By John Hardaker
There are contemporary big bands that lean too heavily on the side of tradition and there are contemporary big bands that eschew tradition almost entirely, throwing the jazz baby out with the Basie-water.
Dan Barnett’s sizzling band has always had a (stylishly shod) shoe in both camps – nodding nicely to the history and tradition of the big band while leaving much room for his stellar soloists and adventurous young arrangers; in other words leaving space for Jazz.
The band has ruled the roost at Balmain’s Unity Hall Hotel forever and Walkin’ Shoes – Barnett’s seventh album – captures all the life and spark of those great gigs and of vocalist/trombonist Barnett’s larger-than-life musical personality.
West Coast Cool is the mood for title track/opener ‘Walkin’ Shoes’– Gerry Mulligan’s purring perambulation – with Barnett leaving the melody behind for some wry rap/vocalese, even name-checking Robert de Castella along the way. Barnett’s vocal is a pleasure, by equal measure Tony Bennett or Mark Murphy, leaning either this way or that depending on the mood. The mood of Kelly Ottoway’s arrangement here is one that would even make Gerry Mulligan crack a rare smile.
The wryness continues in a blazing Tim Oram chart of Mose Allison’s ‘I Don’t Worry About a Thing’ – a song where the lyric response ‘ ‘Cause nothing’s gonna be alright’ pretty much sums up 2016 (the year sadly we lost the amazing Mr Allison). Barnett’s trombone solo here reminds us that he is not only a unique vocalist but a bitchin’ bone man.
Kelly Ottoway’s cheek-to-cheek arrangement of the lovely Jerome Kern ballad ‘I’m Old Fashioned’ shows the deeply traditional side of the band – the chart uses all the cinematic breadth of colour that only a big band can evoke. No fear of romanticism here.
From ballads to bop. The instrumental ‘Tin Tin Deo’ is a dizzying workout for the band’s Afro-Cuban chops. Growing out of a Greg Royal bass intro through a sharp Peter Locke piano solo, the tune culminates in an Andrew Dickerson (really, who else?) drum workout. A (grooving) highpoint!
French vocalist Tricia Evy lends her satin vocal to a number of tunes on Walkin’ Shoes. From the pure romance of Ellington’s ‘All Too Soon’ to the mambo of ‘Come Rain Or Come Shine’ – the latter teaming with Barnett’s vocal – she lights up each track with her sparkling style.
A surprise is Steve Miller’s ‘Fly Like An Eagle’ – a slice of the other West Coast Cool. Ottoway’s tough, 70s cop-show arrangement pushes the funk element of the band with nicely nasty solos from Bradford Child on tenor and Sam Rollings, guitar.
Tricia Evy takes us out with ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing…’ and ‘They Can’t take That Away From Me’, a perfect American Songbook one-two punch (a lover’s punch, of course). Both classic jazz staples, they are delivered here with freshness and style.
Freshness and style. That is as good a two-word review of Walkin’ Shoes as I can think of. Considering much big band writing – especially big band writing that tackles the classics – can be stodgy and stiflingly reverent, Dan Barnett and his arrangers and band have opened the window and let some fresh air in along with the noises of the street.
Walkin’ Shoes is available from Dan’s website.