The Big Chris Barber Band at the National Concert Hall, April 8th 2015.
A single spotlight tracks a lone man crossing the stage. Chris Barber is hard to hear as he introduces the band, and the audience responds with a slight shuffling. If we can’t make out the introduction, what’s to come this evening?
All concerns are allayed the moment the ten-piece Big Chris Barber Band breaks into the Bourbon Street Parade. The sound is confident, assured. Dixieland style interweaving lines are light and well balanced, allowing each player’s voice to be heard while the hits are reached naturally and perfectly in time. For a small ensemble, filling the space of the National Concert Hall is certainly not an issue.
It is clear that under Barber’s leadership the band has flourished and developed each number to perfection, while maintaining a light and fresh sound after decades of playing the same tunes. A changing lineup is surely an aid to this, but each of the players’ intimate understanding of the style and of each other is central.
This understanding is key to the success of the evening. Light, sound and performance are perfectly synchronised and the player’s are comfortable enough with the set to be able to wander off the stage at will, have a laugh during breaks, and share this easy connection with the audience.
Each soloist is given ample opportunity to showcase their skills, with Jubilee Stomp and the Wild Cat Blues especially memorable for the display of flexibility and pizazz, particularly from the sax section. Barber has surrounded himself with talented and adaptable performers, but it is his sound that gives the ensemble its true voice. No amount of transcription could give an understanding of his musical language. His slight inflections and subtle emphasis within phrases that come together for a light and dexterous sound that is so reminiscent of the Ellington era, a musician he takes so much inspiration from.
The dubiously named Black and Tan Fantasy takes our breath away, opening the second act with a very different sound. The ensemble moves together in a lilting rendition of another Ellington favourite, emoting the lines to add a depth that a less skilled group could bypass.
Unlike so many newer jazz musicians, the group does not rely on sheer dynamic power to impress, allowing more subtle use of the sound to speak volumes. There is a gradual crescendo throughout the entire set, and it isn’t until the latter part of the second half that the trumpets’ fortissimo is unleashed to deafen the first five rows. The volume elicits gasps of pleasure, affirming the worth of a well-planned set and timing.
As it should be, When the Saints is the crowning moment of the night. Each soloist takes their moment to show the full range of their instrument, alternating with more relaxed vocals from the group. A light-hearted singalong Ice Cream finish guarantees smiles across the board for the departing audience.
Given that the music heard is from a bygone era, perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that the turnout for the concert is less than ideal, but given the commitment, talent and showmanship on stage it is certainly regrettable. Hopefully the Big Chris Barber Band will continue touring long enough to make it back to Ireland, to be greeted by the reception it deserves.