If you’re already a Bruce Barth fan, you’ll find much to like on American Landscape. If you’re not familiar with Barth, let me introduce you. The California-born pianist grew up in New York and spent his early years in Boston studying with Norman Simmons, Jaki Byard and Fred Hersh. It’s evident in Barth's playing that these legends of the keyboard had a tremendous influence on him.
The former Terrance Blanchard sideman is among the busiest pianists and composers in jazz, having worked with artists that include James Moody, Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove and Branford Marsalis. But on this offering, it’s Barth...alone and captivating, masterfully recorded at the Auditori Municipa Enric Granados in Lleida Spain
“Affirmation” is the openerand what a ride! This infectious tune has so many layers that it takes a few listenings to grasp them all. Like Chick Corea’s “Tone’s for Jone’s Bones” or Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance,” “Affirmation” boasts an unpredictable structure and wonderful changes. And the last four bars, with a” Giant Steps” feel, allow for some nice turnarounds by Barth. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this tune gain standard status.
“Western Suite” is comprised of six short reflective pieces with some delightful nuances. “Big Sky” has an Aaron Copeland feel. “At the Ranch” and “Dude” sound light and bluesy. “Ghost Town” is a minor piece with changing time signatures. “Sundown Time” is mildly reminiscent of the Claude Thornhill classic “Snowfall,” and “Riding Off” has the flavor of Monk’s “Well You Needn’t.” Nice surprises here.
Bob Dylan’s “I threw It All Away” gets a down-home treatment, but it retains the unexpected turns that happen often throughout these performances. “Mama, Who’s been Here” is another blues, straight out of the Monte Alexander school. It’s hip and funky.
Bud Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare” gives Bruce a chance to display his technique while swinging from beginning to end. “Three Types of ESP," penned by Wayne Shorter, is as complex and mysterious as the title implies; and “September Song," while not a usual choice in a jazz set, conveys a haunting feel. And that stride piano chorus has to be a Jaki Byard influence. Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser” just cooks...enough said. And the traditional “Simple Gifts” reflects a lovely simplicity.
Bruce Barth is a mature, yet exciting pianist. He’s accomplished and rhythmically intuitive, with a wonderfully unique approach to harmonytraits all evident on American Landscape. Solo piano, well performed and beautifully recorded, is one of music’s wonderful pleasuresas Barth's record more than amply demonstrates.