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Bruce Barth - Don't Blame Me


Bruce Barth - Piano
Ed Howard - Bass

Billy Drummond - Drums

1. Don't Blame Me (5:06) J. McHugh
2. Days Of June (6:45) Barth
3. Evidence (6:30) T. Monk
4. Song For Alex (5:56) Barth
5. For Clara (7:34) Barth
6. Prospect Blues (6:43) Barth
7. Lazy Bird (3:37) John Coltrane
8. The Way He Wore His Hat (5:17) Barth
9. Autumn In New York (4:46) Vernon Duke
10. Fasinating Rhythm (7:00) Ira & George Gershwin
Total Time 59:39

Listen to CD Tracks

Touch is to a jazz pianist what charisma is to an actor: It is the X-factor, the “it” that cannot be defined. It is the most elusive of qualities, yet it is unmistakable. You know it when it’s there, and when it’s not.

    Bruce Barth’s buoyant touch — by turns percussive and gentle, rhythmic and lyrical — is what sets him apart from the bumper crop of young jazz pianists to have emerged since 1990 on the New York jazz scene. It was in evidence on his first two recordings (both quintet dates on Enja) — “In Focus” (1993) and “Morning Call” (1995) — both of which landed on New York Times jazz critics’ top 10 CDs of the year list. It’s been increasingly on view in the two years since “Morning Call” as Barth has led groups in some of the leading jazz rooms in New York — Sweet Basil’s, Visiones and the now-defunct Bradley’s — a sign that his career has taken off. And that subtle, and supple, touch, both as a composer and improviser, gets a fuller hearing on “Don’t Blame Me.” It is the pianist’s first trio recording, with bassist Ed Howard and drummer Billy Drummond, and the most compelling example to date of Barth’s powers as an improviser.

    Barth has been much in demand since moving to New York from Boston in 1988; his versatility caught many an ear early on. During his four-year stint (1990-‘94) with Terence Blanchard’s quintet, I heard him move seamlessly between the two sides of the group’s musical personality: a hard-edged, muscular swing and passages so still and contemplative that a listener felt transported.

    Since then, I’ve heard him play wide open and free with forward-looking alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, one of Barth’s closest musical allies, splashing dense, modernist clusters all over the piano. I’ve also heard him play exquisite ballads, finding fresh melodic and rhythmic variations in standards you’ve heard a hundred times. And on another occasion I heard him comp rich and strikingly unexpected chords behind a straightahead trumpeter like Eddie Henderson, pushing the veteran to burn hot. Barth has also ventured into the solo piano realm, recently playing an afternoon of Gershwin tunes at the Museum of the City of New York. He has played on a number of movie scores as well. In August he appeared on a double piano bill with James Williams as part of the Panasonic Jazz Festival in New York City. And he’ll soon be touring the U.S., Canada and Europe with his own band.

    Much of Barth’s versatility was honed in his own living room in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. When he first got to New York, Barth, who has a grand piano in his apartment, found himself hosting regular jam sessions featuring some of the best young jazz players in the city: saxophonists Wilson, Vincent Herring and Sam Newsome (also a Blanchard alum), bassist James Genus and drummer Billy Drummond. Barth’s eclecticism has earned him calls from Stanley Turrentine, Art Farmer and the Mingus Big Band, as well as a busy recording schedule, having appeared on some 20 sessions with some of the best young musicians in the city.

    But with Bruce Barth it always seems to come back to touch. You can hear in Barth’s playing traces of pianists known for their magical sense of touch: Herbie Hancock, Hank Jones, Wynton Kelly. But that only tells part of his story. Barth has been working hard to transcend his influences, to get beyond imitation and create an original voice.

    Barth has a natural sense of swing, an ear for melody, and he never seems to press or overplay. And though he has technique to burn (he was classically trained from age 6), he never shows off. Like a poised basketball player who never forces the action, Barth seems to let the tune come to him, so to speak, dictating his will gently.

    Which bring us to “Don’t Blame Me.” It’s a mature record, unhurried, long on substance and short on flash. It’s the kind of record you’d expect from someone much older than Barth’s 39 years. There is a probing quality to the trio and Barth finds some musical room to move. Time is suspended in spots, a loose pliability taking hold. Yet there is a simplicity to the record, an unadorned dignity, especially on the solo piano take on Autumn in New York.

    “Don’t Blame Me” contains five originals and five standards; it’s a mix of tunes Barth has experimented with many times and ones he’s just recently penned. About the standards, Barth says: “What I like about playing standards is since they’re familiar you can relax and blow. Yet at the same time I try to develop a personal approach to them. They’re songs I’ve played for years, and different standards provide different challenges and different opportunities. On some — like Autumn in New York — it’s the harmonic progression. On others — like Monk’s Evidence or Fascinating Rhythm — it’s the rhythm.”

    The title tune, Jimmy McHugh’s Don’t Blame Me, opens the date and it is perhaps the CD’s tour de force, the finest example of Barth’s emerging trio approach. There is a loose elasticity to the tune as it moves from suspended time to a medium, swinging groove, with stop-time passages, a hint of a 6/8 feeling and sections that seem to swell spontaneously before falling away. Barth is after a kind of controlled freedom in his trio playing, a sense of experimentation within the boundaries of the melody-solo-restatement of melody form. And he’s found it here, and elsewhere on the CD, with the help of Howard and Drummond, who revel in the high level of musical interplay.

    His solo on Don’t Blame Me speaks to Barth’s desire “to get away from a single-line right hand, to draw on a variety of textures, to broaden the palette.” He’s done that here with the dramatic use of his left hand, which often takes over the melodic load and is not simply there to add chordal accents; it makes for a rich and dense two-handed approach.

    Days of June is a poignant, rolling waltz Barth wrote for his wife and son, whose birthdays are three days apart in June. Barth’s 3/4 tunes move gracefully yet they are full of tension and suspense.

    The trio’s take on Thelonious Monk’s study in rhythm, Evidence, continues the exploration of form laid out in Don’t Blame Me. After the statement of Monk’s highly idiosyncratic and angular theme, Barth brings out the lyricism lurking just beneath the surface of Monk’s melodies in a long solo section. And in another dramatic example of how form can be stretched within a mainstream context, after Drummond’s wonderfully precise solo he continues to interact as an equal partner as Barth and Howard rejoin the fray, giving the tune a decidedly free-wheeling quality.

    Song For Alex, a Barth original written for his son, is a gentle, bluesy ballad with a sweet but mischievous quality. Barth first played the tune in a duet setting at Sweet Basil’s with Steve Wilson on soprano sax.

    Barth’s For Clara is a rich, beautiful melody set in a loping, bossa nova -like rhythm, one of the pianist’s tunes — and he has written a number of them — that sound so familiar you think they must be jazz standards.

    Prospect Blues, a spiky, Monkish melody, is an homage to Barth’s Brooklyn neighborhood, home to the pastoral Prospect Park. Barth has an affinity for medium tempos, and he and the group dig in deep on this bluesy romp.

    Barth flexes his improvisatory muscle on John Coltrane’s up-tempo classic Lazybird, blowing melodic variations over the changes and not stating the melody until the conclusion of the tune.

    The medium swinging The Way He Wore His Hat, according to Barth, “is based on a Monkish chord, with a rhythm from Gershwin’s They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” The hat reference is, of course, to the bebop pioneer.

    Vernon Duke’s Autumn in New York finds Barth at his wistful, lyrical best. “I’ve been playing this for many years, both solo and with a trio,” says Barth. “It’s a poignant tune.”

    Fascinating Rhythm sends the recording out marching to an infectious beat. Barth cleverly sets the Gershwin standard in a rollicking New Orleans “second line” beat. The take is pure joy, Barth rolling out several choruses of two-handed, bluesy, funky fun.

    Of his running mates, Barth says: “I feel fortunate to play regularly with great musicians like Billy and Ed, both of whom I’ve known for years. Billy (a much in demand drummer who has worked with Sonny Rollins, J. J. Johnson, to name a few) was one of the first musicians I met when I moved to New York. He has a great cymbal beat, a good ear for color and he has his own sound on the drums.”  “Ed has a great feel,” Barth says about big-toned bassist Ed Howard, who is a member of Roy Haynes’ group and the Victor Lewis Quintet. “Ever since we were on a quartet gig together at Bradley’s that just felt great, he and I have been working a lot together. He has a creative way of bringing out the character of a tune and making the group gel.”

    With any luck, “Don’t Blame Me” won’t be Bruce Barth’s last trio recording. “I find playing trio to be a great challenge. I’d like to open sections up and experiment with the form. I think there’s still room to explore.”

Robert Goldblum - New York City - August '97

    For Clara is dedicated to the memory of my beloved aunt, Clara Friedman.
    Many thanks to Ed, Billy, David Baker, Rob Goldblum, Kim Berry, Roz Corral, John Nugent, Ben and Louise Barth, My wife Elsa and son Alex.
    Special Thanks to Fred Hersch and Wayne Winborne.
Bruce Barth - Aug '97