Alan Barnes Quartet at Birmingham Jazz Festival

The stage was soundly swung on the opening weekend of the 37th Birmingham jazz festival, which runs until 1 August

The Alan Barnes quartet and Digby Fairweather take Birmingham city centre back to old Indiana. Photo by Matthew Wright

Now in its 37th year, the Birmingham, Sandwell and Westside Jazz Festival runs from this weekend until 1 August, presenting a large number of performances, many outdoors, mainly at the blues and mainstream/modern end of the spectrum and largely featuring musicians based in the Birmingham and West Midlands area.

A regular over the years, saxophonist Alan Barnes appeared with a quartet for a midday stint on the walkway at the back of the Mailbox, in the centre of Birmingham. Fighting the uncommonly high temperature and blazing sunshine, with little or no shade, the quartet romped through a session that belied the lack of rehearsal – a testament to the musicians’ skill and professionalism.

The material was straightforward and familiar; the playing impressive and enjoyable. The leader negotiated mainly with bassist Tom Hill at the start of each number, pianist Tim Huskisson and drummer Malcolm Garrett readily fitting in and giving support. Barnes played with his usual verve and imagination, and all were given the opportunity to solo.

There were a number of highlights: Hill was particularly strong on a lively version of Killer Joe, whilst Huskisson impressed on You Go To My Head and contributed an accomplished extended introduction to Someday My Prince Will Come.  The bossa-inspired My Little Suede Shoes, on which Barnes briefly used clarinet, was the ideal vehicle for Garrett to show his craft. Barnes’ strong, forthright flow of ideas on Tangerine threatened to break into Stranger In Paradise before he traded eights with Garrett.

He used the upper reaches of his alto on Stardust, whilst the old mainstream standard Back Home In Indiana was sung by guest (and festival patron) Digby Fairweather, without cornet. A short scat exchange between the singer and Barnes’ horn, reminded us of his debt to Nat Gonella and of course, Armstrong. And was that a quote from Parker’s Donna Lee by the saxophonist? Quite likely.

The session ended with an original composition by the leader, Blues On The Beach, which tore along and included a first-rate solo by Hill, sliding up and down the neck of his bass without losing any accuracy or melody.

The festival runs for the next couple of weeks and includes Alex Clarke, Simon Spillett, Bruce Adams, Soweto Kinch, Florence Joelle, Roy Forbes, Art Themen and many others. Full details at

Alan Barnes Quartet at Birmingham Jazz Festival, The Mailbox, Birmingham, 17 July 2021