Alan Barnes Octet + 1: ‘A Fish Tale’

The combination of jazz and poetry has a long history and it’s not difficult to appreciate why: the open-ended rhythmic possibilities which lie at the heart art of both. In addition to verses being put to music, there is also a tradition of ‘jazz suites,’ in which jazz and poetry are complementary, the resonances of each complementing the other—and that’s the form that ‘A Fish Tale’ takes. A tribute to the history of the Grimsby fishing fleet, this project was a true collaboration between the poet Josie Moon and the band—and in particular, guitarist Pat McCarthy, who composed most of the tunes.

Josie Moon’s poetry was characterized by shifting patterns of impressionist and allusive imagery, together with remarkably vivid, near-tactile depictions of the terrifying beauty of the sea, the grueling labour, loneliness, danger and camaraderie of the fisherman’s life. For this occasion, what mattered at least as much as the quality of her verse was her ability as a performer: she let the poetry itself carry the drama, delivering it fluidly, unhurriedly and unaffectedly. Each of her verses was received with warm applause.

And this was a band of headline musicians—indeed, every one has led bands of some distinction. The music did not attempt ‘naturalism’—mimicking the sounds of ships, seas or storms—but was largely complementary, reflecting the atmospheres that Josie Moon’s poetry invoked. (That said, Gilad Atzmon’s fill-tilt soprano playing clearly stood for the mayhem of the fishermen’s three-day shore leave described in one of the poems.) The compositions drew on the harmonic possibilities that only stellar multi-instrumentalists can provide. So one number had the family of three saxophones; the next, flute, clarinet and bass clarinet, with trumpet and trombone both muted. In another number, Alan Barnes performed solos on both baritone saxophone and flute. Perhaps because much of the music was composed, when the musicians did solo, they were all, to an individual, in exultant form—and we were never far from the sea.

This work could so easily have failed to cohere; and the fact that it was so engaging and at times, moving was an outcome not only of the quality of the commitment of all involved but also to the conception: to restore through the force of words and music combined a way of life that is already fading from lived memory.

Alan Barnes – baritone sax
Dean Masser – tenor sax
Gilad Atzmon – alto sax
Neil Yates – trumpet,
Mark Nightingale – trombone
Dave Green – bass
Pat McCarthy – guitar
John Perry – percussion
Josie Moon – poetic narration

© J. Whitman, 16th October 2017

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