Barney McAll, Greg Lloyd & the missing link between Beyonce and Algeria

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Barney McAll contemplates an all-pumpkin composition.

From playing with charades with Beyonce and Jay Z to performing with traditional Algerian musicians is admittedly a stretch, but Barney McAll and Greg Lloyd headed overseas with the same idea: to expand their horizons. McAll went to New York and Lloyd to Paris, neither jazz pianist knowing what would happen next. Now both are back having achieved more than they could have dreamed of.

McAll was already among Australia’s leading pianists when he moved in 1997, having been visiting New York regularly since 1989. The catalyst was an Australian tour with the acclaimed ex-Miles Davis saxophonist Gary Bartz.

“We got on so well that he asked me to join his band,” McAll says.

Suddenly what was going to be another visit became a permanent stay, although McAll went with no expectations. “I just wanted to learn,” he says, “and be in a place where people were very, very serious.” He soon found himself working not only with Bartz, but also with such notables as the Groove Collective and Dewey Redman, and international touring became routine amid the New York gigs and recording.

One non-jazz collaboration was with Sia Furler, whom McAll had known in Australia. “She used to come to my gigs,” he recalls, “and one time she said, ‘One day I’m going to be very famous and you are going to play keyboards for me.'”

Sure enough it happened (which was how he found himself playing charades with Beyonce and Jay Z), and McAll even became her musical director until recently.

His return to Sydney results from winning the 2015 Peggy Glanville-Hicks Composers’ Trust Fellowship. “I applied because I wanted to have some time to go in a bit deeper on what I do,” he explains, “and it just felt like I was getting swept away by things I didn’t want to do in New York.” The fellowship provides a home, piano, stipend and the luxury of what Glanville-Hicks considered necessities for mid-career composers: silence and leisure. Meanwhile McAll is about to air the first pieces he has written under the fellowship with his all-star Australian Symbiotic Improvisers Orbit (ASIO).

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Greg Lloyd.

Unlike McAll Greg Lloyd’s career had barely begun when he headed overseas with a music degree. “I went to Paris because I was in love with a Parisian at the time,” he says. “But things didn’t work out, and then I just fell in love with Europe.”

Having moved to Ireland he found himself playing musical director on El Gusto, an Irish/French/Algerian documentary about the Chaabi music of North Africa. A kind of Algerian Buena Vista Social Club, this included living in Algiers and collaborating with rock-star Damon Albarn of Blur.

“I was this young guy standing out the front of 46 musicians,” Lloyd recounts, “the youngest of whom was 60.” Adding to the challenge Lloyd had to communicate with the players via a translator. But ultimately he says that the film-making and subsequent European touring, “gave me a lot more confidence in my musical knowledge”.

Returning to Ireland he recorded his first album, A Long Way Home, which interwove a Chaabi influence. Now he is in Australia for a 50-date tour. “I’m happy I’ve gone to Europe,” he says, “because I’ve learned stuff I don’t think I would have learned if I’d stayed here, like the whole El Gusto experience.”

His trio performances with guest singer Susan Gai Dowling will be the first under his own name in Sydney for 16 years.

Barney McAll’s ASIO: 505, July 25

Greg Lloyd Group: Foundry 616, August 19; Colbourne Ave, September 3.