Review and photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Additional photographs by Albert Brooks and Rudy Lu
Of the new breed of young lions that dominate the Capital Region’s jazz scene in recent years, drummer-composer Joe Barna is arguably the most charismatic.
Like his accomplished regional peers and fellow bandleaders – Keith Pray, Brian Patneaude and Lee Russo, for example – Barna lives, breaths and embraces jazz and the jazz life whole-heartedly. Sure, he’s had his ups and downs career wise, but so far he’s been a survivor. But most importantly, he is still striving for excellence and wanting something more with the live presentations of his groups and ensembles under the banner of Sketches of Influence.
Barna’s detractors point out his strong willed personality or his eccentric behavior as negatives, comparing him to a bull in a china shop. But what drummer-bandleader isn’t? Look at Art Blakey, Gene Krupa or Billy Cobham’s history, just to name a few, and you’ll see similar traits.
What’s important is that Barna’s fans come out to his concerts en mass knowing full well that what they’ll hear and witness will be unique and true to the jazz idiom. And, though delivered in a hard-bop style by Barna and his bandmates, it will be fresh, new and original.
With the exception of an open mic or a jam session, Barna doesn’t play every gig available every weekend like many others do. He waits for a showcase date and then often invites heavy hitters like nationally recognized trumpeter Joe Magnarelli or saxophonist Ralph LaLama to join his group for a regional outing.
These kind of musicians cost money, but Barna digs deep into his shallow financial pockets to make sure he’s got the best in tow for whatever Sketches of Influence situation is at hand. Never one to compromise his musical and compositional vision, Barna often walks away from the gig owing money rather than making it. As a bandleader he knows he has to pay for the talent, and his bandmates get paid before he pays himself. That is if any money is left over after expenses.
Breaking that kind of social contract can be hazardous to anyone’s career. Just look what happened to talented jazz trombonist Doug Sertl more than a decade ago when he ruined his career by not remembering that sacred pact between a bandleader and his sidemen: they played, so they got to get paid.
Last month at the remodelled Brown’s Revolution Hall in Troy, the stage was set for a new big-band version of Barna’s ongoing Sketches of Influence ensemble. But this time out, there was twist or two in the overall fabric of a Barna presentation.
First, the inaugural Sketches of Influence Scholarship Award (in the names of the late jazz guitarists Jack Fragomeni and Sam Farkas) was handed out to Arden Yonkers of Lansingburgh High School in Troy, midway through the concert.
The second was that 24-year-old monster trumpeter Dylan Canterbury was the linchpin of this Sketches of Influence Nonet +3 presentation. In addition to serving as both the arranger of the big-band charts for Barna’s original compositions and as the musical director for the ensemble, Canterbury was also performing with the group.
Opening the evening’s festivities were the Chronicles featuring saxophonist-bandleader Jeff Nania, trombonist Bryan Brundige, keyboardist Chris Carballeira, bassist Daniel Lawson and drummer Andrae Surgick. The infectious funk-meets-jazz sound – via a Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters groove – paved the way for the Sketches of Influence Nonet +3 to take the stage for one continuous set.
Barna was all smiles as he stood on the stage with a microphone and introduced the band one at a time as they took their place behind the music stands. In addition to Barna and Canterbury, the band also featured trumpeter Joe Magnarelli, trombonists Ken Olsen and Ben O’Shea, saxophonists Keith Pray, Adam Siegel, Lee Russo, Grant Stewart and Matt Garrison, pianist David Caldwell-Mason and bassist Lou Smaldone. Within moments the group was thrusting forward, embroiled in the melody line and then exchanging superb solos within the ranks, song after song.
That night there were no individual stars. Everyone played or soloed with magnificent finesse, power and flair. Although the band had only one rehearsal under their collective belt, the music was tight and seasoned. It sounded new and vibrant not only to the crowd, but to the players themselves. Choruses of solos were mutually encouraged and every musician was listening to one another with big ears. No one was looking at their watch or just going through the musical motions. No one there was there who didn’t want to be there in that moment in time, on that stage, playing jazz in Brown’s Revolution Hall.
The same could be said of the 250-plus audience. With the exception of a very few that left somewhere toward the end of the almost two-hour performance, because of children and babysitters or being there well after a full day’s work on a week night, the audience had stayed.
And loved every minute of it.
Rudy Lu’s additional photographs at Albany Jazz