Alan Barnes Sextet: The music of Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges, by Ian Fleckney

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Featuring – Alan Barnes Saxophones, Bruce Adams Trumpet, Robert Fowler Tenor Sax, Robin Aspland Piano, Paul Morgan Bass and Matt Fishwick Drums at the Anchorians Rugby Club, May 20.
Organising a handpicked group of musicians to play the music of these jazz masters was a dream come true for both the musicians and audience alike. Multi sax man Alan Barnes certainly knows how to pick them!
Always an inspiration, Ellington’s compositions transcended all musical boundaries and influenced people around the world with the quality of his work. Consistently creative, he had a never ending conveyor belt of songs that will always be leapt upon by leaders of small groups, big bands and everything in between, and performed at a drop of a hat to enthusiastic crowds. Barnes has never wavered in his respect for Ellington and his lead altoist Johnny Hodges, and this all star band produced a programme of both famous and little known melodies that were ideal for improvisers.
The first of these was “Hi-Ya”, a tune regularly performed by Ellington’s orchestra, that saw Robert Fowler’s clarinet playing a leading role in this medium paced swinger, which also included a high note solo from Bruce Adam’s trumpet to give a good indication of what was to come!
“Friskey” slowed the tempo down a little, opening with the muted trumpet of Adams before the other front line musicians came in with their contributions. The Ellington/ Strayhorn pairing composed “Passion Flower” for Johnny Hodges and led to some superb playing by Alan Barnes on alto sax on a tune that was both mellow and atmospheric. This was followed by a huge blast of energetic playing on “Cottontail”, one of Ellington’s most popular tunes, and which saw Bruce Adams emerge with a burst of notes soaring high, clear and clean in a manner that Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown would have approved. The bubbling baritone sax of Barnes added to this display and took the performance to new heights. Robert Fowler’s tenor sax was featured on a Ben Webster inspired “Body and Soul” while the Hodges tune “Broadway Babe” saw more great work by Adams on muted trumpet.
Robin Aspland is known to be one of the best UK pianists around, as his playing is always assured, intuitive and he has complete command of his instrument. Always a great listener, his support to the front line musicians was always spot on. Robin was featured on “Isfahan” from Ellington’s Far East Suite, a slow sensitive piece, but full of colour and understanding of what the composer was trying to achieve.
A catchy little blues number from the pen of Hodges entitled ”Sideways” gave Fowler a chance to show the more gutsy side of his improvising, while there were good solos from Barnes on alto and more from Aspland and Adams. An eight bar break from drummer Matt Fishwick led the band into “Globetrotter”, before the agile alto of Barnes took over, followed by another excellent solo from Fowler.
Special mention must be made here of the towering contribution of bass man Paul Morgan in both his solos and his underpinning of the other soloists, his energy and enthusiasm added a great deal to the overall performance of the band.
As a well earned encore, the band sprung into “Second Class” with the master sax man now on clarinet, who contributed much with his swooping improvisations, turns and swerves, while other members of the band came out on top with excellent solos.
While it was wonderful to hear the radical remakes of classic jazz material, this reviewer would have liked to have heard a few more well known pieces such as “Take The A Train”, Sophisticated Lady” and Hodges “Jeeps Blues”. Ah well, next time perhaps.
Colpjazz Promotions must be congratulated in arranging such a brilliant evening, it was wonderful to witness the Alan Barnes casual musicianship, his deadpan humour, but above all his great belief in the music itself.