‘all rock’n’rollers love Charles Mingus’

April 22 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Charles Mingus, the great American bassist, composer and bandleader, and to celebrate the occasion the RTÉ Concert Orchestra has commissioned star British trumpeter and arranger Guy Barker to orchestrate some of Mingus’ most beloved music. , to be played in Dublin (Thursday 21) and Cork (Friday 22). The occasion also marks Barker’s appointment as an Associate Artist at RTE CO, following his triumphant appearance with the orchestra in 2019, conducting his own arrangements of Miles Davis’ iconic Kind of Blue.

Larger than life is an expression that could have been coined for Charles Mingus. A bear of a man with a nasty, often forked tongue, a voracious sexual appetite and a reputation for irascibility, even violence, Mingus was one of the most inspiring and dynamic of the golden generation of African-American musicians who emerged in the 1940s and 1950s. Deeply influenced by pioneering black artists such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, with whom he collaborated, but just two years younger than the great modern jazz innovator, Charlie Parker, with who he also played, Mingus is like a bridge connecting the two eras. . His music, imbued with the declarative joy of gospel, the unbridled momentum of swing, the earthy jangle of blues and the harmonic sophistication of bebop, is unique and instantly recognizable, and highly respected by jazz musicians and composers. . And yet, perhaps because of the politically subversive stances he took during his lifetime and his fearsome personal style, Mingus never enjoyed the kind of prestige accorded to these other big names.

But as the jazz world celebrates the centenary of its birth, that may be starting to change. Guy Barker certainly thinks so.

“Mingus is recognized by a very interesting group of people,” he said, speaking to The Irish Times via Zoom, sitting at his piano surrounded by the scattering of charts he’s been working on for the past few months. “It just seems to affect some people. For example, all rock‘n’rollers love Mingus. You talk to them, and the Mingus thing is very deep in them”.

Composer and trumpeter Guy Barker

Barker would know. Although he spends most of his time these days composing and arranging, the London-born musician was once the premier trumpeter on the London recording scene, and he rubbed shoulders with jazz legends (Gil Evans , Quincy Jones), to vocal icons (Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé) to rock stars (Paul Weller, Sting).

To pass the baton

Barker references another of his former employers, Elvis Costello, who put lyrics to several Mingus tracks, including Weird Nightmare, which Costello performed on Deep Dead Blue, a live duet album recorded with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell in 1995. But there are many more. . The sonic world of Tom Waits’ albums such as Rain Dogs and Frank’s Wild Years owes a debt to Mingus’ atmosphere of wild collective improvisation. More importantly, Joni Mitchell formed a close friendship with Mingus during the last years of his life – he died aged 56 of motor neurone disease – and his 1979 album titled Mingus captures the great bassist in its final months, still searching, still creating, handing over to up-and-coming jazz icons including Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius.

“There’s just something about him that’s so special,” Barker says. Although he’s been listening to Mingus since he was a teenager, he’s enjoyed re-immersing himself in the bassist’s music over the past two years. “Sometimes there was this feeling, the way the group moved, and it was like lines of emotion. With Mingus, we had the feeling that everyone participated in the composition of the piece”.

Like many of the great leaders of the classical jazz period, Mingus hired the kind of musicians who would bring their own ideas to music – notable artists in their own right such as saxophonist Eric Dolphy and pianist Jaki Byard – and as composer, Mingus has extracted the expression of his musicians to forge his own alloy. It’s a sentiment that Barker has tried to work into his new arrangements.

“The thing is, it’s for an orchestra and a big band, but I never write for them separately. I like to give the opportunity to the orchestra members to play things that they may not have played before, but also to write it in a way that makes sense to them. There are some of Jaki Byard’s intros that I orchestrated, and sometimes I gave the real Mingus bass line to the bass player. There is a particular section where all the strings play in unison with the Mingus bass line.

standing ovation

It’s an approach that has worked well for Barker in the past. His arrangements of Kind of Blue received a standing ovation at the National Concert Hall, and audiences in Dublin and Cork will be treated to a rendition of these arrangements alongside new Mingus material. As someone who has served time on both sides of the podium, Barker understands musicians and he has clearly developed a strong bond with the members of RTÉ CO.

“I really liked the orchestra,” he says, recalling his first job leading the orchestra for a Valentine’s Day concert at the National Concert Hall in 2014. great, but just everyone’s attitude, it’s just a beautiful situation to be in, I found it so calming I’m just another member of the band but, you know, my improvisation is with four -twenty-five people.

Besides the obvious talent, both as a composer/arranger and as a trumpet player, one senses that charm has always been part of Barker’s bag as a musician. You don’t get Sting’s or Sinatra’s call unless you’re easy to work with. And if he has moved in exalted circles since the beginning of his career as a trumpeter in the late 1980s, when he drops names, it is with the breathless astonishment of someone who cannot believe where his career has taken him. There was a time when Quincy Jones asked for a copy of one of his arrangements. Or the time he hung out with Jude Law and Matt Damon on the set of his friend Anthony Minghella’s film The Talented Mr Ripley, for which he provided some of the music.

But even by Barker’s standards, the story of how he started organizing big ensembles in the first place ends with a name drop to a whole new level. Always passionate about film music – his mother was an actress and his father a stuntman – he wrote music for his own septet inspired by film noir in 2002, and was approached by the Barbican to write an arrangement for full orchestra. For his own amusement, he had assigned the different instruments in the play to different film noir actors.

“You know,” he laughed, “Cary Grant was tenor sax, Lauren Bacall was alto sax, Edward G Robinson was trombone, people like that.”

After the Barbican concert, he was invited to a party by a member of the public who turned out to be the famous theater manager Jude Kelly. As you do. “She invited me to this dinner with a lot of artists and interesting people. So we were there, and she got up and I could see her talking to somebody on the phone, and I heard her say “Yeah, that was really good, and you’re into it,” then she said, “I got the composer here, do you want to talk to him?”, and she hands me the phone and says, “Guy, this is Lauren Bacall’.

Barker collapses in laughter at the absurdity of it all. “So I was on the phone for five minutes with Lauren Bacall and she was wonderful. And the best thing she said, she said ‘tell me about this track’ and I said ‘I wrote that for seven musicians, but then I orchestrated it for a full orchestra’, and she said ‘That’s the one I want to hear, because I’ve always said the more musicians the better And it stuck with me!”

Mingus would no doubt approve.

Jazz Legends: Charles Mingus 100th and Miles Davis Kind Of Blue is at the National Concert Hall in Dublin on April 21 and at Opera House Cork on April 22. More than nch.ie and corkoperahouse.ie

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