The pleasure of experiencing great music in small venues is inestimable. Sure, we love it when the famous cats blow through town, rush to get our tickets for the town hall concerts, pay the hefty price tag gladly and listen; watch the tiny figures way, way down on stage. I have attended many such concerts over the years and regarded them among life’s high points, but now I am not so sure. As great as these concerts are and as amazing as the visiting musicians are, the experience is filtered through layers of complexity and as a result, one essential ingredient is often missing, that feeling of warm intimacy.
I have heard road-wise musicians talk of a virtuous feedback loop, the way artist and audience feed off each other until the music becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. Large civic venues are by their very nature redactive and the end result is often a performer facing a passive sea of listeners. Anyone who has been tapped on the shoulder during a performance and been told by an usher to sit still will get my point. Sitting still and mute is difficult for seasoned Jazz lovers. We know when to hold our breath and we know not to chatter, but we also understand when to vocalise our joy or when to exhort a soloist to greater heights. And bodies will sway and feet will tap – that’s the fine point of engagement. When the music is visceral it radiates a life force and even at the most fundamental level of existence, atoms collide and shift. If it lives it moves.
Some of us, the lucky ones, have experienced an artist of international stature performing in a small cosy club. If it’s a pianist and if a very good piano is located in the venue, then it’s a recipe for unbounded enjoyment. A few days ago Barney McAll played at a sold-out venue at the Wellington International Jazz Festival. Thanks to his close friend Jonathan Crayford he stopped off for a day in Auckland on his return journey. There had been some discussion about this possibility a few months ago and JC assured me that it would happen. Because I had a prior warning I waited and when the tickets appeared I swooped like a hawk. Only the lucky few got to attend this gig.
The eye-catching online notification featured an attractive sketch and a poster which read; ‘Barney McAll plays Gospel solo piano at Freida Margolis, limited tickets available’. In the fine print was the word, Steinway. Together this spelt seismic. When you hear McAll you experience more than just music, you experience dreamscapes and multiple histories. The first thing to grasp about McAll is that he can reference many styles and genres and while this is disconcerting to some, it is an essential part of his output. Cutting edge contemporary improvised music, Orchestral Jazz, alternative popular music, standards, soul, free or Gospel. While his projects can feature any of the above styles, each is laid down with the utmost integrity and each bears his unmistakable hallmark.
What we heard were mostly Gospel hymns – the sort you would hear in a Harlem church. They were hymns, but not presented in the way you’d hear them in a New Zealand or Australian church. They were improvisational vehicles and the voicings of some old-time Jazz greats shone through. I have heard such voicings from the likes of Hank Jones and this is hardly surprising. Musicians like Jones came up through the black gospel church experience. What is uncommon, is to hear this from a white Australian musician. His eight years of playing in American Gospel churches left its mark of authenticity on him.
During the night he invited Jonathan Crayford and Bella Kalolo to join him. Crayford accompanied on piano, free improvising, while McAll played an unusual guitar-like instrument, imparting a sitar sound or prepared piano sound. Kalolo was obviously delighted to be accompanied by McAll and even though she was unamplified and therefore low volume the two of them had strong chemistry. While they approach the tunes differently, Gospel is clearly something both artists understand.
McAll also played Necter Spur from his ‘Mooroolbark’ album and ‘The Nock Code’ from his recent ‘Hearing the Blood’ album. Both albums garnered multiple awards and significant praise. Unencumbered by a band, he ranged freely over the numbers and found exquisite asides to explore in-depth. This was music to be experienced from three metres away. This was a love letter to the classic Steinway ‘D’ series and Freida Margolis was the perfect backdrop. I had mounted the camera up high and it was surrounded by tiles which brightened the sound – but that piano – those tunes and those musicians found the magic and gave us a gig to remember.
Barney McAll (Steinway D, stringed instrument), Bella Kalolo (vocals), Jonathan Crayford (Steinway D) – for McAll albums visit Extra Celestial Arts on Bandcamp.