In the Spring of 2008, when Pat Halcox first announced his intention to retire from the Big Chris Barber Band, a rumour quickly started on the Chris Barber Message Board that his last date with the band would take place at a concert in Edinburgh on 25 July, the opening night of the 30th Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival. Since I manage the Chris Barber website at a considerable distance (almost 5000 miles away in Alberta, Canada), I don’t get to hear the band play “live” very often: the previous time had been a series of concerts in Bristol, Worcester and Birmingham in December 2003. Pat’s last date seemed to me an event not to be missed, so I immediately booked a one-week round trip from Canada to Scotland to coincide with the Festival.
After I’d made the flight commitment, it then became known that Pat would in fact be retiring a week or so earlier, at a concert in Gillingham, and that this was also be to reedman Tony Carter’s last concert as a permanent member of the band. By this time it was too late to change my flights, but there was the consolation that I would get to meet and hear the two newest members of the band, Zoltan Sagi and Peter Rudeforth, playing with the band in public for only the second time. Also, there was the added attraction of spending a week with my sister and brother-in-law, who had recently moved to a small village a couple of miles west of Dunfermline, itself only a short drive or train-ride from the centre of Edinburgh.
On Friday the 25th of July I caught the train into Edinburgh city centre, and wandered slowly through the crowds of tourists and the heat to the band’s hotel, where I’d planned to meet up with Julian Purser, the band’s archivist and one of the two other members of the Chris Barber website and archive team (Andreas Wandfluh, the other member of our group, had been unable to fly over from Switzerland to join us). Julian, who had flown up that afternoon from Cornwall, arrived on time, and we spent a few minutes chatting before he decided to drop off his bag in his room.
While I was waiting in the lobby for Julian to return, who should exit the elevator but Chris himself, clearly on some sort of errand but happy, it seemed, to be diverted and to chat for a while. An hour or so later, during which Julian and I heard some exciting stories about possible new releases of recently-discovered tapes (mostly non-Barber but other classic American and British jazz artists from the 1950s), I’d also met most of the rest of the band, who strolled into the hotel in twos and threes. Everyone was very warm and friendly, with compliments for our work on the website for the past four-plus years.
Tony Carter, although now an ex-member of the band, was the last to show up: he’d been invited to “sub” for the evening for saxist Richard Exall, who had another commitment. Tony, Julian and I then adjourned to a very nice close-by traditional Scottish pub, the Mitre, for an hour or so of drinks and conversation. Tony told us a lot about his musical career, including the first time he heard Monty Sunshine play “Hushabye” in concert back in the 1950s, and which had so moved him that he took up the clarinet – eventually taking over several of the solos for which Monty had become famous fifty years ago. After that, we returned to the hotel, where we ran into another fairly new member of the band, trombonist John Service, a Scotsman who’d been staying at his home in Ayr, and had in fact played a round of golf that morning! We talked for a while about what it’s like to play in a band that one has idolized more or less since childhood.
As it was getting on towards the end of the afternoon, and because we weren’t sure if there would be room in the band bus for us, Julian and I strolled the mile-long walk along North Bridge Street to the Queen Ann Hall, venue for the night’s concert, a lovely old church which is now a concert hall, and which, we were told, had been rated by the late Humphrey Lyttlelton as having some of the best acoustics of any concert hall in the UK. When we arrived, trumpeter Mike Henry, sound-man Barry Walker, and lighting man Bas Meijer were almost finished setting up the stage and sound system. It wasn’t long after this that the rest of the band arrived and almost immediately took the stage for the sound-check and warm-up, featuring a blistering, tight, and exciting version of Duke Ellington’s Merry-Go-Round, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s Cornbread, Peas and Black Molasses (in which new trumpeter Peter Rudeforth took over Pat’s role in the vocal duet with Chris), and part of Miles Davis’s All Blues, which had been a flute feature for Tony Carter for many years, but on which the lead was now taken by new member Zoltan Sagi on alto sax.
For the next couple of hours I had the opportunity to chat with individual members of the band and to take lots of photographs to add to those I’d taken at the sound check (see the bottom of this page for a small photo gallery of some of them, and the Slideshows page for a slideshow using many more of the photos).
Then it was time for the concert – and what a concert it was! One of the things that struck me most was how quickly and how well Zoltan and Peter have integrated themselves into the band, after playing only one previous concert, and what enormous assets to the band these outstanding musicians are. Peter plays a wonderful fiery trumpet, a perfect foil for Mike Henry, while Zoltan is an enormously versatile reedman, exemplified by his solo in All Blues and his wonderful “woody” tone in Petite Fleur. John Service, too, another relatively recent addition to the line-up, is a remarkably versatile trombonist who has added considerable depth to the brass section, and whose humour and enthusiasm, playing for the first time with the band in front of an almost “hometown” Scottish audience, were infectious and a great crowd-pleaser.
Apart from the wonderful music throughout the entire concert, the other thing that struck me was just how much the “First Eleven” sound of the Big Chris Barber Band has been retained and enhanced despite numerous personnel changes during the last couple of years. Only two of the eleven personnel whom I saw on my last visit in 2003 are still with the band (Chris himself and John Slaughter on electric guitar), but the band sounds as good as and perhaps better than ever. After hearing this terrific concert I’m quite confident that the newest version of the band is well-set to entertain us all with outstanding jazz and blues for many years to come.
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
August 4, 2008