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Barney McAll: Dynamic Pianist And Composer

By Published: April 7, 2009


McAll's latest album is Flashbacks. It's something new—a 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

Drew Gress
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
George Schuller
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
John McLaughlin
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."

Barney McAllElements 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 processed—but 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."

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