After arriving in New York City in 2001 and woodshedding as a notable sideman, composer and more recently, producer, a jazz keyboard player is ready to put his best foot forward. Chicago-born Sam Barsh is a name that's only come up in conversations about the current jazz scene in the last few years, but this bright young musician is quickly making an impression on those who have heard him and played with him. The list of musicians he's worked with is diverse and pretty impressive. The Brand New Heavies, Boyz II Men, Cassandra Wilson, and Robin Eubanks, to name a few.
Barsh was the keyboard player for uber-master bassist Avishai Cohen's tight little trio from 2003 to 2006 and played a pivotal role in the trio's thrilling live As Is…Live At The Blue Note CD which came out last year.
Now signed to Cohen's Razdaz Recordz label, Barsh assembled his own quartet and laid to tape his own brand of music, peforming strictly his originals. Backed by Tim Collins on vibes, Ari Folman-Cohen on bass and Jaimeo Brown on drums, this collection of highly experienced musicians provide the kind of energy and cohesiveness you can only get from your working group.
The resulting I Forgot What You Taught Me, released last month, marks Barsh's studio debut as a leader, and the calling card for his signature sound. It's what Barsh likes to call "ambient jam." Clearly influenced with the past acts he's worked with, Barsh's product is a mesh of R&B and jazz. To be sure, that's a mix that's been done thousands of times before, but Barsh does it more satisfying than most.
His success comes from the great rapport with his band, with plays with a genuine cooperative spirit with no show offs on board. Barsh's own production keeps the overdubs under control and doesn't go for much of the trendy stuff. That sounds like a good strategy to me to avoid quick obsolescence. Nope, it's mostly just him and his band sweating out succinct jams.
However, the main aesthetic in the presentation is how Barsh keeps the music smooth but interesting. It's chillin' but there's a little too much musicianship present and Barsh's compositions a little too complex to them to call it "smooth jazz." All the same, the songs are high on the groove quotient, because the songs never contain balls-to-the-wall soloing. The balance between making the head and the heart happy is just about right.
Throughout the record, Barsh's preferred instruments are piano, electric piano, electric clavinet, and melodica. Throughout, there's echoes of fusion bigs who've come before him, primarily keyboardists. "Plans Change" sounds like Joe Sample, circa 1973. "Wake Up And Smile" is a little like Chick Corea and Return To Forever. "nuTrance" is something Bugge Wesseltoft could have done. "Rainy Day Jam" and "This Is The Song" are both vintage Jeff Lorber-style jams. "Harriet Nyborg" calls to mind Steely Dan in it's knotty piano chord progressions.
There are a few short interludes like the pulsing "Jew Hefner" or the faux-reggae "George Dub" that don't seem to be saying anything musically. Thankfully, those are more than redeemed by the more developed longer pieces like "Between Dead And Alive," which is a waltzing, somber ballad that showcases Barsh's melodica skills well.
With I Forgot What You Taught Me, Sam Barsh formally announces his arrival to the jazz world. Ready or not, he's here, folks. I, for one, hope he's around the scene a long time.