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Joe Barna

An interview with Joe Barna

by Jeff Nania
April 2010

Saxophonist and journalism student Jeff Nania recently sat down with Joe Barna to discuss the drummer's current activities ...

What is the idea behind the Sketches of Influence ensemble?
The basic concept is pretty much like this:  Over the years I've written a lot of different compositions for people in my life that've been very inspirational, or very influential on my musical as well as personal journeys and I wanted to put a band together to play those specific compositions as a tribute to those people.  The past year or year and a half I have been really concentrating on this particular ensemble, and this particular incarnation of it (with Lou Smaldone on bass, Dave Solazzo on piano, Jon Gordon on alto and soprano saxophones, and Joe Magnarelli on trumpet and flugelhorn) I think captured the vision that I initially sought out to do.

You do a tune with this group called “Blow It Out” which is about saxophonist Ralph LaLama.  Did you meet him at SUNY Purchase when you were in college there?
Yeah, that's where I met him, but I never had him as a teacher.    I know that a lot of people in the school respected him, and what he has accomplished.  He's won a couple grammys, and he's toured with Joe Morello, and Joe Lovano, and in Buddy Rich's band.  You name it he's played with them.  During college, I was thinking of recording an album, and I just met him in the hall one day, and said “Hi, my name's Joe would you be interested in recording an album with me.” He said “it depends on the bread, but yeah I'd definitely do it.” So we talked and eventually recorded an album in June of 2000, and had a ten year relationship both musically and personally until last year when I decided I needed to go in a more contemporary direction.

What about some of the other guys like Joe Magnarelli?
Magnarelli I just met from hanging out in the city.  I used to see him at the clubs.  I have all his albums, and stuff like that.  I met Jon Gordon at the Village Vanguard.  He was subbing for Dick Oatts.  I've been going down to the city a lot in this past year, and really searching.  I've been searching for that sound I want, and it just came down to Joe and Jon.  Jon's a funny story.  I was down at the Village Vanguard with my girlfriend, and I wanted her to see the sax section, you know Dick Oatts, Ralph LaLama, Rich Perry, you know, and they were all away doing some masterclass or something.  By the time we got to the Vanguard I was about three beers, and two whiskeys deep, and I had only had a slice of pizza, and this guy stands up to take this soprano solo, and I was just sittin there going goddamn who is this guy.  When they announce who it is I was so surprised because I have all his records, but I've never seen him before so I didn't recognize him.
So when is the first time you actually got this whole group together?
January.  It's been about three months.

When did you conceptualize this whole thing?

The record or the band?  Because the band was one year ago this week that I started conceptualizing this band.  I've gone through about five different lineups already.  Finally I just said to myself that I gotta just find the money to hire the guys that I want rather than just hiring the ones that are available.

So you conceptualized the band about a year ago.  Is that when you started writing the tunes?

No.  Some of the tunes go back as much as five years ago.  This one tune called “Ivory Romance” is the one that I wrote with Lee Shaw, and it's John Gordon's feature in the band, and I wrote it in the winter of 2003.  So some of these tunes are old, but I'd say that about 80 percent of the music I've written in the last ten months.

So a lot of this writing was done with the intent of making a record?

Definitely.  I was just trying to write the right music.

In some ways do you think this past month or two has been a major turning point in your life?  I know you recently got a record deal with Planet Arts Records which the grammy award winning Village Vanguard band records on.

Yeah the Village Vanguard band, Jimmy Heath, Dick Oatts, Luis Bonilla, you name it.

So this is a pretty big jazz record label at this point.
Yeah.  They've won a couply grammy's over the last three or four years.  They've been up for four or five grammy's.  They've got some really established artists on the record label, they're trying to find new artists.  Especially this record because it's a live record is ballsy in itself.  A lot of guys won't put a live record out because they're scared of mistakes, but mistakes to me are what make jazz amazing.

Tom Bellino is the president of Planet Arts Records.  How did you meet him?
I opened up the Kingston jazz festival with Ralph LaLama.  It was an organ quintet.  Myself, this organ player Greg Lewis, guitar player Jim Wilson, Keith Pray on alto, and Ralph on tenor.  We opened up the festival because Tom Bellino runs that festival, and he wanted something different.  Everyone else was doing big bands, and jazz quintets, and I just happened to have this organ band together at the time.  So that's when we began our relationship, and he came out to see my current band when we did a two night run at Justin's on Lark Street in Albany in January.  They were sold out performances, and Tom just happened to be in the audience, and he wanted to put us out on his label.

And when are expecting the record to come out?
October 2010.

I know you recently got an endorsement from Mapex.  How did that happen?
I called Mapex, I told them what I was doing, I told them how long I'd been using their drums.  I flexed my knowledge about their drums, and who uses them, and how they're constructed.  The guy was just blown away that I had so much knowledge about this particular company.

We had talked about a year ago, and it seems like all this – the endorsement, and the record deal were like a dream of yours at that point.  I was talking to Lou Smaldone earlier in the week, and he just said that “Barna just made the decision that from here on out he's gonna go out and kill it,” and that's kind of what you've done in the past year.  That being said – where do you see yourself in the next year, or the next decade?
I want to be teaching full time at a university teaching beginning composition, and drumset, and maybe jazz history.  I want to record more albums.  I'd like to keep it to live records, I'm not really a studio guy, I'm too raw for that.  I want to be on the road.  I want to document my path.  I think writers document with paper and pen, and I think musicians document with instruments and microphones.  I just want to make sure that when my time is up that people can look back and see that I did contribute to this music in a significant way.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?  This could be musical, or personal since the two are intertwined.
That's easy.  John Riley said to me in April of 2004 that if I was going to take the music seriously, and wanted people to take me seriously that I needed to stop leading my own band for the time being, and learn how to take direction.  At the time I was doing a lot of stupid stuff in my own bands, and wasn't playing at a high level on my own instrument, so I stopped leading a band, and I didn't start really leading a band again until last year.  That was five years.  He said “give yourself five years, and then get a band back together.  You've got to learn how to lead if you want to be a leader.” The second important piece of advice I got came from Hal Galper.  I saw him play a few years ago, and he was doing all this rubato music.  Nothing was in time it was light and airy, and very different from anything I had heard at the time.  I went up to him after the gig and said “wow, you're 70 years old, and you're still doing new things.” He smiled, and put his arms around me and said “man, don't wait until you're 70 to decide who you're gonna be.”

JEFF NANIA is currently enrolled at the University at Albany majoring in journalism and minoring in music. He has contributed to the student run paper Albany Student Press and the university-sanctioned electronic magazine UAlbany EZine. His research as assistant to university professor/author/musician Bob Gluck has contributed to Gluck's book about Anthony Braxton and Richard Teitelbaum. Nania is also a musician currently playing with groups such as Nautilus, and The Chronicles.