Alan Barnes Swinglet: ‘Buxton, Wynton Marsalis and Me’

British Jazz Artist Alan Barnes is back in Buxton this July, after his outstanding sell-out performance with Wynton Marsalis last year. Alan recollects the once-in-a-lifetime performance opportunity, and how it came about.

Spring last year, my phone rings and it’s Neil Hughes. Neil and I go back a long way to the days when he was putting on jazz gigs at The Cinnamon Club, Bowdon, right opposite my old school Altrincham Grammar. Later on, when he took over the Southport Jazz Festival from Geoff Mathews, he’d also carried on the tradition of presenting my octet as a Sunday night finale. For the last couple of years Neil had been programming BIF jazz so when I saw his name come up I did rather hope that he might want to book that band again. However, what he actually wanted this time was a little bit different:

‘Do you fancy putting together a band to play Buxton this year?’

‘Sure’

‘It’ll be a five piece with a special guest.’ 

‘Ok – who is the guest?’. 

Wynton Marsalis

Several thoughts went through my head. First was ‘really? Wynton Marsalis? Why me?’ and the second was, ‘I wonder which area of Wynton’s music we would be expected to cover? ’I was familiar with lots of his records going right back to the early 80s (when I first saw his quintet with his brother Branford at the Festival Hall) and there was some really heavy stuff in there with some of the greatest players around. It covered everything from hard bop to metric modulation and also reached back to the earliest traditional styles.

I also thought, ‘I’m going to keep this to myself until I’m sure it’s happening.’ Although I’ve been lucky enough to tour and record with some stellar US brass men, Warren Vache, Conte Candoli and Freddie Hubbard amongst them, the idea of playing with someone that good was still daunting for me.

The next surprise from Neil was: ‘He wants a classic New Orleans line-up: piano, bass, drums, clarinet doubling saxophone and trombone’. Ok, so we were looking at music as he had performed on the soundtrack of ‘Bolden’. Very authentic early jazz.

It’s a specialised area, and I immediately thought of a young pianist, Joe Webb, who had knocked me out on the couple of occasions I’d heard him. He really had those early stride styles down, had an engaging personality, and seemed open and easy to work with.

Having got him on board I asked him to recommend bass and drums and he suggested his regular trio members Will Sachs on bass and Will Cleasby on drums. Keeping things young, I then got hold of Daniel Higham on trombone. I’d heard him in many modern contexts such as the Ronnie Scott’s Big Band, but I’d noticed he’d been doing gigs with the young band Kansas Smitty’s so I knew he’d be right for this concert.

Arriving early for the central London rehearsal I found all the musicians I’d booked already playing which was a nice surprise, especially as they sounded great in this style.

Wynton arrived, we stopped playing and he shook hands with everyone in turn and made a short speech about how he wasn’t going to be difficult in any way so we could relax. Then he said, ‘Right, what can we play without music?’ Here are the tunes we sorted out that afternoon:

Oh When the Saints, Making Figures, St James Infirmary, Don’t Go Away Nobody, Just A Closer Walk With Thee, Lil Liza James, 219 Blues, Joe Avery Blues, Cherokee. 

The amount of detail we went into was incredible to me and completely unexpected. I’ve played most of these tunes before and not given much thought to them other than ‘these are easy changes to hear and play on’. I expected a quick top and tail on each piece and an early bath. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Wynton talked us through each tune making suggestions about ensemble playing, rhythmic feels and, above all, keeping the interest throughout. Rather than finding this restricting, it gave us the freedom to create within boundaries. The ensembles really benefitted from this approach.

We played for four hours that afternoon, with full solos on all run-throughs. Wynton was in the middle of a gruelling European schedule that month with the Lincoln Center Band, and I felt that he was just enjoying the blow with a small band. Another nice surprise was Wynton taking charming vocals on a couple of the tunes.

In the break, he said, ‘It’s really great playing this music with such young guys.’ Then, looking at me, he said, ‘And you too, Pops!’

He was also telling lots of stories about people he knew including Tony Williams (being able to impersonate any jazz drummer) and Elvin Jones. I was particularly taken with his account of being in Danny Barker’s kids band. After every run-through, however noisy and inaccurate, Danny would always declare, ‘And that’s jazz!’

On the day of the concert in Buxton, we rehearsed for another couple of hours, really nailing things home until we had memorised precisely what would happen on each tune.

The concert had an absolutely electric atmosphere – we could feel the audience willing us to do well. It was the second concert of the day: Nicola Benedetti had played in the afternoon and there was a real sense of occasion. The band was on top form and everything went off just as it should.

At the end we played a scorching version of Cherokee, with Wynton channeling his inner Dizzy to perfection. This was the only tune that was unscripted, and we all stretched out on this familiar territory with a little bit of relief. There was a huge ovation and a segue to the pub. It was one of the truly unforgettable nights of my life.

Catch the Alan Barnes Swingtet on Monday 8 July at 12.30pm. For tickets, go to buxtonfestival.co.uk/whats-on/alan-barnes-swingtet or call the box office on 01298 72190.