We recently had the opportunity to have a chat with Australia’s own Grammy-nominated jazz pianist, Barney McAll.
MJ Tell me about your early musical experiences and influences growing up in Melbourne.
BM Well, I started playing piano at about seven years old, and I used to practice by myself. I’d play games in my head that at the end of the world, those people who could survive had to play a song. I used to play games like that for hours, and then I’d look up, and it would be dark outside. So then, I had a band and we started playing around, and I started getting more into jazz. I had Len Barnard live up the street, a great Australian jazz drummer, and he turned us on to Pinetop Smith, Bud Powell and Miles Davis. We had another friend who turned us on to all this blues music, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf. Eventually I would go in and out of the city playing gigs with people, and I started working with Vince Jones, Alan Browne, Doug De Vries, Gary Costello… I wasn’t anywhere near supposed to be in that band. I had to learn fast, and then I really started working hard and shedding.
“I wasn’t anywhere near supposed to be in that band. I had to learn fast…”
MJ You are an Australian, but you’ve spent a lot of time abroad. Do you think that Australia has it’s own brand of jazz, it’s own flavour, or are we just doing the same kind of thing as people all over the globe?
BM It’s a complex question. I think there’s possibly a music that’s developing, and it stems from American jazz. Improvised music in Australia has changed to be less influenced by straight-ahead black American music. It’s more compositional, so it’s kind of a hybrid. This is happening as you say, all over the world. Improvised music is becoming less of a jazz thing, less walking bass, swinging hats, and more experimental, involved in all sorts of rhythms and meters, and intervalic ways of writing music and playing it. Whether it’s just that life changes and people make music that’s relevant to a changing life.
MJ You’ve worked with a large number of high-profile acts. Everyone from Roy Ayers and Maceo Parker, right through to a lot of pop acts like Aloe Blacc and Sia to name a few. How do you think this has shaped the way you play?
BM Significantly, I think. I was working with Gary Bartz for many years, and then I started working with Fred Wesley who works with Maceo. I remember going back to play some straight-ahead jazz with Gary Bartz, and he said, “Tell Fred, thank you”. What he was saying was, tell Fred thank you for helping you lay in the pocket, to play more simply, and to listen. That was a direct way that playing funk has helped me be more musical in a jazz context. Playing with Sia, and Aloe Blacc, Daniel Merriweather, that’s great music as well. I suppose all those influences help you to understand that there’s only two kinds of music; good or bad. It helps you become a better musician, and to make music as opposed to jazz.
“…all those influences help you to understand that there’s only two kinds of music; good or bad.”
MJ How would you describe your style of playing?
BM It’s a difficult question, but it’s kind of a lot of different influences. Stylistically, I’ve been deliberately trying to infuse gospel colours into my music. Previously, I was into Afro-Cuban music, so, that’s in there a little bit too. But I’m really just an improvising musician, I’m a spontaneous composer.
MJ It’s interesting that you cite those particular influences, because listening to your playing, it’s the gospel inflections and Afro-Cuban influences that seem most prominent, even when you’re playing in other genres.
BM Yeah, I’m not trying to play those genres and try to rehash them, but I’m interested in infusing it, and just getting some of those colours that I find so beautiful and so interesting.
MJ Did you have a favourite player growing up, and has that changed over time?
BM Yeah, it’s always changing. Growing up, it was listening to a lot of Bud Powell and being just completely perplexed and lured into the music. And I always loved Keith Jarrett. I also loved the piano playing of singer songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, and especially Ray Charles. I find their piano playing really mystical, and very original.
MJ During your musical journey, can you remember a piece of advice that you received that had a particular impact on your way of thinking or playing?
BM Wow, I can give you a couple. One of them, Daniel Merriweather said to me, which was, “If you don’t try to be bluesy, you’re more bluesy”. I think that’s pretty hip. Gary Bartz hadn’t ever given me any advice on how to play. When I first got to New York we were doing a live recording of a jazz standard, and he just said “relax”. That’s all he’s ever said to me. But I think the best piece of advice that anyone’s ever given me, is a piece of advice that I’ve heard four or five people say, and that is, “just keep playing”.
MJ Your arrangements are often very lush and rely pretty heavily on the musicians in your ensembles playing a specific way. How much of this is about getting the right guys in for the job, and how much is your direction?
BM Which piece are you talking about for example?
MJ You have a piece called thirty three which starts out with a bass motif that’s repeated throughout the whole song.
BM That piece was a fantastic experience because it was based on an Afro-Cuban rhythm called Ellegua. You have to play that piece first, because you honour Ellegua in the Afro-Cuban tradition. And if the spirit of Ellegua likes what you’re doing, then your tapes in the studio won’t get chewed up. What you’re hearing is the first time we ever played it, cos I wanted to write simple, lush things that people could sightread, and then they would feel the song unfolding as it was going onto tape. We started with that piece on the record, and it went for 15 minutes, it was really very exciting. The percussionist had spoken to the drummer, Joey Barrett, and told him what to play, and given him direction. Apart from that, I had just chosen the players, which were amazing musicians, and we just played it.
MJ A lot of your music has quite open, improvised forms. How much of that is prearranged, and how much do you just leave up to the gig?
BM Well, I’m interested in the unexpected, and I’m interested in getting away from the whole jazz idea of head, solos, head. So, it is very much arranged to be the way it is manifested. But by the same token, good musicians can follow a tangent that is indicated by any of the musicians, and just milk it or flesh it out on a dime. Good musicians can feel something changing or some direction, and everyone can go there immediately. Without musicians having that incredible quick-wittedness- their whole life is about being able to change very quickly. A lot of the music that I write is really helped along by that incredible reflex of creativity.
“Good musicians can feel something changing or some direction, and everyone can go there…”
MJ You’ll be performing with your quintet at the jazz festival, with a few local favourites. Can you talk a bit about the music and the band?
BM So the band is called ASIO, which stands for the Australian Symbiotic Improvisers Orbit. The players are Jonathan Zwartz on bass, Simon Barker on drums, Julien Wilson on tenor saxophone and Steve Magnusson on guitar. These are all the players that are also on the new album which is called Mooroolbark, dedicated to the place where I grew up. We’ll be playing the CD release of Mooroolbark at the Melbourne Jazz Festival. Asio, interestingly enough, also stands for the genus of true owls- you’ll want to put that in the article please (laughs).
MJ And are you now back in Australia for a little bit?
BM I’m in Sydney for the whole of 2015, I’m doing a Peggy Glanville-Hicks composer residency in Paddington, so I’m just composing for one year here.
MJ You’ve worked in a number of different settings, do you think your playing style changes significantly depending on who you’re playing with?
BM Most certainly. In fact, if you look at a band that’s been playing together, you get much more music and creativity than if you have the best players in the world all thrown together in a superstar band. All superstars together does not necessarily make for good music. I’ve played with these guys in this band for a while now, and I’m looking forward to it because we’re trying to develop it as a band.
“All superstars together does not necessarily make for good music.”
MJ Is your current lineup the preferred format you like to play in?
BM I’m kind of liking this, you know, tenor saxophone, guitar, bass, drums, piano. I’ve written all this music for that, and it’s a compact unit. Julien Wilson’s such a beautiful player, as is Steve Magnusson, so you really get a chance to hear things interpreted in a really rich way. I’m down for all sorts of things. I play in a band in New York which is three trombones and myself, so I’m definitely open to all different colours.
MJ You spend a lot of time writing and playing, and doing all things music. What do you like to listen when you’re just relaxing in your down time?
BM That’s a very good question! I like to listen to a lot of African music. There’s a website called Capes of Africa, and it’s unbelievable. You can download the most rare and bizarre, deep, old music from cassettes that’s been uploaded. I just love listening to that stuff, it’s really inspiring to me. I like to listen to artists like Morton Feldman, Brian Eno, I like an English new wave band called Eyeless In Gaza. There’s an Australian rapper named Remi who’s actually pretty happening, and also Andrea Keller’s music. I like to listen to a lot of ambient sounds, sounds of nature. That’s kind of a way to have an inspirational, meditational journey.
MJ You’ve already had a very rich career. What are your plans for the future?
BM Philosophically, my plan is to be new every moment. But in a straight-ahead answer of what music might be coming in the future, I’m writing a piece for a large ensemble, for the Monash Art Ensemble. That piece is representative of having enough time to really explore different avenues that I’ve wanted to for quite a while. I’m also working on a pop album, that so far features Sia, and actually the vocalist from Jagwar Ma, Gabriel Winterfield, and Gian Slater. It’s kind of a pop album, but it’s a protest album disguised as a pop album.
Barney McAll’s album, Mooroolbark, is now available from all good record stores.