On the first listen to pianist/composer Steve Barry‘s new album Blueprints & Vignettes I was so knocked out I made a flippant Facebook post which referred to him as cosmonaut Steve Barry.
Many a true word said in jest, as some bard said. Barry is not only a musical cosmonaut in the sense of an intrepid and fearless space explorer, but the universe he explores is largely one of his own making.
The new album is a quantum departure from Barry’s previous two acclaimed albums, 2012’s Steve Barry and 2014’s Puzzles. His recent writing has evolved a highly individual and idiosyncratic language that colours the logic of his melodic line. Harmonically he has become even more adventurous, and rhythmically he plays with time and the stretching of time in truly eye and ear-opening ways.
The PR release mentions influences such as Paul Bley and Eliot Carter, but I can hear other musical cosmonauts in there too: Ornette, Bartok, even the spirit of Debussy magical and hazy round the edges at times.
Barry has selected some fellow cosmonauts of equal fearlessness and intrepidity for this trip. Jeremy Rose, who seems to spend as much time digging deep into the earth as he does cruising the cosmic breezes, is on alto and bass clarinet. And, after hearing how they breath as one with these tunes, I couldn’t think of a better rhythm section than the masterful Dave Goodman on drums and rising star Max Alduca on double bass.
The Barry sound is evident from opener ‘Mammoth pt.1’ – a fragmented ensemble line that seems to walk along a swaying tightrope. Pretty soon the group, in the solos, is dancing on that swaying tightrope with sure but light steps. ‘Mammoth pt.2’, which follows, is more meditative and darker, reflecting the yin-yang of the album.
‘Primed’ is also a two-parter: Part 1 has a backdrop of Alduca’s percussive, bowed and scraped bass effects under Rose’s conversational bass clarinet; Part 2 has that slightly giddying sense of stretched time with Barry’s piano stabs under bass and bass clari.
‘Grind’ and album closer ‘#34’ both move across a bed of suggested swing. The melodies have a Monk-ish neo-neo-bop leap and shout to them the obvious rhythmic paths tug at Goodman and Alduca but they dont go there, preferring to blaze their own trails. Nice work.
The lovely (and evocatively named) ballad ‘In the crepuscular forest of forked paths’ best serves to bring together the strands of Barry’s parallel interests – it has a dark lyricism and painterly harmony, a jazz approach in the freedom of the improvised sections, and a sense of searching for a new beauty that much of the best 20th century classical music possesses.
Searching for a new beauty. It is what musical cosmonauts do. And, if they are all as lovely, challenging and revealing as Blueprints and Vignettes, I look forward to further Steve Barry communiques from the outer reaches of the universe of music.