“I practice and study music by a philosophy of preparing myself to play in the moment, to be at-ease at the piano, to be able to go in different directions,” is how Bruce Barth summarizes his aesthetics. “When I start a solo, I like to have a clean slate, see what develops, listen to the other players and react to what they’re doing. I think of it as playing without an agenda, with nothing to prove.”
It’s an optimistic credo, which Barth hews to throughout his remarkable new recording, Hope Springs Eternal. Barth doesn’t need to prove a thing to New York’s demanding community of improvisers; he’s one of the jazz capital’s most respected pianists, equipped with capacious technique equally applicable to spontaneous combustion and introspective cerebration, an encyclopedic range of rhythmic and harmonic tropes at his disposal. He’s a master listener, a probing comper behind a soloist or singer, a warm melodist who uses the whole piano with a precisely calibrated touch. Fully conversant with the whole tradition, he knows how to draw from it to tell his own story — no mean feat in an age when improvisers must assimilate enormous chunks of information just to keep head above water. “I feel I could spend a lifetime trying to understand Art Tatum’s voicings and chord substitutions, McCoy Tyner’s interrelationship between the hands, the way he goes in and out of different tonalities,” he comments. “The challenge is trying to find out what I want to say, creating something personal, letting influences churn around inside and hoping I play something that sounds like myself.”
Now 40, Barth has relished that challenge from his earliest years in music. “I began playing the piano when I was 5,” recalls the Harrison, New York, native. “I always loved to play by ear and to improvise, to figure out Pop and Rock tunes at the piano. I didn’t hear a lot of jazz until my high school years. My older brother bought me a Mose Allison record for my fifteenth birthday, which I flipped over. I probably gave half the chords the wrong names at the time, but I figured things out. I started to buy records by Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner, and learned a lot of the basics of playing. Later I started hanging around the SUNY-Purchase campus nearby, took a jazz course with Lou Stein, and met some jazz students there who I jammed with.”
After attending several institutions of higher learning, Barth wound up at the New England Conservatory in 1982. He studied with Fred Hersch and Jaki Byard, and became active on the Boston scene, landing a two-year weekend trio gig, and getting major league experience on jobs with the likes of Jerry Bergonzi, George Garzone, Bill Pierce and Grey Sergeant. “I didn’t feel quite ready for New York back then,” Barth confesses. “In Boston there was a little less pressure, and I was able to work more. I constantly learned new tunes, taking them off records and working them out on gigs. I had the chance to play with bassists like Teddy Kotick, who’d been with Bird, and the Chicago bassist Richard Evans, who had played with Ahmad Jamal and Dinah Washington, with a great beat, a beautiful sound.”
By 1988, when Barth took the New York plunge, he was a mature, focused musician with a keen sense of what he wanted to do. He jammed extensively with peers, worked with Nat Adderley, Stanley Turrentine and Art Farmer, and landed in Terence Blanchard’s steady-working unit in 1990. “Terence was dealing with certain modern concepts that I wasn’t so conversant with, unconventional chord motions and rhythmic groupings of fives and sevens,” Barth states. “It was a great situation for me, and helped me develop.”
Barth’s Enja recordings Focus (1992) and Morning Song (1994) reveal an expressive composer with interests as diverse as his improvisation. The material included spirited song-book reharmonizations, compositions that invoked a wide range of moods, spanning angular Monkish grit, mature lyricism, linear post-Hancock sophistication. Some pieces explored extended forms, allowing each soloist to play over a different theme. On Hope Springs Eternal Barth digs deeper into multi-thematic writing and explores a variety of Latin rhythmic signatures. The music sounds lived in - organic, improvisations emerging inevitably from the warp and woof of the writing.
“In 1996 I played several months with David Sanchez,” Barth reveals. “I’ve been checking out Latin music on my own for the past 15 years, but didn’t feel I could really play in a Latin band several years ago. Recently, having studied montuno and the clave, I’ve felt more comfortable. David, John Benitez and Adam Cruz showed me things about specific rhythms for particular tunes, even to the point where they’d suggest montunos to play that would work. David’s trying to stretch the boundaries. His music is interesting, based in the Latin music, but with modernistic elements — some odd time signatures and unique harmonies. Out of the eight tunes on this date, six have some straight eighth elements, and it’s the widest gamut of grooves I’ve ever put on a record.”
Without enough work as a leader to employ a set band, Barth relies on an elite circle of New York improvisers with whom he has “pretty constant musical relationships — I’m never disappointed with the people I call, that’s for sure.” For the week at Manhattan’s now defunct Visiones that produced Hope Springs Eternal, Barth employed a top-shelf quartet. In-demand soprano and alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, currently with Chick Corea’s Origin, appears on his third Barth record. “Steve is constantly creative and surprising,” Barth enthuses. “He puts so much of himself into interpreting other people’s music that he’ll find creative nuances, things that actually improve the music that you hadn’t imagined.”
Of Ed Howard, bassist of choice for the likes of Roy Haynes and Victor Lewis, Barth comments: “Ed’s an earthy, versatile bass player who will experiment and take chances.”
Howard locks in with drummer Adam Cruz, whose recent credits include Eddie Palmieri, David Sanchez, Brian Lynch and Chick Corea. Of Cruz, who contributed the evocative “Full Cycle,” Barth enthuses: “Adam is a very wide-open musical drummer, a very well-rounded musician. He knows music, and plays very good piano. He has an intimate familiarity with many types of music. He grew up with Latin music, and he’s immersed in the jazz scene of New York. He’s a very wide-open, musical drummer, and can play a wide variety of grooves, which we took advantage of on this gig.”
Hope Springs Eternal shows that Barth has found a way to morph antecedents into a distinctive Barthian entity. “I feel more and more that influences are there,” Barth responds, “but they’re not as explicit. I think composing and leading a band makes it easier to develop a unified musical vision. I’m writing tunes that involve the kinds of elements I’m exploring in my playing, the composing-arranging and the playing become of a piece. Particularly within tunes that don’t have standard chord progressions, it’s easier to explore your own way of playing, and you’re challenged to reach for something that’s your own.”
The upbeat lead-off title track “is in two sections,” Barth says, “with Steve playing the melody on soprano and I’m doubling it on piano. In one part of the first section the bass doubles the melody, and in the second part — a shorter, vamp-type section — I drop out and Steve plays the melody with a counter-line in the bass. The second part has some time changes, a couple of 3/4 bars and a 2/4 bar that give it an off-balance feel. Adam eats it up, plays the tune the way I imagined it to sound.”
Barth’s lyrical “Wondering Why” features Wilson on flute. The soulful slow-medium swing tempo number “starts out with a straight eighth introduction, almost Aaron Coplandesque, the kind of chords you might hear in American Classical music.”
Barth’s fast Latin line, ”Hour of No Return,” featuring Wilson’s alto, closes the set. “It’s a kind of companion tune to ‘Full Cycle,’ says the composer. “It’s basically in F-minor, with a double-time feel like a Samba, but a very open-ended groove. My idea was to have the rhythm section groove on the melody but Steve and myself to float over the top, rhythmically very free, almost out of tempo, followed by open solos for Steve and myself.” The groove is built on Cruz and Howard’s hard-won mastery of metric modulation; Barth’s dazzling solo echoes the spirit of Herbie Hancock from “Inventions and Dimensions” while never xeroxing the maestro’s tropes.
“Darn That Dream” gives Barth an opportunity to demonstrate his intimate mastery of the Piano Trio Function. “I try to approach tunes without a preconception of what I’m going to do,” Barth comments. “Here in the intro, under the second A, I spontaneously used some descending major thirds under the melody. I’m a stickler about tunes. I almost always buy the original sheet music so I can see the exact melody the way it was written, and I do like to see the lyrics. I played “Darn that Dream” for many years before I checked the melody and realized there was a note I’d been playing wrong — but I was so used to it, that I kept doing it!
“The challenge of playing piano in a trio setting is utilizing the sonic resources of the piano, thinking of it more orchestrally for variety. The piano can sound like a lot of different things, and you need to use your imagination. Rather than thinking, ‘I’m going to play a G7 chord,’ you think ‘I want to sound like a big band’ or ‘I want to sound like a waterfall’ or ‘I want to sound like bells chiming.’”
The quartet returns for “The Epicurean,” a Wilson original. “It’s classic Steve,” Barth enthuses. “I’ve heard him describe it as coming out of an Eddie Harris-Les McCann funky straight eighth vibe. It’s a through-composed melody with some variations, and a vamp figure at the beginning and end of each chorus. Steve’s writing is very personal and recognizable, with melodies that have interesting twists and turns, interesting chords — like his playing.” Barth’s bluesy solo conjures Wynton Kelly (“he’s my first favorite pianist”) in its propulsion and articulation, and Herbie Hancock in its variety of textures and rhythmic devices.
Barth’s Monkish “Up and Down” is his only original that’s a standard song form, AABA 32-bar tune. “For me it’s just a nice relaxed tune for blowing, using some major 2nds and a melody based on arpeggiated figures, differing from the type of melodies I usually write, with more linear motion,” says Barth. “I used some wider intervals. The melody goes up and down, while the last A is a somewhat inverted version of the first two A’s.” Barth’s ebullient declamation shows his idiomatic assimilation of the High Priest’s rituals; Wilson leaps through the changes on his alto like Charlie Rouse at his most expoobident.
Adam Cruz contributes “Full Cycle,” rooted in an evocative bass ostinato handled resourcefully by Ed Howard. “It’s a Latin tune with a peaceful, tranquil feeling and a lot of rhythmic interest in the melody, and we improvised collectively on it,” says Barth. “I like very much the combination of piano and soprano together. First, Steve and I play the melody in unison, then as a canon, which I think works nicely.”
“Revolving Door” is a two-section eighth tune featuring a Wilson alto solo that builds from simmer to full-boil, followed by a dancing piano solo that’s Barth, juxtaposing delicate chords with fleet lines so subtly that you might overlook the leader’s devastating chops if you’re inattentive. “In the first section,” Barth says, “Steve plays a strong melody, a minor key with descending chords. There’s a short piano interlude at the end, almost a kind of question mark or something a bit more plaintive. The second part is a more lyrical melody in a major key. Again, rather than have one instrument play the melody all the way through, I divided the melody between the alto and the piano, just for a little variation of color.”
Each player on this vibrant, in-the-moment date is more than up to the task.
Ted Panken “Downbeat,” WKCR