Barney McAll: Dynamic Pianist And Composer

AAJ Staff By

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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 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."

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."


Letterman Adventures

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."


The Future

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.

Barney 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 be—I 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 Cat—the 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."

Selected Discography

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)

Photo Credits

Third Photo: Lillie Of Paris

Bottom Photo: Wangaratta Festival

All Other Photos: Courtesy of Barney McAll

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