Interview Bill Barrett

"Bebop, Blues and Beyond: Bill Barrett on Chromatic"

By Mark Winborn
Contributing Writer
American Harmonica Newsmagazine

BillDo you ever find yourself wanting to hear something really new come out of the harmonica? Do you ever long to hear someone who doesn't sound like anyone else you've ever heard? Then let me introduce you to Bill Barrett. Bill has a hard driving style that is a unique amalgam of blues tones and well developed jazz phrasing. I was fortunate enough to hear about Bill through the Harp-L internet list, ordered some CD's, and now I'm hooked. Bill is an uniquely talented chromatic harmonica player and vocalist who lives and plays in Los Angeles. However, because he doesn't often play outside of LA, his reputation hasn't spread as quickly as his talent warrants, but that situation is beginning to change. In fact, Bill recently received a nice profile by Tom Townsley (Blues Review July/Aug 2001) who accurately describes Bill as Toots Thielemans' "brilliant evil twin," a description that seems to capture something of Bill's playing style as well as his idiosyncratic personality.

Bill grew up in Florida and got his start on the harmonica there. Following an abbreviated stint in the Navy he moved to LA in 1984 and started infiltrating the jazz and blues scene there. Over the years Bill has become involved in a seemingly dizzying variety of recording and performance projects. Early projects included El Groupo Saxo and The Reluctant Toby, the later resulting in a 1987 release titled "The Ultimate Hobby" (New Alliance Records).

One of his most consistent involvements has been the band, Brother Weasel, who play a varied mix of jazz, jump blues, swing, and funk. They've released two CD's (SST Records), "Brother Weasel" and "Swingin and Groovin," and have a third ("Heads and Tails") that they've just finished the studio work on. Their first two releases feature unique covers of material by Clifford Brown, George Benson, Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock, Gene Ammons, Thelonious Monk, Baby Face Willet, and James Brown, and Jack McDuff, as well as some originals.

In addition to the Brother Weasel material, Bill has recorded three CD's fronting his own jazz/blues ensemble, The Bill Barrett Quartet/Quintet (or BBQ as Bill often refers to it). His first two CD's, "Backbone" (9 Winds Records) and "Peepin" (Woe Tone Records) feature original jazz material written by Bill or by his organist, Wayne Peet. The "Backbone" CD was inspired by the soul-jazz recordings of Lou Donaldson and Charles Earland. More recently, Bill has released a blues oriented CD, "Guilty," (Woe Tone) that has Bill's fresh takes on some diverse material, including Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Nat King Cole, Eddie Boyd, Randy Newman, Grant Green, Charlie Parker, and Bo Diddley. This CD also favorably features Bill on vocals. Although "Guilty" has a blues focus, jazz fans will find much to appreciate in the jazz inflected riffs Bill lays down on this CD.

Bill is also affiliated with another jazz quartet, Beutet, who have recently completed a self-titled CD. If the preview cuts that I've heard are any indication, this CD will be just as smokin' as Bill's other releases.

This brief survey of Bill's work reflects only a portion of the projects he's involved with.For more infomation about Bill's diverse musical world, log onto his website (http://billbarrett.net/ ) where his CD's can also be purchased. If you haven't heard Bill blow yet, do yourself a favor and buy his CD's - you won't be disappointed. Now I'll try to get out of the way and let Bill speak for himself.

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 jazz?

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 in '84.
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 heavy players.

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 language?

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 Don Carroll.

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 done otherwise.

Mark: When I listen to your stuff - your throat vibrato is one of the things that really sets you apart from the other jazz players.

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 catch myself.

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 island CD's.

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 pissed.

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 style.

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 that record.

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 window.

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 player's phrasing?

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, funk.

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 originals?

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 with them.

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 range.

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 that.

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.

Bill Barrett can be reached at:
P.O. Box 642590
Los Angeles, CA 90064
email: billbarrett23@hotmail.com
website: http://billbarrett.net/