Pianist and composer Bruce Barth's new CD — Three Things of Beauty — is a multi-faceted gem, and a superb addition to his already notable discography as a leader. For this outing, Barth has assembled a wonderfully distinctive set list that includes both beautifully conceived original compositions, as well as beautifully re-conceived standards, all of them rich with powerful feeling, and perhaps even more important, at least to these ears, a powerful intent.
With a musician of this stature and experience, virtuosity is practically assured, and here Barth doesn't disappoint. In Barth's case, however, this enormous fluency and ease is primarily in service to an open and generous musical spirit, a willingness to share himself, and be known, heard and seen. (Sometimes, for some musicians, the opposite can be true; a virtuoso technique can function as a smoke screen, a way to hide: you can't hit a moving target.) Barth's generosity is a hallmark of his musical voice on this recording, and is also a source of joy for his listeners.
In addition, Barth's superb band mates contribute mightily to make this music sing. And sing it does, with powerful grooves, lush harmonies, and a tremendous fluidity within changing time signatures and polyrhythms. Joining Barth in the front line is the masterful vibes player Steve Nelson, who always swings hard, but also manages to play with a soulful lyricism. And the touching vocal quality he achieves on his instrument adds extra depth and color to this project. Completing the band, the rhythm section of bassist Ben Street and drummer Dana Hall crackles with energy, imagination and surprise, all the while laying down the deep grooves that allow this music to soar.
Virtually impossible to resist, the opening vamp of the first track "My Man's Gone Now" draws the listener in from the get-go, with its strong groove and sense of intrigue. For those familiar with two of the iconic jazz versions of this Gershwin song from Porgy and Bess — the Bill Evans trio at the Village Vanguard, and Gil Evans' orchestral arrangement for Miles Davis — Barth's quartet presents a whole different take. Each of these is spectacular in its own way: the haunting fragility and beauty of Bill Evans' version (in 3/4 time), and Gil Evans' sublime setting (in 4/4 time, with an interlude of 3/4) for Miles' devastatingly beautiful, and almost human, voice on trumpet. Barth's version (in 6/4 time with a loose straight-eighth Latin based groove, and a slightly Brazilian feel on the bridge) allowed for great rhythmic drama and momentum. And his solo, right out of the gate, is enormously creative both rhythmically and harmonically, and captures the energy and joy of his live performances. Barth credits his rhythm section of Street and Hall for coming up with the feeling for the coda: "Ben and Dana took the coda to a completely other zone. The song is mournful, and Ben and Dana found this really beautiful, quiet groove for that."
A smart snappy tune with a bop-ish melody, Barth's "The Final Push" showcases the quartet's state-of-the-art swing feel: in the pocket, but always flowing. The unexpected measure in 2/4 (on the fifth bar) is a wonderfully hip springboard into the held note of the melody, and feels like a rush up a hill to get a great view of this impeccably swinging landscape. (And what a view!) Special kudos to Nelson for the vocal quality of his solo, especially when he reaches for a high note and lets it ring.
Barth wrote "Wise Charlie's Blues" for his friend Charlie Weiner, who passed away recently. Bruce describes Charlie as "a kind, intelligent, warm person who loved jazz, and had a special feeling for the blues." This harmonically elaborate blues with its slow swinging tempo is a marvel of relaxation and ease. Barth's solo, marbled with the rich tradition of jazz piano, showcases his beautifully seated, and very fat time feeling. Also of special note is the rhythm section's killer backbeat behind the third chorus of Nelson's solo.
From the first downbeat of "The Rushing Hour," the quartet is in motion (listeners too), on a provocative journey through different time feels and lovely misterioso connective passages. Although the tune opens in a double-time Afro-Cuban feel, at some points, there are two contrasting grooves happening at the same time, which composer Barth says "suggests the hustle-bustle of New York City." En route, Nelson solos over an energetic Afro-Cuban beat, while Barth kicks back on a more relaxed swing-tinged 6/8 groove. All in all, a colorful, engaging journey, both domestic and international.
About the title track "Three Things of Beauty," Barth explains that he chose to "leave it open for the listener to imagine what he or she might find beautiful; music can evoke such different images for different people." This very graceful song, with its simple tuneful melody, is preceded by an out of tempo aria-like intro, its darker, more complex beauty adding an extra dimension and ballast.
"Night Shadows," a tune composed by the very fine and original pianist Eri Yamamoto has a subtle, and subtly playful vibe. Barth explains his affinity for the tune: "I love the melody and the harmony — kind of bluesy, very colorful, and it's a unique form."
A whimsical tongue-in-cheek melody, "Big Nick" was written by John Coltrane as a tribute to tenor saxophonist "Big Nick" Nicholas. In addition to strong swinging solos, Barth's ingenious version includes a counter-line to the chromatic melody, with symmetrical (mirror-image) movement.
Barth thought the lyrical searching melody of his tune "Wondering Why," would "sound beautiful with the vibes," and he's right. Moreover, this lovely and arresting tune has an unusual flavor: a beautiful mid-tempo swing with a contemplative inward bent.
"It's nice to have a blues with a little harmonic twist to it," says Barth about "Be Blued," his blues with the unexpected added bonus of a joyous little bridge in 3/4, as well as some spunky rhythmic displacement in the melody. Barth and Nelson trade twelve-bar choruses on this track, and Barth characterizes the marvelous fluidity of Nelson's playing as "like liquid."
The CD closes with the intimacy of a duet. On the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein tune "The Song Is You," Barth and Nelson sustain an up-tempo time feel without the rhythm section, no easy feat. And only at the end of this track does the melody emerge, a parting gift to listeners.
What a deep pleasure to have experienced the many facets of Barth's musical voice: joyous, swinging, thoughtful, earthy and refined, in equal measure.
Jazz pianist and composer Leslie Pintchik’s most recent release is "Leslie Pintchik Quartet Live In Concert," a DVD/CD combo.
—Leslie Pintchik, New York City, 2012