Chris Barber – A Trailblazer’s Legacy
The Last Music Co.
4 CDs 69 tracks 293 minutes
If you mention the name Chris Barber to most American blues fans, chances are good that you will get a blank look in response. In the U.K., Barber is a legend for his trombone playing as well as leading a band for more almost 70 years. Additionally, Barber was instrumental in bringing blues musicians to England, many for the first time, and often expertly backed by Barber’s fine band. Proof of Barber’s importance to the British blues scene is provided by a quote from Rolling Stone bass player Bill Wyman, who commented, “Without Chris Barber the Stones and The Beatles would not be where they are now.”
This deluxe four disc set offers an overview of Barber’s illustrious career, spanning 67 years of musical merry making. Enclosed in a small, hard cover bookcase, the discs are firmly lodged tightly in full page sleeves, followed by pages of photographs, notes covering the music song by song, and a complete track-list with information on the musicians involved on each track. There is also a piece written by a friend and race car driver David Brodie, detailing Barber’s passion for auto racing.
As a boy, Barber studied the violin. After the end of World War II, he went to school in London with the intent of becoming an insurance actuary. But after spending his evenings listening to jazz in the city’s clubs, he spent three years in music school, then put together a band with seven other like-minded musicians.
The set starts off with the first tracks released by Chris Barber’s New Orleans Jazz Band in 1951, “Stomp Off Let’s Go,” taken at a sprightly tempo, shows that the band had a solid understanding of the New Orleans jazz traditions. By 1954, Pat Halcox on trumpet and Monty Sunshine on clarinet have joined the band. Both became fixtures and key contributors. Also included is “Rock Island Line,” a massive hit for singer Lonnie Donegan and his Skiffle Band, consisting of Barber on bass and Beryl Bryden on washboard. The song ignited the skiffle craze, which subsequently sparked interest in blues music as fans dug into the roots of skiffle sound.
With the arrival of Ottilie Patterson, the band had a big voiced singer who had a natural affinity for the blues, as witnessed on her stellar take on “Nobody Knows You When You Are Down And Out.” Her performance on a live version of “St. Louis Blues” electrifies the audience, then she stirs up memories of Bessie Smith with a fine rendition of “Careless Love.” Meanwhile, the band solidifies its sound over the six year stretch covered, finally scoring their own hit with Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur,”with Sunshine on clarinet in the spotlight.
The second disc opens with the band backing Sister Rosetta Tharp on an enthusiastic take of “Every Time I Feel The Spirit”. They also provide sympathetic backing on two tracks for Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. On “Betty and Dupree,” Terry blows some fine harp to accompany McGhee’s measured vocal. Patterson and McGhee take turns singing on “Do Lord Do Remember Me,” the track ending rather abruptly just as things seemed to be heating up.
Other highlights include a stirring Patterson performance on the slow blues “Moonshine Man,” then she easily glides along with the sprightly tempo on “Well Alright, OK, You Win”. Barber handles the vocal on “The Sheik Of Araby,” as Sunshine delivers a sparkling clarinet solo that elicits equally fine efforts from Halcox and Barber that make the nine minute track a real treat. Barber had a deep admiration for Duke Ellington and his orchestraScott Jo, paying his respects on “Rent Party Blues”. Their musical interplay on Scott Joplin’s classic “The Entertainer” is one more delight.
Disc 3 finds Barber back on bass while another British blues legend, Alexis Korner, handles the guitar backing James Cotton’s subdued vocal and brilliant unamplified harmonica blowing on ‘Love Me Or Leave Me”. Patterson impresses on another slow blues, “Lonesome Road” with Ian Wheeler taking over on clarinet, then the band tears into “Weary Blues,” a track bound to give listeners a case of happy feet. The band proves their mettle on two songs featuring Louis Jordan’s smooth vocals on “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby” and “Don’t Worry ‘Bout The Mule, his alto sax adding to the band’s musical firepower. A live rendition of Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” features New Orleans jazz legend Albert Nicholas’s wailing clarinet. The disc ends with Sammy Price getting a chance to show off his prowess on piano on “Tailgate Boogie”.
The final disc documents the band in transition. A 1965 cover of “Jeep’s Blues,” composed by Ellington and Johnny Hodges, finds Eddie Smith’s banjo being replaced by John Slaughter on electric guitar. The band continues backing visiting musicians, as witnessed on an inspired run-through of “Couldn’t Keep It To Myself” with gospel legend Alex Bradford. The band offers a more contemporary sound on “Mercy, Marcy, Mercy,” with the leader laying down a fine trombone solo. Things get real interesting on “Oh Didn’t He Ramble,” with Van Morrison adding his voice to the proceedings, with Dr. John on piano.
“Sideways” is credited to the Chris Barber Jazz and Blues Band, a aggregation from 1978 that featured multi-instrumentalists Sammy Rimmington and John Crocker. Wheeler is back on clarinet on a medley of tunes from the Band, “The Weight/Caledonia Mission,” with Barber and Crocker on tenor sax taking solo honors. A New Orleans session paired Barber with Eddie Bo on vocal and piano along with a cast of stellar local veterans on the funky “Wake Up”. Chris Barber’s Six Piece was a 2010 line-up that tackled a Jelly Roll Morton classic, “Winin’ Boy Blues,” with Jools Holland on piano and lead vocal. The closing cut was recorded live at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London, with Barber and band playing “Savoy Blues,” a song the leader had recorded sixty years earlier.
Throughout the set, listeners will be impressed with top-notch musicianship and beautiful arrangements that the band created, not to mention the inspired playing on virtually every track. Barber knew how to find players that shared his passion for the music, as is evident in the joy you hear in every note. The music alternates between blues, New Orleans traditional jazz, and all points in-between. What listeners are left with is a marvelous tribute to a musical giant who deserves recognition on this side of the pond.