The Big Chris Barber Band
Orwell Park School, Nr. Ipswich, Suffolk, U.K.
Friday 3rd December, 2004

by Jerry Brown

The venues for most Chris Barber gigs consist of theatre and concert halls up and down the country and all over Europe. The Orwell Park School venue is unusual in that it is the sports hall in a private 'prep' school (that is a fee-paying boarding school for children of between 5 and 13 years) established in a large old house and grounds set deep in the Suffolk countryside. I guess there are around 400 pupils of both sexes and I understand that there is a strong emphasis on music in the school -- mainly classical. The Barber band has played a gig at the school in late November or early December for the past twenty-nine years, and this year the concert coincided with the centenary of the local Rotary club who obviously had a large block booking and had enjoyed a pre-concert reception! I would estimate the audience at around 700 to 800 plus about 200 of the pupils who took up the first few rows.

For those who do not know the history of the Chris Barber Band, it has been going as a fully professional outfit for just over fifty years and boasts what is probably the longest musical partnership anywhere in jazz. Pat Halcox took over the trumpet chair when the band was launched under Chris's name in 1954 and he is still there. For many years the band varied between six and eight in personnel, but about three years ago three extra players were brought in and the lineup now totals eleven: Pat Halcox and Mike Henry on trumpets, the leader and Bob Hunt on trombones, John Defferary, Richard Exall and Tony Carter on a large array of reed instruments, Andy Kuc on banjo and guitar, John Slaughter on guitar (with the band since 1964!), Vic Pitt on bass, and Colin Miller on drums.

The repertoire of the band is varied but if there is any specialism it is in excellent interpretations of the late 1920s and 1930s music of Duke Ellington, with wonderful arrangements being provided by Bob Hunt. In fact I might go as far as to suggest that this band is one of the best anywhere playing in this style. They are not transcriptions or reconstructions of the Ellington band but new interpretations in the style. Not that the band confines itself to this style of jazz: during the course of the evening's entertainment we enjoyed a superb interpretation of "All Blues" from the Miles Davis Kind of Blue album with a featured duet between Tony Carter on flute and John Slaughter on blues guitar, a 'dixieland' (or trad) six-piece setting of the Wilbur De Paris tune 'The Martinique', a romping New Orleans bluesy version of 'Cornbread, Peas and Black Molasses', a gentle interpretation of Bechet's 'Petite Fleur', which featured the clarinet of Tony Carter and the guitar of Andy Kuc, and a real barnstormer duet between Vic Pitt and Colin Miller with the Haggart and Bauduc novelty 'Big Noise From Winnetka', which closed the first half of the concert.

Maybe time is beginning to take its toll on Messrs Barber and Halcox (both are now 74) and some of the brass parts are being passed on to the younger players, but when called upon both gents showed that their talents and musical imaginations are still very there to be demonstrated to all.

From the opening bars of their signature tune 'Bourbon Street Parade' through to the rousing finale version of 'The Saints' (it sounded fresh in their hands!) this was how a jazz concert should be. Well planned, varied music, wonderful arrangements, and above all band members and audience who appeared to enjoy the whole event. The standing ovation at the end was very well deserved. Judging by the remarks I heard as we filed out of the building a good time was had by all and I'm sure that the youngsters who were lining up at the sales table to buy CDs of the band and then getting them autographed will have gone to bed with good music ringing in their ears.

The band show no signs of slowing down from their exhaustive touring schedule and I shall catch them again when they appear in Norwich in February and Whitley Bay in July.

Copyright © 2004 Jerry Brown (
Lakenham Leisure Centre, Cricket Ground Road, Norwich NR1 3AZ. Tel/fax: 01603 467777.

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