Reviewed by Joseph O'Connor, June 2 2018
One of my pet peeves is the tendency of the cultural industry to wedge musicians into narrow stylistic categories, even though many artists practice across multiple styles and disciplines. Categories are convenient, probably even necessary, but categorisation is a reductive business. Categories describe general commonalities with other music, ignoring colourful particularity in the process.
For this reason, I hesitate to call Steve Barry’s new solo piano album Hatch a jazz release, though Steve is an exceptionally fine jazz pianist.To frame Steve’s solo music from the point of view of his jazz credentials would seem to paint his engagement with modernist art music as a kind of tourist venture into the other, belying the depth with which he has clearly interrogated 20th and 21st century classical repertoire in the formulation of Hatch. Whether it is a jazz release, a classical release or something in between really depends on whether you define genre in terms of an artistic process or the musical tropes identified with particular styles. If one sides with the former perspective, the centrality of improvisation to Hatch distances it from classical methodologies, though its musical materials frequently reference notated traditions. I personally don’t think that the distinction is terrible important anyway because the music is exceptional regardless, and is stronger for its bucking of easy categorisation.
I have known Steve Barry for some years now, having crossed paths with him at various gigs, workshops and festivals over the years. We are collaborating on duo piano music later in the year so in the interests of disclosure, I had a lot of admiration for Steve’s music before I heard this album. The present offering Hatch and his recent quartet album Blueprints and Vignettes (released on Earshift Music) demonstrate a striking out into vastly new territory in terms of aesthetic and musical materials. When I first heard Steve play at a piano workshop at the Australian National Academy of Music in 2011, his work aligned with the contemporary mainstream of jazz and he continued to hone this approach on his 2014 album Puzzles. I think it is fairly uncontentious to say that he was (and still is) one of the leading Australian based pianists working in this style. However a couple of years ago, I began to hear murmurs that Steve had been getting deeply into more experimental musicians from the New York scene including pianists Kris Davis and Matt Mitchell. I was surprised by the rapid evolution of his interests because it is rare to hear an artist so accomplished in a particular approach to re-evaluate the way that they do things so comprehensively. Steve opted for the difficult but rewarding path rather than the comfortable one, and this commitment to growth and integrity is commendable.
When Blueprints and Vignettes released in January this year, I was deeply impressed by how completely Steve had consolidated ideas from the contemporary jazz avant garde. The inspiration of Matt Mitchell’s album Vista Accumulation is particularly present on Steve’s quartet music (perhaps a little too present), but Steve’s unique voice comes through on both albums and particularly on Hatch. His music has a lyrical sweep that I occasionally yearn for when I listen to Kris Davis, and it avoids the muscular severity that can be confronting in Matt Mitchell’s music (for instance Veins from Mitchell’s album Fiction or Plate Shapes from his recent release A Pouting Grimace). The compositions on Hatch are consistently inventive and varied. Steve has an impressive ability to improvise with intricate pitch structures and pianistic textures without ever sounding constrained by compositional parameters. Having struggled to achieve similar ends in some of my music, I can attest that this is a very difficult effect to carry off. It can only be achieved with a mountain of diligent study and practice. I was not surprised to read that this collection is the musical outcome of Steve’s PhD research. There are seventeen tracks on Hatch of varying durations so I will focus on just a couple to capture an impression of the territory covered.
The opening track Microcosm grows out of a sketch for improvisation. It is an etude in crisp, free tonality articulated by lyrical, freewheeling melodies. Steve’s Improvisation expands from three sets of modules, linked by recurring contours and a consistency in the pitch organisation that is difficult to account for without close analysis. The modules that make up Microcosm are rich with information. The harmonies imply cadences in isolation, but their tonal allusions are dispersed when the sonorities flow swiftly from one to the next. his type of modular sketch, which is able to foster both improvised flexibility and conceptual focus, suggests the influence of approaches favoured by some of the leading exponents of New York’s jazz avant garde. Piano virtuoso Cory Smythe’s solo pieces Blockchain from AUTOTROPHES and moon:Glow from Pluripotent are vivid points of comparison, though Steve’s sensibility is a little more romantic (think Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19). A sophisticated harmonic sensibility persists through all the transformations and brings to mind a miniature called Proem from Tim Stevens’ 2002 album Freehand (another Australian master of the solo format), though Tim’s composition resides a little more comfortably on the tonal spectrum. Steve’s improvisation in Codify, which appears later in Hatch, also responds to a notated modular template in a similar manner to Microcosm.
Other tracks are more compositional in their construction. Spire is primarily notated, though it includes textures that are filled out with improvised elements. The form is sonata-like. The pitch materials and textures that are developed throughout the piece are defined within the first thirty-five seconds of the track. Spire begins with a sinuous arpeggiated melody that opens into a chordal passage, during which the arpeggiated movements continue in the left hand. These figures seem to repeat throughout the opening section (the exposition?) though they are actually already transforming. Spire is freely tonal rather than atonal. Many of the sonorities have triads embedded within them, made colourful by their combination with tones from other harmonic areas. The middle section of Spire (the development?) transfigures the opening materials in a variety of ways. Melodic cascades reference the opening gestures, and flow together to form more expansive linear passages that transpose and evolve. There are fleeting glimpses of tonal centers but the music swiftly moves in directions that defy their harmonic gravity. This impression is partly due to the predominance of melodic fourth and fifths, which appear frequently in tonal music but have a decentering effect when they are used as ubiquitous melodic units.
Steve’s influences are quite diverse and this manifests in the remaining tracks. Tag! and Canon, inspired by Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis, are lean and contrapuntal, based around two interweaving melodies. In contrast, Meander is inspired by the expressive improvised counterpoint of Fred Hersch’s music, though Steve’s less rhapsodic sensibility seems equally indebted to Paul Grabowsky’s solo music. Other tracks draw their inspiration from the music of American serialist Milton Babbit, the stemless notation of Morton Feldman, and the harmonic approaches of Olivier Messiaen. Hatch covers a lot of ground and hearing these influences filtered through Steve’s aesthetic as an improviser and composer makes for diverse and satisfying listening. The fact that the explorations informing Hatch are relatively recent makes this album particularly exciting for me because it suggests that this music is only the beginning. I can only imagine what will follow as Steve continues to mine modernist and experimental music for inspiration.