Liner Notes by Jon Garelick:
Listeners who know Gilad Barkan from his previous recordings (the most recent being 2007’s Next Step Music double-disc Live Sessions) will note a significant change in this pianist/composer’s work. Transplanted Israeli Barkan has long been an assured jazz musician — with uncommon swing and touch in his playing, rich harmonic color, lyrical melodic lines, and a feel for Middle Eastern, Latin American, and American jazz informed by his travels and musical curiosity. All of this is still here, but the album asserts groove and melody above all else. A jazz musician by training and temperament, Barkan doesn’t consider the album jazz — “There are no swing rhythms on it,” he says simply. Instead, he says he was most inspired by Afro-pop musicians like Zimbabwean singer Oliver Mtukudzi and the Madagascar guitarist and singer D’Gary. With less emphasis on solo improvisation and more on groove, group interaction, and melody, the sound of this session achieves what drummer Harvey Wirht calls “jazz pop.”
If Wirht’s coinage is valuable, it’s not because it creates an expectation, but defers it. Yes, there are beautiful improvisations through the album. Just listen to the way Barkan, flutist Amir Milstein, and bassist Keala Kaumeheiwa all take turns digging into “Samba Escuro,” the solos building in intensity and leading to climactic, furious brush work from Wirht as piano and bass vamp behind him. But more often, the album’s effects are achieved through a group sound. If a fairy tale could be set to music, it would be “No More Fear” — the rise and fall of flute and piano playing the melody in unison. Here, as Barkan solos, Milstein joins him for a pas de deux — the highlight of the track — before returning together to the theme. Fears dispelled, the journey comes home. Similarly, “Dream” is based on a repeated, rising melody — elusive, morphing in different keys, always on the verge, for a good two minutes before resolving into a sprightly tune.
This is one way in which Barkan is like a pop musician and not — recognizable, “hooky” melodies, but unfolding in an unpredictable, jazz-like way. The repeated sections (the opening “Purple Red” is another example) give Barkan a chance to “control” the form spontaneously rather than establishing a given form for each soloist to cycle through.
This recording is special for Barkan in a number of ways. He had just spent a fruitful year of composing to come up with these 10 tunes. “The whole session was special,” he says. “I had the musicians I wanted, the piano, the place [Cambridge, Massachusetts’s Regattabar], the tunes — everything but the weather!” he adds, recalling that stormy January night. Barkan has worked regularly with some of the finest musicians in the Boston area since arriving in the mid-’90s. But this, he says, “is my favorite band in the world.” It’s not that they play “better” than any of the other musicians he’s worked with, but, he says, “I knew the sound I wanted.” And this was it.
He didn’t know Amir Milstein in Israel, but met him at a friend’s rehearsal in Boston. Renown for his recording session work at home, Milstein plays in the Boston area mostly with Latin and Brazilian bands, and Barkan was drawn to his sound the first time he heard it: “full of life, hearty — and he didn’t play jazz licks!” Likewise, Harvey Wirht, though familiar to jazz audiences through his work with the Either/Orchestra, is better known these days from his tours with Afropop star Angelique Kidjo. Both Milstein and Wirht had worked with Barkan on Live Sessions. When Barkan heard Wirht and Kaumeheiwa together, he knew he had to have them in a band. “I love the groove they create together — a dark timbre with an elastic conception of time that minds me of Ron Carter and Tony Williams with Miles Davis. The time is so there, but the musicians are playing around it — and the sound!”
Barkan’s writing demands rhythmic dexterity — something that gives these pop-like forms a jazz-like resilience and depth. “Kabile” was inspired by the Bulgarian dance group of the same name, and its genial theme is supported by an undulating 11/8 groove. The ostensibly simple 4/4 of “Untitled” is based on the Brazlian partido alto samba rhythm, which tends to shift expectations. (“We start right on the one — in case anyone’s wondering,” Barkan says with a laugh.) And the repetitive groove of “B Minor Thing” is phrased slightly off the beat — another deceptively “simple” tune that stays fresh no matter how many times you hear it. Listen especially to the work Kaumeheiwa and Wirht do behind Barkan’s solo on this one.
Perhaps the piece on this new CD closest to Barkan’s heart is “Radio Heads” — with the tension between its initial haunting theme and the release and affirmation of its secondary melody. The shifting harmonies, the toggling between 11/8 and 12/8 rhythms, all lend a nuance of instability to that sunny, confident theme. Barkan’s solo statement — again with Kaumeheiwa and Wirht completing his thoughts — is also one of his finest on the album. Barkan recalls that his mother, on hearing the piece, suggested that “it comes from someone who knows what deep sorrow is.” Barkan is quick to add: “Not that that characterizes my life!” The good-humored self-effacement is typical of this artist, who isn’t afraid to plumb depths that match technical and formal demands with emotional risk.
—Jon Garelick, June 2009
Flute - Amir Milstein
Piano - Gilad Barkan
Bass - Keala Kaumeheiwa
Drums - Harvey Wirht
© 2009 All compositions by Gilad Barkan. The Gilad Barkan Band was recorded live at the Regattabar, Cambridge MA on January 28, 2009. Engineer: Peter Kontrimas. Piano tuned by Fred Mudge. Produced by Gilad Barkan.
Cover Photography: Sally Kilmer, Christopher Navin. Graphic design: Margie Chin, Chin Communications
Special thanks to Harvey, Amir, and Keala; to Peter Kontrimas, Fred Mudge, Jon Garelick, Anna Kilmer and to my friends and family.