Concert: Of human Bondage, from Dr No to Goldfinger

JOHN BARRY/ENGLISH CHAMBER ORCHESTRA BOND AND BEYOND SYMPHONY HALL BIRMINGHAM
ASK JOHN Barry about the James Bond theme and he groans loudly. "Oh my God, not that one again! It's 30-odd years ago and all I really have to say is that I must have done something right, or why did they hire me for another nine Bond movies?" The famous musical sequence, written by Monty Norman but arranged by Barry for Dr No in 1962, has become one of the most familiar sounds of the century. Its mix of thriller tension and killer twang, together with other seminal Sixties scores such as The Ipcress File, have also helped to make Barry, now 65, an unlikely cult hero for DJs and pop artists in the Nineties.

Asked about his reaction to this, Barry groans. "It was a day job, but no one thinks about things like that. It's nice that Portishead and David Arnold like the music, but really it's because they all went to the movies as kids. That was my experience, too, after seeing Errol Flynn as Robin Hood when I was about three-and-a-half. I always loved music and cinema; they were parallel." He has since scored 120 movies, turned down twice as many (he says), and won Oscars for four of them.

In concert, the opening strains of "Goldfinger" immediately evoke a memorable kitsch frisson. With the 90-strong ranks of the English Chamber Orchestra sawing and parping away for all they are worth (but couldn't promoter Raymond Gubbay have beefed them up a bit more? I swear there were a few inches of stage left unoccupied), the bold and brassy theme sounded great, even without Shirley Bassey. There was a long wait before the rest of the shaken-not-stirred classics got an airing, however, with the rather portentously titled "The James Bond Suite" saved for the finale.

In between came the good, the bad, and the ugly, for not all of Barry's music has passed the test of time - just like some of the movies. Although he's famed for the belting bass and brass textures of the Bond scores, they turn out to be rather untypical compared to the light, vaguely melancholy, and often Celtic-tinged melodies that appear to resurface in piece after piece. The noted Hollywood mouth-organist Tommy Morgan came on for "Midnight Cowboy", and he was good, but you still missed Harry Nilssen's song. "Body heat" was better, with a satisfyingly noirish saxophone solo, but the Dances With Wolves suite seemed perhaps as anodyne as the movie that provoked it.

In the second half, things perked up with a couple of features from Barry's latest album, Playing By Heart, from the forthcoming film of the same name. Abandoning Bond-bombast in favour of quiet, conversational jazz themes inspired by Chet Baker, it successfully re-visited "Body heat" territory, with guest star Chris Botti's marvellously plangent trumpet replacing the sax. "I was a fanatical fan of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet in the late-Fifties, and Chet Baker was just a different style of player: introspective, personal, and very lyrical," Barry says.

His other favoured trumpet player was Louis Armstrong, who sang "We Have All The Time In The World" for On Her Majesty's Secret Service. "He'd been in hospital for about a year and he was very ill when we did it, but he was the most lovely man," Barry remembers. "When we recorded him, he said 'What about the tempo?', and I said 'Anything you like'."

When it eventually came, the closing "Bond Suite" was a killer. The theme itself sounded rather over-manned given the size of the orchestra, but just watching the three rather elderly percussionists rushing back and forth from xylophone to timpani to tambourine was entertainment enough.

As a composer, John Barry may well be a day-job man, but when "Thunderball" begins to roll out its thunder, you would have to be very hard not to marvel at the view.

'Bond and Beyond', with John Barry and the English Chamber Orchestra, is at the Albert Hall on 23 and 24 April, 0171-589 8212. 'Playing By Heart" is on Decca Records

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