Know Your Sideman: Gavin Barras

Know Your Sideman, a new Bird is the Worm series that focuses on musicians who consistently appear in the fine print of excellent albums.


Bassist Gavin Barras has been making a name for himself on the UK jazz scene, but unless you live there you might not have heard of him.

After studying both classical and jazz during his time at the University of Manchester, Barras now records and performs with many of the top jazz artists in the UK scene, as well as working on his own projects.  He is currently a member of the European Union Quartet, Dan Whieldon Trio, Jadid Ensemble, Sarah Ellen Hughes Band, 6Pac Jazz Sextet, Nat Birchall Band, Matthew Halsall Band, Unfurl and Steve Plews Trio.

And if you’re a fan of modern jazz, there’s a good chance that he’s represented in your music library.

Let’s talk about some of the notable recordings of which he’s been a part of…


Nat Birchall – Guiding Spirit

Barras has appeared on two of tenor saxophonist Nat Birchall‘s three albums.  You can’t go wrong with a Birchall album.  The music is, in part, a celebration of the spiritual jazz of the sixties.  If anyone is channeling John Coltrane’s sound in a modern jazz setting, it’s Birchall.  He’s got a ferocious tone that doesn’t sound threatening.  Barras fuses his bass into Birchall’s sound by combining notes that imbue the tracks with a sense of mystery and contemplation.  His brief solo during the transition half-way through the tune “Going to the Mountain” is a wonderful example of what I’m talking about.

Released on the Gondwana Records label, Guiding Spirit was one of the best albums of 2010.  Barras also peformed on Birchall’s 2009 release Akhenaten, another great album, and arguably one of the best releases that year.


Matthew Halsall – Colour Yes

Trumpeter Matthew Halsall is one of best signs of the future of jazz, and part of a new generation of musicians.  With an approach very much in line with Miles Davis’s modal sound (or said differently, the Miles Davis that sounds like he’s playing with a cool swing in a smoky late night jazz club), Halsall bridges the gap between the old school jazz of the fifties with (one of) the new school’s compositional style.  Halsall gives his tunes a palpable melancholia, and Barras uses his bass as the cheerful counterweight to keep things bright eyes and chipper, even when it seems like dark clouds gather up above.  Barras helps bring the swing to the thing.

Released on the Gondwana Records label, Colour Yes was one of the top albums of 2009.  Barras also performed on Halsall’s 2011 On the Go and 2008 release Sending My Love.  All three Halsall albums are exemplary.


European Union Quartet – The Dark Peak

European Union Quartet - "The Dark Peak"

Barras is a founding member of the European Union Quartet.  I originally wrote about this album, “Much like having a planned day off to lounge around but too much energy to do anything other but go out and play in the rain, the European Union Quartet’s The Dark Peak gives the impression of an album full of purposefully introspective tunes foiled by the ensemble’s abounding happiness on recording day.”  Well, that was about six months ago, and I’m still listening to this album, and I stand by that original assessment.  Plenty of life to this music, even as it could be considered rainy day jazz.  Moments that verge on free jazz, others that have a pleasant sway, the quartet’s members give each other room to roam, to find their voice within a particular composition.  It’s a duality that makes it easy to daydream to the music as it is to bounce the head to, depending on your disposition at any one time.

Released in 2011 on the O.A.P. Records label.  The album was one of my original Jazz Picks, back when I first starting contributing to the eMusic new arrivals article.  I’m in the process of writing a standard album review of Dark Peak, which I’ll publish, well, I’m not sure exactly, but soon.  I’ll update this post with a link when I do.


And, in a nice development…

Barras will finally be releasing an album with his own name in the large print.  The Gavin Barras Quintet will be releasing Day of Reckoning in May 2012.  Rounding out the quintet is Ed Jones (tenor sax), Steve Plews (piano), Corey Mwamba (vibes), and Dave Walsh (drums).  It’ll be released on the ASC Records label.  I have an album review forthcoming, but in summary, this recording has many of the rhythmic and melodic attributes of a modern jazz composition (a la tendency to rock instead of swing and melodies that venture off in exciting directions without looking back), yet there is a strong hint of classic late-sixties Blue Note albums, which often had a center-of-gravity forged in swing, even as they moved out to edges of free-jazz performance.  Here’s an album track, titled “Billy Harper”…

The album has been getting played pretty frequently on my stereo since it first arrived.  In fact, it’s kinda been one of those albums that gets me backlogged on all the other reviews I should be writing, which is kinda frustrating for me, but typically is a pretty good indication that an album rates high on the quality index.


In the lead-up to the album release, I had a few questions for him:

Bird Is The Worm:  Was the experience of recording an album any different as the bandleader than it was, say, as a sideman on a Birchall or Halsall album, or as part of an equal collaborator on EU4?  Was there something about it you really enjoyed?  Something that made you want to pull your hair out?

Gavin Barras:  It was really simple. No messing around in the studio – a lot of first takes. I was organized regarding getting charts to people before the session. Then on the session I made decisions on soloists etc. and I had the final say.
All the musicians I booked for the date knew the vibe and what I was going for. It was the best experience. And everyone played great!!!!

BITW:  What kind of projects would you like to be working on in the near future?  Down the road?

GB:  I’m playing today with a really great oud player from Palestine.  I would like to work with him and others to create some music directly inspired by Ahmed Abdul-Malik.  [Malik] played bass for Thelonious Monk, but also played oud.  He released a few albums mixing jazz and Arabic elements.  Check out the record East Meets West.

BITW:  Regarding your local jazz scene… What aspect of it do you most enjoy?  What about it symbolizes its identity

GB:  The local Jazz scene revolves around a couple of venues. It is a friendly atmosphere with everyone doing there own thing- an aspect I really enjoy.  The standard isn’t world class- it isn’t New York!  There are some very good players though and lots of diversity.  There are fewer people playing standards which is okay, although I think its really important to have a good standard rep. together- to know tunes.  The scene is small, everyone knows everyone else; that’s cool.

BITW:  Do you have a favorite local venue you enjoy performing at?  A favorite road venue?  Do you have a favorite local venue you love seeing jazz performed at?

GBMatt and Phreds jazz club in Manchester has been going for 13 years and has at various times been a really happening place, so that would be a favorite, I suppose. Ronnie Scott’s in London is obviously a favorite venue away from Manchester in the UK – great sound/audience etc.  I’m only playing there a couple of times a year.  In Manchester the RNCM (Royal Northern College of Music) is great for seeing touring bands.  Over the years I’ve seen some great gigs there – Brad Mehldau Trio, Branford Marsalis Quartet, Joe Lovano, etc.

BITW:  Do you have any other creative outlets or does jazz take it all out of you?

GB:  It’s not creative but I’m really into fitness- going to the gym etc.  Jazz is my life, though.

BITW:  The jazz album you’re currently addicted to?  The non-jazz album you’re currently addicted to?

GBJohn Coltrane The Stardust Sessions.  The Beatles The White Album.

BITW:  Anything else to add?
GB:  As a bassist I’m really busy playing lots of different styles of music (not just Jazz), and I travel quite a bit all over Europe playing and meeting others from different countries.  It’s a really great position to be in.  I’m not sure I will do many ‘solo’ albums- certainly not one a year or anything.  I just wanted to document a period in time and playing right now and hope that others enjoy it!!


Day of Reckoning by the Gavin Barras Quintet will be released June 11, 2012 on ASC Records.