Tom Barton & Diego Villalta: Connections – Phil Barnes, AAJ, review
Published: November 24, 2015
There’s something other worldly about this collaboration between innovative jazz vocalist Tom Barton and guitarist/composer Diego Villalta. Recorded in Osaka and inspired by the duo’s experiences touring Japan the collection is wholly improvised, showcasing a broad range and variety of styles yet remaining coherent enough to suggest it could only have been this way. Barton describes it as “a free-jazz aesthetic, featuring extended vocal techniques and live looping, and electric guitar and FX” which is certainly true, if a little mechanical when set alongside the emotional outpouring of the best moments here.
Opening track “Trust” grabs the attention straight away— Barton’s vulnerable, wordless, improvised vocal gliding over the waves from the decaying electronic sounds. The recording is wonderful, you can hear the breath on the vocal, presumably intended as a juxtaposition of organic texture against the synthesised electronics. There is a great balance between the voice and Villalta’s thoughtful, dignified electronics that sit more in the Biosphere, Deathprod or Jan Bang/David Sylvian schools than anything that is likely to turn up in your local mainstream night club. The track is followed by “Sensei” where Barton improvises a manipulation of a single phrase that feels like a mantra over Villalta’s rhythmic guitar lines. The effect is a little reminiscent of what James Blake attempted by electronically manipulating his voice a few years ago, but has the advantage of the improvised, the unexpected, that lifts it higher.
Villalta’s piece de resistance is the track “A Forming Universe” where the desolate, muted electronics build slowly like tectonic plates edging closer together. It feels cinematic -painting an urban landscape in the chill before dawn, as the sounds of the machines of the city grow into the day, with beautiful understated hints of what sounds like a muted saxophone and treated guitar. The early sections develop to a point reminiscent of classics like David Sylvian and Holger Czukay’s “Plight and Premonition”—and a measure of how good this is, is that neither piece is diminished by the comparison. Barton’s contribution here is the simple yet effective wordless cry from the 4minute 30 mark conveying isolation and feelings of being overwhelmed by the beauty of it all.
The range is unusual, yet from the edgy guitar and wordless Jeff Buckley vocal textures of “Growing Up” to the more experimental “One Night of Hedonism (One Day of Vegetables)” the tracks simply feel like looking at an object intensely from different viewpoints. The latter is an extraordinary piece of filmic music -the multiple voices become nightmarish, claustrophobic even, before the tension reaches crisis point and dissipates into a gentle resolution. What all this has to do with hedonism, or indeed vegetables, is open to conjecture but it is always enthralling, holding the attention for its near 11 minute duration.
If you are looking for gentle re-treads of past greats, this is conceivably not going to be your cup of tea. Barton and Villalta have made an album that contrasts a becalmed inner world with the chaos and beauty of the world that they see around them. That they have managed this in such a melodic and engrossing way suggests a greater constancy to jazz’s restless spirit than any number of aspirational takes on the ‘Great American Songbook,’ but then each to their own. Highly recommended.
Track Listing: Trust; Sensei; Prelude to the Bus Ride; Growing Up; A Forming Universe; Dawn; One Night of Hedonism (One Day of Vegetables); The Bus Ride.
All About Jazz review for ‘Connections’
Harmonium-like looped notes precede Tom Barton‘s wordless pellucid tenor vocals on the opening track “Trust.” Any anticipation, garnered from this first offering, of the session being one of ambient music is rapidly disproved in the seven subsequent tracks. “Sensei” features Diego Villalta on lithely finger picked guitar, the piece revolving around the repeated words “one grain of sand, drop in the ocean” in the form of an ethereal chant. The words are gradually treated to a looping effect and intertwine with the guitar before the looping discontinues in a more natural “live” ending.
The short “Prelude to the Bus Ride” involves wordless mouth-generated sounds; snorks, clicking and popping, redolent, in improvisational technique, to the innovative British vocalist Phil Minton. Barton here is accompanied by Villalta’s sparse reverse effect guitar. In the pastoral abstraction of “Growing Up,” repeated wordless vocals are accompanied by limpid guitar. Appropriately spacey sound effects provide a backdrop for “A Forming Universe” with the voice slowly emerging from sheets of sound.
The short track “Dawn” is rich in reverberating notes and an almost imperceptible wash of looped voice, over which Barton’s mellifluous voice repeatedly intones “there is a light.” By contrast, the quirkily titled “One Night of Hedonism (One Day of Vegetables),” and the longest track at nearly eleven minutes, begins almost inaudibly, but little by little builds -Barton’s Buddhist monk-like looped chanting taking centre stage -to a dramatic crescendo, eventually fading out with a single lone voice and a solitary plangent chord.
The final number, “The Bus Ride” revolves around reverse effect guitar and an underlying vocal pulse. Over this hypnotic sonic morass, Barton unfurls all manner of vocal gymnastics before the piece fades out on a solitary echoey note.
Connections won’t necessarily appeal to everyone; its improvisational stylistic variations and lack of formal jazz conventions may tend to alienate to some listeners. But challenging convention is surely what permits any art form to progress. The oft quoted lines from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell seem appropriate in this context: “Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.” Barton and Villalta have certainly produced a work of contraries and anyone with an open mind and two receptive ears should welcome this brave, sensitive and not infrequently brilliant music.
Australian Musician Network review of Aspirations
Honesty in music making is, in my opinion, almost the art’s most important facet. If you’re not honest with yourself while you’re creating, your ideas won’t ever reach their fullest potential. If you’re not honest with your audience while you’re performing, there’s much less chance your audience will be as affected by your art as what you once intended.
Tom Barton is an honest musician. Care, diligence and love for his product pours out of the speakers and onto the intricately illustrated pages of his record’s liner notes. Having graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts with a Bachelor of Music Performance (Honours) in Jazz Improvisation, in 2013 he was invited to study a Master of Jazz (Voice) at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. So an honest musician, yes, but also a fiercely talented one.
The aptly titled debut offering from Barton is Aspirations. Crowdfunded, and with a great deal of momentum behind its conception, it’s a ten-track jazz, prose, and electronics-infused gem of an LP showcasing Barton’s immense vocal and instrumental creativity.
With a range of talents as broad as Barton’s, there was every possibility this record could have been delivered as a mish-mash of ideas and poorly acquainted genres. Not likely; that would have been the output of a lesser musician. This is an album that sees Barton rally together every creative tool at his disposal, crafting a beautifully nuanced, varied, and soulful vision. Aspirations is somewhat of a concept album in this sense, the result of a great deal of time, consideration, and theoretical input.
The vocal lines of opening track Dirt & Vibration have a distinct, old-school R&B feel with Barton’s clean, crisp tenor anticipating every phrase. It’s moreish. Rays of Björk shine out from each chorus; there’s a distinct Biophillia sensibility here, but it’s instantly more accessible for whatever reason that might be.
What will undoubtedly be the pull-track for many of the Barton uninitiated is the cover of Björk’s Hyperballad. Never giving in to the old ‘thisisacoverbutitwillsoundsprettymuchthesame’ mentality that thwarts many an artist’s attempt at others’ work, it’s a sensitive and colorful rendition, and one that deserves its place on such a special record.
There are certainly tracks which act as a window into Barton’s deep understanding of jazz techniques and repertoire. Vessel is a cruisy, ambling number featuring an ingenious reversed snare drum sample that stretches and arches its back throughout. It’s the jewel in the crown, but never overdone. And this is where Barton’s voice really takes off: there can be no doubt that it’s remarkably suited to jazz.
Spencer the Rover stirs up a host of wonderful memories in an instant. Long, warm days spent sinking into the earth at Port Fairy Folk Festival. Happy Easter weekends with friends in Canberra listening to the world’s top folk artists strut their stuff to the most receptive of audiences. In this number, Barton’s effortless vocals elicit unmistakable shades of Lior-esque purity. It’s a very special, cucumber-on-the-eyes type of refreshing.
Nonetheless, since hearing this record for the first time, track eight Tenchi has remained a personal favourite. Inspired by the Japanese martial art of Aikido, it combines the crème of Barton’s talents into seven-and-a-half minutes of bliss. There’s really not much more to say.
Aspirations is an album that references a remarkable number of styles, and it’s an album that requires active listening. It’s work that demands your attention, but in the most unassuming, refreshing manner possible. Barton’s mastery and marrying of so many genres really is a gift to behold. Not very often do artists these days succeed in carrying off a concoction like this, usually for the fear – and fact – that it won’t do well on the uptake. In my opinion, this album will, because it’s nothing less than a unique and honest account of Tom Barton’s incredible set of skills. As an audience, that’s the best, and most rewarding thing we can hope for.
All About Jazz review of Aspirations
Australian vocalist Tom Barton aspires to blur the lines between genres on this debut. Electronic and acoustic thoughts merge and co-exist beautifully, improvisational elements are born around concrete expressions, and in the middle of it all sits Barton, putting his poetry in motion with beautifully clear-headed vocals.While the gist of many an album can be gleaned from a single track, Aspirations doesn’t work that way. If someone were to simply stumble upon Barton’s take on “Spencer The Rover,” they might mistake him for a modern folk troubadour. And if Bjork fans were to encounter his slowed-down, thinned-out take on “Hyperballad,” they might simply view Barton as an atmospheric traveler. But then there’s also “Motion,” a number clearly steeped in modern jazz language, “Dirt & Vibration,” an artfully crafted piece that opens on a somewhat chirpy idée fixe and continues to grow and evolve from there, “Pearl Point,” a performance that conjures thoughts of the sonic marriage between Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry, and the darkly expressive “When Did I Give Up?,” a number which descends into a ghostly netherworld in midstream. So which one represents the true Tom Barton? The answer is the obvious one: each number represents a piece of Barton, and when Aspirations is heard from start to finish, a full picture of his artistry comes into view.
In putting this album together, Barton put together a band that’s more than capable of helping him achieve his vision. Pianist Joseph O’Connor can resort to simple seesawing arpeggios when needed (“Tenchi”), but he puts on his jazz hat when the music calls for it (“Vessel” and “Motion”); bassist Philip Rex and drummer Peter Evans have a way of alternately blending into the electro-acoustic tapestry and standing out; saxophonistAndy Sugg is used sparingly, but he makes his appearances count (“Tenchi” and “Pearl Point”); guitarist Stephen Magnusson can work in spooky and ethereal places or remain grounded, depending on the circumstances; and vocalist Georgie Darvidis adds another layer of humanity to “Pearl Point.” They all help Barton to turn his aspirations into reality.
Track Listing: Dirt & Vibration; Hyperballad; Vessel; Spencer The Rover; Motion; When Did I Give Up?; Genome; Tenchi; Tjukurpa; Pearl Point.
Personnel: Tom Barton: voice: vocals, live effects processing; Joseph O’Connor: piano; Philip Rex: double bass; Peter Evans: drums; Stephen Magnusson: guitar; Andy Sugg: saxophone; Georgie Darvidis: vocals.
Record Label: Bartone Music
The Weekend Australian reviews Aspirations
THIS Melbourne release is a breakthrough in leading-edge jazz vocals, with original material, live effects processing, six top musicians and the gifted approach of 28-year-old vocalist Tom Barton.
One of two non-originals from the 10 tracks is Bjork’s hit Hyperballad, taken at a slower tempo than the original and against a subdued sonic wash. The arrangements are by Barton and some employ improvised loops of his voice to great effect. There is electronic augmentation throughout and it fits perfectly. Barton’s voice is a soothingly smooth tenor, occasionally wordless — there’s some inventive scat onVessel — but always with profound expression, drawing on historic examples of jazz singers but injecting his personality and interpretations.
The backing is superb, with standout solos from pianist Joseph O’Connor, bassist Philip Rex, who co-produced the album, saxophonist Andy Sugg and guitarist Stephen Magnusson. Spencer the Rover, a traditional song, is an unexpected inclusion, beautifully delivered. This album heralds the arrival of a unique new talent in Australian jazz vocals.