Daybreak, the new CD by the extraordinary jazz pianist and composer Bruce Barth, is his thirteenth recording as a leader. About the spirit of this most recent recording date, Barth felt that "the music belonged to all of us: the guys played it that way, and I was really grateful that they played it with that sense of commitment and joy. This record date was particularly relaxed," he continued, "because all the musicians are long-time collaborators and friends. I felt very receptive and open to suggestions." In tandem with his skill as a leader, Barth has always been a superlative team player, and his comfort and pleasure in these particular band-mates is apparent — big time — in this, his latest recording.
The front line of vibraphone and trumpet in Barth's quintet is an unusual choice, and one that works beautifully here, especially in the way they interpret the melodies together on many of the tracks. And as soloists, both vibraphonist Steve Nelson and trumpeter Terrell Stafford bring a wealth of feeling — by turns earthy, sophisticated, and also gentle — to the material. Underneath it all, and propelling the band forward, are the powerful grooves of bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Montez Coleman, wonderfully well-matched partners in time.
Pianist Barth is in very fine form, once again showcasing the many gifts his fans have come to expect: a fluent technical command of his instrument that allows him to play with an almost volcanic energy as well as with great delicacy, a beautifully nuanced sound and articulation, and a tremendous fluidity within changing time signatures and polyrhythms (in addition to his powerfully swinging mid-tempo playing).
For the opening track of Daybreak, Barth has very ingeniously reshaped the melody and feeling of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Triste" (originally conceived as a gentle bossa nova) by draping the tune over a new rhythmic scaffold of 7/4. Sometimes, when a musician changes the time signature of a tune as it was originally conceived, the result can feel like a technical problem solved, but to what end? This version works. The flow of the improvising is very natural, and there is real joy in the time feeling, enhanced by the volcanic energy in the crescendos of the three-bar vamp that bookends the melody. Barth's take on "Triste" no longer has the sadness inherent in Jobim's touching, delicate version; the saudade (loosely translated from the Portuguese as the melancholic longing and nostalgia for someone or thing) has been banished, and replaced with a wonderfully exuberant, almost funky playfulness and energy.
"Tuesday's Blues" (a Barth original) is an extended blues that alternates between a 12/8 groove and a medium-slow swing. Stafford plays the melody with great "'tude," as he leans way behind the beat with an almost woozy, spacey phrasing, and then follows up with a wonderfully extroverted solo. Nelson's hip off-kilter, angular entrance is a great foil to Stafford's solo, and is followed by Barth's own in-the-pocket solo, gracefully seated within the time, and rich in the jazz and blues tradition. When the band goes into swing, Archer, along with Coleman, strike a particularly powerful groove together. "Tuesday's Blues" has an intriguing ending, one that goes out with a whisper. (Full disclosure: I can't help but wonder what might have happened on Monday...).
"Vámonos" (Spanish for "Let's Go") is a sleek up-tempo burner that alternates between an Afro-Caribbean groove and swing; in keeping with the title, the band hits the ground running from the get-go, and the going is good! Challenging for both its tempo and the harmonic complexity of the second half of the tune, one might never guess it from this seamless performance. Drummer Coleman tracks the music brilliantly, and his fills are spot-on throughout. All the soloists are strong, and Barth, in particular, soars, as he captures the tremendous energy and power that he achieves in his live sets. At the suggestion of his excellent producer Wayne Winborne ("Wayne knows my playing really well; I trust his judgment."), Barth plays his first solo chorus in a half-time feel, while the whole band drops out. This gives the listener a chance to catch his breath before the solo returns to its original speed-of-light tempo: a great idea, and one that Barth executes flawlessly, despite the inevitable rush of adrenaline that might have compromised a less experienced and accomplished musician than Barth.
About his compositions "Moon Shadows" and "Daybreak," Barth says "I wrote them together, and conceived them being played together, like a medley." With its shimmering minor-key picturesque quality, "Moon Shadows" conjures a dark film-noir vibe, as Stafford (with cup mute) and Nelson share the atmospheric melody in alternating phrases. While "Moon Shadows" revels in a rich darkness, "Daybreak" arrives like the fresh breath of air it is: an upbeat gospel-flavored waltz with loads of bright happy energy throughout. A powerful closing vamp sustains the energy, and then some, as the tune ends with an almost visceral sense of triumph.
Barth's "Brasília" takes its inspiration from the modernistic capital city of Brazil, a city he would like to visit sometime in the future. Alternating between a loose afoxe-based rhythm and a bossa nova groove, this seductive tune creates an intriguing mix of tension and release. With its meter changes and complex harmonies, "Brasília" is a challenging vehicle for improvisation; that notwithstanding, all the soloists — Stafford (with a lovely fat sound on flugelhorn), Nelson, Barth, and Archer — navigate this tricky byway as if they were cruising on the interstate: a very relaxed joy ride indeed.
Barth characterizes "Then Three" as "a nice intimate tune for the trio, and a fun tune to play." Because the melody is voiced low on the piano, there is an attractive, lush quality to many of the harmonies. The tune is playful, with an appealing relaxed groove, and Coleman's accompanied drum trades are a delight.
There are two duo tracks on Daybreak. "Somehow It's True" is a Barth original that he revisits from a past recording. He and Nelson achieve a glowing blend of piano and vibes, and Nelson's sound on vibes has an arresting vocal quality. Barth's walking bass is expert, and his solo playing orchestral. "So Tender," a Keith Jarrett composition, is one of the few originals played by the superb Keith Jarrett Standards Trio; it's now become a standard in its own right. The Barth/Stafford duo version of "So Tender" has a somewhat more relaxed and casual vibe than Jarrett's trio version, and draws the listener in with its beautiful flow.
I've heard Barth play "In the Still of the Night" live, in clubs, at a blistering tempo. For this quartet outing (Nelson, Archer, Coleman and Barth), the band kicks back with a more relaxed mid-tempo, and achieves a very buoyant swing.
All told, Bruce Barth's newest CD Daybreak affords the listener the deep pleasure of a superlative ensemble in rare form, at ease with the music and each other.
—Leslie Pintchik, New York City, 2013
Jazz pianist and composer Leslie Pintchik's new CD In The Nature Of Things will be released in March of 2014.