When the news got out that drummer-composer Joe Barna & Sketches of Influence were slated to play two weekend nights at Justin’s in Albany with special guests Jim Rotondi (Friday), Joe Magnarelli (Saturday) and Jon Gordon (both nights), all the seats were sold out in a heart beat.
“They turned people away at the door,” muses Barna. “I brought in three of the world’s top musicians to Justin’s for two nights, and it was just magical!” And it was. Fiery and passionate solos, moving lyrical ballads and incredible musicianship highlighted the performances on both nights.
What was interesting to all who were there was that other than finishing both Saturday night sets with the standard “My Shining Hour” and a traditional jazz blues in the vein of “Billy’s Bounce,” all of the other selections were originals composed by Barna.
“I’m a composer first and a drummer second,” says Barna, who studied composition with Phil Woods’ long-time pianist and arranger Hal Galper and Michael Franks’ music director Charles Blenzig, while earning his degree at Purchase. “I don’t sit home and shred on the drums six hours a day. I do practice, but I sit at the piano and write. I’ll have a composition in my head and use the piano as a reference instrument until it’s done and ready to be presented.”
Barna writes his tunes for people in the jazz community or his friends, often titling them after fans who support the music – like Mike and Rosemarie Lategano. He also writes for fellow musicians who he admires and respects. “Ivory Romance” – a beautiful and heart-felt ballad that they played on Saturday – was written for pianist and living treasure Lee Shaw.
When choosing who he wants to play with Barna is very selective. Since relocating to the Capital Region in 2004, he has taken considerable financial risks by bringing in such heavy jazz hitters as Ray Vega, Jerry Weldon, Mark Vinci and Ralph LaLama for area club dates. The dates at Justin’s last weekend were no exception.
“I brought in Jon Gordon on alto saxophone because he is one of my favorites, and I have wanted to work with him ever since I heard his first album on Criss-Cross Records,” says Barna. “He is one of the most creative musicians I have ever heard and also one of the most refreshing musical voices on his instrument. Jon is the living embodiment of the jazz tradition, and he brings a great sensitivity to his playing and his interpretation of other people’s music.
“Magnarelli is one of the best musicians working in jazz today. He is strong and imposing yet sensitive and passionate about his playing. He listens to the music and what the other musicians are doing,” says Barna about the Village Vanguard Orchestra’s premier trumpet and flugelhorn master.
“When I write and perform my music, I want people to smile and feel joy,” says Barna, adding that too many contemporary composers are writing works that are too complex, cerebral or depressing in nature. “I want my music to bring hope and happiness to people. I want to affect people in a positive way, like Marvin Gaye did with his singing.”
From start to finish on Saturday, Justin’s was swinging hard and melodically through two energized sets of post-bop jazz in front of a full house. Bassist Lou Smaldone and pianist David Sollazza rounded out Barna’s quintet with twenty year-old trumpet wunderkind Dylan Canterbury joining in for a blistering encore.
Afterward, Magnarelli commented that in the 26 years he has been coming up to Justin’s on-and-off to play – with some heavy cats – he has never seen an audience get up and give a standing ovation there before.
Barna, Magnarelli and Gordon in a quintet setting are ready to cut an album and will be recording a live set over three days at the Bread and Jam Cafe in Cohoes on Thursday-Saturday, April 1-3. Don’t miss it!
Photographs and review by Andrzej Pilarczyk.