Bruce Barth is a versatile, busy musician. Whether leading his own trio in performances in New York City's finest clubs, teaming with accomplished vocalists like Carla Cook or Luciana Sosa, sharing his music with Spanish or Japanese audiences, or playing in Steve Wilson's acclaimed quartet, his intentions are clear. He always works to follow his inner voice and stay true to the music.
Jazz Review: When we spoke last, you were getting ready for a live recording project that became Live at the Village Vanguard. Tell me about the experience.
Bruce Barth: I had played with Ugonna Okegwo and Al Foster earlier in the year when we had done a week in the Vanguard. I played there last February; and then Loren Gordon asked me to come back. I thought "Why not?" I had done a live recording a few years ago called Hope Springs Eternal with a quartet, and I had never recorded a trio live, so I thought I'd give this a try. The idea was to go in, get comfortable, and then record the last three nights of the engagement. Some of the material we had played before, and I had some new material as well. We tried to record in an unselfconscious way, just have the tapes rolling and record the trio doing what we do.
Jazz Review: When you're doing this kind of thing, how do you prep your audience?
Bruce Barth: I think we told the audience that we were recording live. At one point, I asked them to turn off their watches - one night one went off during the ballad. In general, I don't want the audience to act any different than they would normally act. A Vanguard audience is one of the best jazz audiences in the world, generally speaking, a New York audience at its best, a really well educated and sensitive audience. It's a great place to record.
Jazz Review: What do you like most about doing live recordings, as opposed to studio sessions?
Bruce Barth: I like the immediacy of just playing for an audience. I do feel comfortable in the studio; but just knowing you're there live...in the studio, you always know you can do another take or start over if you need to. But playing live, there's always a sense of do or die. What takes a little pressure off is that if you're recording three nights. Chances are that you'll have three versions of a tune. You're not going to go back and fix anything, but there's something that's exciting about playing live. It could be nerve-wracking; but I feel so comfortable with these players and comfortable enough with myself to let it fly and see what happens.
Jazz Review: You definitely sound comfortable with each other on the recording. There's a lot of give and take, and you're very comfortable musically.
Bruce Barth: Thank you so much. The way I try to plan how the trio plays is pretty much playing without an agenda, to be comfortable with who we all are as musicians, individually and as a group, so that we can just let the music unfold. Some of the tunes are arranged; but in terms of a direction the music will take, it's pretty open. I don't have a sense of "I want to get this in." When I start a solo, I see where it takes me; and I feel that Ugonna and Al share the same philosophy. We try to be in the moment and see where the music takes us.
Jazz Review: What do you feel is your greatest challenge when doing a live recording?
Bruce Barth: I think that the greatest challenge is knowing that you cannot start over or take anything back. This is one of the advantages of studio recording. I think the fact that we had takes to choose from different nights in some ways took the heat off. I might have felt more challenged if we had only recorded one night. We recorded Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and played some of the tunes all three nights because I was sure they would be on the recording. Several tunes ended up being taken from Sunday night. Sometimes you think that a certain set feels like magic, and the first set on Sunday felt that way. It was nice knowing that this was happening and the tape was rolling; because Murphy's Law dictates that, usually, those nights that it happens, the tape is not rolling. Sometimes musicians joke about the fact that, the minute you start recording, you play worse, or, the best playing are on the nights that aren't being recorded.
Jazz Review: Many musicians tend to be self-critical of their own performances and abilities.
Bruce Barth: It's true. In the last few years, I have become more accepting of my talents&although of course there are still areas I want to work on and improve. I've become more accepting and appreciative of my own musicianship, beyond just the craft of the music, the expression of the music.
Jazz Review: How was the emotional climate at The Village Vanguard? What was the audience like?
Bruce Barth: I felt very happy to play at The Vanguard. As I mentioned before, at its best, a New York audience can be one of the greatest jazz audiences, because it's a very cultured audience. Think about all the jazz that's been played in New York through the years, and in the Vanguard in particular. Typically, you'll have an audience with a lot of people who really know the music. In addition, you're likely to have many musicians in the house. My friends and fellow musicians are very supportive of me. In general, when I play in town, they will come out. They are very warm, and I feel like it's a special occasion. But I feel that way every time I play in New York, and particularly in The Vanguard. I felt very supported when I was there during that week.
Jazz Review: When you do a live recording, how do you get the audience to forget they are being recorded and just relax?
Bruce Barth: I think the audience won't really get too nervous for us. I think they probably get a kick out of knowing it's recorded and if they scream they might be heard for posterity. There are famous screams in live recordings. I don't think there's any inherent challenge in being in an audience for a live recording.
Jazz Review: Besides Live at the Village Vanguard, what other projects have you been working on lately?
Bruce Barth: I have a really important gig coming up, the Jazz Festival in San Sebastian, Spain. It's the first time playing in a major European festival with my trio, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, and Montez Coleman on drums. I met Montez about three years ago while I was playing in St. Louis. He has a great feel, positive energy, and such a nice groove. I feel a personal affinity for both Ugonna and Montez, as well as a musical affinity. This is our first major festival. I'm working towards that, practicing and working on some new compositions and arrangements. I also enjoying working on old things; because when you're working with musicians, the material can really evolve with time. Some of the pieces we've been playing for three years now just keep changing. You look for something new, and sometimes the challenge of finding something new within a familiar song can inspire you to find new things more easily than with new material.
Jazz Review: Because you have the familiarity with the material and the comfort level to take chances.
Bruce Barth: You're absolutely right. It's partly the comfort level, but it's also the fact that, since you've been playing the same material for so long, you keep trying to go deeper and deeper, trying to discover things you can do with it. Probably the most notable example of that approach I can think of was the Miles Davis Quintet of the mid 1960s, with Wayne and Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and Herbie Hancock, where they just played the same half dozen songs for years and explored them so deeply. Speaking of familiar material, we revisited "Star Eyes" on the recording. I enjoy standards, especially trying to do a standard in a way that might put it in a new light. We gave it a long meter, taking a long time to get through the melody, and I re-harmonized it, trying to make it mysterious and evocative in a certain way.
Jazz Review: What is the favorite venue where you have performed? What is it about that place that makes it special to you?
Bruce Barth: I think The Vanguard is special because of the vibe there. I'm somewhat partial to New York clubs because I have a relationship with several of them. A lot of it is the New York audience and friends and fellow musicians who come by. I also like Sweet Rhythm, formally Sweet Basil, the management, the vibe of the club. I also like The Jazz Standard; it's a great club and probably the most hospitable staff of any club I've worked.
Jazz Review: You spent some time performing in Europe during the spring. How are the audiences there different from their American counterparts?
Bruce Barth: I was in Spain in April, and Japan in May. Spain has a very enthusiastic, younger audience, and they seem in general more interested in other forms of popular music. I find that the Spanish audience, and in Europe in general, seem more interested in broader cultural things, especially things that are outside the commercial mainstream. In Spain, people might not know the particular musician but they'll go give it a try, "Let's go out and hear some jazz." It's a "going out" culture also, partly because people live close to the family, especially people with kids who can just drop the kids with the mother or sister and go out for the night, even a work night. Maybe it's because of their siesta; you wouldn't see that here from people here who have regular jobs. Spain has been one of my most regular destinations in the last few years, and I've grown very close to many musicians in the Spanish community. In July, I will be playing with Perico Sambeat, a great alto saxophonist who's one of the most prominent musicians in Spain. We've been friends and worked together once in awhile for about the last seven years. In Spain, especially Barcelona, the state of jazz is very healthy. There's such a group of talented, serious musicians who really want to play well.
Jazz Review: What about Japan?
Bruce Barth: Japan is just incredible in terms of the number of clubs, I sometimes say that if I were a sociologist, I would do a study of jazz culture in Japan compared to the United States. I believe that if you have a city of 50,000 people, you'll have at least one club with live jazz, and one or two more clubs with a few seats where the owner has a collection of recordings and a fantastic stereo system. I've been to several of these places and been exposed to American jazz records I hadn't come in contact with before. There's this really intense interest in jazz. It's a small but very knowledgeable segment of the population. People who follow this music most closely tend to be slightly older people rather than younger. There are many young musicians there, though. There are so many small clubs in Japan, as well as some large venues in the bigger cities. I grew up in a town of about 35,000 people, and I couldn't picture it having any kind of jazz place. It makes me wish that there were a little more of that kind of jazz culture in this country.
Jazz Review: When you select music for a CD or a live performance, how do you make choices? Do you have something that you look for in a song, or does it have to fit a pre-conceived theme?
Bruce Barth: I try to have the process be organic. For me, I'd rather record when I feel I have a body of music to record. The next record I will make is not planned right now. I'd like to do it with Ugonna and Montez; and when I do it will be when we've developed music with the trio as a result of touring and playing. It's a matter of gradually introducing music to the repertoire that is a mixture of songs that I've written&it tends to be music I've chosen. I'm also open to music brought by other members of the band, also. A couple of arrangements of songs that Ugonna has brought in are things that have become staples of the repertoire. Things that I add to the repertoire are, hopefully, songs that I can relate to in a deep way. Just because I've written a song in the past does not mean I relate to it in the same way today; maybe I'm hearing something different now. As far as choosing standards, it will probably be one that I feel a special affinity for. Usually there's something about the sum total experience of the song: the melody, the harmony, finding the right tempo for it, and the right key. All these things will hopefully make it into a song that I can connect strongly with. That's the heart of it; finding material that I feel a deep connection with and then taking it from there. When we have enough material as a trio and we've explored it deeply, then it's time to record. There's nothing wrong with having a record date and writing material for that date. At this stage, this feels a little bit more natural for me, like the recording is an outgrowth of what we've been doing as opposed to a "thing."
Jazz Review: And you have to be comfortable with what you are doing in order to produce the best product, something you can be proud of, anyway.
Bruce Barth: Yes. I should also mention that supposedly, in Kind of Blue, Miles just brought those tunes in that day. A couple of them he had worked on with Bill Evans; but they say that he just brought those in. Some of them were just pretty basic sketches of what he wanted and he put them in front of the guys, and they made a masterpiece. So the other way can work great also, I think.
Jazz Review: As a sidemen, how do you feel it's different to support an instrumentalist compared to a vocalist?
Bruce Barth: At this point in my life, I'm playing with singers who are at a very high level as musicians, so there's no real difference in working with an excellent singer as with an excellent instrumentalist. In either case, I will try to be as supportive as I can be while they're singing or playing. I really try to listen, respond, and try to be with them. It doesn't mean I won't sometimes initiate certain things; but in general I want to make them sound as good as I can and try to enhance what they are doing. The singer I have been working regularly with is Luciana Sosa, the Brazilian singer and composer. I've learned a lot about Brazilian music from her. Singing happens to be her instrument; she's a very accomplished composer and an all-around musician. There's no real difference in working with Luciana and working with an instrumentalist. I think that's true of singers who've really studied the music.
Jazz Review: Do you feel that singers who play instruments or do something other than singing know more about the music or are more comfortable with it?
Bruce Barth: I do. I think that singers who've studied the music can say more what they want, know more about what they want. Some singers are very good, but they rely on the pianist. I had an experience where the groove wasn't quite right. The singer couldn't verbalize about what was happening in the percussion section. Some pianists or horn players can be the same way. As musicians, when we have a band, we really need to know all the instruments in the group, especially if you're a bandleader and you're presenting your arrangements. You really have to know what's happening. If there's something that you're not feeling comfortable with, know what it is. There's always a specific musical reason.
Jazz Review: I know you've been working with your trio lately. Have you also been working with solo instrumentalists?
Bruce Barth: My main commitments, besides my own band, are Luciana and the Steve Wilson Quartet. I have a very long term, special relationship with Steve. He's one of the first musicians I met when I moved to New York in 1988, and we've been playing together about fifteen years. We've made several recordings together, played several tours in each other's bands, and I feel a special affinity with Steve's music. I think he's one of the greatest musicians out here. I feel it keeps getting better with Steve. The other group that I feel special about is the Tim Armacost Quartet. I've been in that quartet with Tim, Ray Drummond on bass, and Billy Hart on drums. We've gone to Japan every May for the past four years. It's been great in terms of my feeling for the other people as musicians and as people.
Jazz Review: As a producer, you have done projects with several MaxJazz artists. What do you think is the most rewarding aspect of working with other performers in this way?
Bruce Barth: When there's some creative input. With my musical experience, I can bring my perspective as a musician to the date, having a good sense of what the musicians are doing and understanding what the artist is trying to do. There are many great producers who are not musicians, so I'm not saying one has to be a musician to do this. I've been told by certain musicians that they really appreciate having me involved because of my being a musician. In general, I'm more drawn towards projects in which I am creatively involved, with some arranging or at least some input into what's happening. It's a delicate balance, because one thing about MaxJazz is that they really respect the artists. That immediately puts the producer in a less active role, in that the producer is not going to dictate who plays on the record and what material is played. I'll make some suggestions; but ultimately, artistic decisions are left up to the artist.
Jazz Review: Where do you see jazz going in the future?
Bruce Barth: My main perspective is New York. Right now the scene is so vital. In New York City, I could go out every single night; there's so much happening right now in so many different areas. I'm very interested in the straight-ahead jazz scene, I'm very interested in a lot of things going on at The Jazz Gallery. They present music of very searching, interesting musicians; the programming is very creative. I'm also interested in the downtown scene, The Knitting Factory scene, Brazilian music, Afro-Cuban music. There are so many different worlds of music happening now, sometimes intermingling, sometimes on their own. It's a multi-faceted musical scene. Jazz has become so international, not only in terms of jazz being played throughout the world, but people from all corners of the world bringing their musical culture with them. New York is such a melting pot. One thing that I love to see is people who incorporate aspects of their own music into jazz.
Jazz Review: What do you see in your future as a musician?
Bruce Barth: I see my future as trying to keep developing as a writer and as a player, continuing to play with some of the wonderful musicians I've mentioned, and working more with my trio. For me, that's probably been the most satisfying.
Jazz Review: What is it about jazz that keeps you coming back?
Bruce Barth: There's something about playing in the moment that is a challenge and a true privilege, because you really get the chance to say, "This is how I feel right now." For me, the challenge is to have a more direct and expressive way in playing the music. That's really what I strive for. As musicians, we spend a lot of time working on our craft: the melodic ideas, the harmonic ideas. At the end of the day, it comes down to what you are expressing as a human being. That's really what it's about. I'm trying to continue delving deeper into that.
Jazz Review: If you had one piece of advice to give a beginning jazz performer, what would that be?
Bruce Barth: Always follow your inner voice, follow your ear. Try to play everything as honestly as you can. Play what feels true for you at that moment.
Jazz Review: Are you playing any shows in New York City in the near future?
Bruce Barth: Actually, I'm playing quite a bit in the next few weeks. I'm playing with Carla Cook this weekend, a wonderful singer and friend that I've had a long association with, on August 1-2 with my trio at Sweet Rhythm, and August 7-10 at The Jazz Standard with Steve Wilson's quartet.
Jazz Review: What is your next big project?
Bruce Barth: I'm just focusing on these performances, These are important for me.