From the first time I heard Steve Barry, it was clear he was not just a good player, but a musical forcefield. That was around 2009, and this album is the finest instalment to date of the pianist’s bristling musical intelligence, rhythmic mutability, melodic flair and compositional gifts. It helps like hell that among his collaborators is one of the truly great drummers: New Yorker Eric Harland.

Barry is part of the mass migration of New Zealand jazz pianists to Sydney that includes July Bailey, Mike Nock, Dave MacRae, Chris Abrahams and so many more. (One wonders if many pianos in Aotearoa are now just gathering dust.) All have enriched creative music in Australia beyond measure. Among Barry’s particular contributions lies the challenges he crafts for his players, taking them out of snug comfort zones and obliging them to expand their vocabularies to solve intriguing musical problems. As well as Harland, Barry has the New York-based alto saxophonist Will Vinson and Sydney bassist Thomas Botting, who stride across the complexities like giants across rugged terrain, and reduce it all back to its essences of being thrilling, grooving, redolent and imaginative music.

Lithospheric, referring to the outer crust of the earth’s geology, has Vincent’s prickly alto skating over mobile bass lines, punctuated by stabilising piano chords. Harland emphasises the bass’s flux, goads both Vinson and Barry into visceral explorations of the composed possibilities, and then takes the foreground himself, with the intersection between his figures and textures pointing to why he’s so revered. Nothing sounds like it comes from a stockpile of licks, but from a mind buzzing with ingenuity.

The phrasing of First 11 shudders and jolts, then subsides to a solo from Botting, the warm, woolly sound of which provides temporary respite, before Vinson plunges us into a series of jutting shapes linked by swoops and cries, and Botting and Harland have fun chopping up the tune’s bridge behind Barry’s undulations.

Photos: David Collins.

On Dirt and Alchemy was inspired by the idea that the more you feel mired by all the world throws at you, the more you stand to gain in extracting yourself. The music fizzes with optimism, as Vinson becomes fully airborne over a ferocious swing, and Barry enjoys rousing interplay with Harland’s goldrush of ideas, leading to another striking drum feature.

Barry then lets us catch our breath via the gentle strains of Half Moon Lights, although the enchantment could have been further increased had it been performed without the saxophone, because Vinson’s stridency partially undermines impressionistic beauty. Thixotropy (the tendency for some substances to turn to water under extreme pressure) is almost funky – in a 15/4 sort of way. The melody reminds me of something Frank Zappa might have penned, being playful, charming and convoluted all at once, and Vinson’s chirpy solo is a masterful response.

Tug Lightly on the Invisible Thread references the notion that creative ideas already exist in the universe, and our job is to coax them into actuality. It’s an engrossing composition, with Vinson, now on soprano, endlessly inventive, and the rhythm section carving a deep groove. The title track is an evocation of swimming in the surf, complete with melodic somersaults and massive forward momentum from Harland and Botting. The album closes with another breath-catcher, the hypnotic Float, which shows the resourcefulness of all involved is just as gripping at a relative whisper.

As with seemingly everything appearing on the Earshift label these days, the recording quality is rich and sonorous, catching every nuance of Harland’s electrifying drumming.