We were wrapping up so many pieces of the 7th Annual Chi-Town Jazz Festival for Hunger Relief today and came across Howard Reich’s review of Bruce Barth playing for us at pianoForte. It was so generous of Bruce to come in from New York to support our efforts. If you were there you’ll likely agree with Howard’s comments. If you weren’t – you missed a good gig and that should be a lesson to you to make sure you catch at least some of next year’s programs. Here’s Howard:
Bruce Barth’s silvery pianism brightens Chi-Town Jazz Festival
March 12, 2016
If there’s a more intimate, embracing and acoustically inviting space in Chicago to hear a piano recital than PianoForte Studios, on South Michigan Avenue, we have yet to encounter it.
Increasingly used by classical and jazz musicians, the concert hall at PianoForte once again showed its value on Friday evening, when pianist Bruce Barth played a solo set during the closing weekend of the seventh annual Chi-Town Jazz Festival. As always at PianoForte, a first-class instrument was at the soloist’s fingertips.
Barth’s appearance was significant not only because of the quality of the room and the piano but also because of the stature of the performer and the reason for his appearance. All the artists and venue owners donate their wares for the Chi-Town Jazz Festival, with all funds going toward hunger relief. In 2015 the event raised $46,000, bringing its total to $178,000 before this year’s edition commenced.
That a distinguished pianist such as Barth would travel to Chicago to contribute to the festival and champion its cause says a great deal about the rising stature of the event and its future prospects. The Rev. John Moulder — who’s also a top-flight Chicago jazz guitarist — conceived the festival and, against considerable odds, proved that it could work.
So when he took to the stage at PianoForte to welcome the crowd, his presence served to remind listeners not only of the importance of the occasion but also of the sacred side of jazz. A music that emerged, in part, in New Orleans’ Storyville vice district more than a century ago also carries profound influences of the church, and Moulder’s festival subtly illuminates that point.
Barth’s performance proved as serious and introspective as Moulder’s opening comments, the pianist utterly unconcerned with technical ostentation or much of anything that put the focus on himself. Instead, his was a deeply musical performance, Barth emphasizing the scores at hand rather than the wherewithal required to play and transform them.
Some of his most intriguing work emerged in a suite of compositions by contemporary composers that Barth said he hopes will become “new standards.” Realistically speaking, these works may not be poised to attain the acclaim of music by Gershwin, Ellington and Arlen, but their significance was obvious.
In Donald Brown’s “A Dance for Marie-Do,” Barth conveyed a relentless but unhurried forward drive, capturing the joyous spirit of the tune and embellishing it with delicate, right-hand filigree. In Eri Yamamoto’s “Memory Dance,” Barth’s slow-and-easy tempo enabled him to create distinct layers of gauzy sound. And in Steve Wilson’s “A Joyful Noise (For JW),” Barth maintained a silvery tone in a perpetual-motion romp that might have led lesser pianists to indulge in bombast.
Barth’s own compositions also figured prominently in this recital, especially in an opening collection of three works. The dreamy introduction and lush chords he played in “Yama,” the ethereal passages he produced high up in the keyboard in “Peaceful Place” and the displaced rhythmic accents he articulated in “Wilsonian Alto” (all from his “Live at Smalls” trio album) spoke to the substantive nature of his pianism.
There were traditional jazz standards here, too, with Barth meticulously reworking Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” and expanding upon the complex harmonies and structural idiosyncrasies of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.”
With the exception of the Charlie Parker tour de force “Steeplechase,” in which Barth threw off fast-flying unison lines in both hands, the program avoided bravura playing in favor of deeply felt music-making.
Considering the noble purpose of the Chi-Town Jazz Festival, that approach struck quite the right note.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.
The Chi-Town Jazz Festival concludes with Reginald Robinson performing at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at First Unitarian Church of Chicago, 5650 S. Woodlawn Ave.; $20 general, $10 students. And Tammy McCann at 8 p.m., Steve Million and Sarah Marie Young Quintet at 9:30 p.m. and John Moulder and Friends at 11 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $20 general, $10 students. For more information, go to www.chitownjazzfestival.org.