Let me start with a few numbers: George Barnes was born one hundred years ago (as of July 17, 1921) and this session was performed and recorded a few days shy of forty-seven years ago. I first heard George on recordings with the Lawson-Haggart Jazz Band and with Louis Armstrong (the MUSICAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY set) and what caught my ear was a kind of daring playfulness.
He was identifiable from the first note, his sound and attack so very distinctive, and his phrases didn’t follow predictable logic, although he lived for strong statements of the melody ornamented with pistol-shot single notes. Yet his unerring rhythmic sense made it natural for him to move fluidly around the beat, on it, ahead, or behind, and his solos were fulfilling compositions on their own. In addition, he was a peerless ensemble player — making the most formulaic musical entree well-seasoned and spicy — clearly delighting in what he could and did add.
He sounded both like a wizard of drama and a puckish stand-up comic, an adventurous soul, startling and joyous. Or maybe he was Douglas Fairbanks Jr., afraid of nothing and always landing beautifully, swing sword drawn. In this, I think his peers are not simply guitarists (although guitarists speak of him with reverence) but the greatest players of his century, people like Lester Young, Sidney Catlett, and Count Basie.
When I was old enough to venture out of my room and to hear music in ways that didn’t require me to stare at the speaker grille, I was fortunate to hear George in New York City between 1973-75, as a guiding genius of the quartet also featuring Ruby Braff. I had worshipped at the Braff shrine for a few years before, but, listening to the tapes and recordings of the quartet, I am sorry that George’s name didn’t come first — as I have it here. Cornet trumps guitar in these recordings, but sometimes in volume, not in inventiveness. The group didn’t last long, but when they were all traveling the same road, their music was completely memorable, disciplined yet soaring.
Here is a fifty-minute concert by the quartet at the Nice Jazz Festival / the Grande Parade du Jazz — ten marvels all in a row. Lyricism, sharp turns, hilarity, and pleasure, and the only problem is that the average listener might aurally gobble down the whole program at a sitting — ingesting too quickly to be properly astonished. Heard at one’s leisure, these performances glisten, and following what George is doing is always a revelation.
George Barnes, electric guitar; Ruby Braff, cornet; Michael Moore, string bass; Wayne Wright, rhythm guitar. Grande Parade du Jazz, Nice, France, July 21, 1974. NO ONE ELSE BUT YOU / ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET / THE MAN I LOVE / IT’S WONDERFUL / SOMEBODY LOVES ME / IT DON’T MEAN A THING (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) / SOLITUDE / I GOT RHYTHM / MEAN TO ME / OH, THAT KISS //
I never spoke to Mister Barnes when I saw the Quartet, even though I was sometimes very close to the band — I was timid, which I am sorry was the case, but now I wish him a most joyous centennial and thank him for the hours of inventiveness he gave us so freely. The good news is that his legacy is so beautifully maintained under the title of the George Barnes Legacy Collection: “recorded music (including repackaged releases of select albums and singles), compositions & arrangements, teaching methods, photographs, documents, and video & film footage, curated with care by his daughter Alexandra and his late wife Evelyn.” Visit the site here; be entranced and enlightened by the genius that is George Barnes.
May your happiness increase!