The golden age

John Fordham on Guy Barker's sumptuous tribute to the 1940s, plus the rest of the new jazz

Guy Barker Soundtrack

Guy Barker, the gifted British trumpeter, seems torn not only between New York and London, but also between the 1940s and the 21st century. Soundtrack ought to belong in the retro-American jazz racks for its homages to Miles Davis, Gil Evans and Charles Mingus, and its celebrations of the sounds of 1940s Harlem ballrooms and smoky Bogart-and-Bacall film-noir backdrops. Yet it is also a European record, in the cut-and-paste boldness with which it shuffles references.

The brilliant band includes the eloquent soul-jazz saxophonist Denys Baptiste and the diminutive Italian hard-bop wildman, altoist Rosario Giuliani. Soundtrack is the most affectionately assembled, elegantly arranged, idiomatically diverse and well-played disc Barker has ever made. Gil Evans's and Gerry Mulligan's contrapuntal arrangements for the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool band have influenced the quieter episodes here, and the feverish jostle of a Mingus ensemble lends vivacity to the more heated parts. Barker's own playing on the ballads is often sublime, particularly on Nature Boy. The 25-minute finale is the composer's soundtrack for an imaginary 1940s movie, full of voluptuous sax slurs and big, Manhattan-skyline chords. As a devoted and creative tribute to a remarkably wide range of inspirations, much of Soundtrack is truly memorable - you remember Barker's own music, not just the music that spawned it.

Sonny Rollins Ballads
(Blue Note)

For someone who cares so much about standard songs that he seems to remember the melody of even the most mawkishly insubstantial one after he's heard it once, Sonny Rollins often plays the Broadway songbook as if he's impatient with it. Rollins's ballad-playing is a variously ponderous, preoccupied, explosive and free-fallingly lyrical process. Familiar 32-bar symmetries are replaced by fragmentarily grumpy phrases, overrides of the chords, casual relocations of the downbeats and replacements of the convenient emotions with rough-hewn ones of Rollins's own. Though this is an introductory compilation, and so not for those with bursting Rollins collections, it does concentrate on a key period for the saxophonist (1957), and it features some superb lineups including Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Wynton Kelly and Horace Silver.

Fascinatingly, Rollins can sound ironically disengaged on good songs, and utterly absorbed on cheesy ones, and his sound on How Are Things in Glocca Morra? is as delicate as this rugged artist gets. But it's Thelonious Monk's Reflections, with Monk himself on piano, that takes the honours for the set - from Monk's clinky piano-tuner introduction, through the lazily dragging theme, via Rollins's casually lateral interventions and Art Blakey's imperious snare-rolls, to the composer's own wonderful, lumbering solo.

Maggie Nicols/ Caroline Kraabel/ Charlotte Hug Transitions

When sleevenotes barely mention the disc's musical content but concentrate instead on the capitalist crisis, non-religious spirituality, environmental timebombs and such, it's usually a bad sign for the music. This completely spontaneous and largely abstract trio set features the British improv singer Maggie Nicols, who opens the Freedom of the City festival at London's Conway Hall, where this was recorded, next Friday. Though the set features a good deal of scratch-and-creak, Nicols's distant, plaintive sound and softly startled whoops, the swoop and shiver of Hug's viola, and Kraabel's Evan Parker-like alto phrasing intertwine with growing closeness as the pieces evolve. It is bare, unadorned, uncompromising and thoroughly unjazzy music, and the presence of an audience might have given it more urgency - but at times it exudes a haunting, private tranquillity.


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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