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Gavin Barras

The Family Tree


by Ian Mann

September 13, 2017


A varied and well crafted and programmed set of original compositions. “The Family Tree” is an album that deserves to introduce the writing and playing of Gavin Barras to a wider circle of listeners.

Gavin Barras

“The Family Tree”

(ASC Records ASC CD 169)

Gavin Barras is a bassist, composer and occasional guitarist currently based in Glossop in the English Peak District.

He is an established presence on the Manchester jazz scene and is best known for his work as a bassist on various projects led by the respected trumpeter, composer, bandleader and producer Matthew Halsall, a musician with a national reputation.

Besides his own Family Tree project Barras is concurrently a member of the world jazz group Unfurl, led by violinist Olivia Moore, which seeks to fuse jazz with Indian and Arabic music.

Mainly playing electric bass he is also part of the experimental jazz quartet Mercury led by saxophonist Tom Thorp and featuring Jim Faulkner on guitar, Rich Jones on keyboards and Johnny Hunter at the drums.

Currently Barras also performs frequently as a sideman with groups led by pianists Dan Whieldon and Dean Stockdale

Others with whom Barras has worked include vocalist Zara McFarlane, clarinettist Arun Ghosh the trio Mammal Hands and the quartet HAQ co-led by guitarist Anton Hunter and saxophonist Sam Andreae. He has also recorded with DJ Shadow.

Barras’ leadership début features him playing a double bass built for him by his luthier father Steve.  Apparently the instrument was constructed over a fifteen year period. Barras composed many of the tunes for the album on this bass and decided to dedicate the recording to his father and the rest of his family, including his wife and young son. The themes of the album include friendships, childhood memories, family connections and the family home in the Peak District. The album packaging includes photographs of Steve Barras working on the bass.

The quartet that Barras has assembled for the album includes fellow Mercury member Jim Faulkner on guitar, Jeff Guntren on tenor sax and Dave Walsh at the drums, the latter a stalwart of jazz in the North of England who has played with many of the region’s leading musicians, among them Arun Ghosh, saxophonist Rod Mason and bassist Ben Crosland. The recording also includes contributions from Rhiannon James on viola and Margit van der Zwan on cello.

The album opens with “Swinging Charlie”, a dedication to Barras’ young son. The piece commences with the wonderfully woody sound of unaccompanied double bass with the leader subsequently joined by Faulkner’s guitar atmospherics and Walsh’s delicate cymbal work. Guntren adds a breezy sax melody before probing far more deeply and robustly during the course of his lengthy solo. He’s followed by Faulkner whose fluid approach incorporates elements of both jazz and rock.

“Waltz For My Wife” begins with the sound of unaccompanied, but fluent, jazz guitar and is more gentle and reflective than the opener. Guntren adopts a softer, warmer tone on tenor but still finds room to stretch out as the piece develops.

The brief “Sunnyside” features Barras playing an acoustic guitar, also built by his father. He is joined by the two string players, James and van der Zwan on a piece that toys with jazz, folk and chamber music. It’s a charming miniature, but leaves one wishing to have heard more.

Following the delicacy of “Sunnyside” the next piece, “CBGB’s” comes as a complete contrast, perhaps not so surprising with a title like that I suppose. Here the members of the quartet indulge the rowdier sides of their musical personalities, albeit in what is still very much a jazz context.
Faulkner mixes sophisticated jazz chords with an elemental rock power as Guntren digs in on tenor. Walsh is busy throughout, culminating in an extended drum feature.

The title track features the strings on the warm, lush intro, I suspect that Barras is playing arco bass alongside the cello and viola. The jazz quartet then take over with Guntren’s tenor intertwining with Faulkner’s guitar in consistently intriguing fashion as the guitarist skilfully shadows the probing and wheedling of the sax.

“Steve’s Song”, presumably a dedication to Barras’ father, begins, very appropriately, with the sound of unaccompanied double bass. The leader’s insistent and muscular Caribbean inspired grooves drive the piece as Guntren and Faulkner add sunny melodic motifs and relaxed, but totally engaging solos. There’s also something of a drum feature for Walsh towards the close of this calypso inspired composition.

Suitably low register solo bass also introduces “Lowdown (in the Lowlands)”, a vaguely sinister sounding piece featuring Guntren’s snaking tenor sax lines, Faulkner’s rock influenced guitar and Walsh’s implacable drum grooves. The piece ends as it began with the sound of unaccompanied bass.

“Mossy Lea” depicts an area of the Peak District near Barras’ home and is more pastoral in style, essentially an attractively melodic ballad that features Walsh deploying brushes. There’s a cinematic quality to the writing that is enhanced by the understated solos from Faulkner and Guntren plus the leader’s own melodic bass work.

The brief “35 Years Later” represents the second outing for Barras on acoustic guitar, again in the company of James and van der Zwan. It exhibits similar qualities to its companion piece and, once again, is thoroughly charming.

The album concludes with the rocky, funky, rolling grooves of “Last Thing (for Ed K)” with Barras and Walsh busy in the engine room as Guntren blows melodic, r’n’b inspired tenor and Faulkner adds a taut, but melodic, guitar solo. At a little under four minutes the piece is tightly controlled and reined in here, but one could imagine the quartet really stretching out on this at a live performance.

“The Family Tree” is obviously a highly personal album which means a lot to Barras but it’s also an accessible and thoroughly engaging listen. Apart from the brief, but always appropriate, unaccompanied bass introductions Barras is happy to fulfil the role of team player, anchoring and grounding the ensemble rather than indulging in a series of bass solos. In fact there isn’t a bass solo in the conventional sense throughout the entire album, yet Barras remains a vital and galvanising presence throughout.

In many ways the emphasis is more on Barras as a composer. After years in the relative shadows as an in demand sideman Barras has stepped into the light with a varied and well crafted and programmed set of original compositions. “The Family Tree” is an album that deserves to introduce the writing and playing of Gavin Barras to a wider circle of listeners.

I also have to say that I was very impressed with the contributions of both Guntren and Faulkner, hitherto musicians whose playing was unfamiliar to me. These are two more names I’ll be keeping an eye out for in the future.

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