ABC Jazz 473 1260
Reviewed by Joseph Cummins, August 1st, 2015
One of our most engaging pianists, Barney McAll is currently working in Australia as the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Resident Composer (he is usually based in New York). McAll’s touch is unmistakable: a combination of the incredible force with which he performs (I’ve never seen someone play the piano so hard), his beautifully contorted harmonic language, and an irresistibly groovy rhythmic feel.
This latest recording Mooroolbark (McAll’s 10th album as leader) takes its title from the Indigenous word for his hometown, a suburb of Melbourne. ‘For many reasons’ McAll says in the liner notes, ‘Mooroolbark is why I play music’. Clearly, this album in some way reflects McAll’s (temporary) homecoming this year, and the inclusion of final track Mooroolbark 1974, evidently an archival recording of a young Barney (he was pretty good back in the day, too), is an unusual but personalising way to end the album.
I’ve been listening to McAll’s music since encountering his 2005 album Mother of Dreams and Secrets, an amazing documentation of his foray into Afro-Cuban music. McAll has released several albums since then, and Mooroolbark is as strong as anything he’s ever done (although I have to say Mother of Dreams, featuring American guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, remains my favourite). A few of the tracks on Mooroolbark, such as Non-Compliance, recall some of this energy and influence, the combination of deep groove, melodic complexity and wonderfully attention-grabbing transitions between sections within a composition.
Featuring Julien Wilson on tenor sax, Stephen Magnusson on guitar, Jonathan Zwartz in double bass, Simon Barker on drums (Hamish Stuart plays drums on the one live track), Mino Cinelu on percussion, and Shannon Barnett on trombone, the music on Mooroolbark is by turns moody, anarchic, melancholic, hypnotic, restless, and, above all, sublimely beautiful. Compositions take centre stage, even during the most memorable solos, such as Magnusson’s guitar solo in the middle of Non-Compliance. Of course, the playing is amazing, but I never get the feeling that solos are occurring simply because of generic convention. McAll is a master composer, and the eight compositions here are rich and provoking.
Apart from the unique compositional idiom, subtle use of electronics, such as the reverb and delay effects on some of the high-register figures in Transformations, push this recording way beyond most jazz albums. Metric modulations give the transition between different sections of several of the compositions on Mooroolbark a seamless quality, like the new melody/harmony/rhythm/solo we are confronted with is a logical, inevitable consequence of the preceding part of a song.
I’ve been lucky enough to have seen McAll perform numerous times in small Sydney jazz venues, and it was a delight to hear a live recording of Apple Tree on this album, a song that is always a highlight in live performance. This joyfully gospel-tinged composition showcases Barney and his band in full-groove mode, and some of the heights that the players reach here are pretty astounding (even managing to translate to the home listening experience). Another highlight is the opening track Nectar Spur, perhaps the most haunting and melodic composition on the album, which, like several other tracks, generates amazing dialectic tension between the different tempo and feel of adjacent sections. It features a typical McAll piano solo full of adventure and intrigue, but more striking here is his singing.
Even after ten albums, Barney McAll is still able to charm and surprise the listener.