Pianist Bruce Barth, an “unsung” master, turns 58 today. For the occasion, I’ve posted a an uncut Blindfold Test that we did for Downbeat in 2002; the complete proceedings of a Musician Show that we did on WKCR in 1998; and my liner note for his 1998 recording, Hope Springs Eternal, on Double Time.
Bruce Barth Blindfold Test (2002):
1. Harry Connick, “Somewhere My Love” (from 30, Columbia, 1998) – (Harry Connick, piano) – (5 stars)
I’m stumped on that one. I liked it very much. Who would have thought of playing that particular tune in a jazz style? It’s a very personal, fresh approach, a definite Monk influence, maybe a bit too explicitly so for my taste. But it’s done in a personal way in terms of the harmony and the real interesting use of the time, and just the colors of the piano. I enjoyed it very much. 4-1/2 stars. It’s really creative, thoughtful playing.
2. Peter Madsen, “A Crutch For The Crab” (from Mario Pavone, MYTHOS, 2002) (Madsen, piano; Mario Pavone, bass; Matt Wilson, drums) – (2-1/2 stars)
I found the melody very interesting. I liked the use of that triadic figure very much. I didn’t recognize the tune. [Oh, I don’t know it.] I thought it was a very interesting piece, but the soloing really didn’t have a sense of narrative flow to me. It didn’t sound that thoughtful to me, what was being played, in a certain way. There was a lot of playing, but it didn’t gel for me as a group. There’s a certain busy-ness to it, and it didn’t feel like there was a certain kind of empathy for me — or it’s just an empathy I can’t relate to. I’m sure they have an empathy. 2-1/2 stars.
3. Jaki Byard, “Diane’s Melody” (from SUNSHINE OF MY SOUL, Prestige, 1967/2001) (Byard, piano; David Izenson, bass; Elvin Jones, drums)
I hear certain elements of pianists I recognize, but I don’t recognize exactly who that was. It sounds like an older recording. I liked the rubato playing in the introduction and at the end. The solo had some nice ideas. Some of the flourishes, the very virtuosic moments, for me didn’t completely work so integrated into the line of the solo, in terms of as a statement. There’s a bit of a pastiche element. On the other hand, I can appreciate the playing. There’s a lot of nice ideas. I heard flashes of Jaki Byard, but it’s not Jaki. [It IS Jaki.] Wow… It’s interesting, because Jaki… I loved a lot of Jaki’s playing. That’s not one of the favorite things. [What qualitatively makes this differ from the things you like by him?] The story line of the solo, so to speak. [Does it have anything to do with the accompaniment of the rhythm section?] I thought it might have been Richard Davis on the bass, but I’m not sure. [AFTER] Wow, that’s interesting. Jaki could be eccentric in his playing. 3-1/2 stars.
4. Renee Rosnes, “My Romance” – (from The Drummonds, PAS DE TROIS, True Life, 2001) – (Rosnes, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Billy Drummond, drums).
That’s “My Romance.” I didn’t recognize the pianist. I enjoyed the reharmonization. I wasn’t moved by it really. It’s pretty piano playing, but it wasn’t for me…that tune in that setting… Again, I talk about story line or melodic development; in some ways I didn’t get a sense of a strong melodic statement. A couple of things sounded like a little pastiche element — one idea, another idea. 3 stars.
5. Peter Beets, “First Song” (from NEW YORK TRIO, Criss-Cross, 2001) (Beets, piano; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Willie Jones, drums) (3-1/2 stars)
I enjoyed it. It sounded like an original tune; a tune by the pianist, I’d imagine. A nice arrangement and nice energy in the trio. I didn’t recognize the pianist; I enjoyed the performance. 3-1/2 stars. Nice sound, nice energy.
6. Mulgrew Miller, “Body and Soul” (from YOUNG AT HEART, Columbia, 1996) (Mulgrew Miller, p; Ira Coleman, b; Tony Williams, d) – (5 stars)
That’s Mulgrew Miller playing “Body and Soul.” Mulgrew is certainly one of the great pianists alive today. He’s a personal favorite, and hearing him play the solo, he has such a personal language, a very rich harmonic language that’s very much his own. I love his touch on the piano. A lyrical, beautiful performance. 5 stars. [AFTER] Now I get to chastise myself in print for not recognizing Tony. I think I would have recognized him more immediately with the stick playing and not the brush playing. But they had a very nice trio sound. They played together beautifully.
7. Fred Hersch, “Work” (from SONGS WITHOUT WORDS, Nonesuch, 2001) (Hersch, piano) – (5 stars)
[IMMEDIATELY] Fred Hersch playing “Work” by Thelonious Monk. Fred Hersch is one of my favorite living solo pianists. He’s a master at treating the piano orchestrally and creating… Listen to the integration of the two hands and the variety of textures he creates on the piano. That sounds like really on-the-edge playing. He likes to take chances, really putting himself out there on the edge. He can take a song in many different direction. A beautiful piano sound and touch. 5 stars.
8. Bill Charlap, “The Nearness Of You” (from STARDUST, Blue Note, 2002) – (5 stars)
This is “The Nearness Of You.” I’m not sure who it is yet. But it’s very pretty… I really like the way he or she is taking his or her time, letting the melody unfold in a very lyrical way. The performance had a very… It was a nice, slow tempo — and I really enjoy hearing ballads played at a slow tempo — but with space. But he certainly sustained the intensity. At one time they went into double-time feel, but they sustained a very lyrical feeling in terms of the ballad tempo. I was going to guess Larry Willis. No? I’m really a bit stumped on this. 5 stars for beautiful playing.
9. Jean-Michel Pilc, “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good” (from WELCOME HOME, Dreyfuss, 2002) (Pilc, piano; Francois Moutin, bass; Ari Hoenig, drums) – (4 stars)
That, of course, is Duke’s “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good.” I loved the reharmonization, and in some ways he or she changed the melody also. A very personal and imaginative reharmonization on the first two choruses of the melody. The actual improvisation section didn’t strike me as strongly as the statement of melody. I like the idea of a dialogue passing back and forth, but I felt particularly strongly about the way the pianist stated the head. If this were a magazine article, I’d say the solo didn’t kill me. Some of the harmonic approach sounded like Jason Moran, who I’ve never heard play a standard, but then I knew it wasn’t. It’s interesting because I’ve never heard Jason play a standard… I had a suspicion for a minute, because some of the harmonic ideas and the approach to the piano. [You’re saying that you thought in the beginning, in the melody statement that you complimented so highly that it might be Jason Moran, although you’d never heard Jason play a standard.] Exactly. [However, you realized it wasn’t once the improvisation began.] Exactly. That popped into my mind. [I can phrase that in the first person. Anybody else pop into your mind?] Not offhand. I would give it 4 stars, because I liked the statement of the melody so much.
10. Martial Solal, “You Stepped Out Of A Dream” (from JUST FRIENDS, Dreyfus, 1997) (Solal, p; Gary Peacock, b; Paul Motian, d) – (2-1/2 stars)
Some very virtuosic piano playing on “You Stepped Out Of A Dream”. A lot of interesting ideas. I’m not really comfortable with the way the rhythm section feels in the way they’re playing together. I wouldn’t venture a guess. There were interesting ideas. I didn’t like the feeling rhythmically, the way the trio played together. [Did it sound like a working trio or a one-off?] It’s hard to say. I can’t really judge. 2-1/2 stars. I respond to the emotional content of the solo, the story-line, the narrative flow — however you want to say it. I’m not talking necessarily about motific development, but a way where you feel things happen in an organic, natural, flowing kind of way, and I can’t feel it here.
11. Eric Reed, “Round Midnight” (from FROM MY HEART, Savant, 2002) (Reed, piano; Dwayne Burno, bass; Cecil Brooks, III, drums) – (3-1/2 stars)
Very virtuosic piano playing. I like the quote of “Four In One.” A couple of other quotes. Stanley Cowell? No. It’s not Rodney Kendrick? For my taste, it was a lot of notes. There were a lot of ideas and a certain virtuosity, but the content of the solo didn’t move me. The way I felt, the solo was pretty much at one level. It was pretty dense in terms of notes. 3-1/2 stars.
12. Oscar Peterson, “Sweet Lorraine” (from FREEDOM SONG, Pablo, 1982/2001) (Peterson, piano; Joe Pass, guitar; Niels Henning Orsted Pederson, bass) – (5 stars)
“Sweet Lorraine.” I’d like to say on the record that, Ted, you’re a tough Blindfold Test giver. It sounds like Oscar. Yeah. Oscar Peterson. During the intro it didn’t… It is. Right? Of course. It’s very pretty playing. With Joe Pass. It’s very relaxed and lyrical. I haven’t heard this particular record. 5 stars to my first favorite jazz pianist, when I was first learning to play. A very beautiful piano sound, great rhythmic feel, a nice swinging feeling. A lot of people talk about his virtuosity, but there’s some very pretty melodic playing that’s part of him, too.
Bruce Barth Musician Show (WKCR, May 13, 1998):
[MUSIC: BB-3, “Don’t Blame Me”, BB-5, “Morning”]
TP: Let’s talk about the arc of the program of today’s show, the reasons for going in the direction you’re going.
BARTH: When you asked me to do a Musicians Show I was pretty thrilled, and also a little bit daunted at the prospect of having to pick my favorite records, because I have so many favorite records. But I thought of it in terms of groupings of music. I wanted to talk about some influences, some of the first records that I love, many of which I still love today, and also about some of the great pianists and other musicians I grew acquainted with later on. Also I thought it would be nice to play some other contemporary pianists I like who are on the scene now. And I love the whole tradition of jazz composition, so I brought along some records by different composers whom I admire.
TP: To what extent when you were coming up were records and the process of emulation with records part of your developing a style as an improviser or a sense of an individual voice that could come through the instrument?
BARTH: I think that these days records are more and more important…
TP: But for you.
BARTH: Oh, especially for me when I came up, because it’s not that I really grew up in a thriving jazz scene. I grew up in a town — Harrison, New York — a little bit north of the city. And I could get into the city sometimes to hear music, but it’s not the kind of thing… You read about jazz greats of the past who grew up completely surrounded by the music, people who grew up in many of the jazz cities, jazz musicians coming to their house. I talked to Stanley Cowell, and he told me how when he was 6 Art Tatum came over to the house. I didn’t really have those experiences growing up, needless to say, so I relied on records a lot. I started to meet some musicians when I was in high school doing some jamming, but so much of it was on the phone, “Oh, did you hear such-and-such a record?” It was a very exciting time, because I was often being introduced… People would tell me about musicians I hadn’t even heard of. I remember one day somebody said to me on the phone, “oh, I hear Oscar Peterson; he plays so fast, you wouldn’t believe it,” and at the time I was saying, “Really? I’ve got to check this guy out.” But the same thing with other people like Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner. A lot of times I would go down to the jazz department at the local record store because I had heard the name, and ask the guy, “Hey, could you recommend a record by Monk or by Bud Powell?” I’d take it home, the first time I’d ever heard a Monk or a Bud Powell record. It was a very exciting time.
TP: A two-part question following onto that. You grew up not only not in a jazz bad, but when you were coming up was a time when a classic era of jazz was kind of winding down, or entering a transition, or taking very a different form. How did the jazz bug hit you? What kept you with it in terms of the type of music you play in the early or mid ’70s when things weren’t necessarily going in that direction?
BARTH: I started playing the piano when I was very young, and I started with Classical lessons. But from the time I first started playing the piano, I loved always loved to play by ear and to improvise. So when I was let’s say younger, like 10-11-12, I was always figuring out tunes. A lot of it more Pop tunes-Rock tunes, figuring out tunes by ear, figuring out at the piano. But I really hadn’t heard a lot of jazz growing up until the high school years. Actually, a big influence was my older brother bought me a Mose Allison for my birthday, I think my 15th birthday — and I just flipped over it. Several of those tunes I figured out by ear. Again, I didn’t have a jazz instructor. So I just figured things out, and I probably gave half of the chords the wrong names at the time. But I was able to figure things out.
TP: But simultaneously you were reading and playing Classical music?
BARTH: Yes, I was. I was practicing a lot of Classical music at the time. In some ways, I think it’s a good thing that I figured out a lot of things for myself. I later did study jazz; I had jazz teachers later on. I studied with Norman Simmons, Jaki Byard and Fred Hersch. But by then, even by the time I hooked up with Norman, who was really my first jazz teacher, I feel I’d already learned a lot of the basic things about playing, pretty much by listening to records, and then later on into high school I started playing with some friends and that kind of thing.
TP: Did you have people to play with in Harrison, or were you a solo pianist?
BARTH: A lot of stuff just on my own, fooling around on my own. Then later on, I started hanging around SUNY-Purchase. I remember one summer I took a jazz course with Lou Stein, and I met some musicians there. Then I met some of the jazz students who were going over there and started to play some jam sessions with them.
TP: What component of improvising in a jazz sense, if any, would you say was the biggest hurdle for you, that one you got past it you felt reasonably comfortable?
BARTH: I’d say it was just a matter of learning the language. I don’t think of myself as a super late starter, but it’s interesting… Nowadays I teach some, and just being around the New York scene where there are so many talented young players, now, of course, it’s a time with I’d say a lot more interest among young people, among young musicians in jazz than when I was coming up. But I certainly didn’t have it all together. I sometimes meet 19 or 20 year olds who are already playing great now. For me I think it was a little bit more of a gradual process to really get my playing together. I can’t say the main hurdle was a rhythmic thing or a harmonic thing. I think it was just needing the experience, playing with other people and then finally getting on gigs.
TP: Mentioning Fred Hersch and Jaki Byard, did you go to New England Conservatory?
BARTH: Exactly. I studied with both those guys up there.
TP: Let’s talk about that experience. The idea of studying jazz in college, which is a fairly new phenomenon… Not that jazz musicians didn’t have thorough music educations, but the idea of a specific jazz curriculum. And just going from that to the idea of music as your life, as not just your avocation but your vocation.
BARTH: By the time I went to New England Conservatory I’d already had a fair amount of playing experience, and I didn’t feel quit… At one point I did live in New York City, for about a year, when I was 20, and I was studying at Manhattan School, but in some ways I didn’t feel ready for the whole scene back then. The pressures of living in New York, partly the financial pressures also. Boston was a good place in that there was a little bit less pressure, and I was actually able to work more — which was the other thing. It’s kind of a tradeoff. Sometimes you go to a place like New York when you’re young, and it’s great being in that environment. I think that that’s the way to really improve the fastest. On the other hand, young musicians who go to New York aren’t really going to work too much, given the level of music here. So being in Boston, I think I was able to be a little bit more active. I was pretty active on the Boston scene.
TP: A little bit about what you did in town.
BARTH: Really briefly: I think the first month in town, I had a gig with Jerry Bergonzi and some other excellent Boston players. And I met some fine players up there. Teddy Kotick was still up there, and I had the chance to play with him. Joe Hunt. Of course, Bill Pierce and Garzone, two other great tenor players in addition to Bergonzi. And also I did some gigs with Grey Sergeant, the guitarist. So I actually had some very nice gigs in Boston. I had a steady trio gig Friday and Saturday night that lasted for two years. That’s something you don’t see around New York too much.
TP: I’m trying to get back into your head as a young aspirant who has something together. Would you use a gig like that as a way of, let’s say, strengthening things that you felt unsure about? How would a gig like that proceed for you?
BARTH: It was a great learning experience on a couple of levels. In terms of my own musical development, I was constantly learning new tunes. Again, it just gets back to doing things yourself rather than… I sometimes joke about taking all the real books and putting them on a big bonfire and burning them. Because I think musicians, especially young musicians, rely a little bit too much on the written music. So back then I would figure things out. Tunes I wanted to play, I would figure those out off records. So having a steady gig was a chance to try out new material, and I learned a lot of tunes in those years. It was a chance to stretch out, and also to play with a lot of musicians. Rather than having a steady trio at that time, since there were a lot of excellent bassists and drummers in Boston, I thought it would be better for me just to play with different people. One bass player I worked a lot with was Richard Evans, a Chicago bass player, who actually lived in Boston and played some gigs up there. At the time, he was one of the greatest bass players I’d ever worked with. He has that great beat, a beautiful sound.
TP: A post Israel Crosby-Wilbur Ware kind of thing.
BARTH: Exactly. He’d worked with Jamal and Dinah Washington, and of course, he worked with Sun Ra, which was one of his first gigs.
TP: Well, that must have been an education, drawing on that body of knowledge with someone like him. It must have done wonders for your time as well, playing with someone like Richard Evans.
BARTH: Very much so.
TP: Who were some of the older musicians you encountered in Boston?
BARTH: Teddy Kotick, of course, who had played with Bird; I was glad to have the chance to play with him. Bill Pierce isn’t in that generation, but certainly at the time had a lot more playing experience than I did, so the chance to work with him was educational as well.
TP: So you were simultaneously attending New England Conservatory and gigging around the Boston area?
BARTH: Exactly. Then after school I stayed up there for a few more years. I’d say I was gigging more… I was doing some gigs during school. I also had the opportunity of working with Gil Evans and George Russell. That was partly through being in the school. Gil brought in his arrangements to play with the big band at the school. It was a thrill to meet Gil Evans and play his music.
TP: He was conducting?
BARTH: He was conducting, and he also played great piano. I guess the cliche is “arranger’s piano,” not necessarily having the technical fluency you’d expect from a full-time pianist. But very interesting ideas.
TP: Did you also have an interest in electric instruments and synth and that whole sound palette expansion you can do on them? Is that part of your arsenal?
BARTH: You know, a little bit. And actually on the Gil Evans concert I played some synthesizer. Same thing with George Russell… Well, George Russell I played Rhodes and piano. But I realized early on that some people have a knack for just jumping right into it. Because so much of it is learning the technology, dealing with the manuals, fooling around with it — kind of the extra-musical aspects of it. And early on, I felt that I’d better concentrate on the piano. I felt it was enough of a challenge to try to get my piano playing together. But I’m interested in doing it; I just haven’t really been doing it in recent years.
TP: Speaking of jumping in, let’s jump into the other-music portion of the show. We’ll start with Wynton Kelly. In the liner notes to this CD, there are interviews with McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Benny Golson, Hank Mobley, Philly Joe. Bill Evans says he was almost the perfect piano player of the ’50s and ’60s.
BARTH: Wynton Kelly was my first favorite pianist. I had a friend who I bumped into who I hadn’t seen for about fifteen years. He said, “Wow, I remember you turned me on to Wynton Kelly.” I think recently there’s maybe been a lot more attention given to Wynton Kelly. At the time people weren’t talking to him that much, but of course, musicians always have admired him. What really struck me about Wynton was his beautiful sound, that really crystal-clear articulation, and the swing, a beautiful swing feel, and just great rhythm, and just the Blues, too — the bluesy aspect of his playing.
[MUSIC: WK/Burrell/PC/Cobb, “Strong Man” (1958); Bud Powell, “Cherokee” (1949); Monk, “Just A Gigolo” (1954); Erroll Garner, “Just A Gigolo” (1964)]
BARTH: Erroll Garner had a beautiful rhythmic feel, and he had a way with melody. He was such a lyrical pianist. A happy feeling, a very deep feeling all the time.
TP: You were talking about ear playing before. I think the thing about Erroll Garner that amazed all his contemporaries is that he was a self-taught player who seemed to have a natural way of harmonizing anything and could do anything in any key.
BARTH: Absolutely. Sometimes his bandmates would not know what key he would play it in. He would play things in different keys on different nights, just basically playing it the way he was hearing it.
It’s interesting hearing the same two pianists playing the same tune back to back. That’s always very instructional. Erroll Garner, you get a sense of just this rolling rhythm. People called it a guitar-like left-hand; he was strumming the left hand on every beat. Of course, Monk played it more as a ballad; Erroll Garner played it more at a medium swing tempo. But Monk you get a sense of his very unique harmonic language, very dissonant chords. Just chords that you would not really find in other pianists. He really had his own harmonic language. Not to say there weren’t influences. I think Duke Ellington was a big influence on Monk. We’ll be hearing some Duke later that had some of the same chords. But Monk very much created his own little musical world, not only in terms of the note choices in the chords, but certain effects on the piano he would use. For instance, he’ll play several notes and then release some, and you’ll be left with maybe a cluster of notes that are sustained after he had released the other notes. A very unique approach to the piano.
TP: Bud Powell was Monk’s protege.
BARTH: Very much. I very much feel I learned to play jazz from a couple of Bud Powell tunes, one of which is “Cherokee.” Just the beautiful line of the bebop musicians, like Bud Powell and Charlie Parker. These musicians brought the art of line playing to such a high level. I think of it as the Bach of the jazz world (I know that’s also been said before) in terms of the most intricate relationship between the line and the harmony that underlies it, doing it in a very graceful way and a very interesting, creative way. Of course, there’s also an element of virtuosity, in that not many people played the kind of tempos that Bud Powell could play.
TP: Bud Powell swings in a very particular way as well. Is there any way you can put words on that?
BARTH: It’s very hard to put into word. It’s harder to say on an up-tempo tune. On a medium-tempo tune, somebody like Wynton Kelly, the eighth notes are a little crisp., while Bud Powell’s eighth notes would tend to be a little more even. So less of a long-short feeling in the eighth notes. Then Bud Powell will lay back a little bit on those medium tempos.
It’s interesting you bring up the idea of the swing feeling. We just heard four pianists, and each has not only a very unique rhythmic feel, but a very unique articulation. I think when you’re talking about pianists on this level (these are clearly some of the great jazz pianists), they are such individualists… Of course you can sometimes point to their influences. But each of these musicians has really carved out his own approach to the music, and I think that’s in a way the thing, even apart from the wonderful elements of their playing… You can talk about their great rhythm or their great harmony. But just the fact that they are such consummate artists in the way that they have created their own approach to the instrument and their own approach to the music.
TP: Well, maybe the mega-influence of jazz piano, maybe even to this day (and not just piano, but Charlie Parker and Don Byas), is Art Tatum, who was playing things in the early 1930s that people still have to grapple with. Talk about how you discovered Tatum, and how a contemporary pianist can usefully assimilate the information drawn from him.
BARTH: Tatum is such a monster of a pianist that for me it’s a little bit daunting to say I’m going to try to assimilate these aspects of Art Tatum. I’ve grappled with a couple of these tunes. Of course, people talk about his amazing technique, which has been pretty much unsurpassed in jazz — his left hand which is faster than most people’s right hand. Also, apart from that is Tatum’s incredible imagination, especially harmonically. He does things that sound so modern. Things he recorded 50 years ago sound like they could have been recorded yesterday. A very adventurous harmonic spirit. And I think finally, in more recent years, he’s starting to get his due as one of the great influences. People often talked about the innovators of Bebop, they talked about Monk, Bird, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie. But like you say, Tatum back in the ’30s was doing a lot of things that the Bebop players later assimilated. The use of sharp 11 chords; harmonically very rich, very dissonant things.
TP: [START OF SIDE B] …being, as they might put it, not imaginative enough, saying that he would play set pieces and have his own set thing, and would rely on some of these incredible virtuoso turns that he invented as licks. It brings up an interesting thought on the nature of improvising and what actually it entails. I don’t know if that’s a question or not, but do you have any thoughts.
BARTH: One thing before I get to that, that’s interesting, which is a little hard for us as Jazz musicians in the ’90s to relate to: Back then, a lot of these jazz tunes, jazz recordings were big hits on jukeboxes. Horace Silver once told me you could sometimes tell when something was going to be a hit, and then it would get played in jukeboxes all over the place. Of course, now popular records will get played a lot on the radio, but it’s maybe not quite the same as things being in the jukeboxes. I think it has the same relationship to its audience as Pop tunes have these days, a Pop hit. So in those days, people would come to the club and they would know Tatum’s recording of a certain piece, and they’d kind of expect to hear that. Not that they didn’t want to hear him improvise, too. But there were certain tunes Tatum had had hits with, and he would actually play them the same way. Which is a little hard for me to imagine, because I don’t know how he played it that way in the first place.
But in terms of the things he came up with, it’s sometimes interesting to hear a well-known standard, even a tune… We could listen to, say, Tatum’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” which was a Fats Waller tune, and Tatum would often say that “I come from Fats” in terms of his influence on the piano, and then hear Fats’ version. Just the wonderful things he does with the harmony and the form. It’s hard to imagine someone saying he’s not creative.
TP: On a more general plane, and again dealing with the process of a contemporary improviser assimilating information: What do the older piano players have to offer? Everybody acknowledges that the older musicians were great. But you rarely hear contemporary improvisers on any instrument really taking them as source material for the way they’re functioning right now. Any thoughts on that?
BARTH: Could you clarify that?
TP: Well, when saxophonists come up, you won’t often have someone bring in Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young or Ben Webster as an influence per se. If they’ve heard them, it’s sort of through someone else who had heard them as an influence. I’m interested in the assimilation of information from the older musicians particularly pre-war, on a contemporary improviser.
BARTH: I think one big element, even… It’s interesting speaking about the sax players. A lot of younger sax players are very drawn to the harmonic innovations of Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, that kind of thing. So a lot of times they’re looking to those musicians for inspiration. But of course, there are those elements you get from the older players, the melodicism, the warmth… Not only the warmth of the sound, but something about the whole manner of playing. I’m speaking in really general terms, but there’s a certain warmth that often you don’t find in younger players. It might be just the society they came up in. It was a different world back then in a lot of ways.
In the case of Tatum it’s interesting, because he goes back to… When you talk about let’s say some of the early tenor players, people like Trane definitely brought the language to a modern state. In the case of Tatum, it’s interesting, because he played back then, but he sounds so modern today. So maybe the pianist equivalent would be somebody like Teddy Wilson, who was from that period, had that approach, didn’t play necessarily the modern things that Tatum played. I’ve listened a lot to Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller… The thing about pianists from that period, they really played the whole piano. A lot of the Bebop players concentrated more on the right hand. I think what happened is that a lot of the more modern pianists have gone back to that whole piano way of playing.
TP: Which Ahmad Jamal seemed to help bring back into a modern vernacular in certain ways.
BARTH: I think so.
[MUSIC: Tatum, “Tenderly” (1952); Fats, “Russian Fantasy” (1935); Duke/Strayhorn, “Tonk” (1950)]
TP: You can’t do a Musician Show without including your own favorite by Charlie Parker. Bruce is choosing Bird with Strings, “Temptation.” Talk about the role Charlie Parker played in the development of your aesthetic.
BARTH: For me, I would say that Charlie Parker is one of my very favorite jazz musicians. I love him as much as I love any pianist. Bird had it all for me in terms of… I guess the basic thing is such a depth of feeling, which came out even more so with some of the string recordings, which he loved. He said how much he was thrilled to play with strings and hear that accompaniment behind him. Charlie Parker had a great way of phrasing. Of course, he’s one of the innovators of modern jazz. He created his own language. For me it’s a matter of the phrasing, the great rhythm and the creativity. It’s interesting, too, when you hear alternate takes, and you really see… Talk about a creative player. Playing different things in different versions. Always fresh, always creative.
TP: You were talking about things Art Tatum played in the ’30s that still sound modern. There’s a school of thought, and as I continue to listen to music I agree with it more and more, that says Charlie Parker has never been surpassed in the originality of his concept, particularly in the rhythmic aspect of what he did. Any comments?
BARTH: There is a real rhythmic freedom and a real looseness, and he’ll play some wild rhythms that really make you turn your head. The same thing harmonically. He was playing certain substitutions that I don’t think anyone… Well, Tatum, of course, like we were saying, played really innovative harmonic things. But in terms of horn players, I think at the time no one had played the kinds of things that Bird played, in terms of some of the harmonic substitutions. I guess it almost goes without saying he’s been such a huge influence on all the subsequent…not only horn players, but pretty much musicians of all instruments, all jazz musicians who’ve come after him.
[MUSIC: Bird, “Temptation” & “April in Paris” (1950)]
BARTH: To me, it’s like listening to Bach for me. Brilliant, creative and beautiful — lyrical. He had it all.
TP: We’ll enter some more modern, or post-Parker players, we’ll call them, beginning with Herbie Hancock, who influenced just about every pianist of your generation.
TP: You as well?
BARTH: Yes. Again, the element we were talking about — creativity, spontaneity. You never know what Herbie will do. Once again, he’s a musician like Bird in that there are so many facets to his playing. Great rhythm, great swing feeling. Again, in terms of the sophistication of his harmonies and his rhythms. Another two-handed pianist. Way beyond just right-hand line, left-hand comp, but a wide variety of textures and rhythmic devices on the piano. He’s been a huge influence. Many of these things he came up with. He’s a real innovator of the modern piano.
[HH/RC/TW, “Dolphin Dance” (1977); KJ/GP/JDJ, “Prism” (1983); Bill Evans solo “Here’s That Rainy Day” (1968); McCoy, “Peresina” (1968)]
BARTH: Four great pianists. Again, we’re talking about musicians who aren’t just great pianists, but very unique musical personalities. All four have been very influential pianists and all four pianists that you can pretty much instantly recognize.
McCoy Tyner has been a huge influence for me. Not that I try to play like him, because I can’t. Who can? But he’s an example of a musician who created completely his own language. Great innovator. His whole manner of dealing with the harmony, using the pedal points. Just a big, powerful sound. But also, as we heard on “Peresina,” there’s a very lyrical, tender side to McCoy also. It’s a very lyrical melody. McCoy has been a great influence, as much the things he’s played… He once told me that it’s a matter of trying to take a chance, not being afraid to just try something different. He has very much created his own way of playing, and he’s been immensely influential on many people.
Before that we heard Bill Evans. Beautiful touch on the piano and great solo player. It’s nice hearing the freedom of a solo pianist because they can change keys. In this case he actually played the melody in one key, soloed in another key, and then took the melody out in yet another key. I’m not saying that not only from the point of view of understanding the technical aspect, but each key has its own color and its own feeling. So I always have very much admired Bill Evans, his harmonic language and his touch on the piano.
I think harmonically he influenced Herbie Hancock, whom we heard earlier on the set, and who I think is one of the great pianists, who also influenced me quite a bit. That’s a particularly free-blowing version of “Dolphin Dance,” the trio stretching out and playing with a lot of energy and getting into some great stuff.
Sandwiched in there we also heard Keith Jarrett, a very lyrical pianist. “Prism” is a very lyrical piece, with interesting harmonic changes, too.
TP: What are your feelings about playing solo piano for yourself, the special challenges and daunting qualities of the form?
BARTH: I think the big challenge is keeping it interesting. You don’t have a rhythm section, so you have to keep it going. That’s one thing. For me it’s not as much a problem of keeping it going rhythmically as just having something that is interesting and multi-faceted enough to sustain the interest. There is obviously such a history of great solo playing. On the other side, the rewards of solo playing are, of course, the freedom. You can do things that are difficult to do with a rhythm section. You can go out of time, you can suddenly decide to stay on a chord, you can go to a different key. It’s that kind of freedom that I think all the great solo pianists have taken advantage of quite a bit. We heard Tatum before; hearing Bill Evans now. Some of it is in tempo, some of it’s rubato. He started that melody pretty much at a very deliberately slow, steady tempo, and he soloed in kind of a double-time feel. Then when he took the melody out, he went to a third key, as I mentioned, and then it’s rubato but moving the tempo along. People often think of rubato playing as having to be solo playing, but rubato can be fast as much as slow. It can very much be faster than the original tempo.
TP: I’d like you to elaborate on McCoy Tyner’s comment about taking a chance, not being afraid to fail. Again, there’s a commonly expressed school of thought about, let’s say, post-Coltrane music, that jazz hasn’t gone past the information that Coltrane laid down, that it’s all been laid down in such a compressed space of time that people are still dealing with the implications of it.
BARTH: I think that’s a really good point. It’s interesting, because we played the Art Tatum solo piano, and I feel I could spend a lifetime trying to understand what Tatum was doing. Apart from the challenge of trying technically to play the things he played, just to understand what he was doing harmonically — his kind of voicing his kind of chord substitutions. The same thing with someone like McCoy. People talk about McCoy in a basic sense, the kinds of fourth chords he uses in the left hand, the pentatonics in the right hand. But it’s a very-very-very sophisticated language that he created. You could superficially say that McCoy uses pentatonics, he uses these voicings. But the relationship between the hands is so subtle, and the way he goes in and out of different tonalities, it’s just very complex — it’s brilliant. So it’s an example of a lot of harmonic information to try to understand. For me, it’s basically a process… You could, in fact, spend a lifetime studying one figure, one musician like McCoy.
For me, the challenge is pretty much taking a look at some of these things, but also trying to find out what I want to say about something. I’ve done a lot of listening. But then a lot of it is just a matter of trying to create something that’s personal, and take these influences and hope that they somehow churn around inside of you, and then you’ll play something that sounds like yourself. The way to do that, of course, is just to spend a lot of time exploring… For me, I spend a lot of time exploring my own ideas. If I might be practicing or playing, and I’ve come upon a certain chord that I like, I’ll explore that, see where I can go with that.
TP: Will you do that on the bandstand as well?
BARTH: Definitely. My approach to playing, I really like to keep things spontaneous. There are many different schools of thought. Some musicians like to play on solos. Of course, you can hear that if you hear a musician on a few different nights playing on some of the same material. For me, one reason I like some of these pianists… Herbie for me is an example of a very spontaneous trio player. He might have a head arrangement or something that happens, but in general, once the head is over, you have no idea what he will do. So I really try to keep things open-ended personally when I start soloing, not having an idea, “Oh, I might do this, I might go into this area,” but more try to keep a wide-open mind and see what develops.
The other big aspect of that is listening to the players, especially… I’m going to have the pleasure of playing with Al Foster next week, and when you’re playing with someone like Al, it’s so inspiring to hear the kinds of things he’ll play on the drums. For me, being on the bandstand, listening is a big part of it. Because really, the main thing about music is communicating with the people you’re playing with.
TP: I’d imagine that playing with someone like Al Foster would make you feel like you could go absolutely anywhere and still stay cohesive, because his reflexes are so instantaneous, like a great hockey goalie almost.
BARTH: That’s a great image. That’s the kind of drummer that he is. He’s very wide-open. He’s got a great groove; at the same time he’s wide-open. He’ll do all kinds of things that you’re not expecting. I say “you’re not expecting,” but yet they all fit the music. He’s a very musical drummer. He’ll never do things for the sake of doing them.
TP: In your recent session, Don’t Blame Me, did you follow the dictum you just stated of open spontaneity. It doesn’t sound quite arranged, but has a very thoughtful quality, which I find in your playing always.
BARTH: I try to basically have an approach for songs. So in a sense, I do think about… It’s not necessarily wide-open. In the case of my recordings, I’ve never gone into the session and said, “Okay, let’s play this tune.” That would be interesting to do. I tend to record tunes that I’ve developed an approach to over time. It might be, in the case of “Don’t Blame Me,” some reharmonization and some rhythmic things, some changes of groove throughout that we kept for the solos. So it’s basically having, you might say, an angle or a general approach to the tune. But within that framework, I really like to keep things fresh. I don’t really practice things. I don’t go into the session knowing that… Sometimes, of course, there would be security in knowing, “Well, this would work here, this would work there.” You could get security from that. But it’s a little scarier to go in there as a kind of blank slate. But that’s really the way I like to work, because then I feel that I’m more in the moment in terms of seeing what might occur to me and also being able to react to the other musicians. I think if you go in there with an agenda, it’s harder to really be fresh, to respond. Because you may have an idea of what you might like to play, but the drummer or bass player might do something that suggests a different direction. I think if you can be open to that possibility, you’ll end up with music that’s a lot more interesting and more vibrant. Because it’s more what’s happening in the moment.
TP: Coming up is a Wayne Shorter segment.
BARTH: I thought it would be interesting to hear records several years apart. Wayne is one of the great jazz composers, a brilliant composer who not only has created his own language harmonically and is a great melodist, but also in his work over the past several years he’s created large forms and rich, multi-faceted work bringing in several elements. The best analogy I can think of for some of Wayne’s recent work is that it’s like a Classical symphony. The compositions, for instance, on his last record, Highlife, involve some of his most elaborate compositions to date. We’ll start with early Wayne from his first date as a leader on the VJ label. This is typical Wayne, in that even though it’s in some ways more conventional than the compositions he later developed, it’s already very unique in terms of his approach to harmony. It’s the kind of tune where you think you’re starting in one key, but you’re actually in another key. A beautiful lyrical melody, “Pug-Nose.”
[Wayne-LM-WK-PC-JC, “Pug-Nose” (1959); WS-FH-HH-EJ, “Wildflower” (1964); “At The Fair” (1995)]
BARTH: The music on Highlife leaves me speechless. As I said before, the only analogy I can really think of is a symphony or a complex orchestral work. In this case, this tune, “At The Fair”… First of all, the whole record, which is mostly new compositions, but then reworkings of “Virgo Rising” and “Children of the Night”… But the whole record works as a suite, where certain themes might be introduced in one composition, and then come out in a more developed form later on, and then certain instrumental combinations recur throughout. Even in terms of this first tune, it’s basically two themes. On the first tune we first hear it on guitar and tenor, then the second theme is brass [SINGS REFRAIN]. Those are the two basic themes, but then with a lot of motivic development, other thematic material also. Even the way Wayne deals with those two themes, there’s such a rich variety of orchestrations, his ear for color. And it’s very contrapuntal music. There was one section where a lot of the ensemble dropped out, and the music became highly contrapuntal, different lines being woven together.
Another thing that’s fascinating to me about the way Wayne developed the music for this record is the use of the sax as a solo instrument, very much interwoven into the texture of the composition. This is such an extreme departure from the idea of head-solo-head format. Even with this intricate writing, there’s not really one pronounced solo section, but several short places where Wayne might take 8 bars, 16 bars, or there might be a solo section put in between two more composed sections. On this tune, like many of the other tunes on the record, he solos on the same tune on both tenor and soprano. So there we hear him just playing beautifully and really soloing like a composer, the solo being another element of the composition. It’s so well-integrated and it’s so rich and multi-faceted that it kind of leaves me in awe. The way Tatum might leave a pianist in awe.
TP: Has anything like what Wayne Shorter is doing orchestrationally been done before in jazz?
BARTH: I think there are great orchestrators. Mingus… Unfortunately, we didn’t hear Mingus’ music because we ran out of time. Mingus’ tunes are very interesting harmonically, with many sections. Mingus did not really write as much for a big band. Epitaph was for a larger ensemble, which was reconstructed by Gunther Schuller after Mingus’ death.
TP: His music certainly lends itself to ingenious orchestration, as you know first-hand from playing a fair amount with the Mingus Big Band.
BARTH: Yes, very much so. It’s great big band music, and there are a lot of nice arrangements. The music is perfect for big band music because there are so many elements to it — interesting bass lines, interesting counter-melodies and different things. And of course, some of the great things of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn have many things going on. So I’m not saying Wayne created this stuff completely out of thin air.
TP: As a composer, would you say that Shorter, Mingus, Ellington-Strayhorn are the main influences for you?
BARTH: They’ve been big influences for me. I’ll just mention that something I’d like to do more… Some of the recent pieces I’ve written have had two themes, and I’m very interested in the idea of not everyone necessarily soloing over the same set of changes. I’ve written a few things recently (which I don’t think we’ll get to hear today) that have two themes, with one section that one soloist plays over, then another section the other soloist plays with. I’d very much like to have the opportunity to do more writing for larger ensembles, and again to try to write more contrapuntally and find different ways of having the solos more integrated into the composition, rather than just the head, then the solo.
[MUSIC: Strayhorn-C. Terry, “Chelsea Bridge” (1965)]
TP: …that was a different tempo than we’re used to hearing “Chelsea Bridge.”
BARTH: Yes. And Strayhorn, as you heard, was doing some very interesting comping things, little rhythmic things. He was a great pianist, very original.
[MUSIC: BB, “Days of June”]
Liner Notes, Bruce Barth, Hope Springs Eternal (Double Time):
“I practice and study music by a philosophy of preparing myself to play in the moment, to be at-ease at the piano, to be able to go in different directions,” is how Bruce Barth summarizes his aesthetics. “When I start a solo, I like to have a clean slate, see what develops, react to what the other players are doing. I think of it as playing without an agenda, with nothing to prove.”
It’s an optimistic credo, to which Barth hews throughout his remarkable new recording, Hope Springs Eternal. Barth doesn’t need to prove a thing to New York’s demanding community of improvisers; he’s one of the jazz capital’s most respected pianists, equipped with capacious technique equally applicable to spontaneous combustion and introspective cerebration, an encyclopedic range of rhythmic and harmonic tropes at his disposal. He’s a consummate listener, a probing comper behind a soloist or singer, a warm melodist who deploys the entire piano with precisely calibrated touch. Conversant with the full tradition, he knows how to draw from it to tell his own story — no mean feat in an age when improvisers must assimilate enormous chunks of information just to keep head above water. “I feel I could spend a lifetime trying to understand things such as Art Tatum’s voicings and chord substitutions, McCoy Tyner’s interrelationship between the hands, the way he goes in and out of different tonalities,” the pianist comments. “I’ve tried to understand some of the musical principles that work and to use them as inspiration for developing my own ideas.”
Now 40, Barth has relished the challenge of individuality from his earliest years in music. “I began playing piano when I was 5,” recalls the Pasadena, California, native. “I always loved to play by ear and to improvise, to figure out Pop and Rock tunes at the piano. I didn’t hear a lot of jazz until my high school years, after my parents moved to Harrison, New York. My older brother bought me a Mose Allison record for my fifteenth birthday, which I flipped over. I probably gave half the chords the wrong names at the time, but I figured things out. I started to buy records by Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner, and learned a lot of the basics of playing. Later I started hanging around the SUNY-Purchase campus nearby, took a jazz course, and jammed with some young musicians I met there.”
After attending several institutions of higher learning, Barth wound up at the New England Conservatory in 1982. He studied with Fred Hersch and Jaki Byard, and became active on the Boston scene, landing a two-year weekend trio gig, and getting major league experience on jobs with the likes of Jerry Bergonzi, George Garzone, Bill Pierce and Grey Sergeant. “I didn’t feel quite ready for New York back then,” Barth confesses. “In Boston there was a little less pressure, and I was able to work more. I constantly learned new tunes, taking them off records and working them out on gigs. I had the chance to play with bassists like Teddy Kotick, who’d been with Bird, and the Chicago bassist Richard Evans, who had played with Ahmad Jamal and Dinah Washington, with a great beat, a beautiful sound.”
By 1988, when Barth took the New York plunge, he was a mature, focused musician with a keen sense of what he wanted to do. He jammed extensively with peers, worked with Nat Adderley and Stanley Turrentine, and landed in Terence Blanchard’s steady-working unit in 1990. “Terence was dealing with certain modern concepts that I wasn’t so conversant with, unconventional chord motions and rhythmic groupings of fives and sevens,” Barth states. He left Blanchard in 1994 “to concentrate on working with my own bands.”
Barth’s Enja recordings Focus (1992) and Morning Song (1994) reveal an expressive writer with a penchant for conjuring melodies that stick in the mind, exploring interests as diverse as his improvisation. The material included spirited song-book reharmonizations, compositions whose moods spanned angular Monkish grit to flowing post-Hancock sophistication, incorporating extended forms with different themes for each soloist. On Hope Springs Eternal Barth digs deeper into multi-thematic writing and rhythmic variation. The music sounds lived in, organic, improvisations emerging inevitably from the warp and woof of the writing.
“In addition to experimenting with form, I’ve explored a wider variety of grooves on this record,” Barth reveals. “I’ve checked out Latin music on my own for the past 15 years, I’ve worked a lot with Leon Parker, and in 1996 I played several months with David Sanchez. Out of the eight tunes on this date, six have some straight eighth elements.”
Given the difficulties of maintaining a fixed band, Barth relies on an elite circle of New York improvisers with whom he enjoys long-term musical relationships — “I’m never disappointed with the people I call, that’s for sure.” For the week at Manhattan’s now defunct Visiones that generated Hope Springs Eternal, Barth employed a top-shelf quartet of young masters.
In-demand soprano and alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, currently with Chick Corea’s Origin, appears on his third Barth record. “Steve is constantly creative and surprising,” Barth enthuses. “He puts so much of himself into interpreting other people’s music that he’ll find creative nuances, things that actually improve the music that you hadn’t imagined.”
Of Ed Howard, bassist of choice for the likes of Roy Haynes and Victor Lewis, Barth comments: “Ed’s an earthy, versatile bass player who will experiment and take chances.”
Howard locks in with drummer Adam Cruz, whose recent credits include Eddie Palmieri, David Sanchez, Brian Lynch and Chick Corea. Barth enthuses: “Adam is a very well-rounded musician, and plays piano well. Being the son of percussionist Ray Cruz and having grown up on the New York jazz scene, he can play a wide variety of grooves, which we took advantage of on this gig.”
The upbeat lead-off title track “is in two contrasting sections,” Barth says, “the first section with a sustained melody and the second vamp-like section with a more rhythmic, fragmented melody. This second section includes a few 3/4 bars and a 2/4 bar that give it an off-balance feel.”
Barth’s lyrical “Wondering Why” features Wilson on flute. The soulful slow-medium swing tempo number “starts out with a straight eighth introduction, and the kind of chords you might hear in Aaron Copland’s music.”
Barth’s fast Latin line,”Hour of No Return,” featuring Wilson’s alto, “is basically in F-minor, with a double-time Samba feel, but a very open-ended groove,” says the composer. “My idea was to have the rhythm section groove while Steve and myself float the melody over the top, rhythmically very free, almost out of tempo, followed by open solos for Steve and myself.” It’s a groove sustained by Cruz and Howard’s hard-won mastery of metric modulation; Barth’s dazzling solo echoes the mercurial spirit of Herbie Hancock’s playing on Inventions and Dimensions, a Barth favorite.
Barth showcased his command of the elusive art of the piano trio in no uncertain terms on Don’t Blame Me, his Double-Time debut; here he puts in his three cents with “Darn That Dream.” “The challenge of playing in a trio setting is utilizing the piano’s sonic resources, thinking of it more orchestrally for variety,” Barth comments. “The piano can sound like a lot of different things, and you need to use your imagination. Rather than ‘I’m going to play a G7 chord,’ you think, ‘I want to sound like a big band’ or ‘I want to sound like a waterfall’ or ‘I want to sound like bells chiming.’
“I’m a stickler about tunes. I almost always buy the original sheet music so I can see the exact melody the way it was written, and I do like to see the lyrics. I played this song for many years before I checked the melody and realized I’d been playing one note wrong — but I was so used to it, I kept doing it!”
The quartet returns for “The Epicurean,” a Wilson original. “It’s classic Steve,” Barth enthuses. “I’ve heard him describe it as coming out of an Eddie Harris-Les McCann funky straight eighth vibe. It’s a through-composed melody with some variations, and a vamp figure at the beginning and end of each chorus. Steve’s writing is very personal and recognizable, with melodies that have intriguing twists and turns, interesting chords — like his playing.” Barth’s bluesy solo conjures Wynton Kelly (“he’s my first favorite pianist”) in its propulsion and articulation, and Herbie Hancock in its variety of textures and rhythmic devices.
The Monkish “Up and Down” is Barth’s only original in standard AABA, 32-bar song form. “For me it’s just a nice relaxed tune for blowing, using some major 2nds and a melody based on arpeggiated figures, differing from the melodies I usually write,” says Barth. “I used some wider intervals. The melody goes up and down, while the last A is a somewhat inverted version of the first two A’s.” Barth’s ebullient declamation shows he’s idiomatically assimilated the High Priest’s rituals; Wilson on alto hurdles the changes like Charlie Rouse at his most expoobident.
Adam Cruz contributes “Full Cycle,” rooted in an evocative bass ostinato handled resourcefully by Ed Howard. “It’s a Latin tune with a peaceful, tranquil feeling and a lot of rhythmic interest in the melody, and we improvised collectively on it,” says Barth. “I like very much the combination of piano and soprano together. First, Steve and I play the melody in unison, then as a canon, which I think works nicely.”
“Revolving Door,” the set closer, is a two-section eighth tune featuring a Wilson alto solo that builds from simmer to full-boil, followed by a dancing piano solo that’s ûr-Barth, juxtaposing delicate chords with fleet lines so subtly that you might overlook the leader’s devastating chops if you’re inattentive. “In the first section,” Barth says, “Steve plays the strong melody over a minor key with descending chords. Then there’s a short piano interlude, almost a kind of question mark or something a bit more plaintive. The second part of the tune is a more lyrical melody in a major key. Again, rather than have one instrument play the melody all the way through, I divided the melody between the alto and the piano, just for a little variation of color.”
To the observation that on Hope Springs Eternal Barth’s morphed antecedents into the most evolved Barthian vision we’ve yet seen, Barth responds: “I feel more and more that influences aren’t as explicit. I think composing and leading a band makes it easier to develop a unified musical vision. I’m writing tunes that involve the kinds of elements I’m exploring in my playing, and the composing-arranging and the playing become of a piece. Particularly within tunes that don’t have standard chord progressions, it’s easier to explore your own way of playing, and you’re challenged to reach for something that’s your own.”
Each player on this vibrant, in-the-moment date is more than up to the task.