Barney McAll: Swimming from the shallows into deep water

Barney McAll doesn’t set out to surprise the socks off people, it’s just the way the music comes out. His new album, Precious Energy, is a bigger surprise than most, partly because the world in which he made it was turned upside down, partly because the pianist/composer has added lyric-writing to his skills, and partly because his collaborators include members of Melbourne’s super-hip soul-jazz outfit Hiatus Kaiyote.

For many musicians, working with the HK players right now might imply a spot of bandwagon-jumping, but not for McAll. He spent 20 years in the New York band of ex-Miles Davis saxophonist, Gary Bartz, and while based there his other associations included frontline jazz saxophonists Dewey Redman and Billy Harper, soul greats Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker and the enigmatic pop star Sia, for whom he was musical director.

Barney McAll. Photo: Jenn Gavito. Top photo: Precious Energy Band live. Photo: Si Gould.

Since returning to Oz, he has continued to widen his horizons (if that were possible), his projects ranging from jazz to choirs. He collaborated with Hiatus Kaiyote’s Simon Mavin (keyboards), Paul Bender (bass) and Perrin Moss (drums) on several projects, including Moss’s own band, before McAll pooled them with tenor saxophonist Julien Wilson, singer Rita Satch and others to forge a unique, exultant brand of soul music on Precious Energy. The project ties together different areas of McAll’s career, and is crowned by the involvement of Bartz, a much-sampled hero for all involved.

The impetus for the record epitomises McAll’s quicksilver imagination. “I wanted to make something similar to the feeling I used to get when I swam in the shallows, and warm currents would wash over me as a child,” he says. “It’s kind of like a balm for myself for this last two years of chaos, and hopefully other people might find solace in it – but I’m certainly not trying to say I’m making some sort of healing music. It’s just that this helped me, and I really enjoy it.”

Of the HK members, he says, “They’re all quite brilliant in their own right… They’re just really forward-thinking young people, and I want to always be involved and understand and learn from what’s happening, as opposed to what happened.” As McAll acknowledges, this echoes Miles Davis’s stance. “Someone said to Miles,” he relates, “‘Do your players need to know about Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane and all those cats?’ This was in the ’80s, and Miles said, ‘No, man, they just need to know what’s in the air today.’ And then he said, ‘The lazy ones try to sound like us in the ’60s.’ Which I love, and I’ve always followed that… It’s good to try to find more parts of yourself that you didn’t know existed through music.”

McAll and the Precious Energy Band. Photo: Si Gould.

McAll, who is helping Bartz write his autobiography, played the saxophonist some of his new songs. The latter loved them, and agreed to contribute to the album, which happened via McAll emailing him tracks for overdubbing. “He’d call me up in the middle of the night,” McAll recounts, “and say, ‘I’m on a roll. Send me whatever you want.’ So I’d quickly get out of bed and send him some stuff, and the next day all this amazing music would come in. I mean when you hear the gravitas of his music, his sound, and all the years – and Miles and all that stuff is in there – it just really lifts the album. I feel very privileged to have someone like Bartz playing so beautifully on it, mixed with the Hiatus Kaiyote rhythm section. I mean, it’s like dream!”

McAll was immediately blown away by singer Rita Satch upon his return to Australia, and says that two of the tracks on which she sings, Sweetwater and Precious Energy, have garnered more response than anything he’s ever done, including being championed by DJ Gilles Peterson in the UK. “That being said,” he adds, “I just have to continue in the long game of manifesting the most beautiful stuff that I can, and not connecting to all the external noise, which gets noisier every day.”

Precious Energy is out now.