This Wide Open Expanse, Ever-changing: The Music of Diego Barber


Diego BarberAside from being one my favorite musicians on the modern jazz scene, guitarist Diego Barber signifies the starting point of my transition from the jazz of the past to that being created in the present day.  Many years ago, there were a few of us on an online jazz forum that made the commitment to dive into the modern jazz scene and share news of the new releases we were discovering.  Diego Barber’s new (at that time) recording was one of a handful of albums that made a real impression upon our small group, and it was one of a handful of albums that signaled the start of my dedication to the new jazz releases listings (which, eventually, led to the creation of this site).  Over the years, I’ve written columns about the musicians I discovered in those early days.  Diego Barber is one.

Hailing from Lanzarote of Spain’s Canary Islands and now residing in NYC, the guitarist travels the sonic territories of jazz, folk and classical with comparable ease, and much of his music reflects a perspective that he doesn’t necessarily see a need to compartmentalize the music influences.  In fact, Barber explains that “the common denominator is the language of my own music, which is influenced, among other things, by my classical training.  This provides me with the musical and technical resources to compose, and from there, it is all adaptation and evolution based on instrumentation, knowledge acquired daily, and of course, my mood at the moment I initiate a new work.”  The reward of this approach is Barber’s singular voice on guitar and how it informs each project in new and thrilling ways.  That’s what today’s column is about.

Let’s begin…


Diego Barber – Calima

These are the first sounds from the discography of guitarist Diego Barber

Those opening moments of pure serenity on “Piru” carry throughout Barber’s 2009 release Calima, even when the music’s temperature rises a few degrees, even when the music pauses in hushed silence.

Diego Barber - "Calima"There is something refreshingly easy-going about this music… a quality that doesn’t change just because the pace of the music does.  “Catalpa” sees Barber’s quartet of drummer Jeff Ballard, bassist Larry Grenadier and saxophonist Mark Turner maintain a quick-footed tempo, spurring the melody forward so they can get to the meat of the development and just start soloing.  And “Virginia” flirts with a groove as they scoot right along, but even these flurries and bursts of activity aren’t sufficient to lessen the tranquil effect of tracks like “Richi” and “Desierto,” which have Barber weaving his guitar into languorous saxophone lines, twittering drum chatter and the shadows of basslines into a bundle of sunny afternoon peacefulness.  There’s an arresting tunefulness to this music that keeps the attention rapt.

It’s the perfect mix of calming ease and lively activity.  It’s the kind of concoction that keeps the brain transfixed even as the music lulls the heart into a lazy day calm.

The album ends with the fascinating twenty-one minute piece “Air,” which really drives home the point that Barber’s vision incorporates just as much folk and classical as it does jazz, but even more salient, the proof that his ability to enchant extends far beyond deft melodic expressions and reaches out to horizons beyond that are no less riveting.

Your album personnel:  Diego Barber (guitar), Jeff Ballard (drums), Larry Grenadier (acoustic bass) and Mark Turner (saxophones).

Calima was released on Sunnyside Records.


Diego Barber – The Choice

A few years later, Barber’s 2011 release The Choice came out.

diegobarber_thechoiceBarber worked with two different trios on this recording.  Ari Hoenig replaced Jeff Ballard on drums.  Both Turner and Grenadier returned for Barber’s sophomore release, but about half of the album tracks had Barber switching them out for the sax-bass duo of Seamus Blake and Johannes Weidenmueller.

The Choice built on the foundation of Calima, but flexed a bit more muscle this time around.  The wide-open beauty was still there, but so, too, were more compact expressions, wrapped tighter around the melody and in possession of tempos that were as often jagged and punctuated as they were susurrant.

The choppy motion of “Jose’s House” has an interesting way of mixing in the gentle expressionism of Barber’s guitar, presenting an appealing incongruousness, as if two competing conversations shared an equal level of interest.  “Ailanto” works a similar seam, though comes stronger with an angular melody and the motion of rough seas.  On the other hand, “Chicago” had a loftier presence, echoing Barber’s debut on more than one occasion.

Unsurprisingly, the album tracks that featured Turner and Grenadier were far more reminiscent of Calima, while those tunes (excepting the gorgeous opening track “To Annie”) that had Blake and Weidenmueller in the sax and bass positions were representative of this new direction.  But even with the changes in personnel, all the tracks sound like they came from the same session… it was just a matter of how much Barber exerted his own influence on a particular song and the way he chose to do it.  Barber smooths out some of the rougher edges when left to his own devices, but some tracks he allowed to display an acerbity not often encountered on his debut.  And though The Choice didn’t quite reach the plateau established by Calima, it was a very promising development to see that Barber wasn’t going to simply be a one-sound musician.

Your album personnel:  Diego Barber (guitar), Ari Hoenig (drums), plus Johannes Weidenmueller (bass) & Seamus Blake (sax) and Larry Grenadier (bass) & Mark Turner (sax).

The Choice was released on Sunnyside Records.


Diego Barber & Hugo Cipres – 411

Barber’s 2013 release 411 proved he possessed a fearlessness for exploring new creative directions.

Diego Barber - 411Bringing back the Blake-Weidenmueller-Hoenig trio and teaming up with desktop wizard Hugo Cipres, Barber set course for an entirely new venture.  411 is an electro-acoustic project that brings together laptop effects, thick dynamic grooves, and a fleeting melodicism into a hodgepodge of dominant and recessive qualities that changes ratios from moment to moment.  The song “Poncho” illustrates the potential for genius this approach represents.  The rapid pulse of electronics coalesces with the sussurus of classical guitar and the gentle patter of drums.  It is a song that is both insistent and atmospheric, urgent and placid, contemporary and futuristic, and incorporates many divergent voices into one unique, captivating sound.

And continuing the pattern represented by the change from Calima to The Choice, the 411 project eschews atmospheric potential for a willful groove, choosing to pronounce its big sound within the moment, each and every one, rather than as a gradually built, all-encompassing ambiance.  It was a startling change, and I personally didn’t enjoy all of it, but it was a thrilling moment as a witness to Barber’s evolving sound… to hear the hints and vestiges of Calima and The Choice in an album that was a completely different animal.  There was a palpable sense of adventure, which is a quality that can never be too common in any creative pursuit.

Your album personnel:  Diego Barber (classical & electric guitars, bass), Hugo Cipres (desktop, effects), Seamus Blake (tenor sax, EWI), Johannes Weidenmueller (bass), and Ari Hoenig (drums).

411 was released on the Origin Arts label.


Diego Barber & Craig Taborn – Tales

When a listener digs in for the long haul and follows an artist from album #1 to album #100, as long as that artist continues to develop his or her personal voice and, thus, takes risks and follows uncertain paths, two things are certain:  One, the listener isn’t going to like every album the artist releases, and, two, the judgments of like and dislike are often eclipsed by the thrill of new surprises from album to album to album.  411 was proof of that for me personally.  I continue to revisit the album, just because I get to re-experience the shock at hearing this new sound from Barber.

It’s the kind of thing that I got to experience again with Barber’s 2014 recording, Tales.

Diego Barber - "Tales"A duo collaboration with pianist Craig Taborn, it brings together two artists who typically venture into heavily cerebral territory, yet rather than anchoring them down with deeply contemplative thought, it acts as the launching point into melodic expansions unbound and free to flight.

The most arresting feature of Tales is the way the duo travels out far and wide from the opening statement of melody, giving the impression that once it disappears from the rear view mirror, it’s gone for good… but then they suddenly boomerang right back to it and you find yourself staring at the melody through the front windshield.  Opening track “Killian’s Mountains” is the immediate proof of this approach.  It opens with some gorgeous melodicism that you would hope never ends.  When it does, the risk of disappointment is averted by the pursuit of trails that appear endless.  And then suddenly, as if emerging from nowhere, that beautiful melody returns in the middle of the clearing.

Of particular interest about Tales are the rhythmic cross-fades with harmony, how the duo seem to treat both tempo and texture and interchangeable elements on the turn of a dime, and how feverishly they feed off one another.  It’s a quality not that far removed from the swirling electronic mists created on 411, and that’s why it’s a special treat that the two albums share a composition.  “Cipres” is both soothing and urgent, switching between moments of calm and those of dissonance, both states perfectly at ease passing the baton back and forth in the flow of one long breath.  On “Cipres,” the duo’s instruments seem always to be quietly humming fragments of the melody under their breath.  Of relevance, Barber describes his process:  “Before I compose a musical note, I think about the instruments that I want to use and the options of color, texture, melody, rhythm or harmony.  Based on what the instruments offer me and how they inspire me, then I create the composition.”

Just in the way that they flow one from the other, Tales may just as well be considered a four-part suite.  Parts three and four are “Eternal 7” and the album finale “IM Park (to Diego Barber).”  The former bubbles with all kinds of liveliness, the kind of thing where the poetry of the moment is just as much a result of the rhythmic patterns as it is the story being told.  And the latter track concludes things on a contemplative note, siding on the side of graceful elegance and a controlled heartbeat.  But both tracks accentuate how fluidly Barber and his counterpart Taborn are able to shift between classical, folk and jazz forms while subtly building up to breathless displays of beauty.

It’s a big reason why Tales earned the #5 slot on this site’s Best of 2014 list.

Your album personnel:  Diego Barber (classical guitar) and Craig Taborn (piano).

Tales was released on Sunnyside Records.


On the horizon:

Barber is currently working on a new album that features percussionist Alejandro Coello as well as a bass & drums duo.  Based on posts to his Facebook page, it’s looking like it’s Ben Williams and Eric Harland filling those two slots.

After that album is completed, Barber has plans for a classical recording, performing twenty Scarlatti sonatas.


Listen to more album tracks by following the Retail links below to the Bandcamp site.

Retail links:

CalimaBandcamp | eMusic | Amazon

The ChoiceBandcamp | eMusic | Amazon

411eMusic | Amazon

TalesBandcamp | eMusic | Amazon