By Ron Wynn
Local jazz fans have known about the instrumental prowess of the Barber brothers dating back to their days as high school musicians. Today both Rahsaan and Roland are very active members of the Nashville jazz community and involved in every way from recording to performing to being educators and advocates.
While Rahsaan’s been more in the news recently, his trombone playing brother is now stepping forward with his own exciting projects, among them his new CD “Heart Expressed, Art Finessed.” He also headlined recently at the Nashville Jazz Workshop, spotlighting a Latin Jazz band and theme.
Barber offered his opinions on multiple topics in a recent interview we did via e-mail.
(1) What initially got you interested in playing jazz?
“I initially got interested in jazz through exposure to it around the house as a kid. My older brother, Robert Barber Jr., plays the saxophone, and I remember him in that season of my life, our family going to hear his college performances, sitting in the kitchen and listening to records with him, and his lessons with my twin brother. My grandmother, Zepher Selby, had a great collection of records, and, though she was a church/classically trained pianist, she always admired the advanced techniques, signature tones, and improvisational capabilities and courage of jazz pianists.”
“I was so intrigued by jazz, and the fact that jazz requires such a personal investment from each performer. Jazz is a music of expressive opportunity, and it’s a quite transparent genre, in that, in a jazz performance, there’s so much creativity that who you are on the inside – personally, spiritually, and professionally – will come out. I could hear all of that in the music as early as ten years old, and I wanted in. It wasn’t swing or bebop, new or old, traditional or contemporary jazz to me – it was heart music.”
(2) What led you to choose the trombone?
“That’s a funny story. I knew I wanted to play something that a lot of other people wouldn’t choose. I have never like competition, or trite popularity – and I liked the idea of redeeming and valuing something that felt hidden or overlooked. Also, I didn’t want a lot of competition when it came time for college. (I attribute the fact that I, in the 7th grade, was thinking of college to the ever-horizon-popularity of my mother, Stella). So I had it narrowed down to trombone or oboe. My first band director was a trombonist, and I think he preferred me to start on the trombone. He showed me how to organize my chops to make a sound, and my first note was on his trombone, pulled from the stand in his office. The rest, as they say . . .”
(3) Who are some of your favorite players and people you would deem influences?
“Favorite players…for me, that must include singers, too. I have learned so much about performing melody and connecting with audiences through studying singers/singing. My favorites would be artists who were melodic, had some blues language, mastered their axes, and delivered a keen soulfulness for their time: Louis Armstrong, Al Grey, Stanley Turrentine, Stefon Harris, Wynton Marsalis, Basie’s big band, Joe Williams, Kenny Barron.
(4) You also play Latin music. What do you consider the differences and/or similarities between Latin and jazz, and do you feel there is such a thing as Latin jazz?
“The differences are like in the dance for me. In Latin music, there is a structure to the groove called clave, and that is a rhythmic phrase or sentence that is the foundation for the rest of the music. From there, rhythms, melodies and ideas weave across that foundation, and I believe that conversing and playing “in clave” is a must for a performer of Latin music. Discarding the depth of the “clave” is like playing jazz with no presence of the blues.”
“Jazz is a different dance, with its “swinging” pulse being enlightened by the triplet spirit of African Music and the 4/4 frameworkj of Europe. Jazz also emphasizes soloistic improvisationa (rather than the ensemble improvisation of other world/folk musics). At the root of both Jazz and Latin song is a melodicism born in Africa, which we know here as the sound of the blues – a beautiful resource of melodicism and sonic language that has touched almost every genre born on American soil.”
“Yes, there is such a thing as Latin jazz to me. I would recognize it as a music that spoke to the rhythms of the Latin world, the blues/vocal elements of jazz melody, and a display of soloistic improvisation, born out of the legacy Louis Armstrong left to jazz, of developing brief solo break statements into extended solos over the entire chord progressions of songs.”
(5) You spent some time in New York. What led to your decision to return to Nashville?
“I had saved some money from being on the road a year and a half with Cirque Du Soleil, traveling with one of their shows. I decided I could put that little nest egg towards rent in NYC for a year. OR, move back to Nashville and invest in a CD. That decision has brought about my first CD as a bandleder, entitled “Heart Expressed, Art Finessed,” for my instrumental jazz quintet, now available for sale.” [Editor’s note: Roland’s CD is available for preview and purchase at CDBaby]
(6) How do you feel about things here (Nashville) now in terms of jazz? Are things better than before you left, about the same, or no change?
“That’s a hard question for me to answer – the question of things here now and jazz. My artistic path has been quite unique and is still taking turns. Though I am a glad part of the jazz community here in Nashville, I am very keenly aware that most jazz musicians here aren’t playing jazz for a living. I left Nashville for college in 1998. I returned in 2010. When I left, I wanted to play well. But “playing well” is different from pursuing a career in music, let alone enjoying a career in music.”
“Since I have returned, I am looking with new eyes, and new resources into what it means to be a jazz musician here. I love the support I have here in Nashville, and I truly love these, my Southern people. I think in the midst of my changes, my growth, my artistic and career vision sharpening, I can’t rightfully say if the environment has been static or changing for the jazz community at large. I’m still bettering and changing me, and those changes are coming rapidly, I feel. There’s the question – “Am I better, the same, or no change?” Musically, artistically, of course I am better – now to put vision and strategy and focus with that.”
(7) What other things are you doing besides playing/recording?
“Teaching! That’s my love and my strongest gift, I believe – to empower people to better take part in this gift of music. Since returning to Nashville, I have taught virtually every stage of development. From volunteer teaching beginning brass students at W.O. Smith School of Music to traveling to colleges and universities nationwide to present master classes and educate collegiate and professional level players.”
“Beyond that, I have fallen enamored with music technology, as I’m near completing a home studio setup that allows me not only to professionally record myself for others, but create and hear new music very quickly. This has been invaluable to me lately, as I can sketch out and demo ideas across genres and styles and get a feel for new ideas! It’s like having a band at your fingertips.”
(8) Would you ever do any non-jazz or non-Latin sessions?
“Yes, and I do frequently! With so many new acts to the Nashville recording scene, diversity of musical styles and flexibility is increasingly critical. I have recorded in many idioms, from Baltic brass band, to New Orleans Second Line, Funk, Blues, Orchestral, Country, Gospel, and more. Freelance work requires you keep an ear to the ground and your chops up! I enjoy it.”
(9) What are some future goals?
“I’ve been working on quite a few things behind the scenes. Patrons to my recent shows have noticed that I’ve added some new things to my repertoire. First, I’m singing now. I have been singing occasionally with some other artists’ bands for some years (even once on a program at Carnegie Hall). Vocally, my influences are few in number, but great in inspiration. Tony Bennett and Joe Williams sit atop that list which also includes Kevin Mahogany and Mel Torme. I enjoy and aspire to what I love in those jazz voices – tenderness, honesty, a unique cozy comfort, wit and charm.
“I’m also working up demos now on a project to feature my trumpet playing. This one would be a romantic project with a sensual, R&B tone. Meditative, rich and provocative. I hear and feel the trumpet very differently from how I hear the trombone. The trumpet’s voice sits above the other sounds of the band, and for me that carries an elevated intensity and presence that is very emotional and powerful. I think Chet Baker, Miles, and Roy Hargrove illustrate that opportunity well. Great intensity can be shared through pure presence and awareness, and in this time of so much sexual toxicity in messages of value and worth – I want to make music that speaks to the romantic beauty of real togetherness and awareness. Music that establishes the strength, freedom, and privilege of true intimacy and connection.”
(10) Do you plan to remain in Nashville permanently?
“I tend to operate most gracefully when looking towards the next step, and so permanent plans rarely took shape for me. I do want to teach college – always have. And right now, that indicates that my mind be open to relocation. However, I love the South, and Nashville feels like home. After six years, I never could get my mind “ready” for NYC’s hustle and bustle. I have had travels in Europe and Canada that have attracted my attention, especially as someone who wants a family one day. When I look into the next little while, a season in Nashville would be comforting, however, we never know when God’s call will lead us into what exodus towards a new promise. “
Roland recently appeared at the Nashville Jazz Workshop’s Snap on 2 & 4, presenting a program of Latin Jazz, “Recuerdos y Promisas” (Keepsakes and Promises) with pianist Kelli Cox, guitarist Lindsey Miller, bassist Jon Estes, and percussionists Dann Sherrill, Giovanni Rodriquez and Yamil Conga. Photos below are from that performance. Watch for audio and video on the Jazz Workshop’s YouTube Channel and internet radio station.