Review: LBQ 2005
Reviewed by Timothy Stevens
Here’s the kind of record that’s just the thing for an old windbag like me, given to banging on about Australia and jazz in inverted commas and original this and that. This is just what I need to remind me that not everyone cares about not-jazz, not everyone gives a damn about originality (at least as I construe it), and there are plenty of musicians out there whose frame of reference is long-established and familiar. Let’s swing, that’s challenge enough. The blues are not yet conquered. Let us not be so arrogant as to seek a broader field of engagement; if this was good enough for generations before, it’s good enough for us.
Leigh Barker’s quintet (Barker, double bass; Eamon McNelis, trumpet; John Felstead, saxophone; Alistair McGrath-Kerr, drums; Matt Boden, piano) works through a program of original compositions, which is to say tunes with ensemble members’ names at the top of the lead-sheets, and does so with conviction, energy and collective commitment. There is some wonderful playing on this album, and I get the feeling that the band members get along with each other – they enjoy what they are doing and are glad to hear each other doing it. I like the sound of the band, I like its ease with what it’s up to and the momentum it generates.
Generally speaking, I abhor reviews that merely serve to enumerate resemblances, and that seek to orient the reader with the invocation of an already familiar likeness. I think this is because I resist the idea that recordings are meritorious on account of how they reflect the surface aspects of other recordings, although more essentially I find the simple categorisation of works of art an insidious and somewhat repugnant objective. I feel I’ve striven to avoid such small-mindedness thus far, so this disc provides a particular challenge, because models seem apparent – almost flaunted – on many occasions, and there’s an almost overwhelming temptation to list them.
Now, why is this? A reviewer who courts some kind of initiation is a bit pathetic, right? And in our post-ironic times, what does it mean to say something sounds like something else? (Particularly if you’re about to say you’ve traced, inter alia, the taste of J-Mood-era Wynton Marsalis. Such absurdity makes the head spin.) It’s too easy to be odious – easy and unimaginative.
Hence I shall say that whereas I’d love to hear more active collaboration between soloists and rhythm section, the overall feel generated by the band is very satisfying. The warmth and generosity of the ensemble is its greatest strength. To say that this is not a particularly original album is to risk neglecting the genuineness of personality displayed by band members individually and in concert. While forms and procedures are familiar, they’re delivered with a demonstrative confidence and, simplistic though it may sound, I feel I can sense the musicians’ happiness in going about their business. Off to Moruya is a charming album, undemanding perhaps but robust, assured, and friendly. Get along and check it out.
Bassist, composer and bandleader Leigh Barker was born and raised in Canberra, where he spent his formative years studying with American bassist Eric Ajaye at the Canberra School of Music.
His move to Melbourne in 2003 provided much professional experience, with Leigh proving to be a popular accompanist for the cream of the contemporary and traditional Jazz scenes, frequently appearing with Jamie Oehlers, Dale Barlow, Scott Tinkler, Julien Wilson, Mark and Nichaud Fitzgibbon, Julie O’Hara, Paul Williamson, the Bennetts Lane Big Band, Michelle Nicole, Heather Stewart and many others.
In January 2004 Leigh travelled to the US for five weeks, where he pursued formal studies with bassists Ben Wolfe, Eric Revis and Reginald Veal, as well as spending valuable time with mentors Branford Marsalis and Doug Wamble. Last year Leigh collaborated with celebrated pianist Tom Vincent on the soundtrack for the hit ABC television program ‘The Collectors’, which airs on Friday nights. Vincent and Barker discovered an immediate rapport which culminated in a six-week tour early in 2006 with the Tom Vincent Trio, with pianist Vincent and Netherlands based drummer, Marc Meader.
Despite being in constant demand as a sideman, Leigh Barker has always had as his first priority his own working band playing new original Australian music. “I’ve always had a tendency towards band leading, even back in High School when I’d get together with mates and try and make a blues band. Somehow it always fell to me to do the organizing!” After five years of gigs and only two line-up changes, the Leigh Barker Quintet has developed into a unique unit with a mature sound which belies the age of all the members. “Back when I was studying in Canberra I wanted to form a Quintet that would deal with the sort of music that I was into at the time, which was a contemporary Jazz sound based on all the classic recordings we loved like Miles and Keith Jarrett and all that music you like when you first discover Jazz. Most of the guys our age were happy playing funk and just jamming on one chord, luckily I met some other students who were all into swing and Jazz and good interactive music.”
Five years on the band explores a great range of music drawing on all the greatest elements of Jazz music, from Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Ellington, to the classic small group music of Davis, Coltrane and Monk through to the contemporary developments of the Australian and international improvised music scenes. The wide ranging tastes of all the members and their respective contributions to the repertoire mean that the ensemble covers a wide textural and emotional range, an exciting brand of Jazz that draws on many sources.
“I always have trouble explaining the sound of the group, but it’s all in there, whether you like hard swing, blues, beautiful ballads, great melodies, hot Jazz or world music. It’s a testament to the composing abilities of Al Mcgrath-Kerr (drums), John Felstead (saxophones), Eamon McNelis (trumpet) and Matt Boden (piano).”