Bruce Barth is a multi-faceted jazz musician whose career has included significant ensemble work and several highly regarded solo releases. He has taught privately and has also taught at Berklee College of Music and Long Island University, two of the nation's premiere institutions for the study of popular music performance. Barth, born in Pasadena, California, demonstrated his talent for the piano at a young age and began taking lessons when he was only five years old. He became interested in jazz music as a teenager growing up in New York state, and first learned jazz technique by listening to record albums.
Barth formalized his jazz studies, first in private lessons with pianist Norman Simmons and then as a student at the New England Conservatory in Boston, where he studied with pianists Jaki Byard and Fred Hersch. He supplemented his studies with numerous gigs accompanying musicians on the Boston jazz scene, and earned a master of music degree in 1984. He began working with composer George Russell and appeared on Russell's highly regarded Blue Note recordings The African Game and So What. The former is an adventurous 45-minute suite for big band that traces the evolution of the human species from an African perspective. The title song of the latter is an experimental take on jazz trumpeter Miles Davis's classic tune. Barth taught at Boston's Berklee College of Music from 1985 to 1988, when he relocated to New York City.
In New York City, Barth secured a gig touring Japan with cornetist Nat Adderley. The following year he joined saxophonist Stanley Turrentine's ensemble, and a year joined the ensemble of trumpeter Terence Blanchard. He accepted an appointment to the faculty of Long Island University's music school, located at its Brooklyn campus, in 1990. Barth stayed with Blanchard through 1994, touring extensively and appearing on five studio albums and four movie soundtracks with Blanchard's ensemble. Barth also made a cameo appearance as a piano player in Spike Lee's film Malcolm X, for which Blanchard's ensemble contributed the soundtrack.
Barth released his first two solo albums, In Focus and Morning Call, for the German label Enja, while still working with Blanchard. While these projects did not bring Barth widespread recognition, many who did take notice hailed them as the solid efforts of a serious talent. "Bruce Barth's recording debut as a leader was an auspicious one, though it probably wasn't as widely distributed as it might have been by a U.S. label," noted All Music Guide's Ken Dryden. "The overall strength of this initial recording as a leader by Bruce Barth makes it worth the search." The New York Times named each album to its annual top ten jazz recordings list.
In 1994 Barth struck out on his own, focusing on his work as a bandleader and freelancing with a slate of jazz notables, including saxophonist Steve Wilson, bassist Ugonno Okegwo, and drummer Al Foster, who all also appear on Barth's solo albums. In 1997 Barth began an affiliation with Double-Time, a small label located in New Albany, Indiana. Between 1997 and 2000 he released four albums on Double-Time: the studio albums Don't Blame Me and Somehow It's True, and two live albums, Live and Hope Springs Eternal.
During this time, Barth also began an association with the MAXJAZZ label, for whom he produced several albums in the Vocal Series. Albums that bear his mark include LaVerne Butler's Blues in the City, René Marie's How Can I Keep from Singing? and Vertigo, and Carla Cook's Dem Bones and It's All About Love, which was nominated for a Grammy. Bath told the JazzReview website that his hands-on experience makes him an especially savvy producer. "With my musical experience, I can bring my perspective as a musician to the date, having a good sense of what the musicians are doing and understanding what the artist is trying to do. . . . I've been told by certain musicians that they really appreciate having me involved because of my being a musician."
Barth released his own album, East and West, as the inaugural offering in MAXJAZZ's Piano Series in 2001. C. Michael Bailey hailed the album on the All About Jazz website, declaring, "I don't know if Mr. Barth is doing anything different, but the refinement in this music seems to elevate it to a level somewhere well beyond what usually crosses my desk."
Barth's second MAXJAZZ release, 2003's Live at the Village Vanguard, grew out of an ongoing association with that prestigious New York club, where Barth's trio—Barth, Okegwo, and Foster—debuted in February of 2002. Barth told Jazz Review that the Village Vanguard provided an exemplary audience in front of which to record. "A Vanguard audience is one of the best jazz audiences in the world, generally speaking, a New York audience at its best, a really well educated and sensitive audience. It's a great place to record." All About Jazz's Jim Santella, however, thought the album lacked ambition. "While the pianist's Village Vanguard session brought cheers those two August nights, it stands marred by the unfair ratio of too little adventure, too middle-of-the-road, laid-back rambling," he wrote.
Following the release of the live album, Barth told Jazz Review that he planned to focus on his work with the trio. "I see my future as trying to keep developing as a writer and as a player, continuing to play with some of the wonderful musicians I've mentioned, and working more with my trio. For me, that's probably been the most satisfying."
Barth has been hailed mainly as a solid, dependable musician. "He is basically a moderate, organized player: he swings as much as possible and doesn't let the music get away from him," noted Ben Ratliff in a 2004 performance review for the New York Times. Barth told Jazz Review that he has sought to become more emotional in his approach. "For me, the challenge is to have a more direct and expressive way in playing the music. That's really what I strive for." He added, "As musicians, we spend a lot of time working on our craft: the melodic ideas, the harmonic ideas. At the end of the day, it comes down to what you are expressing as a human being. That's really what it's about. I'm trying to continue delving deeper into that."
For the Record …
Born on September 7, 1958, in Pasadena, CA. Education: New England Conservatory, master of music degree, 1984.
Played in ensembles with Stanley Turrentine, 1989-90, and Terence Blanchard, 1990-94; began leading own ensembles, 1993; freelance work with Orange then Blue, Nat Adderley, Tom Harrell, Vincent Herring, James Moody, the Mingus Big Band, and others; producer for MAXJAZZ label; instructor, Berklee College of Music, 1985-88; and Long Island University, 1990–.
Addresses: Record company—MAXJAZZ, 115 W. Lockwood Ave., St. Louis, MO 63119, phone: (800) 875-8331, website: http://www.maxjazz.com. Website—Bruce Barth Official Website: http://www.brucebarth.com.
In Focus, Enja, 1993.
Morning Call, Enja, 1994.
Don't Blame Me, Double-Time, 1997.
Live, Double-Time, 1998.
Hope Springs Eternal (live), Double-Time, 1998.
Somehow It's True, Double-Time, 2000.
Where Eagles Fly, Fresh Sound, 2000.
East and West, MAXJAZZ, 2001.
Live at the Village Vanguard, MAXJAZZ, 2003.
New York Times, February 24, 2004.
Down Beat, February 1990; January 2001.
"Bruce Barth," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 14, 2004).
"Bruce Barth," Grove Dictionary of Music,http://www.grovemusic.com (June 14, 2004).
Bruce Barth Official Website, http://www.brucebarth.com (June 14, 2004).
"East and West," All About Jazz, http://www.allaboutjazz.com (June 14, 2004).
"Going Where the Music Takes Him," Jazz Review, http://www.jazzreview.com (June 14, 2004).
"Live at the Village Vanguard," All About Jazz, http://www.allaboutjazz.com (June 14, 2004).
MAXJAZZ Website, http://www.maxjazz.com (June 24, 2004).
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