Barney McAll: Dynamic Pianist And Composer
“ I got to do some duets with Maceo. It's just so amazing to hear these guys play. There's so much culture and so much weight in every note they play ”
Composer and pianist Barney McAll is a leading light of the new Brooklynthe New York borough that is the fount of much that is new in jazz. The spectrum of McAll's music is wide, ranging from mood-setting jazz ensemble recordings to electronica. But it all comes down to the notes, and their relation to each other. As McAll says about growing up with and learning music, "If you have a piano in the house that's a start." Organic music is both the source and the destination.
McAll's fifth album, Flashbacks (Extra Celestial Arts, 2008), has its launch party April 8, 2009 at New York's The Jazz Standard. The launch will feature leading musicians such as Billy Harper and Ben Monder. McAll moved to New York from Melbourne, Australia in 1997 after being offered a fulltime job by alto saxophonist Gary Bartz as his pianist. He describes his life before the move: "I'd been going back and forth since 1992, just staying for as long as I could or as long as I could deal, and I made contacts and started working more and more. In 1997, Gary toured Australia and I toured with him and he said, 'Come back and join my band.' That was a great opportunity, and that's when I moved to New York proper. But I'd been putting my feet in the water for many years before, and it's such a fascinating city."
Since then, he has been involved in many varied projects and collaborations which have led, amongst other things, to a Grammy nomination with Groove Collective in 2007he is the group's pianist. The group was nominated for best contemporary jazz album of the year for their album People, People, Music, Music (Savoy Jazz, 2007).
"I've come up through jazz piano," he says, but McAll's musical world is wide, both in terms of style and geographic inspiration.
McAll says, "There's all sorts of stuff going on, there's so much going onit's completely crazy. I always like to say the radar screen is completely green with blips. Because of the internet everything is so accessible, there are so many options, and you know about everything that's going on in the world almost immediatelyit's a wacked out time, you know."
Looking at McAll's MySpace page, a teaser for his music, a range of musical styles and approaches to writing is immediately evident. Even the way that he set up the siteit's primary purpose is really to list his tour dates: "I actually just use MySpace to put my calendar up, and my website is connected directly to my calendar"is an example of a unique approach to creativity. "The MySpace [design] is like an improvisation," he says. "I just threw in random html codes, just threw it all into the mix and just kept taking it out and putting it in until I had something that I sorta liked. It's really like an html finger painting."
As to whether that may be representative of his writing technique, McAll says "Maybe, well, I don't know. Some of the music up there is pretty left of center. Some if it is like some strange sketches I've done down in my basement. Some of it is from records that I've madeI just keep changing it upI'm not really sure if it represents me. I suppose it represents the eclectic nature of the music that I like. There's some filmic stuff up there and then there's this crazy mixed meter electro project that I'm working on with this guy in England. I seem to generate a lot of music in different fields. I'd like to represent myself as interested in many areas of music, I suppose."
One track is a short piece called "Palin's Brain" that may, to some, appear to be a musical illustration of its subject. McAll says, "It's not really that literal. It's just that I was so appalled with Sarah Palin that I just wanted to make some sort of statement. It wasn't really literal, it's more like stream-of-consciousness. I just felt like it's such an appalling insight into our society that someone like Sarah Palin can get so much press and get into such a high position in politics. I thought I'd throw something up, make some commentit's a little passé now."
He continues, "And then I have this very barren desolate music for the [track] "USA post Buy Out". He says he was visualizing a possible aftermath of the current financial crisis. "The thing that makes [the crisis] possible is the internet and this anonymous moving around of numbers. It's revisiting the Wild West, a lawless situation with lawless financing, and what happened is they've pulled the reins on it now but it took them [so] long to pull the reins on this whole new way of stealing peoples' money, and especially [that of the] middle class and working class people."
"They've pulled the reins on it but now America's [messed up], and there are people that were thrown in jail, but there are a lot of thieves who disappeared and there's no recourse. They can't find themit's this incredible greed. I recently wrote the score for a film called We All Fall Down [written and produced by Kevin Stocklin and directed by Gary Gasgarth, the film is set for release during April, 2009] and it's about the housing market collapse and its repercussions so I learned a lot about how Wall Street played into this whole economic collapse."
"After 9/11, and after the dot com collapse, the Wall Street fat-cats wanted to keep the money graph rising, so they looked into Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac and they saw that there was a lot of honest money still being made in real estate, so they started securitizing a hundred mortgages or a thousand mortgages together, and then selling those to offshore investors, and it's just disgraceful that they mishandled so much hard- earned peoples' money without any concern for the human beings involved. There was actually a day in August of 2007 where everything just seized up, but the thing that [annoys me] is that so many of these guys got away. The cats got away with the cream."
"All those song titles [on MySpace] are really just abstractions, just messing around really, but in the title ["USA post Buy Out"] I was referring to the fat cats again, and speaking about how it becomes more desolate for the working class. I'm seeing the indicators, you know, I'm seeing poverty, I'm seeing unemployment, more and more homeless people on the street. I'm just saddened by that, so I thought I'd put a piece of music up."
There is also an interesting piece entitled "Terminate Moby." "It's in 13/8 and then it's been cut up. I was just interested in mixed meter electronica. I'm still working on some tracks for that. It's a collaborative project with Peter Hemsley, an English producer, and it's going to be called Spasmodics."
- Arvo Pärt
- Afro-Cuban Bata Music
- Mother Of Dreams And Secrets
- Jazz Influences
- New York
- Letterman Adventures
- The Future
McAll's solo piano work (he usually solos in band contexts) demonstrates openness and space; sometime chords left (temporarily) hanging in the air; and sometimes a concentrated focus on one or two notes at a given point in the piece. It is worth paying close attention to his solosthey are unlike others in jazz piano. Indeed, clearly there is something beyond jazz at work here.
A central thread of McAll's influence is the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Pärt was particularly well-known in the mid-'90s, when his work came to be frequently championed by radio and classical record stores. As a composer, Pärt had progressed through several distinct phases before arriving, in 1976, at his preferred compositional voice, which is characterized by widely spaced pitches, open intervals, and pedal/held tones. The emphasis is, therefore, on space, silence, and the relationship of notes and simple triads to each other.
On his journey to this point, Pärt had spent years at various points in his career studying much older forms of vocal music, from the Renaissance and pre-Renaissance including plainchant. (The first period he had focused on was the Renaissance music of such ground-breaking composers as the Flemish composer Josquincalled by some the "father of modern music"and then he worked his way back to plainchant. The result speaks strongly to McAll. He says, of his discovery of Pärt, "I found him through Keith Jarrett in the early '90s, I suppose. Then I went to Tower Records on West 4th Street and purchased "Fur Alina" [Part's first composition in his new Tintinnabulation style for piano, 1976] and never looked back."
Pärt himself has remarked that "I have discovered it is enough when a single note is beautifully played, this one note or a silent beat or a moment of silence... I work with very few elements, of one to two voices. I deal with the most primitive materials, a triad with one specific tonality." He speaks of "the beauty of an unadorned triad or even single note." And "pristine" is a word that McAll useslike Pärt, he is interested in how notes relate to each other.
McAll says, "I've been interested for a while in the simplicity of the triad and the complexity within simplicity, and I think it's actually also a response to the complexity of life and just dealing with just day-to-day New York. It's almost like a paring back, and one of my favorite albums is actually Arvo Pärt's [piano work] "Fur Alina" . So I was really interested in that and also some of [pianist] Chris Abraham's stuff like his Streaming record. He is the pianist from The Necks, and he's been a huge influence on me in just the way that he uses repetition and resonance from simplicity and minimalism. The Necks have actually been a big influence on my music."
The influence of Pärt can also be heard on "USA post Buy Out": there is a bare E minor triad presented that repeats, while development occurs in the left hand, highlighting space like a Medieval single line and counterpoint. "Yes, I'm very into that whole thing and when I listen to Arvo Pärt and to some of the oldest Gregorian chant, I hear similarities in that. It's also that music that he's basing some of his stuff on, like very old, pristine harmony. I did a gig recently at The Stone, John Zorn's [New York] club, downtown and I was thinking about that spaceThe Stone [itself]and it's only really about music this spaceyou can't buy drinks there, you can't buy food. It's just chairs and a piano and a sound systemwhen I was playing the gig I was thinking about how open the audience is there to hearing whatever the artist wants to present.
"I actually wrote some music for that space and the first piece was just middle C, which I just repeated until people became uncomfortable. At a certain point, with that repetition, after they're uncomfortable, there's a focusing that happens on the power of just one note; the next note you play becomes so much more alive. I had a vibraphonist and a guitarist playing in unison which was a sweet blend. What I'm saying [is]: I'm interested in having one single sound and then what that sound means to the next sound; the relationship between two sounds and the space in between. There's a piece I wrote called "Daria," which was really looking at the space between two chords and what they mean to each other as a result of that space." ["Daria" is a solo piano piece on McAll's third album, Release The Day (Transparent Music/Jazzhead, 2000).]
Beyond Pärt, there are also many other kinds of music, and musicians, that have provided McAll with inspiration. The major counterpart to the Pärt influence is Afro-Cuban bata music, discovered by McAll on his first visit to Cuba in 1998.
As much Western music rehashes itself, the likelihood of more inventive musicians encountering world music surely becomes higher. And so McAll is passionate about bata music and its Santeria rhythms.
He says, "So [Arvo Pärt is] only one area. I'm also very interested in Afro-Cuban bata music and the intensity of that music. It's just an incredibly vital and creative [music, and it is] religious in nature. This Afro-Cuban music is really an aspect of Yoruba custommany Afro-Cubans, and certainly the keepers of the Santeria faith, came principally from the Yoruba region of what is now Nigeria."
An example of the influence is a very involving clip on YouTube of McAll's band playing a conga-driven piece at an open air concert in Lithuania. Says McAll, "The piece is called "Obatala," and was inspired by a section from one of the interlocking bata rhythms for the Santerian Orisha, 'Obatala.' Obatala is a deity, a Saint. There are many different saints within the Santerian religion and each saint or Orisha has an incredible wealth of songs, rhythms and stories that are used to honor him or her. It's a very complex and involved religious music, and I have great and humble respect for its traditions. So I just slowed down a small rhythmic section and then applied melody and harmony to it. Then I just improvised around that and it sort of morphed away from the original rhythm, but I was still using the snippet as a seed for a whole piece."
The clip also shows McAll playing an intense solo with apparently two index fingers hammering up the right side of the keyboard: "Yes," he says. "I'm trying to make a long note and I like that; Chris Abrahams does that as well, and it's like singing a long note. It's like a held legato long tone but you can't do that on the piano so I end up doing it with that effect, but it's almost like a mandolin. It's not like a mandolin, it's sort of an effect that I like to use." As far as the pedal is concerned here, he says "Well, actually I do have the pedal on, I use the pedal on and off to move it around. I end up using the pedal and then, when I move to another note I take the pedal offI'm not really sure what I'm actually doing [laughs].
"But I do remember being there in Lithuania and there was a big sound system and it was out in the forest, and I wrote in my journal that when I was playing those notes I could hear them going off into the forest. It was just a great experience because the audience was really enjoying it and really with me and it was like projecting a note out into nature. It was an open air concert, and before us was this amazing Bulgarian bandit was so diverse and it was just a great experience. They loved it there. Someone sent me the concertI should put more of it up [on YouTube], but it was really great."
McAll describes how he came to see the power of congas: "I played with [Australian trumpeter/vocalist] Vince Jones for a long time, and I remember he had Ray Pereira, who's a great percussionist, and sometimes Vince would break it down to just congas, and that was the first time I realized how primordial the drum is, and how enjoyable it is. You could just have a conga player play for a long time and peoples' interest would stay sharp because there's something primal about the drums. Then I thought I would like to add that element to my music, 'cause my music is sort of ethereal and atmospheric. I like to juxtapose rhythmic intensity with all that air; I think that's a nice blending of attributes."
This is similar to Pärt's idea of having a high voice and something down below, a pedal tone. As for consciously employing modes or scales, McAll defers: "My thing is really more about description. Yes, you can work out what it is after the fact, but all of my writing is done intuitively first, and then I'll have to work it out and I'll be quite surprised by what it actually is. I like to do that, I definitely want to be free to describe something, and often I'll be describing specific things in a musical sense, and then I'll write it all out later.
McAll explores other "world" music as well: "I've been listening to cultural music in the sense of I like flamenco music, I like African music, I like Indian music. That seems so vital to me. That music is beautiful and vital like, you know, Paco De Lucia, it's just incredible." And YouTube provides the capability for you to educate yourself about a new music so easily now: "Oh yes, it's incredible, it really is."
A premier example of the influence of Afro-Cuban music on McAll is his fourth album, Mother Of Dreams And Secrets (Jazzhead, 2005), which includes tributes to Afro-Cuban deities. McAll went to Cuba in 1998, to study Cuban piano styles with Chucho Valdez and Roman Valli: "I was interested [as] I had heard jazz piano players playing montunos. I was really interested just to go to Cuba," he says. While there, he discovered bata music. The impact was big, and McAll began writing compositions inspired by Santeria rhythms.
Mother Of Dreams And Secrets is essentially dedicated to the spirit Yemaya, and includes some chanting by local performers. "The album was mostly recorded in Cuba. It's the bata music again. I've been to Cuba five times and I've studied the music there, the bata music. I've just listened to a lot of archival recordings and I've read a lot about it. I listened to a lot of bata music because I just found it the most beautiful, complex music, but I have only really scratched the surface. Actually I was studying Cuban piano styles in Cuba when I stumbled across this Santerian ceremony which was a ceremony for Yemaya. When I heard that music being played, it was very visceral. It was the most powerful experiencethere was a guy playing a metal hoe, there was another guy playing some other piece of metal, then there was a chekere player, one conga player and five singers, and they were making this wild, unearthly religious music. It was so intense, it was like standing next to Elvin Jones, and that changed my life.
"I went to Cuba to study the piano styles, but what I actually found there was something much more beautiful and overwhelming. Since then I've been pursuing that music, studying it and just being inspired by it. I wrote all this music loosely based on some Santerian rhythms, just small sections of it, and then I took my pieces back to Cuba and had a rhythm section down there record it. So that was the Mother of Dreams And Secrets record. That's how that happened. Flashbacks was even more loosely based. Some of the things on there are inspired by Afro-Cuban music and some are just compositions that camenot inspired by Afro-Cuban music, but it's almost like a journal. I write a lot of music, and since the birth of my son, who is two years old, I thought that I was going to write less, but actually I'm writing so much more as a result of him. I suppose it's just the wonderment of it all.
"Mother of Dreams And Secrets is all dedications to the deity Yemaya, whereas Flashbacks began as a dedication to the deity Elegua. Elegua is the keeper of the crossroads. 'Red And Black Shifts' is directly derived from the rhythmic stuff that I was getting into. I'm interested in the place between 3/4 and 4/4 or three over four or six and four, so I've been looking at ways of playing around with the place between three and four; this is really fascinating for me. 'Red And Black Shifts' is an experiment along those lines. If you emphasize, in a very subtle way, between three and four, there's this magic place, musically."
McAll describes how different colors have great significance in Afro-Cuban culture. "Colors, different colors, have very strong religious significance. When you are initiated into the religion in Cuba, you might be told by the elders 'Your Orisha is Elegua,' for example, and you'll be required to start wearing red and black. Elegua has very specific personality traits and you may even take them on or else they'll be inherent; it's pretty mind-blowing, the religious side of Cubaway over my head."
After his first trip to Cuba, McAll went again with Gary Bartz as part of the "Music Bridge" program. He says, "And then I went a couple of times on study grants from the Australian Arts Council, because I was starting to get more involved. I love Cuba. It's a beautiful place." McAll's fruitful absorption in bata music shows that the grant money was well invested, though the trips are generally relatively short: "I was last there in February '08. The longest I've been there is for a month, sometimes a couple of weeks. It's pretty hard going thereit's an intense experience and it's difficult to get that much time away. The longest I've been there is maybe for a month, and maybe three weeks here and two weeks [there]. I was in Havana, I was just outside Havana in a place called Playa, and also I've been to the center. I did a tour there with this band there, [featuring trumpeter] Bobby Carcasses. We played in Santa Clara, and I've also been in Matanzas, so I've travelled the island quite a bit."
Before Mother Of Dreams And Secrets, McAll recorded Release The Day, which also has many tracks based on Santeria rhythms. The album is a heavily vibed collection of music, and is a great entry point, along with Flashbacks, to McAll's music.
McAll's music, and that of artists such as Ben Monder, can appear, to some extent, to be a significant departure from jazz such as that from the '60s. "Firstly, any music that I've made does not exist without these people that have come before but, at the same time, I feel like music is an expression of the time you live in. And certain times that we've lived, like that of the civil rights movement, were such incredible moments in history. Such incredible music came out ofand was a result ofthat time, but I don't want to remake that music 'cause I had nothing to do with that. I want to try to talk about what's going on now. I like Radiohead, I like Brian Eno, I like Bartok and I like Squarepusher. I try to listen to a whole variety of music but I find that Radiohead seems to resonate strongly for me because politically their music speaks of nowit speaks of difficulties and even atrocities that are going on now, the chaos of our times, and transmutes those feelings into a musical form that seems to resonate and say 'OK, this is 2010.'
"Music has changed. And people like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Ben Monder, Tyshawn Sorey, Tony Malaby, Vijay Iyer, Mark Shim, those sort of peoplethere's a whole new influx of music, a whole new flow going on. It's like a new freedom in a way. There's something about Brooklyn or New York, that anything goes; it's almost like completely open slather and it really is just a game. You make up the rules yourself, but if you live in New York then there are less rules and more appreciation for less rules. The only rule is there are no rules!"
With respect to jazz piano, McAll has a lot of praise for the innovations of Bud Powell. "Bud was the first pianist I heard that sort of freaked me out in a way. My brother, who is also a pianist, played me "Willow Grove," a blues. I was probably about 12 and I still remember that feeling of not knowing what the hell it was but being really drawn to it. I could understand that it might be a blues, but it just seemed so beautiful and bizarre to me. I was horrified and completely drawn to it; Bud is really an important figure for me, even though my piano playing doesn't sound like that anymore. Definitely Bud, and the other classical stuff that I like to listen to. There's a New York composer, Sebastian Currier, I've just discovered him recently, and I've been listening to him. I like Morton Feldman a lot, and then Stravinsky, Eyeless In Gaza; all the greats."
Regarding Art Tatum: "He's the greatest pianist who ever lived."
There may also be a hint of Oscar Peterson's percussive approach, such as "Night Train," from the 1964 Verve album of the same name, in McAll's playing. McAll says, "I did actually listen to that record a lot, come to think of it. I was listening to music when I was very young[Australian jazz legend] Len Barnard was a friend of the family. He's a trad jazz player from Australia, so all these amazing records were left at our house. And when I was maybe six or seven years old I was listening to very swinging music and that helped me. I absorbed a great deal from records that were pretty hip for someone living in Mooroolbark [in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne]. I was just lucky to be connected to Lenny Barnard and have all these records lying around. I was listening to them at a very young age. So that was a great stepping off point for me. I had people like Pinetop Smith and old Muddy Waters stuff and this somewhat obscure Miles Davis record called "Tune Up" [from Blue Haze (Prestige, 1954)]. I learned a lot of the solos on itI could sing all the solos on it. These things really helped me to become a musician because I think I absorbed it like a food."
A look at McAll's "30 second" summary of his early influences may go some way to explaining his musical diversity today. "I started with Pinetop Smith, Muddy Waters, Bud Powell, Talking Heads, Throbbing Gristle, Kiss, Brian Eno, Joni Mitchell, The Cure, and Morton Feldman. So it was very eclectic, always."
McAll studied classical piano up through grade six AMEB (Australian Music Examinations Board). He says, "I still play some at home and I find myself drawn more and more to it as I get older. I was playing a little bit of piano, then with the Miles record, I must have been about 16 when I was starting to cop some of those solos. But we used to drive into the city with these friends of mine and we used to listen to these records, and we used to sing along with them. We used to learn all the solos. I suppose we listened to them so much that we learned the solos because we listened to them so many times. But now, when I look back on it, that was me absorbing and learning music itself, black music, you know?"
He describes his evolution as a composer: "I used to write music but didn't know I was doing itI was just playing games in my head with music, and after awhile composing became a learning tool for me, and even today I write music that I have to learn to play, or that I want to hear, and I am always growing through that process. But the most important unfolding occurred through playing with other people. Playing with Gary Bartz, for example, and when he finishes soloing, it's my turn. You are forced to come up with stuff or perish. Just hearing such great players and relating to them musically has been so beneficial and inspiring. I have been very fortunate."
There's a great live clip of McAll soloing with Josh Roseman, at the now closed New York club Tonic. "Tonic was on the Lower East Side. John Zorn originally set that one up [as well as The Stone], and it was very much about the music. You were open to play whatever music that you liked. It's funny, because a lot of different clubs have agendas. There's some sort of agenda in the way that they're set up and you're expected to play in that way. Then there are clubs like The Stone and Tonic, [where] there [is] no agenda. You just do whatever you want."
McAll's Tonic solo moves beautifully through a range of aspects and styles. McAll says, "I don't really know what was going on. I was definitely using some stuff that I had practiced and learned, but the thing that I like the most in listening back to it is what I don't understand but [which] is something spontaneousnot only spontaneous, but connected to everything else that's going on at that venue with that audience, with that band, with that instrument. That's really the optimum.
"Mulgrew Miller said something to me years ago, and I only understood it after a long time. I was here in New York studying with Mulgrew, this is something like 1994, and I said 'What's that chord there? What is it?' and he said 'Look. It's not a chord, it's a sound.' And after many years I started to understand what he was trying to say and that is: you practice chords and you practice scales and all these things, but really you are trying to describe something. So then it just becomes a soundit's like speaking, and so hopefully you can just let go and connect with what's going on in the room and who's playing in the band; just be in the moment and describe feelings as they occur. When I [am] really connecting with the moment, the music would resonate with meand probably the audiencemuch more strongly than if I had played some stuff that I had practiced."
A possible prototype for similarly exploratory piano may be Bud Powell's impressionistic solo on the live version of "All The Things You Are," from the famous 1953 Massey Hall concert with Charlie Parker, released as Jazz At Massey Hall (Debut/OJC, 1953), where he sounds is if he is musically wandering through a rich forest.
"I'm just grateful to have a mediummusicwhere I am able to describe things that don't have words musicallyor just ponder, in a musical setting. I suppose that's what's going on. Sometimes it's just a rush of ideas and sometimes it's one idea and it's a great pursuit and it's infinite."
On the Tonic clip there is also an unusual passage that sounds like rock/pop: "[I had a] small Casio keyboard that samples so I'd sung into it, had some of the band in it and was playing it back. You can sample it and just leave it, and when my solo came I just played it back."
More recently, McAll has been listening to, amongst other music, Beethoven piano sonatas. He comments on what now appears as more traditional classical music: "It's funny, because as I get older I put those things on, when I get the chance, 'cause I'm pretty busy. But when I get the chance to actually listen to some music, I'm more engrossed by it now than ever before. I'm listening to it as a description of some sort of otherworldly thing or place, and listening to it less in any theoretical way. Maybe I am over romanticizing, but I imagine I am hearing celestial descriptions of things that Beethoven understood and needed to manifest."
McAll has played, as leader, group member and sideman, with an array of musicians. A longstanding colleague is trombonist Josh Roseman. McAll has played in two groups with Roseman, the trombonist's big band Extended Constellations, and a smaller group called The Water Surgeons.
Roseman sometimes has a [Jamaican] ska tinge to his music. Says McAll, "He's basically just having a look at those [ska influences]he's half-Jamaican, half-Jewish. We actually did a record in Vienna with Josh New Constellations: live in Vienna (ENJA, 2007)that was a tribute to Don Drummond, trombonist from the Skatalites, but it was really all this subverted ska music, 'cause he's really into subversion. He's the great subverter. I've learned a lot from Josh because I've known him since 1992 or so, when I met him here [New York]. I've been playing with him on and off since then. He's a really innovative composer, and, like I was saying, there are no boundaries with what he writes and how he writes. It's very inspiring. Working with Josh has changed my perceptions of what you can do musically, compositionally.
"A lot of the players that I've had the fortune to play with here have changed me in a way that I'm very grateful for, 'cause you can reach out further when you're playing someone else's music that's reaching out further." Indeed, "Terminate Moby" was partly influenced by Roseman's work. "Actually it was sort of inspired by Josh in a way too, 'cause he has some music sort of like that."
McAll describes playing with Roseman's group, The Water Surgeons, which is documented with some clips on YouTube: "It is three trombones, and I play various sound objects and piano and an instrument called Chucky. But that's a pretty bizarre combination, because Josh plays trombone and bass; Jacob Garshik plays trombone and accordion; Curtis 'Curha' Hasselbring plays trombone and guitar; and I play piano, bass and sort of freak stuff. It's a really bizarre combination." Roseman's website describes the group as "a semi-ambient trombone choir."
Continuing the trombone connection, McAll has also toured with the great Fred Wesley, trombonist and former music director for James Brown. "Fred's an amazing person to be working with. I learned so much just from hearing him play, the way he takes his time. He's really a seminal musician. He was James Brown's musical director when James was really peaking in the late '60s towards the early '70s. Then he went on with Parliament Funkadelic, and he played with Maceo Parker's bands [Brown's famous saxophonist]. He wrote a lot of hits with James. To tour with him is a real honor and I feel very fortunate because I learn so much everytime I'm just hanging out with him."
"I got to play with Maceo through Fred. I did a gig in North Carolina and Maceo was on it, so I got to do some duets with Maceo. It's just so amazing to hear these guys play. There's so much culture and so much weight in every note they play."
McAll explains how the duets came about: "We were doing this concert and Maceo said, 'Do you know "Autumn In New York?"' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Let's play it.' I was having trouble with my keyboard, so I had to stick around, and Maceo wanted to stick around at the sound check before the concert. And then he said 'Do you know "You Don't Know Me"?' and I was like 'I love that song,' so, 'What key?' 'Eb.' We played it and felt really good and he said, 'You know what, we're gonna play two out tonight.' So, in the middle of the concert he said 'OK we're gonna play just a couple of songs, just the pianist,' and it was fantastic. Then the rest of the band came on, and it worked really well because it created a nice arc to the concert. 'Cause after we finished, it really built up. It was a really great experience just to hear Maceo; he was a great jazz player. He could really [play], he's such an individual musician. So that was a highlight for me."
A frequent collaborator [he is on the Lithuanian concert] is Peter Apfelbaum: "He is another great influence on me. He's just a natural freak of a musician. He's a beautiful pianist, tenor player, drummer. He plays drums, tenor and organ in Josh's big band. We just finished recording Josh's big band record, and he's another guy [where] there are no rules. 'No rules' is the only rule that he abides by."
Tenor player Billy Harper has also been a big influence. "He played with Max Roach, he played with Louis Armstrong, Art Blakey and Lee Morgan. He's like my mentor here. He's almost like my New York dad. Actually, I toured with him in Australia when I first met him, and when I came to New York I asked if I could study with him and he said, 'You know what, I don't really teach, but you can come and hang out.' And I've been hanging out with him for many, many years. The whole way he lives his life, the way he writes music, everythinghe hasn't really showed me things as such, but I've just learned by hanging out with him."
McAll even recorded with Jimmy Cobb on the pianist's first album. "Jimmy Cobb was the drummer on Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959), and my first record, EXIT (Jazzhead, 1996), was with Jimmy Cobb and that was a really magical experience. He actually was in Australia with Nat Adderley and I was already friends with Vincent Herring, who was with Nat, and I asked Vince if he and Jimmy would play on my record. So we rehearsed in my St Kilda flat, which was like a small apartment, and I had Jimmy Cobb in my apartment which was pretty surreal as it is. But to have a musical experience with someone like that; Jimmy Cobb is just a beautiful cat."
McAll's latest album is Flashbacks. It's something newa subtle and bright blend of seductive and involving tones nestling next to electric sounds. McAll says, "This is where I'm at, at the moment." The album features trombonist Roseman, electric guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, Groove Collective tenor saxophonist Jay Rodriguez, altoist Tiger Rex and percussionist Pedrito Martinez. The drummers and bassist on the record vary: Drew Gress plays double-bass on five tracks, Jonathon Marron plays electric bass on two, and Matt Pavolka appears on the sensitive closer, "Ten Days Of Silence," where he plays unison lines with McAll. Obed Calviere plays drums on all tracks except "Ten Days," which substitutes George Schuller at the kit.
The launch party for the album will see some changes in line up. McAll explains: "Ben Monder is playing on the April 8th record release [at the Jazz Standard]. Kurt is living in Europe now, so it's difficult to get him over here." And long-time mentor Billy Harper will be playing tenor at the launch. "I asked him to do [the album], but he wasn't around at the time." McAll says he likes the lower sound of tenors. It is interesting that altoist Gary Bartz, with whom McAll has been working with for a long time, can sound like a tenor. Of Bartz, McAll says, "[He's] another great influence. I love Bartz; he's magnificent, man, a real freaking master."
Rosenwinkel makes a major and signature contribution to the album's mood and sound. There are two tracks that see some dark fusion from the guitarist, atypical for him. McAll says, "I tried to put him in some unfamiliar boxes. That's not easy with Kurt 'cause he's been in a lot of different boxes, but you know I mentioned John McLaughlin to him, and he was on Release The Day. I mentioned McLaughlin 'cause I sort of like when Kurt gets knee deep into some filth."
"Red And Black Shifts," is the first heavy guitar etched track, but the guitar is only one part. A lengthy, chunky, dark riff begins the piece, giving way to congas and rapidly rising piano figures. A tiny hint of Bud Powell's presence is, perhaps, briefly noticeable. The latter section is a shift in rhythm for conga and piano, nearly half way through the track. The opening is reprised, followed by Rosenwinkel's solo. It is hard to get away from this track. Percussive piano, dramatic drumming and Hendrixian traces erupt... and then, finally, the trip is over. Until the next track.
A stand out slower piece is the melodic "Circle Cycle," a complete mood change. In the radio-friendly key of A major, an attractive falling theme passes through the leading note, giving rise to a suspended major seventh effect. Sax and trombone blend in unison with the piano throughout the theme.
A particular signature of the album is the unison passages between the piano and another instrument. On "Elegua Dictate," it is the electric piano in unison with the guitar, while on "Flashback" there is a piano and sax unison section. Sometimes there is piano with sax and trombone, and on "Ten Days Of Silence" it is piano in unison with bass. McAll acknowledges that unison playing is something that he likes, and says. "I like that sound. It's hard for me to know what it is except that it's trying to describe something about my life. I suppose I'm just trying to stay true to what I'm hearing."
Elements of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus appear towards the end of the album. These are two composers who inverted everything, in terms of voicings; elsewhere, in the publicity for a performance in 2008 by another unit which with he has been associated, Triplum, the slogan urges you to "pump up the treble"another inverting of the norm.
Featured in various places on the album is a McCall invention. "I have an instrument on there called 'Chucky.' It's a sound that I've been hearing for a while. It's this box that I made. First I doctored all these music boxes, filing back all the little time things on them, and then I put them all on this board inside this sort of spy case. I put a glockenspiel and kalimbas in there, and then I put some Piezo pickups on the wood that they were attached to. That goes directly to a delay pedal, and basically I can make all these textural, high, atonal celestial sounds with it."
"It's not really a new instrument: it's a sound that I've been hearing for a while but I couldn't find it anywhere else so I decided to make it. And that's the sound that you hear on "Ten Days Of Silence," that sort of atmospheric thing. It's subtle but it's there. It's been on a couple of Josh's records. I'm trying to make a name for Chucky, actually. I'm trying to get him off the deck." Indeed, at the very end of the record, one can hear a whisper of what sounds close to a music box.
McAll's website describes Chucky as "a self-styled musical instrument for textural enterprise and underwater landscapes."
There are some very interesting sounds on McAll's Release The Day that are a progenitor of Chucky. "I made Chucky after those tracks, but I wanted to hear that sound and that's why I made him." An idea of what Chucky accomplishes can be picked up from how McAll obtained the sounds on Release The Day. Tracks from the album that catch the ear include "No Go Die," "Obatala" and "Chaos Lento." McAll says, "'No Go Die' was [Fender] Rhodes through a Ring Modulator pedal; 'Obatala' was a celeste through a delay pedal, and 'Chaos Lento' was an old piano frame that I sampled and processedbut now I have all those textures in a box like a spy case."
So, Flashbacks is a grouping of sounds that may be a significant step in the development of music at this time. It is not a collection of added beats or an amalgam of dark mumblings, as is some contemporary music. It is a cohesive, pre-composed unit of powerful sound. It is, then, a kind of new direction, or perhaps a tighter focus on the way music should progress. There are no vocals, but they are not needed on this music. The music is as vital as any new Billboard "Hot 100" release, and probably with a great deal more groove.
The album brings together many aspects of McAll's muse. The record is an adventure in sonic blastery on some tracks (the "dirty" passages of guitar, the percussive piano and the dynamic percussion), combined with a hard-to-escape smoother groove on the majority of the tracks.
In addition, the album is also sonically fascinating, with Chucky just one innovation. There are also more traditional sounds on the record. "Josh Roseman has a magnificent studio with a concert Bosendorfer, so when I need to do drums or piano I do them there; I do everything else at my house. [However] Flashbacks was done at Josh's and was pretty much a live record. It really sounds great. The sound that they're getting over there is really incredible."
Recently, McAll was pianist for the singer Sia, during her appearance on The David Letterman Show on television.
"That was a trip actually. It was great to see through the looking glass; to see that Letterman's desk is sort of grubby and there are bits of tape everywhere, but they have really expensive lenses and everything looks so high end and beautiful when you actually see it on TV, it's interesting to see. Before you go on they have to set you up and get all your sound ready. You do a sound check before you go on; you have like five minutes, the time of a commercial, so there's twenty people running around, just preparing it and shouting. Then they do "cut," and then Letterman's all relaxed and he's like, 'Ladies and gentlemen...'
"It's interesting to see that, because when you watch TV it all looks so smooth, but to make that smoothness there's so much stuff going on and [there's] also that strange phenomenon. When you do something like that, something changes in the air because it's going out to so many people. The next day it was up on YouTube with 300,000 hits or something, so that was an amazing experience. I've known Sia for a long time. I've known her in Australia, and I've got to say that she's a really great artist."
Currently, McAll is working on a project with Australian singer Gian Slater. McAll says, "That's a new project, called Sylent Running. I don't know how to describe the band, but Gian was just here [with] Chris Hale, the bassist, and we started recording. We have a lot of the tracks done; we're just finishing them up. That's going to be a whole other meme. That's the main thing I'm working on now. And I also have an album of Guajira's. It's a slow, Afro-Cuban style of music; I have an album's worth of stuff that I want to record, but I don't know [exactly when yet]. It's a beautiful type of slow, rhythmic music, but it's piano music that I wrote before Flashbacks. I would like to record that sometime. Maybe some person will give me some money to do it!" But, for the benefit of the uninitiated, it is not Latin music as such. "They're not really Latin. They're sort of pretty subverted, weird guajiras, that's for sure, but taking a leaf out of the Latin book."
It could be said that McAll is expanding further into Afro-Cuban sensibilities and sounds. "Maybe. I've only just scratched the surface, I haven't even done that. It's so expansive, that music. I mean, all music is. I remember there was an interview with Oscar Peterson sitting at the piano and he just had a tear in his eye and he said, 'Look, this instrument is just infinite.' And it's so true. And that's Oscar Peterson!" [Laughs]. It's like when someone picks up a guitar for the first time and you realize you can do anything with it, compositionally. "Yes, you're so free. We're so free but we're so constricted, but we're so free.
"So [that] and Sylent Running are the two main things I've got going on at the moment," says McAll.
There is also the documentary film about to be released, for which McAll has written the music. "I've just finished a film that will be coming out in a couple of months, called We All Fall Down. I do that on and off; I really enjoy film writing, so we'll see what happens." Feature films are an option McAll would also consider: "Yeah, I would like to do that. So far I've just done political documentaries, which I've really enjoyed because I feel like my music is part of something bigger, like a bigger message. When you see the film on a big screen, and you see how far- reaching and three dimensional it can beI have really enjoyed doing that, but I wouldn't be averse to doing a feature."
Recently he has also played a gig with the Groove Collective at the New York basement club, Fat Catthe venue noted for its large array of pool tables. "I've worked with those guys for a long time and I actually write a lot of music for them. We were actually nominated for a Grammy in 2007. But the band is not working that much, just occasionally, so it's sort of a rare gig." However, in February, 2009 the group also played a concert in Mexico. "That was amazing. It was really, really fun. There were like 2,000 people in the city square in Guadalajara. We actually just improvised the whole concert. We had a few ideas that we had written, but basically we improvised it. And it was fun to actually improvise with that many people listening. Their energy actually helped for the improvisations to come off well. It was really spectacular. I loved it."
McAll doesn't want to limit any future genres that he might explore: "Well, I don't really like to put a category on it. I'm more interested in just realizing my potential as a musician, in the true sense of what a musician is. So any offshoots from that, it's cool, but I would really like to realize my potential as a musician."
He would not necessarily describe himself as a pianist or a composer. He says, "I think I'm a musician. I love to play and I love to compose and I feel very very fortunate to be a musician. I feel like I have something to say."
His last words speak to, perhaps, a Voltarian philosophy: "I want to my music to be useful."
Barney McAll, Flashbacks (Extra Celestial Arts, 2008)
George Schuller/Barney McAll/Matt Pavolka, Trio This (GM Records, 2008)
Jonathan Zwartz, The Sea (Jonathan Zwartz, 2008)
Jo Lawry, I Want To be Happy (Fleurieu Music, 2008)
Gary Bartz, Coltrane Rules (OYO Recordings, 2008)
Josh Roseman, New Constellations: Live In Vienna (Accurate Records, 2008)
Groove Collective, PS1 Warm Up: Brooklyn, NY, July 2, 2005 (Kufala, 2007)
Barney McAll/Badal Roy/Rufus Cappadocia, Vivid (Jazzhead, 2006)
Groove Collective, People People Music Music (Savoy Records, 2006)
Greta Gertler, Peccadillo (Greta Gertler, 2006)
Barney McAll, Mother Of Dreams And Secrets (Jazzhead, 2005)
Barney McAll/Genji Siarasi, Baby Winter Kufala, 2005)
The Jay Collins Band, Poem For You Today (Hipbone, 2005)
Fred Wesley and The JB's, Wuda Cuda Shuda (Hip Bop Essence, 2004)
Jay Rodriguez/Ron Trent, Batidos (Six Degrees Records, 2004)
Groove Collective, Brooklyn, NY 04.20.02 (live album) (Kufala Records, 2002)
Gary Bartz, Live At The Jazz Standard Vol 2 (OYO Recordings, 2002)
Groove Collective, Live And Hard To Find (live album) (Kufala Records, 2002)
David Rex, Collision Course (Jazzhead, 2002)
Groove Collective, Giant Step Record Sessions Vol.1 (2001)
Barney McAll, Release The Day (Transparent Music/Jazzhead, 2000)
Richard Worth, Rise (Giant Step, 2000)
Vince Jones, Virtue (1999, EMI)
Barney McAll, Widening Circles (Jazzhead, 1998)
Barney McAll, EXIT (Jazzhead, 1996)