Jazz pianist and composer Bruce Barth has been enchanting audiences worldwide with his soul-stirring music for over thirty-five years. His artistic journey has taken him to every corner of the globe, sharing his mesmerizing melodies and improvisations with music lovers from all walks of life. Throughout his illustrious career, Bruce has graced over 135 recordings and movie soundtracks, leaving an indelible mark on the jazz landscape. With 17 albums as a leader, he has showcased his versatility and mastery of the piano, from the tender intimacy of solo performances to leading all-star septets in exhilarating musical journeys. Zan Stewart of the Newark Star-Ledger aptly describes Bruce’s solos as “characterized by robust swing, his ability to tell a story, and by his rich, beguiling sound.”
Originally hailing from Pasadena, California, Bruce Barth made a defining move to the pulsating jazz capital of the world, New York City, in 1988. In no time, he found himself gracing the bands of esteemed jazz icons such as Stanley Turrentine and Terence Blanchard. His first two albums as a leader, “In Focus” and “Morning Call,” garnered widespread acclaim, earning spots on the New York Times’ top ten lists. These records not only showcased his powerful and fluid piano playing but also unveiled the breadth of his compositions and imaginative arrangements of jazz standards.
As a bandleader, Bruce has performed at renowned venues across the United States, Europe, and Japan, dazzling audiences with his evocative performances. He has led bands at esteemed venues in New York and The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and has graced the stages of major jazz festivals in the UK, Spain, Sweden, and Portugal.
Bruce’s collaborations with a roster of exceptional musicians have further solidified his status as a jazz luminary. For more than fifteen years, he has been a key member of the Terell Stafford Quartet, recording and performing extensively with this dynamic group. His musical chemistry extends to Steve Wilson, Luciana Souza, Steve Nelson, Tony Bennett, and others, showcasing his innate ability to harmonize and elevate every musical collaboration.
Apart from his musical prowess, Bruce is also a dedicated teacher, having served on the faculty of Temple University for more than twenty-five years. His passion for nurturing young talents has led him to impart his knowledge through teaching engagements at Columbia University and conducting masterclasses across the globe.
Just a few days ago, we had the incredible opportunity to sit down with the internationally acclaimed jazz pianist. Our conversation delved deep into his illustrious career, explored his latest musical endeavors, and granted us a thrilling glimpse of what’s in store for his upcoming gig at Zinc.
Charles Carlini: Bruce, your career has been nothing short of remarkable. Can you share with us some of the most memorable moments that have shaped your journey as a jazz pianist?
Bruce Barth: Charles, I feel very fortunate to have arrived in New York in 1988, at a very exciting time. First of all, many of the great jazz masters were still with us – Art Blakey, Betty Carter, Freddie Hubbard, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Stanley Turrentine, Stan Getz, Art Farmer, and many more. One could hear these musicians all the time in the clubs, to learn and be inspired; and with some luck, to have the chance to play with some of them.
The other main factor for me was the talented group of my peers whom I got to know, many of whom had moved to town around the same time as I did. When I moved to Brooklyn, I made sure to have an apartment where I could play jam sessions in the afternoon. As many people know, at a jam session at a club, you might have to wait a long time to play a tune or two, but at a session at someone’s place, you can play all afternoon. Some of the musicians I played sessions with were Steve Wilson, Sam Newsome, Bill Stewart, Billy Drummond, Terence Blanchard, James Genus, and many others.
It was a thrilling time, to learn from our elders, from each other, and then to be fortunate to join some great bands.
Some memorable moments:
- Meeting Hank Jones in 1979, when he was playing solo piano at the Ziegfeld Cafe (after performances of “Aint Misbehaving”), and asking him to play “Confirmation,” which he had recently recorded. I was only twenty-one, and he was so friendly and kind to me. Whenever I returned and he spotted me, he played that tune for me.
- Hanging at Terry’s, an after-hours jazz club in Tokyo, with Stanley Turrentine’s band and the MJQ (sans John Lewis), jamming. I had the thrill of comping for Milt Jackson singing the blues and then sitting next to me at the piano and playing a solo “vibes style,” with his two index fingers. Some of the most beautiful lines you could imagine.
- After playing at the Tokyo Blue Note with Terence Blanchard in the early 90s, we went to an after-hours club and jammed with George Benson, who was absolutely on fire.
- Sharing the stage with Stanley Turrentine, whose every note was in the pocket and full of deep feeling.
- Leading my trio for the first time at the Village Vanguard with Ugonna Okegwo and Al Foster, and recording live.
- Bringing a septet to Spain and Portugal, and performing my arrangements at major festivals with many of my musical friends.
CC: Your recent projects have received widespread acclaim, particularly your latest album, Dedication, on Origin Records. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind it and the creative process you embraced while working on it?
BB: During the pandemic, like so many people, I spent many days sequestered at home, and as difficult as that period was, I managed to keep practicing and composing. I wrote several new tunes and thought of some as dedications: “In Memoriam,” dedicated to George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, and so many others; to piano masters McCoy Tyner and Tommy Flanagan, and “Courage,” to all of us dealing with such challenging times.
I recorded the songs in August of 2021 with my close friends and long-time collaborators, bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Montez Coleman. I had no idea that the second day in the studio would be the last time I would see Montez. He passed on early in 2022 from heart failure, and I dedicated the entire album to him.
My idea was to approach the songs without a clear idea of how they’d be recorded and to work out the music with Vicente and Montez as equal partners.
CC: Your improvisational skills are renowned and celebrated. Can you take us on a journey into your approach to improvisation, and how you strike the perfect balance between spontaneity and structure in your performances?
BB: My approach to improvisation is to practice and study with attention to detail, trying to keep a spirit of exploration and fun; and to stretch out on tunes that I’m working on (such as those I’ll be playing at Zinc on October 24.)
But on the bandstand, I try to have a “blank slate” approach.
I want to improvise without an agenda, without thinking, so I can be present in the moment, listening and interacting with my bandmates. I value connection with my fellow musicians more than taking a good solo. I feel if we are connecting, and if the energy is good, that the audience will hopefully feel something special, and be transported by the music.
CC: You’ll be performing at Zinc on Tuesday, October 24. What can the audience expect from your upcoming show? Any surprises or unique elements you have prepared for this special occasion?
BB: I’m planning a special program for our Zinc gig. I’ll be playing with stellar musicians, bassist Dave Baron and drummer Kush Abadey, who both have the sensitivity, fire, and imagination to take the music to all kinds of places. We will be playing several original tunes, complemented by jazz classics by such composers as Billy Strayhorn and Wayne Shorter.
CC: Jazz has evolved significantly over the years, and you’ve been an integral part of this evolution. How do you see the current state of jazz, and what role do you think it plays in today’s musical landscape?
BB: I am excited by the state of jazz today, as there are many talented and dedicated young musicians carrying the music forward. A lot of young musicians have started learning jazz at a young age, and with the internet, have the complete history of recorded jazz at their fingertips. Many have been influenced by hip-hop, afro-Caribbean music, Brazilian music, and other styles as well. I think the scene is vibrant, and that the music is appealing to young people, which is important.
CC: As an influential figure in the jazz community, you’ve undoubtedly inspired many aspiring musicians. What advice would you give to young artists who are striving to find their voice and make their mark in the world of jazz?
BB: My main advice to young musicians is to stay dedicated to this music, to work hard, and to continue to search for their voices: with so much facility and knowledge, they need to keep sight of what they are trying to say with their music. Playing with elders can help them on this journey.
When I came to New York in the late 80s, all of my peers were seeking to learn from our elders. I don’t see this trend as much among some younger musicians. Though there are many who seek to learn from older musicians, to try to grasp “the feeling of jazz,” which gets transmitted through the generations.
Bruce, it has been an absolute pleasure delving into your journey as a jazz pianist and exploring your upcoming performance at Zinc. Your passion and dedication to your craft are evident, and your contributions to the jazz world are truly inspiring. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights with us today. For our readers, don’t miss the chance to witness Bruce Barth’s brilliance at Zinc on Tuesday, October 24. For more information and updates on his gigs and projects, visit his official website at www.brucebarthmusic.com.