Jazz interview with jazz pianist Rob Barron. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Rob Barron: – I grew up in Hull, East Yorkshire in England. My grandfather was a great classical pianist although never turned professional. He encouraged me a lot as a young musician and used to record my playing on tape from a very early age. I also had classical piano lessons from the age of five years old. I remember working out simple chords at the piano and harmonising melodies from as early as the age of 4 though.
JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
RB: – A lot of my early experiences as a jazz pianist were in local big bands. I joined the local youth jazz orchestra as a teenager and we toured to Berlin, Orlando and Barcelona. I had a job playing for dance classes when I was fifteen and I used to spend my pay jazz records. At this time I was into Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans and Weather Report. I was trying to get my hands on anything I could on CDs locally and used to spend hours in my mother’s attic listening to recordings and to the BBC big band on the radio. It wasn’t until moving to London in 2004 where I really got things together properly. There I studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and I started getting really into the bebop and hard bop pianists such as Wynton Kelly, Sonny Clark and of course Cedar Walton.
JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
RB: – I practice a lot of classical music in my routine. I have a great love of Chopin and I have tried to get some of his Etudes together which are very challenging but incredibly good for building an advanced piano technique. I think they are important works to study regardless of the genre you are playing. I also use Oscar Behringer’s daily practice routines which are brilliant for maintain good technique also. Lately I’ve also been working on creating jazz etudes which are based on material I’ve transcribed from jazz solos by the great bebop musicians. These serve to build and reinforce jazz language and also maintain a solid technique too.
JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
RB: – I think sooner or later in your career you have to choose a path stylistically. You can’t sound like Vijay Iyer and Wynton Kelly at the same time. You have to choose a direction and really immerse yourself in one particular playing style for a long time and work out what you enjoy and what you want to take from it. For me I love American jazz and the great players from the blue note era such as Cedar Walton, Sonny Clark, Wynton Kelly and Hank Jones. For me this era is the real deal, the real filling of the cake in jazz! Stick to what you really love and you won’t go wrong.
JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?
RB: – I always try and memorise the music I’m going to perform. There’s nothing worse then seeing a leader of a group reading music on stage. To me it means that they haven’t learnt the material properly. You can connect with the audience more this way without having sheet music infront of yoU. It may sound obvious, but staying healthy, having a good diet and getting plenty of sleep before a performance really helps. I never like to have a big meal before a gig, there’s nothing worse than feeling bloated on stage! Also, if I can, I try not to have any other engagement in the diary on the day of the gig, such as long hours of teaching or other rehearsals. I try not to over practice on the day of performance. You don’t want to feel tired out before you head onto the bandstand!
JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2020: ‘From This Moment On’, how it was formed and what you are working on today.
RB: – I love the songs I’ve chosen and arranging them in a different style. I want to surprise people with how they sound. Some may pick up the album and see quite a few standards that have been recorded many times before, but a lot of people when they play the record are surprised and just how different they sound. I’ve also enjoyed composing a couple of original compositions and this is something I’d like to do more of in the future. Of course it’s always a joy to play with Jeremy and Josh too, two of my longest standing musical collobaotoers in jazz!
JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
RB: – The soul must always be at the forefront of music making. Without your soul, intolerant is useless. Your intellect should feed the soul. You have to connect with your own soul in music because a performance without it is meaningless, empty and void of spirit.
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
RB: – It’s important to strike a balance between entertainment and art form. You want to make music that’s enjoyable to play and enjoyable to listen to. Alienating an audience is never the goal! I don’t like to take requests though. I take a lot of time in planning the programmed of the gig. I also don’t mind talking to the audience. It’s important to make them feel welcome. It’s harder sometimes to connect with the audience from the piano, as you are not a horn player out front. You have to coax them in and try and keep their attention without the force of a horn to front the band.
JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions, which you’d like to share with us?
RB: – There’s so many, but some personal highlights were playing with Marlena Shaw for a weeklong residency at Ronnie Scotts back in 2014, a vocalist with such a powerful and unique soulful voice. I was the youngest in the band and she was very kind to me that whole week, it was a real joy getting to play with her. Other highlights have been playing with Grant Stewart, the great Candadian Tenor saxophone player and also Patti Austin in Al Jarreau. I’ve been very lucky to play with many great world class artists as a sideman.
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
RB: – I think the American songbook tunes of the golden era of songwriting are still the best. Back then songwriters really knew how to get the most out of inventive functional harmony. Everything these days seems very harmonically watered down in comparison. I think more jazz on mainstream radio and TV would help. Also making jazz and improvisation a part of the music curriculum in schools is important. I’ve tried to present standards in a fresh way that hopefully can connect with audiences young and old on my album
JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
RB: – When I sit down and play the piano I’m communicating my spirit through the notes I am playing, this is something I always strive for. I think Jazz has it’s own unique spirit that you can’t really put into words. The meaning of life though? That’s a big question! I think we should love others as we love ourself and try and give joy and happiness to others through our music. If I can touch one person’s soul in the audience through my music then I feel I’ve achieved something
JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
RB: – I would like to see a better model for online streaming platforms. Audiences can stream the vast majority of recorded music for free these days and I think in a way it has devalued the art form. In the days where the only way to listen to music was either on the radio or buying it in a record store, people I think placed a bigger value on an artists’ recorded output. These days people tend to take it for granted. Record companies need to wake up and start paying artists a reasonable income for streams rather than the pittance that is on offer now if musicians are going to survive.
JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
RB: – I’m still listening to a lot of the blue note catalogue. I’ve recently got more into McCoy Tyner. He such a force of nature on the piano! I especially like McCoy as a sideman. I was listening to Donald Byrd’s “Mustang” again this morning. Also I’m always keeping an ear out on what’s coming out of the New York straight ahead scene. I love David Hazeltine and Mike LeDonne’s playing and I always enjoy putting on one of their records!
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
RB: – Music is for the soul, it should make you feel good and take you away from everything else in your life and put you in a unique moment. I want to bring joy to people through my music.
JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
RB: – I would say, New York City in 1959. A Golden year for jazz music like non other. The year so many classic jazz recordings were made. Giant Steps by Coltrane, Kelly Blue by Wynton Kelly, My Conceptioin by Sonny Clark, and of course Kind of Blue by Miles.
I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be around in that time. Just immersing myself in the scene during that time would be a dream come true!
JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
RB: – What would you say are your top three all time favourite jazz recordings and why?
JBN: – Miles Davis – Kind of Blue, John Coltrane – A Love Supreme, Bill Evans Trio: Waltz For Debby …
JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
RB: – I’m not sure what you mean regarding this question, but hopefully you have enough material!
Interview by Simon Sargsyan