Barney McAll: Dynamic Pianist And Composer
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."