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Chris Barber RIP

Chris Barber has died aged 90. RIP. See Norman Lebrecht's classical music blog Slipped Disc. A legend of trad jazz, there was no one quite like Barber. Harnessing the glories of jazz and the blues, he led his own bands for decades, keeping on …

Published: 2 Mar 2021. Updated: 50 days.

Chris Barber has died aged 90. RIP. See Norman Lebrecht's classical music blog Slipped Disc.

A legend of trad jazz, there was no one quite like Barber. Harnessing the glories of jazz and the blues, he led his own bands for decades, keeping on keeping on.

Speaking on the phone from his home near Hungerford back in 2017 for a piece in LondonJazzNews I felt immediately as if I had known him for years but we had never met and the only time I’d been lucky enough to see him live was on a fun occasion in the Hippodrome in his old stomping ground of Golders Green in 2000 when he turned 70 and that as it turned out was the part of north London not far from where he grew up in although he was born in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, in 1930.

His career in music had started earlier at the dawn of the 1950s inconsequentially enough and just out of his teens. “I was an amateur mathematician. I was listening to the American Forces Network radio, AFM, and local request programmes and played in pubs.” Living in north London, around Hampstead and Edgware, he was fond of cricket and would go down to Lord’s not too far away in St John’s Wood to watch the game. His middle class parents were socialists. Trad jazz much later in the 1950s became the soundtrack of the Ban the Bomb generation and the Aldermaston marches. His first wife Naida Lane was a dancer, the daughter of a Ghanaian. “Naida went to ballet school, and she was a lovely dancer,” Chris said. While there she encountered racism and she stopped training and instead began to work in music hall and later for the singer Shirley Bassey. Chris remembered how they met: ‘I remember seeing Naida at Collins’ Music Hall in north London in the Hot from Harlem black variety show. I met her, got together, we married at a registry office on the Harrow Road and lived in a flat down near Notting Hill Gate.” They parted eventually and divorced later. “She wanted a stage life of her own. We kept in touch.”

Things took off for Barber with skiffle but Dixieland jazz was more his thing. Skiffle was a bass heavy rudimentary style imported from black American traditions possessing plenty of crowd appeal and often seen now as a precursor to rock’n’roll but dismissed sniffily by some like blues guru Alexis Korner yet embraced wholeheartedly by the public who made a star of Lonnie Donegan. Chris was familiar with skiffle. He had found an old 1928 record and the party term he says was “occasionally used in the late-1930s by black musicians.” Lonnie, he says was a “dedicated cheeky chappie,” more a music hall performer adding approvingly: “He was a good banjo player.” Van Morrison many years later with Barber and Donegan recalled the skiffle sound decades on not many years before Donegan died with the release in 2000 of a live album that they had made a few years before based on a concert at the Whitla Hall in Belfast, a city Barber knows well and the city where he met his second wife singer Ottilie Patterson who he married at the end of the 1950s.

Barber has had an incredible career in music which he has written about in his 2013 autobiography Jazz Me Blues. He has met and performed with many of the greats spanning not just jazz and the blues, playing for instance with Muddy Waters in America and admiring the way that he could retune his guitar perfectly in front of an audience, but gospel and rock. He speaks fondly of his encounters with Louis Armstrong. “A nice man. He just loved the music.”

A founding director of the famed London venue the Marquee in 1958 we talked a little about Harold Pendleton the businessman who ran the club. Chris mentioned Pendleton’s north of England background a bit and says, somehow it seems important to him beyond trivia, that Pendleton was an amateur drummer. Chris clearly relished those days, the place wasn’t a pub so as a club had a different vibe and he says onstage at the Marquee, which was on Oxford Street first and then later Wardour Street in its earliest history (and Charing Cross Road even later), it “wasn’t rotten” to be on stage in terms of the sound, unlike a lot of places.

Barber toured a lot back then, some things don’t change. On his gig sheet at that time of the interview dates coming up criss-crossing England included during May and June alone, Lichfield, Bishop’s Cleeve, Haywards Heath, Stoke-on-Trent, Hunstanton, Aylesbury and Doncaster before the band were to head to Scotland later in the summer and then down to London in September. In Sixties Liverpool Barber was playing places like the huge 2,300-seater Empire theatre when The Beatles started out. Jazz was completely the thing then but not for long with the benefit of hindsight.

“The locals weren’t taking the Beatles seriously at first, but after our show we went to the Cavern and had a drink with [clarinettist] Terry Lightfoot and standing by the bar was John, Paul, Ringo and George, Lennon trying to convince [Barber band clarinettist] Ian Wheeler to be their manager!”

Chris was matter of fact when I ask him if ‘Rock Island Line,’ a hit single in both the UK and US in 1955, changed his life in any way? ‘No,’ he says quickly enough, then moderating a little: ‘Sort of. It was Lonnie’s record but people knew I played the slap bass on the record. Van Morrison was an enthusiast of the song, Van liking the blues side. He was sincere about it.’ Jokingly, he says, almost as an aside and with an understated gravitas that the music industry is not big on sincerity. Barber has been a regular guest performer with Van Morrison over many years and they remain good friends.

As for singer Ottilie Patterson, like Morrison, also from Northern Ireland but further from the city streets that Morrison was familiar with hailing instead from small town County Down, Chris during the conversation frequently mentioned playing in Ireland both north and south, and in his band currently and for some time was Northern Irish bassist Jackie Flavelle who used to have a long-running radio show certainly close enough for jazz on the Newtonwards-based commercial station Downtown. Chris said Patterson, who died in 2011, “was a lover, a purveyor, of the blues.” They met not far from Ards in Belfast itself. Barber’s family line, he tells me later in the conversation, goes back to County Monaghan, and he tells me his great grandfather was a Presbyterian church minister in Tydavnet who left for England before the famine.

Known mainly as a trombone player I ask him if Kid Ory was a big influence. Listening to Ory I can hear shades of the New Orleans early jazz legend a little in the way Barber phrases and wails. But he says no, instead he said it was Honoré Dutrey from King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band who he liked best explaining that he liked him for his “raunchy style” expanding: “Dutrey played melodic phrases between melodic phrases. It was an acquired taste.” SG

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What can you learn in a half an hour call on Zoom to Luxembourg taking notes? Quite a lot as it turns out. Let's start again. You can learn at least 66.6%-ish thanks to two of the main storytellers of Reis/Demuth/Wiltgen that seems at least to have …

Published: 2 Mar 2021. Updated: 51 days.

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What can you learn in a half an hour call on Zoom to Luxembourg taking notes? Quite a lot as it turns out. Let's start again. You can learn at least 66.6%-ish thanks to two of the main storytellers of Reis/Demuth/Wiltgen that seems at least to have reached a new chapter featuring a new image more of which later in their dazzling existence to date. The 33.3%-ish of the Luxembourg-ish not on the call was drummer Paul Wiltgen. Pianist Michel Reis and double bassist Marc Demuth of the trio think in terms of three is a magic number and as regular readers of marlbank will know: the piano trio is one of the most creative formations of any jazz group and continues to transform itself creatively. The reason for getting in touch goes back to the beginning of last month and hearing 'Diary of an Unfettered Mind' from their new album Sly just out on the CAM Jazz label. That track is a euphoric breakthrough by the trio who have long flickered high on the marlbank radar since Reis-Demuth-Wiltgen (Laborie, 2013) through the less satisfying Places in Between (Mocloud/Double Moon, 2016) to the excellent Once in a Blue Moon (CAM Jazz, 2018) and now.

They have collaborated with the great US saxophonist Joshua Redman and famed composer-arranger Vince Mendoza and toured up to Pandemic extensively abroad. R­eis, who studied at the Conservatoire de la Ville de Luxembourg, later Berklee, and the New England Conservatory, had by the time the trio settled into being already put out four albums of his own. I'll admit they all passed me by at the time. The trio is now easily his instrument but it is more than ''his trio''. The trio is the thing.


Demuth unlike Reis and Wiltgen did not study in the States. He tells me he is a huge Avishai Cohen fan. Reis is more into Ethan Iverson, The Bad Plus, Brad Mehldau. I jot down lots more notes. The band are also influenced by e. s. t. and Demuth tells me when I ask him for confirmation that this is correct especially in his case. The bassist also likes Scandinavian sounds more generally although we do not get into any more specifics.

As for Reis there’s a grandeur to his playing and an incredible melodicism in his writing something picked up on by Joshua Redman who has covered tunes by both Reis and by Wiltgen. The pianist says that the tunes seem simple but are not easy to play (compared to other material of his that he writes) and cites the example of Bill Evans' 'Waltz for Debby' as easy to digest but difficult to play.

As for Sly, the band now signed to Uwe Hager's O-Tone Music for booking and strategy and who kindly set up the interview, the emblematic fox is the key symbol of the album. ''You wouldn't put a fox on a flag,'' muses Demuth noting that the Luxembourg symbol is a red lion. The national theme is strong: Another Michel, Michel Rodange (1827-1876) is the reason for the fox iconography, author of Luxembourg's national epic, the satirical dialect-laden Renert oder de Fuuß am Frack an a Ma'nsgrëßt. The trio came together at the Lycée Michel Rodange Luxembourg named after the great writer. The son of the absent Wiltgen also happens to like foxes.

Back to the brilliant 'Diary of an Unfettered Mind' where our tale began and a word on the band's new look, a world away from their more formal appearance in the past. Multimedia artist Émile Schlesser came up with the look for the video and will reprise their collaboration next year working with the band in Esch-sur-Alzette during the Esch tenure as European capital-of-culture. The installation will take place in an old steel factory on a 360-degree stage and will involve an exploration of synesthesia in surround sound. Demuth says on the Esch project he will possibly opt for bass guitar and Reis will play a Wurlitzer.

Reis spooling back to the beginning of the chat when asked about Lockdown talks about a positive upswing in terms of the potential to returning to gigging in that at least dates (that may have to be rescheduled) can now be booked unlike recently. Playing in empty halls for streaming Reis says ''is weird''. He speaks of his admiration for Joshua Redman, a huge fan of his ''since ever''. The tunes Redman has performed by the trio include 'Floppy Disk,' a Wiltgen composition that goes back to the trio's self-titled debut. (Interestingly a completely different tune but with a very similar title and different meaning 'Floppy Diss' appears on last year's superb Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride and Brian Blade album Round Again).


Reis on his compositional method and whether the sound comes from riffs ponders on this but talks more about ''long forms'' and ''cell-like construction''. Certainly the band is strong on melodic resource and know how to make it interesting. At this I ask Reis about how Danilo Pérez taught him when he was in America and he talks about how he and Ran Blake who also taught him are very much ''ear players''. ''They can play in any key and find it weird if you can't!'' SG

Reis-Demuth-Wiltgen stream from Unterfahrt, Munich on 12 March. Michel Reis, top. Marc Demuth, middle pic. The trio, above (photo: Marlene Soares). Sly is out now