Bill Barrett has never been your average harmonicist about town. By the end of the '90s, he'd released albums on 9Winds ( Backbone
) and, with the group Brother Weasel, SST ( Swingin' N Groovin'
), applying his chromatic harmonica to create an agreeable jazz-blues fusion sound.
Since then, his creativity has increased exponentially. Those who've heard him with Steuart Liebig's Beutet (recently renamed the Mentones) find their jaws hitting the floor while basic questions invade their brains: "What?" and "How?" and even "Why?" Liebig has defined this still-unsigned band as sort of a cross between Little Walter and Ornette Coleman, and though the rhythm section can knock you down, it's Barrett's aggressiveness out front that'll put you away. Barrett also guested on several tracks of the well-received Kingcake CD a couple of years back.
None of this, however will make you ready for Circle of Willis. This Circle is a trio with pianist Wayne Peet, whose organ shared several of the stronger tracks on the above-mentioned albums, and trombonist Scot Ray, who played tuba with Kingcake but reverts to his primary axe here. They both have their own discographies but I doubt you'll find anything like this in there.
No, it's Barrett's unusual writing prowess that defines this band. His own playing is definitely less crazed than with the Mentones; except for some strange sounds during "Mambo Lasaine," his tone is pretty mainstream this time out. His tunes, too, nod in traditional directions – waltzes, mambos, even hints of tango and ragtime – but there's always something threatening to go askew. Barrett and Ray will sneak up on a note, say, while Peet's left hand keeps things steady. Then the bottom falls out for a beat. Or Ray will grab a mute and buzz awhile, like he does on the final track, "The Pensive Bumblebee."
Kingcake had a sense of humor too, but this is somewhat different: presenting styles of the past as if they're stable, then tripping them up somehow, leaving them stumbling in space.
The band generally plays so tightly that the listener knows that the stumble must be there for a reason. But what reason? Who knows? Maybe that'll be revealed on the next album, but this one's highly listenable quirks keep bringing me back time and again.
Visit the Circle of Willis on the web at www.billbarrett.net .