New Zealand pianist and composer Steve Barry has been living and performing in Sydney since 2009. Well known as a sideman for touring artists such as John Hollenbeck, Theo Bleckmann, George Coleman Jr. and Chris McNulty, he is also the regular go-to-guy for local artists such as The Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra, Dale Barlow, Simon Barker and James Muller.
On the strength of his eponymous debut album, Steve Barry, I get the feeling we will have to do as we did with the Finn brothers and Rusty Crowe (and any other frighteningly talented Kiwi) and willingly refer to him as the Australian pianist and composer Steve Barry. The album really is that good.
In a world of astounding soloists (yes, those 14 year old YouTube Yardbirds) what seems to set the finest jazz apart is the communication and empathy between interacting players. This communication is so expected today that it is pretty much a cliché – that is, until one asks, How often do I hear true, ego-less empathy in jazz ensembles; that virtually telepathic group-mind of a Bill Evans Trio or Miles First or Second Quintet? (Not such a cliché after all, is it?)
From Steve Barry’s album opener, ‘B.W.’ we know we are in for a treat. The trio of Barry, Alex Boneham and the always elevating Tim Firth truly have that spooky rapport, that twined-consciousness that leads to great things. As much as ‘B.W.’ cooks and roils, the ballad ‘Vintage’ allows that superlative communication to flow across a piece that reminds us of the true meaning of ‘nostalgia’ – ‘homecoming ache’ in the Greek.
Guitarist Carl Morgan joins the trio for the cooking ‘Changes’ and the bopping ‘Unconscious-Lee’ – an angular Monk-trip, a wigged-out cousin to Lee Konitz’s ‘Subconscious-Lee’. Morgan shines on this track, snaky and biting.
Morgan returns for the driving 6/8 ‘Sparse’ – one of the many tunes here where Barry’s playing brought to mind Keith Jarrett. The sparkle, the fingers-joy over the top of truly effortless technique, the swoon (no, Steve Barry doesn’t spin around in that Keith J trance when he plays) – all served to bring Jarrett to mind.
But of course, Steve Barry is more than an imitator of anyone – he has his own voice, in performance and in composition (check out the utterly transporting Esbjörn Svensson-via-Bartók ‘Clusters’) and in Boneham and Firth he has a magic band. It is hard to conceive that Steve Barry is his first album as a leader. I eagerly await the next twenty or so.
Prior to posting this review I asked Steve Barry a few short questions. Here are his responses:
1. You have been on the scene for a few years now. What was the spark that led to this album?
Musically it wasn’t so much a spark as a graudal developmental process. I’d been working on the music for a while and had reached the point where I thought the album would be an honest artistic statement. Having said that the instigator was really facing a few months overseas in the middle of the year and being largely away from a piano, as well as Alex living in Italy for most of the year. On top of that Tim and his wife are about to have a baby, so if it hadn’t been then it might not have been for a while!
2. Even though your playing has a nicely original voice, I can hear Keith Jarrett in there as well as others. Who’s playing shaped yours?
Sure, Keith has been a huge influence. I love his seemingly inexhaustible knack for melody (especially with the standards trio) and his solo cadenzas/concerts are just incredible. Herbie Hancock is huge for me to, especially with Miles in the 60s. Lately I’ve been listening to a wide range of stuff, from modern jazz guys like Kurt Rosenwinkel and Aaron Parks, back to things like Shostakovich‘s Preludes and traditional African pygmy music. I’ve also been geting more inspired by works of fiction, I just finished a great book by Jonathan Franzen called “Freedom”, which looks at the implications of the word in modern families and society. Check it out!
3. They are great players, but what did you see in Alex Boneham and Tim Firth that would fit your music so well?
Alex and I met at the Sydney Con when I moved over in 2009 and have been playing together a lot since then. He has a huge sound and is a really strong creative presence both on and off the bandstand. He also has an infectious perpetual excitement about life and learning, which is really inspiring (and he makes great coffee). He’s happily taken though sorry ladies… Tim and I started playing together a few years ago and he’s just what I like about a drummer – he’s always listening and interacting and also supporting whatever is going on. He’s also got a huge amount of flexibility and is always ready to take the music to different places. And he has monstrous chops! It also helps that he’s a lovely dude, a great poker player and enjoys a nice scotch.
We’ve been playing together as a band for about 2 years now, and there’s a really strong, almost intuitive musical connection happening. I’m also happy to call them very close mates.
4. You use Carl Morgan on three of the 10 tracks on the album. Why guitar instead of, say, a tenor horn?
Carl and I started playing together when he moved up from Canberra a few years ago – we lived together for about 2 years and did a lot of playing/drinking of beer/talking about music during that time. Carl is totally passionate and focussed about creating music and is always striving to explore new ways of playing and composing. I wanted him on the album because I love his playing and I like the timbre of piano and guitar together. The tunes were also arranged so we could could get a lot of interaction in (and hopefully I could steal some of his licks).
5. What are your thoughts on Jazz in Australia right now?
It’s really strong – I think we have a pretty special thing happening. Australia is a great environment and culture for creating and exploring new music – we have access to a huge range of sources, and in Sydney at least there are more performance venues springing up all the time. We don’t have anywhere near as strong historical tie to jazz as the Americans do, which I think has both pros and cons – the pressure to “pay our dues” isn’t as strong as there’s a real focus on original music and ways to create it. Having said that I think there are a few ideas we could take from the Americans – for example there’s a powerfully competitive spirit in NY that continuously pushes all the musicians there forward. There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance, but in general I feel we could have more outgoing faith in presenting what we do and what we’re about.
6. And finally, what are your thoughts on music in general today?
That’s a big question! I think it’s really healthy. There’s always going to be your Lady Gagas/One Directions/Justin Biebers but there’s a lot of incredible music happening out there if you’re interested in finding it. Sure, it would be nice if a few more people came to jazz gigs, but I have a great lifestyle and get paid (mostly good money compared to the rest of the world) for doing what I love. Can’t complain about that!
Steve Barry’s website is here
Published December 2102 on australianjazz.net