I first saw you playing with Tommy Chase back in the Eighties. What are your memories of working in that band?
“Working with Tommy Chase was, at that time, a real learning experience for me. He certainly knew what he did and didn’t want! He’d tell me to play shorter, more sing-able phrases and to learn specific bits of Cannonball Adderley solos. I still use bits of Miles’s Blue Haze solo that he suggested I learn. He had really good ideas on jazz composition–starting from a simple, strong motif and developing it over the harmonies. All the tunes we played were dressed up and presented in specific arrangements, with rhythm section figures and bits of shout choruses. It also appealed to a younger crowd, quite a lot of whom were into jazz dance. Tommy was, and is, a larger than life character so there was always a “what’s happening now?” element both on and off the stand that spiced things up.”
I also saw you playing with the great Humphrey Lyttelton. What was it like working with him?
“Humph was really easy to work for. I’d replaced a great player, Bruce Turner, who’d been in the band for years, but it was never suggested that I did things his way. The band was full of characters. Stan Greig would always get the first drink in and bring his empty glass down loudly on the bar and say “ Thirsty work this” if he felt you were being slow in reciprocating. John Barnes was hilarious. In fact I moved in with him and his wife Pat for almost a year. I’d practise upstairs and he’d lift a huge sign attached to a clothes prop up to the top window saying, ‘Why don’t you f…ing shut up!’
“I learnt a lot from Humph about running a band and how to talk to audiences. It’s a shame he’s gone–I first got into jazz listening to his Monday night programme.”
“A punter came up one night and said, ‘Why do you never play Lester Young and Ben Webster?’. He often featured them of course. Humph replied ‘They both come towards the end of the alphabet so are low down on the BBC shelves and I’m too old to reach them now’.”
My Dad has fond memories of your performance of your Sherlock Holmes Suite, wearing the cloak and the deerstalker hat. With the recent resurgence of interest in Sherlock, are you tempted to get out the hat and the pipe again?
“The Sherlock Holmes Suite was a huge piece of self-indulgence on my part. Dressing up in the part really appealed to me–I’ve always been interested in combining jazz and theatre. I got lots of my favourite musicians involved and tried to write specifically for each player. Not an original idea; it was the working method of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.”
“I’ve never seen the suite as finished, so I might write some more pieces and edit down the existing ones.”
You’re well known for having good relationships with other musicians, such as Bruce Adams, Dave Newton and Martin Taylor. Is there a secret to building good relationships? Does it come natural to you or do you find that you need to work at it?
“Yes I’ve always found it easy to work with other musicians. It’s easy to play with people you like as musicians and people. The three you mention, I really admire and learn lots from every time I play with them. Bruce is a great spirit on a gig, often ending the gig playing brilliant jazz on two trumpets at once. Dave Newton has a wonderful independence between his hands when he plays and always swings like mad. Martin is an incredible guitarist who seems to be able to pull subtle and complete arrangements out of the air. I can’t really go wrong in company like that!”
What changes or improvements would you like to see in the British jazz scene (in areas such as education)?
“I think the jazz scene is very healthy with all kinds of new blood coming in. I think it’s really important that jazz education emphasises listening as the main skill. And a good sense of history can really add to the enjoyment of the music. Great playing is not a new thing–it’s been going on right from the beginning of jazz.”
Dave Newton has your alternative profession as ticket collector on the Channel Tunnel railway. What do you think you’d do if you weren’t a musician?
“I’d really liked to have been a journalist and author. I can see myself as a seasoned old hack, knocking out 1,000 words on any given subject. I’m always very content with my nose in a book.”
What projects are you working on at the moment? What can we expect in the future?
“At the moment I’m working on getting my record label back to full speed. New albums are out from Scott Hamilton and Warren Vache and there is a two-trombone project with Mark Nightingale and Alistair White coming soon.”
“I’ve a new quintet with altoist Tony Kofi and I’m doing some writing for a five-sax line-up for Swanage Jazz Festival later in the year. I’m also doing some gigs with Anita Wardell, performing the songs of Johnny Mandell, which I’ve arranged for four saxes/woodwind and rhythm section. I’ll probably produce some new stuff for my octet as well.”
You’ve probably done lots of interviews over the years and heard the same old questions. What questions would you like to be asked?
“My favourite question is ‘What you having?’!”
Alan Barnes performs at Smalls, Brighton on Thursday 20th February with Karen Sharp and again on Thursday 17th April, 2014 with Enrico Tomasso.
(Q&A Interview with Alan Barnes conducted by Charlie Anderson)