Mark: How did you get started on the harmonica?
Bill: Oh, I just liked the sound of it and it was affordable.
I worked in a record store, a place called Rock and Roll Heaven,
and collected old blues singles there and just got enamored
of the harmonica sound. I actually played guitar already but
there was bunch of other guitar players around. So the harmonica
made me different. The first Paul Butterfield record was pretty
pivotal for me and the Bo Diddley records , I think with Billy
Boy Arnold on the cuts riffing in the background.
Mark: When did you start getting more interested in
Bill: When I picked up the chromatic. I wanted to play
modally - weird scales and funny sounds. When I first picked
it up it seemed pretty exotic to me and had kind of a Spanish
flamenco sound to me. I started collecting Blue Note and Riverside
jazz records in Florida after I got out of the Navy. That was
my first big impetus to play jazz and I hooked up with a friend
of mine Frank San Filippo. We started playing in a jazz duo
and we were playing a wide scope of things that we didn't have
much business playing at all. Whatever I could get the melody
down on and then we were starting to play over the chords.
Mark: Were you playing by ear still at that point?
Bill: I was learning to read about the exact same time
I got on chromatic. The person who got me started was Frank
who at the time was only thirteen years old. A child prodigy.
Got to hate people like that (laughs). He was teaching guitar
at the same store I was teaching harmonica at.
Mark: When did you start playing professionally?
Bill: That depends on your definition. I started gigging
right before I went into the Navy in '79 but I didn't start
playing regularly with any bands until I moved to California
Mark: So you've been playing full time about 16 years?
Bill: Well that's not completely true because about
five years ago I went back to school and got my x-ray tech license
and now I'm an x-ray tech in the daytime. When I started I probably
made twice as much as an x-ray tech as I did as a musician each
year (laughs). But now I make more as a musician because the
longer you stay with it the more connections and the more gigs
you get. I work just as hard at it, I just sleep less. The big
challenge now is I have a baby (Rose) and I want to spend time
with her so finding time for rehearsing and practicing is harder.
Mark: Do you have a specific practice regime that you
try to do?
Bill: It depends on what I'm trying to do. It's changed
over the years. I'll set goals for myself and work on different
material. Last year my big failed goal was to go through a big
book on chordal harmony and playing in fourths but I never really
found a way to make it lay out on the harmonica. I was doing
that for a few hours every day for awhile, and it crept into
my playing somewhere, but it was kind of a failed effort. A
great bass player friend of mine says, "It's more of a
gesture" and I'm going, "This is a hard instrument
to gesticulate on" when you have to change the lever and
your breath pattern all the time while moving that around chromatically.
I'll also pull out transcribed solos and go through them. I
try not to go through the same ones but I'll always go back
to Charlie Parker's Omnibook and try to read those close to
tempo, if I can, to improve my reading. Just when I think it's
pretty good it atrophies. Then you'll go to a session where
people are really fabulous readers and you'll feel like ...
you ought not to be out of the house without a helmet on (laughs).
Mark: It sounds like from your bio material, that the
other members of the Bill Barrett Quintet/Quartet, are pretty
Bill: Oh, yeah. And in a lot of different bands. The
challenge in the last few years has been to play more free jazz,
which at first glance would seem easy, but to impose your own
restrictions on it requires knowing a lot more or you'll sound
like jive when you're playing with people who are hearing things
you're doing and playing them back to you, like harmony parts.
I'm trying to listen to more of that stuff and find different
concepts about the way people approach it. That chordal thing
was a way of stepping outside the harmony a little bit, playing
outside, using pentatonic scales and various late 60's, early
70's avante sounding stuff, like the Miles Davis Quintet and
stuff like that.
Mark: Could you say a little more about playing outside
the lines and whether you have a general approach to improvisation?
Bill: I try to change that to fit whatever situation
I'm in. For instance, if I have a gig, like I do tomorrow, with
the Brazilian Jazz Quartet and a lot of those Brazilian tunes
have pretty weird chord changes - they're harmonically erratic.
The guitar players in the band are all top flight players and
they feed you things, but I'm trying to think about not playing
too much, negotiating the changes gracefully, and playing melodically
so I can complement the singer. When I have a gig with Beutet,
which is an outside the lines electric jazz band, some of the
things I might be concerned with might focus on what kind of
amp to bring to get the kind of soundscape I want and then getting
inside the tunes. For instance, some of songs have structure
in that the bass line is a consistent vamp that is played. So
I'll look at the notes and realize that it's pretty much a diminished
scale, or an A7 over a G7. So then there's a melodic way I can
approach it, in that case a Lydian dominant scale. So I'd pick
it apart that way but since it's a free jazz thing the main
thing would just be to keep my ears open because it may, without
notice, change keys or stop playing altogether. Trying to listen
to the drummer and play thematically or play the melodic rhythms
of the head so that you have some reference to the actual song,
so you're not doing to a solo what I'm doing to this interview
(laughs). Now if I'm playing with Brother Weasel, it's more
of a blues band a lot of the time, kind of an odd blues band
that does some jazz things, so we do some changes but I'm more
free to have a few beers and play some blues. I'd make sure
I had a good blues sound and lock in with the horn section because
I've got to play horn parts with the trumpet and sax player.
So each thing, how I'd approach the improvisation, would depend
on the band.
Mark: So how did you acquire you knowledge of the jazz
Bill: Through books, informal lessons, and on the bandstand
and at rehearsals. A lot of it on my own. For instance if you
go through the transcribed solos and pick out the parts you
like and look at them over the chords - for instance various
2-5's you like - and then transpose those into all twelve keys.
Then play them over and over again, letting them sink in, that's
one way I've studied things. Then just a lot of books on jazz,
books by Jerry Coker and David Baker that you get out of the
Jamey Aebersold catalog. Then I also took lessons from Frank
Potenza, a great guitar protégé of Joe Pass, for
a summer. A lot of the people I've played with have showed me
things. In fact, I intentionally try to hire people that are
better than me or get in bands with people that have something
to offer me so that I can get schooled. Then once you're frightened
enough because you'll have to do it live then you start putting
the work in. So probably what I've done is to try to see what's
missing in my playing and find the best way to get that for
myself. A lot of it is just listening, listening to the records.
It's hard to pick up the jazz vocabulary without having a lot
of that in your head. But no formal school. I took a couple
of jazz improv classes at community colleges but those really
didn't help that much in comparison to the process of having
an informal Tuesday night jam session with some good players
and talking with them about how they approach it. Then also
just sitting down with some good keyboard players and working
stuff out, that helped me out a lot.
Mark: In your bio you also mentioned Eddie Manson and
Bill: Eddie Manson was one of the Harmonica Rascals
and he went to Julliard. For my money he's up there with Tommy
Reily and those people in terms of being an interpreter of classical
music. He's absolutely fabulous. I picked up a record of his
that blew me away. It was the soundtrack for a movie, "The
Little Fugitive" that one some big film festival award.
It's a solo harmonica soundtrack that maintains you're interest
for 40 minutes. I started to learn a lot of it by ear and then
a friend of mine, Dr. Don Carroll, transcribed it for me. Then
I got introduced to Eddie through Don and I scraped together
some money and took lessons from him for a few years. He just
showed me a lot about the harmonica - even though most of the
stuff I would do he would hate (laughs). He had real definite
opinions about the harmonica.
Mark: Toots said in an interview in Richard Hunter's
"Jazz Harp" book that he wished he could get the wail
on the chromatic that the diatonic players get. You do seem
to bring a lot of that diatonic sound into your chromatic playing.
Bill: Yeah, I hope so. Maybe it's just being attuned
to it. When you play with those old school jazz players it's
like a different world. My playing, whether I like it or not,
is informed by rock and roll and I've even played in punk rock
bands. Like I did a gig with Les Thompson who is this wonderful
old chromatic guy. He's played with Charlie Parker and he's
on a couple of Chet Baker records. He's played with everybody.
It was the original Lighthouse All-stars with Bobby White. I
remember thinking when we played together it was like night
and day. We were both playing acoustic off the same mic and
trading fours and things. His playing is untouched by rock and
roll. Despite the fact that I'm thinking these are jazz tunes,
like "Sophisticated Lady," but you can't escape your
aural history. But I'm intentionally trying to play that way
too. I stopped playing diatonic a few years ago so that I could
get my chromatic chops to sound like diatonic. It used to be
that when a heavy blues number came up I would pull out a diatonic
and put the chromatic down. Letting go of the diatonic enabled
me to build up a vocabulary on the chromatic I wouldn't have
Mark: When I listen to your stuff - your throat vibrato
is one of the things that really sets you apart from the other
Bill: Yeah, they don't really use it that much. It's
funny - in more modern jazz, post-war stuff - touching a little
vibrato at the end of phrase is okay but anything else sounds
like that big tenor sound which people look askance at, like
"Oh, who brought the square?" But that's exactly what
you do on a harmonica to get that blues sound. Sometimes I don't
think it's appropriate to use and I won't. I think there can
be all kinds of sounds. I appreciate Toots' playing and people
like Mike Turk but it doesn't always completely grab me as much
as most blues harp players, just for sound. Harmonica is a very
vocal instrument, but then again so is trumpet. You put a Harmon
mute on it like Miles did and there's no vibrato but it's a
beautiful sound. I'm not trying to lose my vibrato - that's
for sure. But if you're trying to blend with horns on a jazz
head, I'll sometimes do some vibrato by accident but then I'll
Mark: You seem to use distortion more than most jazz
players, especially the harmonica players that people usually
think of when they think of harmonica jazz. Was this something
you purposefully developed?
Bill: I wanted to play jazz but I was mainly playing
blues gigs and trying to work my jazz into it. When you're a
harmonica player a big thing you have to do is put your own
band together and then you have to sing, even if you don't want
to, in order to keep the gigs coming and not have too pay to
many players. It makes you more hirable. Various things made
me want to do it but the big thing that kinda switched over
for me was the first Brother Weasel record. I decided if I couldn't
get a lot of gigs playing this stuff right now then I would
just make a recording that I enjoy. Then it turned out that
it got picked up by a label and we got a bunch of gigs and the
band is still around. And we do the kind of music that I wanted
to do in the first place. There are some guitar players that
play with an overdriven sound and then there are guys that play
with a downright distorted sound like Mike Stearns and that
whole John Scofield school of jazz. Legitimately fine jazz players
who play funky records and slum it (laughs). I like that. There
were also people like Lou Donaldson and Eddie Harris who were
playing amplified sax with distorted sounds in the early 70's.
Everyone was going electric and trying to get James Brown-ized.
Mark: What are your suggestions for a harp player just
getting started in jazz?
Bill: Keep yourself interested and stay inspired because
then you'll keep working at it. If you take instruction from
somebody and it's too boring then chances are won't keep with
it. Get lots of records. Records are like books, they start
influencing the way you talk. And I think the Jamey Aebersold
catalog is a good place to start. It's got a lot of solid information.
I don't think music can be broken down into it's parts and analyzed
like a lot of recent jazz pedagogy is, even though it's useful
to do that, to look through that. The analysis of transcribed
solos are not the solos and they are not the music anyway. You
can get bogged down in that. If you want to learn to play jazz
on the harmonica it would be good to learn the notes on your
instrument, learn to play your scales, and learn to read. There
is an endless source of material from there but that's a lot
of work. A lot of people don't get past that just like a lot
of people don't get past the first stages of playing. On the
harmonica a lot of people learn to bend and then build up a
vocabulary of riffs that they interchange very creatively but
if you want to play jazz then it requires getting a fundamental
understanding of music, outside your instrument even, in terms
of reading and harmony.
Mark: Speaking of records - give me your three desert
Bill: (Laughs) - Oh, that would be impossible. Let's
see, they probably won't be harmonica records. I'll say "Dr.
John's Gumbo," that's one I can listen to about five million
times. Then any one of the early Nat Cole trio compilations,
that's something I listen to constantly. If I choose one more
I won't have any more choices.
Mark: You play a lot of originals but you also seem
to play a lot of jazz from the 60's. The Coltrane era stuff.
Bill: I was going to say "Coltrane Plays the Blues,"
although it hasn't been a huge influence on the way I play but
I really like that record. But I'm not going to say that, instead
I'll take Masada Vol. 5. It's a John Zorn band, they have ten
volumes out. See now I made my choices and I don't have any
Cannonball Adderly, no Eric Dolphy, no Lou Donaldson. Boy, I'm
Mark: Okay, I'll give you another question. You said
the "Backbone" CD was dedicated to Lou Donaldson.
Who are your other major influences in terms of phrasing and
Bill: As a jazz player my biggest influences are blues
players. I think there is a lot of riffing style stuff in what
was meant to be more melodic and ends up coming out like "Juke"
half the time. Big influences for that era records are Lee Morgan,
Joe Henderson, Hank Mobley, Jimmy Smith. Half my record collection
are Blue Note and Riverside labels from that era. Charles Earland
and Horace Silver. But honestly I could go on for awhile.
Mark: Who would you say are the harmonica players, alive
or dead, out there that you admire?
Bill: Well I really like Tom Ball - he's more of a traditional
blues player but I love his records. I like Kim Wilson, Brendan
Power, and Paul Delay quite a bit. I love Charles Leighton,
his tone is awesome. Let's see - I'm thinkin'.
Mark: Did you get into the William Clarke sound at all?
Bill: Oh yeah, I love William Clarke. Actually, the
guitar player he used quite a bit, Alex Shultz, is a friend
of mine. We've done some playing together. I think George Smith,
Rod Piazza, William Clarke are all very different players even
though they all get put in the same genre - the whole West Coast
thing. Like with Rod, I have ten of his records and I love the
sound he gets and his phrasing, but I don't know how much improvising
he does. For example, I thought one of his instrumentals was
really fabulous and then I discovered that it was a Louis Myers
tune note for note. For me, improvising is probably one of the
most important things in music. I love composed music and would
love to hear various people play the Toccata in Fugue in D minor
but I would also buy a record to hear E. Power Biggs or Helmut
Walsched jam on it. I'd be more interested to seeing what corners
they painted themselves into while improvising over a Fugue.
So hearing somebody live and they're playing the same thing
that was on the record - it's not like he's going to crash and
burn so it doesn't interest me as much. William Clarke felt
like he might crash and burn, he just had a great sound, and
his band was always rockin'. And aside from the last time I
saw him play, his sets were always different and great. They
just re-released his "Tip of the Top" CD - I love
Mark: What kind of equipment are you playing through?
Bill: Usually I play through a Sonny Jr. II by Gary
Onofrio. It has six - eight inch speakers and can be played
at two different output levels. I think he's stopped making
them now. It's somewhat like a Bassman. I've got a variety of
microphones but usually I use a Green Bullet I bought awhile
back. It's controlled reluctance Green Bullet. Usually I just
bring those two. For Brother Weasel and blues gigs I'll bring
an Ibanez AD99 analog delay which I use sparingly. For the band
Beutet I also have a couple of other effects by Carl Martin
which I use on specific tunes. One is a Chorus II and the other
is a Tremovibe - it's tremolo and vibrato - I just turn the
vibrato all the way up. It's pretty sinister sounding and I
mainly use it for comic effect. Then I also have an old Leslie
simulator from the 70's. If it's a smaller gig I bring one of
my Fender Champs - I've got a tweed '55 and a '65 Vibrochamp
- sometimes I'll bring them both. I've got a line out on the
tweed Champ so sometimes I use it as a preamp for the Vibrochamp.
That's pretty distorted. Or I'll bring the most impolite amp
on earth - I have this '56 Fender Princeton that I haven't recorded
with but it's absolutely illegal (laughs). If I'm playing a
jazz gig or something where I want a cleaner sound I have a
Roland KC300 amp or I try to play through the PA. If I'm bringing
the Roland I'll play through a Barcus-Berry harmonica pickup.
I play with a coffee cup a lot when I play acoustic to get that
Harmon mute sound if I want or a wah-wah effect. Or I'll use
my Shure SM-58 into an ART tube mic preamp with a digital delay
and that gets a warm sound through anything. So I just pack
the bags up depending on what the gig is.
Mark: So you don't use the Sonny Jr. on jazz gigs?
Bill: Not usually. I've got a gig I do with a big band
called DBA with Mike Acosta, a sax player that I had on my "Peepin"
CD. We play a lot of Wayne Shorter era stuff and I'll bring
the Sonny Jr. on that because it's a big band and I've got to
get loud. I can't trust the monitors and it seems to blend with
the other horns well - there's trombone, trumpet, and alto sax.
Mark: And your harps?
Bill: I just bring a few CX-12's in "C". They're
all tuned the same way with that bebop tuning. The bebop tuning
is only slightly different; both of the 4 blow notes are tuned
down one whole step. The C becomes a Bb and the Db become a
B natural. The same is done on the blow notes for hole 8.
Mark: What does that give you that standard tuning doesn't?
Bill: First of all it gives you more choices as far
as double stops are concerned. Like if you were playing in F#
you'd have another tri-tone there, the E and the A#, or E and
Bb. It gives you two more sets of tri-tones so you've got all
but two which means if you've got one tri-tone you can play
two dominant chords with it. So that's four more chords you
can utilize. It gives you a lot more two and three note possibilities
to play simultaneously. It also gives for more fluid and symmetrical
blow playing. If you have those redundant C's and Db's there's
an awkward interruption there. But the harp is still just insane.
Somebody had to figure that they were going to make the most
difficult instrument to play jazz on.
Mark: Can you give us the keys to some of your songs
just in case some of the readers want to play along?
Bill: I could run down "Peepin" for you. Some
of the songs modulate but for the most part this will be pretty
accurate: 1) "No IV" key of C ; 2) "I Ain't Lyin"
in A ; 3) "The 17th" in E ; 4) "Peepin"
in D; 5) "Biyoh Bah" in D minor ; 6) "VIP Lounge"
in C minor ; 7) "Relaxin with Buzz" in Ab ; 8) "Very
Well Then" in A.
Mark: Do you do your own work on your harps?
Bill: Yeah. I also have Brendan Power do some work and
a few years ago I used to have Dick Gardener do some work on
them. But I've sent them to a lot of other people and there
are some really bad repair people out there. Sometimes they've
come back completely out of tune. Sometimes I feel like I don't
have the time and I'll send them out. I bought one from Brendan
Power recently and he sent me Suzuki plates built up on a Hohner
CX-12 body. It's amazing, very airtight, and very loud. He does
some other modifications, which I don't know how much they affect
it, but they look really cool. He drills holes all through the
coverplate and metal resonators right underneath. Getting a
good amplified sound with a chromatic involves getting a loud
chromatic harmonica so you get enough signal into the mic and
getting a good cup on the mic. A lot of people, as soon as they
start to play chromatic, they're mic technique goes out the
Mark: What do you think are the limitations of playing
jazz on the chromatic?
Bill: Well a trumpet player is not going to be able
to play as fast as a tenor sax player. Just the nature of the
instrument. I can be playing as quickly as I think I ever have
on an up tempo, double time passage and an average sax player
can come up and play my solo with florid scales around it. It
hasn't been an aim of mine to play quickly, it's more just a
byproduct of listening to people play that way and all of a
sudden you're playing that way. I'd rather hear a well constructed
solo which I think you can do at many tempos. Because of the
limitations of the harmonica you're never going to play as quickly
as some wind instruments. When I hear people do that, like Jon
Popper on the diatonic, the results are pretty boring.
Mark: There are passages where you play very fast without
sounding mechanical. In fact, there are some passages on "Backbone"
and "Peepin" where you're making a run into the upper
register so quickly that it sounds almost reckless, like you're
going to go off the top of the harp, and then all of a sudden
you've recovered. But, it sounds cool because it sounds like
you're right on the edge of getting out of control.
Bill: That's great. That's the biggest compliment you
could give me. That's what I'm aiming for. I like graceful bebop
solos, like Sonny Stitt, but you know they're never going to
crash and burn. There's something about music that feels reckless
in nature that really attracts me. If you get enough stuff under
your fingers, keep your mind clear, and try to play something
you haven't played before, then it can get fun.
Mark: On the title track to "Peepin" you're
trading fours with Mike Acosta, the sax player, and it sounds
almost like a head cutting contest.
Bill: Yeah, we were just trading fours and he's just
a frenetic player so you can't help but get into that kind of
thing. He's just an amazing musician, a real Phil Woods kind
of guy. I'd never really played with him before that. He wasn't
in the band. I just thought I'd put some tenor sax on it. I'd
met him a few times so I called him. We just did each thing
about two or three times. On that one the drummer was supposed
to end it and he just kept going.
Mark: You really hold your own with him. It sounds convincing
in terms of the tone and phrasing you're getting as you throw
things back and forth.
Bill: Thanks. It's funny - it wasn't intended to go
that way but we got turned around. I thought it was going to
be over. We went four - four - four and then no one plays so
I stole his part so he plays over me. Then it became two's and
then I started riffing and let him take the last chorus out.
Mark: You also do a lot of unison stuff with the sax
that creates a really thick sound.
Bill: Yeah, the keyboard player and I talked about that.
I was going to write harmony parts for them and he just said
a lot the Lou Donaldson era heads just didn't have them. I think
that unison thing is like a bunch of jazz guys trying to play
rock and roll, trying to cash in on the rock and roll and funk/R&B
thing that was so popular at the time. They failed at it miserably
but came up with a hybred that's more interesting to me in a
lot of regards. So we wanted to keep the unison thing to make
it sound a little fatter.
Mark: Do you find it at all difficult to match the horn
Bill: On that record, with Mike, that was probably just
a matter of his musicianship because he's played in a million
horn sections. He probably just figured out where I was at by
bar two and (laughs) made it work. But not particularly if it's
somebody I play with a lot, like in Beutet. In Beutet, they're
all unison heads with an alto sax player, Tony Atherton. We've
been playing together twenty years and we just anticipate each
other well. And in Brother Weasel there are more harmony oriented
parts but the sax player in that, Vince Meghrouni, he's a great
funky blues tenor player, and we've been coping each other's
stuff for so long that we sound like each other. But it can
be difficult to nail what other people are playing, sometimes
their sense of swing is different than yours, and then sometimes
with the reading stuff, especially where my reading is at, I
might not be reading the articulation or even duration of a
note right, and I'm just jazzifying it, but it was actually
supposed to be that extra eighth note longer (laughs). But usually
those guys stop you and ask whether you're intentionally trying
to play that (laughs). Sometimes my tendency, from my blues
background, to bend a note at the end, will get in the way of
making a horn section sound good so I have to watch that sometimes.
Mark: How do you find the acceptance from the other
musicians in terms of the harmonica?
Bill: It's like the most maligned instrument I can think
of except the bagpipe player at a wedding I played recently.
I was able to crack jokes about him so I felt good. The class
structure. It just depends on the player. They may know Toots
Theilemans or some other harmonica player. Some people immediately
think blues or campfire music. Sometime you get vibe from other
players. Most of the time I just don't play with the musicians
who give me a vibe if I can avoid it. If people aren't very
open minded they're not open minded on the bandstand either.
So unless I'm getting paid I don't make a special effort to
play with them.
Mark: I noticed on your CD's, where you're the front
man, it doesn't end up sounding like a Rod Piazza recording
where Piazza is clearly the featured soloist and everyone else
mainly supports him.
Bill: Yes, right down to the mix - his harmonica is
twice as loud as everyone else. It's a star, a front thing.
Mark: Your CD's tend to have a jazz ensemble format
where everybody is getting equal time on the solos.
Bill: Right, well I didn't want to edit anyone's time
on the solos - I wanted the song to go down as it was. Like,
Kenny, the guitar player continued to take longer solos but
he's got more to say. The point wasn't to feature me as much
as to make a record that was like I wanted that included me.
Mark: Can you run down your upcoming releases?
Bill: Let's see - I'm going to put out "Guilty"
which is that Bill Barrett Quartet record that is more blues
based but also has some out-takes from the original "Backbone"
session. I'll release that on my own label, Woe Tone records.
Then the Beutet CD will come out soon, hopefully on the Atavistic
label. Then there's a record coming out with Marisol Saens,
a Brazilian jazz lady. There's one from The Leisure Time Orchestra,
which is a nine or ten piece small big band. One of the composers
is Frank San Filippo, the fellow I mentioned before. It's got
some weird instrumentation and odd compositions with clarinet,
bass clarinet, flute, sax, harmonica, guitar, bass, and drums.
Also Brother Weasel "Heads and Tails," which I'm presently
in rehearsals for. May 18th we record. It will be the third
Brother Weasel record but I'm not sure if SST records is going
to put it out or not. If not there are a couple of other labels
that are interested. Then the Frank San Filippo Quintet/Sextet
doing his compositions but that hasn't hit the studio yet -
that will be early June.
Mark: On Brother Weasel you've got swing, jump blues,
Bill: And each one of those things can be taken anywhere.
Any of them can be turned into good, legit jazz.
Mark: On the first Brother Weasel CD, "The Preacher"
by Horace Silver almost sounds like it has some western swing
built in there.
Bill: That's about having Paul Hobbs as a guitar player.
That's why we choose him. It's like blues harp playing jazz
tunes with a country guitar player (laughs).
Mark: On "Swingin and Groovin" are those all
Bill: No, Brother Weasel has a huge songbook live. We've
got a few hundred tunes that we do. But when it comes time to
record, instead of doing the stuff that we do well live, we
throw in a bunch of new stuff, which is the exact opposite of
what you should do. So right now I'm learning a bunch of new
heads and rewriting a bunch of old ones so people aren't bored
Mark: Who did vocals on "Guilty"?
Bill: That's me. On "Mona" I overdubbed my
vocal with the harmonica.
Mark: On "Hate to See You Go" on the "Guilty"
CD, you're playing some really discordant intervals.
Bill: Yeah, they are. That was recorded right when I
started using the Bebop tuning. I think one thing I was playing
was from an F to a B to an E and a Bb.
Mark: Describe Beutet for me.
Bill: It's Little Walter meets Ornette Coleman. They're
all original compositions by Steve Liebig with multiple part
heads and supposedly free improvisation. The way I approach
it is modally because you can't just say "play anything."
You have to limit it in some regard to create. I also consult
the composer too and ask him "where are you going with
this?" He'll have a mutated head version of the bassline
from "Smokestack Lightin." He'll have some weird cliched
blues licks, but with different permutations and moved into
remote keys. A lot of time it's diminished scale stuff which
lends itself nicely to blues actually. Lot's of cool grooves.
The drummer, Joe Berardi is a nut case. He has like a popcorn
can turned upside down for one of his toms and twelve wood blocks
all lined up and chiming in like little creatures.
Mark: What about session work?
Bill: Oh I do some things. There is a commercial studio
in the back of my house. The other day there was Kenny Burrell
and the late Billy Higgens (laughs). A lot of jazz greats and
a lot of oddball projects. The owner/engineer is Wayne Peet
who's a friend of mine and my landlord. I do some things out
there and in a couple of other studios with people I haven't
met before. Last year I was on about half a dozen records that
I actually liked. One was the King Cake Trio. They do an "outside"
New Orleans thing - tuba, a reed player, and a percussionist.
I sit in on 4 or 5 cuts.
Mark: Do you have any thoughts about the complementary
timbres of harmonica and organ since you use Wayne Peet's Hammond
organ on your CD's?
Bill: I wondered about that initially but I think it
sounds great. The Hammond organ takes up such a huge part of
the spectrum that it can be overwhelming. Harmonica is pretty
specific and it takes up such a small part of the spectrum,
even with a good amp. You can have harmonica pretty loud in
the mix and it isn't going to interfere with too much except
for some vocals and a few other instruments that are up in that
Mark: Any thoughts about song writing?
Bill: For the Bill Barrett Quartet I wanted vehicles
that help me as an improviser, that allow me to work on things
I liked or play things that I couldn't find covers for that
I liked better. In each instance I picked tunes that let me
shine as a player or work on stuff that I was shaky on as a
player. Then I'd put it in weird keys and mess with everybody
(laughs). I think I usually come up with a melody first and
then come up with the chord progression that I want underneath
Mark: Anything I didn't ask?
Bill: I think there are things I do a little differently
than other harmonica players. This may just reflect the poverty
of how much I've heard because there are so many new players
that sound good. But bending on a chromatic is something that
generally people don't do and I've actually worked really hard
at doing that. Half step, whole step, and I can actually bend
a third on them. But also knowing what notes you're playing
when you're bending them like a more modern diatonic player
would. It gives you a lot timbral differences - like play an
A here or play an A with the Bb bent down, depending on where
the A is going. I think a lot of what's missing in the chromatic
playing is the glissando and the portamento, a lot of the bending
and articulation and phrasing. And getting a blues harp sound
out of it. I also worked on playing a lot out of either side
of my mouth to get weirder interval choices. Tongue blocking
almost all of the time.
Mark: That speeds up your interval jumps doesn't it?
Bill: Right, one thing I wanted to get away from on
the harmonica is that it is often played in a very stepwise
motion. That can be great but a lot jazz isn't stepwise, especially
sax and piano playing, it really isn't a consideration at all.
Sometimes when I'm playing 5ths, they're an octave apart. So
I'm playing the one hole and the seven hole or when I'm playing
10ths - the one hole and the six hole. There's a lot of that
on "Hate to See You Go" (Guilty CD). On the Beutet
CD I do a lot vocalizing into the harmonica - usually just humming
counter melodies or a fundamental pitch and using it as a pedal
tone to play off of. I'm writing a suite of tunes right now
that is like Klezmer music meets Chess records (laughs).
Mark: You like those odd juxtapositions don't you (laughs).
Bill: Oh yeah. I've been playing some Klezmer music
in a band for the last couple of years and getting into Greek
and Armenian clarinet music.