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Barney McAll: Dynamic Pianist And Composer

By Published: April 7, 2009

Arvo Pärt

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 solos—they 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 Josquin—called 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 uses—like Pärt, he is interested in how notes relate to each other.

Barney McAll

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" [1976]. 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 space—The Stone [itself]—and it's only really about music this space—you can't buy drinks there, you can't buy food. It's just chairs and a piano and a sound system—when 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).]

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Afro-Cuban Bata Music

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 custom—many Afro-Cubans, and certainly the keepers of the Santeria faith, came principally from the Yoruba region of what is now Nigeria."

Barney McAllAn 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 off—I'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 band—it was so diverse and it was just a great experience. They loved it there. Someone sent me the concert—I 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

Paco De Lucia
Paco De Lucia
1947 - 2014
, 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."

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