Leading from the front

A great bandleader has to be part parent, drugs counsellor, bouncer and master musician to get the best from his sidemen. Just ask mild-mannered trumpeter Guy Barker.
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As part of his necessarily brief career with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the bassist Charles Mingus, pursuing a vendetta, once chased a fellow band member across the stage with an axe. The rest of the ensemble played on and the Duke smiled phlegmatically out at the audience as if nothing untoward had happened, but after the gig he informed Mingus that, regrettably - and nothing personal, mind - his tenure in the orchestra had come to an end. When Mingus himself became a bandleader, in a career of constant musical squabbles, he once held a loaded revolver to a musician's head and later punched the trombonist Jimmy Knepper's teeth out, both episodes occurring on stage.

The art of the bandleader, clearly, is a very specialist one, requiring heroic reserves of patience, as well as a Dostoyevskian interest in crime and punishment, if unruly charges are to be kept in hand without recourse to excessive violence. Even so, the bandleader usually gets to take the blame as well as the money. In the great Swedish jazz movie Sven Klang's Combo it is the group's dolorous bassist and leader who is the baddie, salting away the fees, betraying the gifted saxophonist and generally doing the dirty to all and sundry.

Though the bandleader can try to abrogate his responsibility by acting like one of the boys, a hint of steel needs to be kept in reserve. While Miles Davis inaugurated the unusual strategies of both playing with his back to the audience and leaving the stage for long stretches, he was also strong enough to fire his tenor saxophonist John Coltrane because of persistent heroin abuse. When Coltrane cleaned up and was re-admitted to the band, A Kind of Blue was the result. Subsequently, Davis found the resources to handle a group including personalities as diverse as the intensely inward saxophonist Wayne Shorter and the brilliant, precocious, firebrand drummer Tony Williams.

Some bandleaders, however, don't appear to be leaders at all. When the pianist Paul Bley, newly arrived in New York in the Fifties, started his first club gig with the saxophonist Sonny Rollins, he was amazed that Rollins's opening solo lasted for more than an hour before the leader put down his horn, nodded to him to take up the slack and abruptly left the stage. What Bley didn't know was that Rollins had also left the club, and he was left comping for another hour or so before Rollins returned and, without a word, took up his sax once again and brought the tune to a close. Others take the role of a James Brown-style martinet, enforcing their rule through fines and worse. An illicit tape-recording of a rehearsal by the big-band-leader Buddy Rich, a man notorious for the ritual humiliation of his charges, displays a temperament more suited to a pulp novel set in San Quentin than to easing through the changes of Summertime.

By way of contrast, the British trumpeter Guy Barker - whose music wonderfully incarnates the best aspects of the great bop tradition - is to jazz what Gary Lineker is to football: a nice man whose sunny temperament and democratic principles are ill-suited to any wiles and guiles with the multi-national musicians he has chosen to form his new group.

Watching him at a soundcheck at Ronnie Scott's in Birmingham for the band's opening gig of their tour to support his new Verve album, it appeared that Barker was at pains to play fair at all times. When the drummer, Gene Calderazzo, a feisty New Yorker, jeopardised the flow of the music by "dropping bombs" (a term coined by Charlie Parker for Buddy Rich, meaning unnecessary flash), Barker was all solicitude; co-counselling even seemed a possibility. As the soundcheck came to an end, Barker took his two saxophonists to one side and promised them a treat: if they went along with the planned set he would let them swap parts and do what they liked later in the week's residency. "How was it for you?" was his most common comment as the band struggled to get an appropriate sound balance - a notable contrast to Mingus's reputed "wham, bam, thank you, mam" approach to musical affairs.

Much of what Barker has learned comes from the classically British restraint of the veteran bandleader Stan Tracey, with whom he played for years. In a style heavily redolent of ENSA concert parties and demob-suit-era British bop, Tracey - who, if a biopic had been commissioned in the Seventies, could have been played by Reg Varney - presents a persona of incomparable world-weariness. Barker recalls his favourite Tracey story, the inspiration for his tune "This is the Life" from his first Verve album. Arriving at a pub gig in the West Country, he went off to search for Stan, passing through darkened corridors lit by dim, cobweb-encrusted 30-watt bulbs, eventually to open a creaking door onto a room full of broken furniture. There, seated in darkness on the only chair with its legs intact, sat Tracey, with his feet up, smoking a cigarette. "This is the life, innit?" he said, with no discernible trace of irony.

Despite his admirably relaxed air, Barker has thought long and hard about the band-leader's role. "First of all, the band need to get on musically," he says. "If they have different musical ideas that can cause tension." While appreciating the Mingus method of deliberately creating collective stress in order to get the most from his players, Barker has rejected it. "If everybody is happy, you'll get a great performance," he says. "Nerves don't help. People say it's good to be on edge, but no, it's not. The music has got to flow and if you're tense it will come out; the greater the empathy, the better it is. Anyway, you should be able to play people into a sense of conflict on the stand if that's what you want, but it's just not my personality. The enjoyable bit is when you're up there, and being the leader requires a different kind of dedication, and a different perspective."

Despite his optimism, Barker still looks stressed, his innocent choirboy features almost visibly beginning to crease with age as we speak. "There's far greater responsibility being a leader, and you feel the obligation," he says. "You have to look after the guys in the band and you're constantly running around checking that everyone's got enough money."

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Barker claims he is enjoying his new band more than anything he's done in his brilliant career as a soloist, though he admits to finding playing as a sideman in someone else's band a relaxation. "After recording the first Verve album I went off to play with Stan Tracey's octet, which is physically a demanding gig, but after all the hassles it was like getting into a warm bath. And when you come off the stand, Stan's waiting there with your cheque already written out ..." Which must be better, of course, than what Charlie Mingus might have had waiting for you n

Guy Barker's `Timeswing' is on Verve; his sextet plays Ronnie Scott's with Cedar Walton, from Mon-Sat (0171-439 0747)