Barney McAll: “Music is a guide for society”

Last weekend, music lovers in Melbourne were treated to a great – and free – event, courtesy of the 2018 Melbourne International Jazz Festival. Barney McAll presented ‘Trilogy of the Cycles’ , in which he revisited the composition commissioned two years ago by the City of Melbourne and also presented at the Festival. A composition created for the Federation Bells, the work featured the pianist and his stellar jazz band interacting with the bells. “I wanted to set up a situation where there is more flexibility and openness with the musicians relating to the bells,” says the composer. Apart from being an opportunity for him to “learn a lot about the potential of the bells” , the performance itself was a unique opportunity to make a statement for the importance of brining high art in public spaces and the significance of music within the broader community.

Of course, the most poignant statement on that had already been made by Barney McAll himself a few weeks ago, when he was presented with three Australian Jazz Bell Awards for his album ‘Hearing the Blood’ . In his inspirational acceptance speech, the pianist made a call to arms for musicians, saying that the less money they make, the harder they have to work to make a stand.

“Music and art is a guide for society,” he explains. “It can be a political guide; it can be a spiritual guide. Especially improvised music is like church music in the sense that it is a sacred thing; people often close their eyes when they go to a concert because they are listening to the chronicle of things through musicians who express things without words. There are a lot of subtle things about music and its importance, and these subtleties are exploited by people who try to discount music or take funding from it.

“Without music and art, a political climate like today is a very sad place. And yet music and art is threatened by the times we live in; look at the Drumpf regime; look at the ABC, which had all these programs destroyed; the Arts Council has a pile of money taken away; the Melbourne Jazz Co-Op has had its funding taken away for the first time in such a long time.

“These things are distressing and that is why I speak about the musicians themselves working as hard as ever and maybe even harder to manifest the best music and to be the best musicians, because the only alternative is that music itself suffers”, he says.

It’s interesting that he mentions church music, because this is exactly what his other Melbourne Jazz Festival project, ‘Sweet Sweet Spirit’ is all about; a tribute to gospel composer Doris Akers, born out of his own experience playing church music, while he was living in New York. “I worked in a church just to pay the bills but I also loved to play spirituals there,” he says. “I would write down my favourite hymns and spirituals and make a note of certain chord progressions because I was trying to absorb some of these harmonies and those feelings in my own music. One time I looked at the list of hymns and songs that I had and the majority of them were written by Doris Akers and I thought that it would be interesting do a project of just playing her music, along with that of other composers in that tradition, and putting my spin on it, adding arrangements and presenting it in a jazz context. So this is not a full blown gospel extravaganza; it’s kind of just honouring her composing and honouring the idea of spirituals. It could be many things, as it unfolds, we shall see. I’m learning to not be attached to a vision, but to always be ready to throw that vision out and follow some completely other tangent.

“Having said that, I don’t want to be co-opting another culture, what I want to do is bring forth this music that moves me and hopefully moves other people. I’m not calling this music my own. I am presenting this music with a great amount of respect, because the thing that I realized is that there are really magnificent composers who only write for the church and are thus not really known – particularly Doris Akers is a very strong composer in different styles and few people in Australia has heard of her, I dare say.

“I actually like the idea that people would be listening to this music knowing that it stems from a sacred place and that it can be interpreted however you like – but I like that you start with that idea, I’m not shying away from it and I may be criticised for it but life is short. You get my drift?”

Barney McAll presents Sweet Sweet Spirit on Wednesday 6 June at the Darebin Arts Centre as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival and again on Friday 13 July at the National Gallery of Victoria, as part of the Friday Nights Program.

(He is also performing there on June 22 and on August 10.)