The supper-club audience was enjoying a saxophone with a tiny Italian on the end of it. The instrument was jerking him from side to side like a boa constrictor. The pocket altoist was appearing with the British trumpeter Guy Barker. It was the first public workout for Barker's new line-up, a septet heavy on the horns (an album is due later this year). On a number called "Underdogs", the brass section raised its instruments like a firing squad. After the wind-tunnel turbulence blew itself out, you expected to find that the walls had fallen in, or at least that your fellow diners were peeling upturned pizza from their faces, like extras in a Laurel and Hardy film removing their starched shirt-fronts from their eyes.
Barker's horn was a chunky, art-deco piece finished in old gold. It looked like Flash Gordon's ray gun. The trumpeter himself, with his suit and floppy hair, could have passed for a new Labour MP. Television viewers would have seen him the previous evening, backing Sting.
Barker's saxophonist might have appeared to be grappling with a serpent, but the leader himself addressed the microphone stand with the insinuating manner of a snake-charmer. He finished a solo to reveal the lingering rosebud kiss of the trumpet's mouthpiece on his lips. Barker sniffed and wrinkled his nose like a cokehead, but these were the blameless facial exercises of the pro.
A generation of players before Barker were renowned for their complicated respiratory arrangements, which had as much to do with what went up their noses as what emerged from the embouchure of their mouths. To men such as Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, "blow" was a noun as well as a verb.
A few days after the Barker gig, Herbie Hancock, Davis's former pianist, was doing publicity for concert dates later this winter. In his new show, Hancock takes the stage trailing cables, like the electrified homunculi in the video of his ground-breaking hit "Rockit". His fascination with technical challenges gives the concert platform the air of a funky Frankenstein's lab. You wonder whether Hancock doesn't privately consider his Steinway a disappointingly unwieldy forerunner of the laptop.
The newspapers were reporting that Rick Parfitt of Status Quo had been heartbreakingly hospitalised with repetitive strain injury, after a career spent running the gamut of three chords. At least ten years Parfitt's senior, Hancock's recurring syndrome is not rigid fingers, but itchy feet. On the sleeve of his new CD, Future2Future, the veteran ivory-tickler is seen in what he claims is rainwear, but which looks like the sterile boiler suit of the pathologist or Silicon Valley tycoon. Like Barker, he represents a departure from the old ways.
I invite him to recall the weirdest gig he'd ever played, hoping for stories of hightailing it out of redneck bars with the night's takings in the slipper of a chanteuse. But to the technocrat, this does not compute. The good-natured Hancock prefers to accentuate the positive. "I enjoyed doing The Muppet Show," he says at last. "Miss Piggy, now there was a professional."