Jazz guitarist George Barnes made his reputation playing in a variety of formatsguitar duets with Karl Kress and others, a memorable quartet with Ruby Braff, solo guitarist, and pick-up bands. His chamber music octet of the late 40's combined elements of light classical music, 1930's novelty music, and Lester Young-inspired small band swing. John Kirby, Alec Wilder (octets), and Raymond Scott created music in a similar vein. Of the four the Barnes octet undeservedly remains the least known.
Barnes' writing is the key to the octet. He liked to let the reeds (mostly clarinets) establish a rhythmic feel and suddenly interrupt with a guitar break, improvised or written. The reeds would then ease back in behind him supportively for the last half of his solo or maybe play riffs for him to play against. Sometimes the reeds would split into subsections for call and response of their own. Things never stayed in one place longthe tempo picked up, the lead passed to another instrument, or a previous theme reappeared in variation. The clarinet lines formed intricate, well-timed countermelodies. Though the arrangements were carefully crafted they do not sound contrived, and there is a sense of spontaneity. The music has a light, friendly sound (The drums usually whisper.) in contrast to contemporaneous bebop.
Barnes is the only soloist, and he does not stretch out much, preferring to serve the whole. The tunes are varied and short. Some pieces ("Blondie Buys a Boat," "Kilroy Is Here") were titled with a programmatic references, often to the popular culture of the times. "Suite for Octette" is at once the most conservative (Bach-inspired counterpoint) and most advanced (polytonalities akin to George Russell's Lydian approach) piece. "South Side Blues" is recalls the period boogie woogie rage.
Of the 48 tunes (2-CD set) 16 appeared on a 1970's Hindsight LP. The remainder are now available for the first time. Considering the musical selection, sound quality, liner notes, and packaging Soundies has issued their usual first-rate product.