LIVE: Joe Barna & Sketches of Influence @ Sanctuary for Independent Media, 2/24/15
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
I am now thoroughly convinced that it’s not the cold, the snow, the ice or even the wind chill that kills you in winter – it’s the cabin fever! And just because you have digital cable, wi-fi and Facebook to play with does not make you immune. You NEED to go out, you NEED to interact with non-co-workers, and you NEED to see some form of human-based entertainment that wasn’t cooked up on a Hollywood set. Aside from checking off all the aforementioned boxes, Joe Barna’s homecoming show at the Sanctuary for Independent Media let us help him do the best kind of warming up: Warming up for his NYC debut!
The night after he brought the latest iteration of Sketches of Influence to north Troy, Barna was set to do his first gig as a leader at Somethin’ Jazz Club, the New York City version of a venerable Tokyo establishment. Somethin’ held its own jazz festival in January while the NYC Winter JazzFest was going on (Teri Roiger was one of the featured performers), so February 25 was a big, big date. In addition to being Sketches’ “dress rehearsal,” Barna had taken upon himself the task of raising $1,000 for Sanctuary, which was technically “in hibernation” when the crowd settled down and Barna led saxman Stacy Dillard, pianist Victor Gould, and bassist Ryan Berg onto the stage. By his own admission, Barna “came close” to his financial goal; as to getting dialed in for the big gig, he and his band hit that target right in the bullseye.
From a music standpoint, you know what you’re going to get with Barna: Stinging hard bop as a main course, with savory side dishes of samba and bossa, plus a light-filled ballad for a palate-cleanser. Staying true to that form, Berg kicked off the two-set night with a nice, fat rhythm that became the hard-charging “Clownin’ Around.” Dillard was warm and wonderful like he usually is, wrapping his lines in Dexter Gordon fuzz while keeping everything he did both vibrant and original. That Dexter sound added real differentiation to the follow-up bossa “A Joyful Gathering” (dedicated to Greater Nippertown jazz superfan Leslie Hyland, who was taking tickets at the door). I shouldn’t have been surprised when the notes flowed from Dillard’s bell both easily and effortlessly, but then I always feel that way whenever I see Dillard play.
Having Gould as second soloist gives Barna the same marvelous hot/cool contrast you experience in Dillard & Gould’s other outfit, the Michael-Louis Smith Group. Gould’s keyboard attack has the same level of effortlessness, but on the other end of the temperature scale. That doesn’t mean things are simple or soft. The strength and complexity Gould brought to the waltz of “The Wolf” was eminently satisfying, and there wasn’t a peep in the house during his stunning in-the-clear intro to Barna’s ballad “Where You Go From Here.” The latter tune let Berg get his lyric on while Barna brushed it all up, leaving us all smiling and satisfied. Dillard was never shrieking or smooth when he switched to soprano sax for “The Wolf,” choosing instead to make his own slipping, sliding sound that was as bright as the light shining off his axe.
While this version of Sketches is smaller than the band on Barna’s last disc Blowin’ It Out, that’s a good thing on a couple of levels: The arrangements are simpler, which means you get more of the players’ individual personalities and less of a sense that they’re an extension of Barna’s pen. Less musicians also means more space for everyone to stretch out – including Barna, who had to hang back a lot more when he was leading a quintet. He was definitely in his element during “Clownin’” and the first-set closer “Mode for Jody,” sticking and moving while Berg kept the floor level, and Barna wasn’t hesitant about making a musical comment whenever any piece called for it. That being said, there’s a wonderful level of maturity to Barna’s attack now that has him pinpointing his bombs rather than carpeting the entire landscape. It’s a very happy medium between his early Tony Williams-influenced days and the spare presence he maintained on Blowin’ It Out.
This was the first time I’d seen altoist Adam Siegel play in some years, and I couldn’t remember if the fuzz around his own ripping solo lines had been there before, or if it was a new development. Either way, his addition to the second-set opener “Sudden Lee” expanded the matrix Dillard had created in the first set, and the two generations of saxophone came together like they’d been doing it for years. Jeff Nania had to run out to the car to get his axe when Barna called the tenorman up for a bluesed-out jam, but Dillard and Siegel more than held the fort until he got back. Nania pretty much plays everything nowadays – jazz, funk, rock, hip-hop, whatever – and plays it damn well, but having him a pure jazz environment is like getting a free ticket to an ice cream buffet: Very cool, and very sweet. He slipped into the front line like a hand into a custom-made glove, and the three sax players were absolutely epic on the soaring closer “The Gift.” Dillard changed over to soprano at the last minute, expanding the tune’s color palate exponentially.
While Nania and Siegel wouldn’t be joining the band in NYC, you knew by the end of the first set that the Somethin’ gig would be all good. The quality and the energy are both at the right level with this band, and Barna’s compositions definitely stand and deliver in a quartet format. Between that and beating the cabin fever for one night, the evening was a win all around.