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Joe Barna

Bread & Jam Café
Cohoes, NY
April 25, 2009

by J Hunter

There is a view that Barna’s preferred style of drumming falls somewhere between Carmine Appice and Animal from The Muppet Show. So when it was announced that “Joe Barna’s ‘Sketches of Influence’” would be playing Bread & Jam, two thoughts occurred: The music would be akin to Tony Williams’ Lifetime on steroids, and café owner Sal Prizio would be replacing a lot of broken windows the next day. To the surprise of some, what Barna brought to the party was very cool, mostly straight ahead, and left all the windows completely intact.
The thing that’s always interested me about Barna is not the thunder and lightning he can conjure with his kit, but what beauty he can create with his pen. Barna wrote about a third of the music on the Barna-Russo Group’s disc The Abenaki, and his Lee Morgan-flavored blaster “Blow it Out” was a highlight of Michael Benedict Jazz Vibes’ latest release The Next Phase. Bottom line: None of these tunes sound like anything Lifetime might have recorded. As Barna tells it, he writes about the things and people that have been big influences on him, and all the music on this evening’s program – some of it written in the last few months – was his tribute to them.
The grooving tune I walked in on was “Brother Steve”, dedicated to trumpeter Steve Lambert, and Barna followed it with the mid-tempo waltz “Rose Petals”, which he wrote for his mom. Lee Russo’s soprano sax was high, sweet and lyrical, and Mike DelPrete played a fat counter-solo to George Muscatello’s serpentine guitar work. Barna’s mother and father were in the audience, and Joe’s song for his father was “A Letter to Dad”, a cool multi-chapter piece that symbolized Barna’s past relationship with his father, as well as the relationship he has now. (He prefaced the tune by saying, “As you may have noticed, this is the gentle side of Joe Barna!”)
In truth, the music went all over the board, as did Barna’s shout-outs. There was the fast bop he wrote for longtime band mate Russo (“In my opinion” he enthused, “if you don't like the playing of Lee Russo you're either deaf or void of soul!”) and the lovely ballad “Thank You” for Mike and Rosemary Latagano, who may be the biggest jazz fans in the state of New York. There was “The Purpose” (“Which stands for ‘the reason we’re all here,’” Barna informed us), a rising Coltrane-esque swirl Barna penned for keyboardist Dave Payette, and the sexy samba “Maria” that Barna wrote for his own girlfriend. Then there was “Living without You”, a smoky ballad written for Benedict, who lost his wife a few years ago. You could hear the feeling and the message in each piece, and each one was delivered with beauty, color, and an undeniable purpose.
One of the Barna-Russo Group’s many positives was Russo’s lyrical connection with Dave Solazzo. On so many BRG pieces, it seemed like Russo’s reeds were an extension of Solazzo’s piano, and vice versa. Bringing Muscatello into the mix breaks that continuity, and that’s not all bad. As much as I love Solazzo’s safecracker touch, Muscatello’s razor-edged guitar offers contrasts that Solazzo couldn’t deliver. The uptick in energy and tone seemed to kick Russo into a higher gear, making him broaden and harden his sound on the more rambunctious pieces.
“The Purpose” was part of Barna-Russo’s set last fall at A Place For Jazz, and the difference between that version and this one was decidedly pronounced. The same for “Blow it Out” which brought the first set to resounding close with a pedal-to-the-metal assist from guest altoist Keith Pray; this evening’s take knocked the Next Phase version out of the park. Pray sat in on several numbers, including a show-closing version of “Straight No Chaser” that would have had Thelonious Monk buckling his seat belt; Muscatello mixed McLaughlin-quality lines with snarling-pit-bull chords, and the smiles on Pray and Russo’s faces said how much they loved it.
As for Barna, he did drop the bomb a few times; his out solos on “Blow it Out” and “Straight” had the kind of shock-and-awe approach people associate with him. But for the most part, he sat back and created perfect support for his band mates and his music, working cymbals and rims with expertise. You can put it down to maturity, and you’d be a little bit right. But I’d say what he was doing was being a leader, and a leader knows when to step up and when to back off, especially when it’s his music that’s being played.
In the end, Barna and his mates not only gave Bread & Jam another evening of hot jazz, but Barna showed great respect for people who have affected his life and work. And even if they weren’t in the room at the time, Joe did them all proud.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.