Article posted on Jazz Standard website, where Bruce was the
“Featured Musician of the Month” in July, 2004 - by Leslie Pintchik

On his most recent recording, Live at the Village Vanguard, pianist Bruce Barth plays the melody of Evidence out of time, and with no rhythm. It renders the piece all but unrecognizable, for perhaps more than anything else, the melody of Evidence, written by the great jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk, is about rhythm. Traditionally, Evidence unfolds with a series of pointillistic jabs; instead of a melodic line, we are hit with a string of witty – and precisely timed – punches. In his iconoclastic treatment of Monk’s melody, played out of time and with no rhythm, we are afforded a window into the extraordinary nature of Barth’s artistry.

Barth is both a marvelous composer as well as a canny interpreter of other musicians’ compositions, and it is in this latter capacity that his provocative alchemy on Evidence shines through. By gutting Evidence of its essential viscera, that is, its rhythm, it becomes clear that part of the power of this “tune about rhythm” lies in the very nature of its melody. For even when the melody of Evidence is played in time, only a faint E-flat tonality hovers in the ear like a subliminal haze; played out of time, that fragile tonality all but disappears. It becomes apparent, then, that rhythm is the engine that drives Evidence; the deliberately diffuse melody exists primarily to highlight and support that rhythm. Barth’s counterintuitive version adds another dimension of pleasure for the listener, once the piece is reassembled in time. It is a tribute to Barth’s unique and very beautiful musicianship, as well as his enormous immersion in the jazz canon, that he can both subvert the tradition at the same time that he deepens our understanding of it.

Although Barth is admired by his peers as one of the preeminent pianists of his generation, he is not as well known outside of musicians’ circles as he might be. Part of this inheres in the nature of his talent: neither an avant-garde revolutionary nor a straight-ahead traditionalist, he is not easy to place in the jazz world. Moreover, his recordings don’t usually have a theme – the Rogers and Hart songbook, for example, or a tribute to a famous dead musician. Even East and West, a recent CD on the MAXJAZZ record label with original thematic compositions inspired by his childhood memories of the western U.S., is still all Barth: personal, powerful, very beautiful and also funny.

Born in Pasadena, California in 1958, Barth started piano lessons at age five. He studied at the New England Conservatory in Boston, and then moved to New York in 1988. Since then, he has worked with many illustrious musicians, including Nat Adderley, Stanley Turrentine, Art Farmer, James Moody, Freddy Hubbard, Terence Blanchard and Steve Wilson, among others. Barth has played on over seventy CDs, and Live at the Village Vanguard is his ninth as a leader.

All of this experience has enabled Barth to develop a modern and original voice, one whose depth and breadth owes part of its considerable weight to tradition. Every artist – every human being, for that matter – faces the challenge of striking the right personal balance (ever-changing, always alive) between old and new, one’s culture and oneself. In his wonderful book Piano Notes, Charles Rosen writes “the musician who has surrendered his will to tradition has abandoned the possibility of keeping the tradition alive.” Chef and restaurateur Larry Forgione expressed the countervailing perspective when he summed up the great chef James Beard’s contributions by noting that Beard
“helped a generation of chefs realize that nothing can be new without some connection to the past.” That said, Barth – despite his modesty – will still have to take credit for the unique flavor and beauty of his musical voice.

Amongst his musical gifts, Barth’s superb time feeling is a major draw, both for his fans as well as the musicians with whom he works. He owns a ferocious drop-dead gorgeous swing, with quarter notes so fat and supple that one could drive a Hummer through their center, and still not come anywhere close to swiping an edge. This is deep full-bodied soulful time. It embraces an enormous amount of tradition from Red Garland to Herbie Hancock, but is also highly inflected and nuanced in a personal way. On that foundation, Barth builds his solos beautifully, and to a remarkable degree is able to sustain tremendous power.

Most recently, Barth’s working trio includes Ugonna Okegwo on bass and Montez Coleman on drums. Although this trio has both the material and emotional breadth to explore a range of moods, its signature feeling is joy: joy to be in the moment, as well as the shared joy of making music together.

Jazz is a live conversation amongst its players, and musicians need to listen and respond on a deep, almost subconscious, level. In this, Barth excels, and it is one of the reasons why he is such a valuable band mate. “Bruce is an absolute master of the piano and the history of the piano,” says Steve Wilson, one of the great saxophonists of his generation, and one of Barth’s collaborators for the last fourteen years. “He plays with discretion and with just the right amount of patience and maturity. And he’s never trying to force his own will upon the music.”

“He’s willing to do whatever it is to make the musical situation work, and I always try to give him that back when I work with him. He’s the kind of person that brings that out in you, so it’s been really one of the most nurturing personal and professional relationships I’ve ever had. He’s soulful as a human being and as a musician, as an artist.”

The generosity of spirit that Barth shares with his band members on stage is also something that he extends to his audience. Despite his rare musicality and extraordinary technical resources, he never gives the sense that he is displaying untouchable wares; Barth just plays his music, and lifts the room. A case in point is the opening salvo of the first tune (Little Ditty) on Live at the Village Vanguard. The first four melody notes – F, D, B-flat, A-flat – outline a B-flat dominant seventh chord, and feed his listeners a primary jazz color, almost the quintessential jazz chord. That opening gesture is a simple and generous welcome, before the glorious complications ensue, most notably a powerful swing which gets extra dimension from his tremendous fluidity with time, as he effortlessly works in poly-rhythms (seven over four, three over two, etc).

Barth’s solo work also deserves attention, for it gives the listener a chance to appreciate his sound and touch in a way not possible with ensemble playing. The lure of solo playing for Barth is “being able to take my time, and also, the freedom of spontaneous arrangement.” In this context, his command of music and the piano is rare. The common thread is a powerful time feeling that both breathes and swings deeply, a beautiful poise, thoughtfulness, a tremendous center, and his sound. A gem worth seeking out is Barth’s solo piano CD American Landscape on the Satchmo Jazz label.

In the future, Barth would like to experiment with different instrumental combinations and perhaps write for larger groups. A thoughtful and articulate man, Barth’s own personal goal as a musician is “to own fully what I play, for the music to be as deep an expression of who I am at a given time.”

And for now, Barth’s music remains a treasure for those fortunate enough to know of his gifts. As Steve Wilson says: “It just doesn’t get much better than Bruce Barth, you know.”
- by Leslie Pintchik

Leslie Pintchik is a jazz pianist and composer whose current release is Quartets on Ambient Records.