration of song.

The list of past guests features many of the best vocal talents out there including Boy George, Kurt Elling, Gregory Porter and Paloma Faith. This year’s event includes Dee Dee Bridgewater, Emma Smith, Georgie Fame, Jacqui Dankworth, Jacob Banks, Kurt Elling, Natalie Williams, Sachal and Vula Malinga, alongside Guy’s 40-piece orchestra.

Guy is one of the jazz world’s most accomplished composers having worked across a diverse range of projects including classical pieces to pop stars such as ABC and Paloma Faith. We caught up with him ahead of Jazz Voices to find out how the event began…

What was the original thinking behind Jazz Voices?

We’re now in our seventh year of the event. It’s amazing really as it was originally just an idea thrown at me which has grown to become an annual concert. Our format is a 42 piece orchestra with eight guest vocalists from all types of genres. It’s not purely jazz. There’s a lot of everything really. I get to feature our amazing orchestra in a big medley. Past singers include Jamie Cullum, Gregory Porter, Paloma Faith, Ian Shaw – the list goes on.

The idea came from a tribute album to Ella Fitzgerald. The record company wanted to mark the record with a concert at Festival Hall with a number of singers and an orchestra doing her music. John Cumming at Serious approached me saying it would be good if there was a theme of some sort. In the end we gave ourselves the strait jacket of anniversaries down the decades – the year a song was written, deaths, births, film releases.

We have to limit ourselves but when you mention that to the singers, they discover other anniversaries and things we should mark/celebrate. Every year there has been something great, things that turn up and make us do things we wouldn’t have thought of.

Are the vocalists excited by the challenge of working across different genres?

Working with this amazing orchestra is something they always enjoy. Singers usually come over to my flat and we work out what they want to do. The most important thing I always say to the vocalists is to have fun. People always say I’m going to push them outside their comfort zone. I’m not! It’s mainly about them having a great time. They’ve got to shine. There will be times when I listen to their records, I’ll guide them to certain things.

How has its appeal endured?

It communicates to everyone. At the beginning we were trying to get certain singers on board. Now the event sells out before any singers are even announced. It’s got that sort of reputation. I do look out into the crowd and see many of the same faces every year. It’s always a great night.

There are always great things going on in the festival and I try to attend as much as possible. The great thing is it seems to spread out across so many different venues and they all feel part of this festival and do something different for it. I love it as I love all forms of the music – swing, trad jazz, avant garde and anything else inbetween.

Is jazz in good health at the moment?

Yes there are many new players coming through, many of which are quite amazing. The education side of things is also really strong. It’s a question which is asked all the time but for as long as I remember, I’ve always been able to hear and see great music, all the players I know are doing brilliants things. Organisations like Serious go out of their way to support new up and coming guys. Cheltenham has a fantastic festival and again they try to bring in new things. Last year was their biggest selling event in its history. There seems to be support for it and desire for it. To stand up and watch real musicians playing real instruments – it’s always going to be exciting.

Have you got any advice for new artists and composers?

It’s so basic but you need to be a professional musician and be as open minded as possible. Take on board all the sounds you hear. There’s something in every form of music which could inspire you. You need to work at it, be yourself and have a real command of what you do. It can require a lot of intense study and a lot of listening. Go out and ask as many questions as possible. That’s what I did. I’d go out to Ronnie Scott’s as a teenager and as soon as I saw a great trumpet player I’d ask them questions. I might have been a bit of a nuisance but I did that with arrangers, writers and composers,

You have to practice and practice a lot. You need to write and play a lot. Just be nice, turn up on time, don’t be a diva. Because all that will happen is that someone equally as good as you will take your place. Sometimes it’s that simple. My parents drummed that into me – my dad was a stuntman and my mum an actress and they were always talking about it. Be professional and take care of your people skills. It’s true even though it sounds a bit lame. I want to hear a magic formula but there isn’t one.

What else is keeping you busy outside of the jazz festival?

Alongside Jazz Voices, I’m also doing this piece entitled the Soho Symphony at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The BBC concert orchestra have me as a composer in residence and I’m doing this piece with them. I happened to be walking in Soho, saw Archer Street and the documentary about it and these fabulous photos. I realised how important the clubs of Soho and its history is important. My piece is completely inspired by Soho. I collaborated with an author who wrote about 24 hours in Soho. He gave me that and I wrote music based on that. Once that’s finished I’ve got a vocal project, and got to go to arrange some music for a big band in Rome in December.

It doesn’t stop really. But I love a challenge. It’s always terrifying at the start. Someone likened it to standing at the foot of a mountain, looking up and wondering how you’re gonna get up there. It is like that but once you’ve got going, it’s usually fine.

Jazz Voices is part of PRS for Music’s centenary celebrations. The concert takes place on Friday 14 November at London’s Barbican.

The festival runs at various venues across the capital until 23 November. Click here for more information.

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