In the heyday of the big bands, singers were low-paid walk-ons. By the time they captured centre stage, jazz had pared itself down to small groups with hardly a vocalist in sight. Maybe a music that thrived on ambiguity didn’t need lyrics to spell out meaning. Or perhaps the quick-fire virtuosity of modern jazz simply didn’t sit well with the human voice.
Jazz is still a mostly instrumental form but the best young singers are finding new ways to bend lyrics and adapt the voice to its demands. And, like the musicians they work with, they straddle genres, as aware of roots and classical music as they are of the American songbook and jazz heritage. All of which makes the annual London Jazz Festival launch concert at the Barbican on November 11, with its clutch of singers supported by a 42-piece orchestra, so much more than a glossy singers’ night.
Under the title Jazz Voice, the festival rounds up the quirky with the tried and tested, adds a dollop of soul and shifts the whole caboodle some distance from even the most experienced singer’s comfort zone. Each vocalist is given two songs that are linked to an anniversary; they then negotiate style and key with Guy Barker, the event’s musical director. Jazz Voice is now in its fourth year and its success has been built on Barker’s detailed planning and sensitive orchestrations.
I meet Barker in his west London flat in mid-October, just as he is finalising the first drafts of the orchestrations he began in August. The process actually started much earlier, with Barker letting loose his inner anorak on the “century of song” of the event’s subtitle. With so many great songs to choose from, he explains, some restriction is needed. “We gave ourselves a straitjacket, anniversaries, which is very simple,” he says. “I start with centenaries then move down the decades.”
Once the pool is fixed the singers negotiate which songs they will perform; this year has been more collaborative than others, Barker says. “A lot [of singers] came here and we sat and Googled [songs] and sometimes the songs jumped out.” But most of his work for Jazz Voice is a solitary slog, creating accurate scores for the orchestra to master in its single day’s rehearsal.
All this is a long way from Barker’s roots as a trumpet player, with credits stretching from Kajagoogoo to Ornette Coleman. Then, the priority was his own playing, but in Jazz Voice others take precedence. “Serve the singer, then serve the song, then worry about yourself,” he says. Working with so many singers has increased his appreciation of vocal artistry, though he has no wish to sing himself. “Sometimes, when you hear one of those great singers open their mouth and this amazing sound comes out, you do think that must be an amazing thing to do. But sing, nah.”
Nancy Wilson and Frank Sinatra are his current benchmarks, though he admits it’s “a fine line” whether the latter is a jazz singer. “People come up with two different points of view all the time. I just listen to people I like.” Both are certainly giants of the American songbook, which dominates the vocal-jazz repertory because the melodies and harmonic movement leave singers enormous scope to interpret a lyric. “Today’s pop songs are lyric-driven,” Barker says, “you hear, and you get the message. But strip away the lyrics, and the movement is far less. It’s a much more static thing.” Not that he dislikes modern pop music: it’s just less adaptable to his purpose. As he points out, the craft is different now. “They used to sit round the piano and do the stuff,” he says. “Nowadays, a lot of songs are created in studios, with several people throwing different ideas around. People collaborate a lot.”
Indeed, it is hard to find anything Barker is dissatisfied with, apart from his own anxiety to get things right. He loves working with the singers of Jazz Voice, can’t remember a single tantrum and “has made a lot of great friends”. He has a similar take on his experiences as a session musician in the 1980s. “Somebody once showed me a list of all the pop albums I’d played on,” he says. “It was quite staggering. I met a lot of nice people.”
Barker is equally generous about those who helped him on his way. Born in Chiswick, west London, in 1957, he was 12 when he started playing the trumpet, and by the time he was 14 was playing with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. Under Bill Ashton’s direction, the youth orchestra was key to becoming a professional musician. “Apart from all the jazz stuff, you had to read very quick. It really got you prepared.”
By the time he was in his late teens he was a rising star and an in-demand session musician. He joined the bands of Bobby Watson and Gil Evans when they visited the UK, ran around with Stan and Clark Tracey, and gigged regularly with Mike Westbrook and John Dankworth. Long days in the studio were followed by equally long nights on the bandstand and he became something of a musical chameleon. One gig with avant-gardist Ornette Coleman came the day after he had recreated the music of Bix Beiderbecke with the arch-traditionalist Keith Nicholls. “It was mad,” Barker recalls.
His interest in composition came gradually, nurtured in the bands in which he worked. Playing great arrangements helped but the comments of his fellow musicians were equally instructive. “I’d sit at the end of the section,” he says, “and listen to great trumpet players, and they would say ‘That’s not very good writing,’ and you take all that in.”
About 15 years ago he decided to start all over again and took lessons in composition. His first commission, Sounds in Black and White, was for a symphony orchestra and jazz septet and was first performed in 2003. Since then his writing commissions have mushroomed.
Barker still loves to play the trumpet, practises diligently – he doesn’t like to perform when he is not “match fit” – and gigs regularly, even while toiling away for Jazz Voice. But he admits that writing has made a positive difference to his working life.
“When I played the trumpet,” he says, “it was more like, ‘Listen to what I can do’. Now I have my back to the audience and I’m looking at the soloist and I’m looking at the orchestra and my job is to make all of this work, make them feel great.
“You’re not thinking about yourself so much,” he adds, “and I think that’s probably what it’s all about for me now.”
The London Jazz Festival, November 11-20, www.londonjazzfestival.org.uk