Barney McAll: One to Watch

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I was listening to Bitches Brew a lot before I recorded the CD and I just loved the way Miles and Teo Macero had captured such rawness. I was very aware of trying to capture the feeling you get when you play a tune for the first time.
This interview was first published in 2001.

Barney McAll All About Jazz: First, if you don't mind, tell me some other biographical details (where did you study?)

Barney McAll: I was born in Melbourne Australia. I started playing piano at seven years old. My older brother John, was very influential on me playing, as he is a great pianist and composer.

I can remember playing games in my head and just playing piano for hours on end and many times I would play right into the night. I'd look up and realize it was dark and that I had been playing for hours and hours. My parents were friends with Jane and Len Barnard (the drummer) and so I think Lenny left a lot of jazz records at the family house. I can remember the first jazz piano I heard—it was Pinetop Smith playing 'Pinetop Boogie.' I loved this music, I can remember he is interviewed on the record and the interviewer says 'Pinetop, you know there's a lot of awful good piano players out there?,' and Pinetop says "Yeah, I know, I better start practicing RIGHT NOW!"

...But it wasn't until John, my older brother played me some Bud Powell that I was really hypnotized by music. When I first heard Bud I was shocked and I can still remember how I felt—I had no idea what he was doing, it was so sour and so sweet, and that was it, I wanted to play piano.

I studied classical music up to AMEB Grade Six. I also studied at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne. I joined Vince Jones in my first year and was touring a lot so I only barely passed, but Vince's band was a great learning opportunity.

I also received a study grant from the Arts Council in 1991 and I studied with various private teachers in NYC. Teachers such as Barry Harris, Mulgrew Miller, Walter Bishop, Jr., Larry Goldings, etc.

AAJ: What does this new album represent in terms of your career? (Tell us about the Transparent label too please). Tell us how you got to this point.

BMcA: The new album represents a shift in musical aesthetic from something less straight ahead Jazz to something hopefully more universally appreciable. I had observed myself reaching for certain CDs in my collection over the years and I wondered why I it was that I chose these particular CDs. What it was that drew me to them? (The Necks' Sex, Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, Mike Nock's Touch, Herbie Hancock's Speak like a Child, Donny Hathaway Live, Keith Jarrett's Survivor's Suite, to name a few). I thought, I'd really like to make a CD that I would reach for, that my friends and family might reach for, that has something in it one would like to hear again.

I was also trying to create a warm feeling about the music, to create a music that set up a feeling in the room, and where the feeling was more important than any technical display.

In the studio I explained to the musicians that I wanted a hypnotic and trance-like feel to the music. After it was finished Chuck Mitchell, who is the head of Transparent Music in NY, heard it and said he would put it out.

This has been a real blessing because Transparent have done an excellent job of promoting it and getting the music heard. It is also a relief because it's so hard to get any music out unless you have a name and high profile or unless you are with a good label. With Transparent I have finally been given a break so that people can hear my music. There's a good chance now that other doors may open because I have sounds on the airwaves and in stores. I am delighted.

AAJ: Tell us about your Havana experience, the Santeria thing and the Orishas (it's quite a way from home for an Aussie isn't it?). How did you become familiar enough with Afro-Cuban culture and its idioms?

BMcA: I was first introduced to Afro-Cuban music by the percussionists that were in the Groove Collective (the NY-based funky-jazz Latin-hip hop ensemble I have worked with on and off for about five years). On tour buses these guys would play a lot of folkloric Cuban music, Haitian music, Latin jazz etc and I was eventually captivated by it.

I decided to travel to Cuba after this and that was the most inspiring outing I think I have ever had. I remember a photographer saying to me once that if you want to take an incredible shot in Cuba, just load the camera close your eyes and shoot! and that will be it! ...It really is that picturesque. It's far out too because you really wouldn't know you weren't in 1960 in many parts of Havana and Cuba. It's a trip.

Musically there is so much purity there. I mean you can't really make any money there as a musician or as anything. So what that does is help to create the most pure and soulful music because it isn't market driven or money oriented.

It's just amazing how musical the Cubans are. They could be the greatest musicians in the world and against very bad odds. There was a lot of poverty. I went to some Santerian ceremonies there. That was a real blessing and honor. These ceremonies are like church services, healing rituals, and spiritual oases all in one. They are sources of great light in a sometimes dark environment.

It's hard to describe what it was like there but the spirit was present, that's for sure. Cuba really is the jewel of the Caribbean.

I took a little keyboard in as well and had some lessons there with several great pianists. Here in New York I also play in a Latin Jazz ensemble called Mambo Macoco and this has been pretty inspiring and educational too. Bobby Sanabria played drums with the band recently and that was incredible! (pick that name up off the floor would you, Shane).

AAJ: Explain your thinking behind "Thirty Three" and "Obatala" please, as well as the Tanzanian folk thing.

BMcA: Well, what I did on these first two tunes was to apply my own harmony and melody to these certain ceremonial rhythms. "Thirty Three" started out as an Elegua Rhythm which I slowed down and changed around a bit. I did the same thing with "Obatala." I started with the original rhythms as a foundation and then just experimented with them.

It's funny because when we went in to the studio, Eddie Bobe, the percussionist on the CD, who is very knowledgeable as far as Afro-Cuban music is concerned, told me we had to record the Elegua rhythm first. This is because Elegua is the spirit who 'opens all doors.' Eddie then said that if the spirit of Elegua is unhappy with the situation then the tapes will get chewed up or some other catastrophe will occur!

As it turned out though, that track is my favorite and really just unfolded like a dream. I'm grateful.

With the "Tanzanian Folk Melody," I have had this cassette of African field recordings for years and the track I adapted has been on my mind for quiet a few years. It's amazing, it really sounds like John Lee Hooker on the cassette. Anyway, I just transcribed it and worked with it mixed it up a little bit in the studio. It's pretty much all a G minor pentatonic scale and based fairly closely with what's on the tape. I loved the sound of it. I've been listening to a lot of African music lately.

AAJ: In contrast, "Release The Day" sounds a bit like a Philly soul thing from the '70s or '80s. What's going on there?

BMcA: Good question! I mean I have always loved soul music. Especially Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder. It could be a sort of homage. I was thinking about Gary Bartz playing on it when I wrote it, I know that much. That was also the track that Joey Baron didn't have to worry about at all. On some of the other tracks, Eddie would explain the rhythm to Joey before we could start. On "Release The Day" it was flicking a switch. A groove switch! Joey worked with Barry White at one stage you see.

AAJ: Your synthesizer work and some of the guitar work reminds me a little of Jack Johnson and Bitches Brew (and a little of Zawinul). Was that a conscious idea of yours?

BMcA: Yes and no. I was listening to Bitches Brew a lot before I recorded the CD and I just loved the way Miles and Teo Macero had captured such rawness. I was very aware of trying to capture the feeling you get when you play a tune for the first time. There is a sort of fresh unfolding that occurs the first time you play something and I wanted to get that on tape. There were no rehearsals in an attempt to capture some of that sparkle... I may also have uttered the M word to Kurt as well.

AAJ: There is quite a breadth of music on the new CD though there is nevertheless a very coherent treatment of certain things, such as a high degree of composition and arrangement (compared with comparatively little improv), horns and guitar that would fit into the Stax soul method, an emphasis on the band sound overall and the compositions rather than soloists, and a wide ranging mixture of influences—Africa and left-field synthesizer, for example. Do you agree?

BMcA: Yes. I like the idea of a unit and a band sound more so than some startling soloing. I like Al Di Meola but prefer Muddy Waters. I also like combining tricknology with raw and live playing and I have always tried to mix up all sorts of influences and elements with my music to keep things fresh and hopefully surprising.

At the same time, I am also trying to find my own voice amongst all this and to to achieve a continuity and some sense. Pretty crazy hey? I suppose the eclecticism may reflect my New York surroundings?

But I will always be searching I think. I'd like to be an 'eternal beginner,' to quote Rilke... and hopefully just find a few spots of magic along the way.

AAJ: Do you see yourself as a synthetist of these various things?

BMcA: I suppose so. It's funny, Billy Harper told me he never listens to music at home. He has no desire to hear it and feels it may corrupt his own sound. I, on the other hand, love to listen to all sorts of music and find great solace in it. Solace and inspiration... I suppose I'm trying to balance these external musical influences with my own intuitive music. The thing is though that African music or Indian music or great players like Bird or Coltrane for example can engulf you with their potency and power and you may never find your own, if humble, music.

I can't forget the dream I had where I went to a composition class that Mike Nock was taking.

I was wearing headphones, meaning I was listening to music on the way to his class. Anyway , in the dream Mike took them straight off and kicked them sky high!

I took that to mean 'stop listening to external music and start focusing on more individual and internal music.'

AAJ: On The Pulse segment you said the term 'jazz' was outmoded. What you mean? How does this relate to what you're doing?

BMcA: I suppose I would just prefer not to be considered a jazz musician so much as an improvising musician or even just simply a musician.

The word Jazz is too heavy with baggage at this stage. Many people who saw the Ken Burns documentary here in the USA would think I sounded just like Louis Armstrong if you told them I was a jazz musician! I love music but it doesn't have to be classified, just good. I feel that classifications can be detrimental or harmful.

But you can find my CD filed under Jazz!

In terms of how it relates to what I'm doing, I of course come out of the Jazz tradition but I am seeking to make music, as opposed to Jazz.

AAJ: Tell us about working with Gary Bartz.

BMcA: I believe Gary is one of the greatest story teller musicians on Earth. I think the most important thing I've learnt working with Gazza is that you have to tell a story when you play, when you improvise. He is very connected to the sounds and lines he plays. He not only hears them but he feels them.

He is playing lines for no other reason but to express the moment, to express what he is feeling right then and there. In the nearly three years that I have been working with him he has never told me to play any specific thing, never told me to lay out, or to play any different to what I'm playing. He once told me to relax when I first joined the band and that's it. And I really appreciate and respect that. It means he allows the musicians he works with to do their thing and he lets the music unfold as it is—instead of egotistically trying to control it.

We were driving back to New York from a gig in Washington DC once and he was talking to me about how a lot of players might try to upstage each other or get the most applause etc, then he said "it's not about that, it's not about the ego, it's about all this," and he gestured to the landscape we were driving through. I like that. It speaks to me of the importance of life and how it should feed music and how it IS music.

Gary Bartz is also a link to the tradition of this music. He worked with Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Max Roach, McCoy Tyner. etc. I just feel blessed to have the chance to work with him and to learn from him—mostly without him saying a word.

He was a stand up comic at one stage as well so it's also always a great laugh.

AAJ: Tell us about working and living in New York.

BMcA: Well ...have you ever heard what Jack Kerouac said about New York? He said something about it being like 'the rainbow in the oil slick.'

I like that analogy. It's a hideous rat race here in NY. But I love it. I love the music most of all and I love working with the superb musicians here. I have learnt so much here. The good stuff here, musically speaking, really does rub off on you. When you get a chance to perform with a really great musician or even just hearing one, you can feel the that something is going on. That you're receiving some lesson. It's as if certain players have such a history that every time they play its a happening and there is no alternative.

It's hard yakka dealing with this monstrosity of a city but I am enjoying it at the same time. I have paid plenty of dues here and things are going well for me now.

Earlier this year I played for the second time with Gary Bartz at the Village Vanguard. It was really amazing. That place is like a shrine or something. You can feel the residue of all the great music that has been made there and to play on that stage is very special.

There is a poem on the wall in the band room which says:


Deep in the Vanguard Darkness
lovers enraptured by spirits
set time on its ear
'vibes' they say
is that ghosts

AAJ: What happens after this?

BMcA: Well I have just finally found a quiet apartment in Brooklyn where I will be able to play piano into the night so I'm really looking forward to writing a lot and putting together a new CD worth of music. I'm part of trombone player Josh Roseman's new recording and that should be most interesting, to say the least. Kurt Rosenwinkel will be on it as well as the drummer Rodney Holmes and saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum.

I'm also recording a trio record soon with five-string cellist Rufus Cappadocia and tabla player Badal Roy.

And lastly, I'm happy to say, I'm going to playing in Brasil with the great Dewey Redman this October. I am really excited about this. Matt Wilson will be playing drums too and I love his playing. Dewey just called me out of the blue.

That's really like the pot of gold at the END of the rainbow.

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