Mr Smith goes to . . . Jazz

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."

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.