With their debut album ‘Source of the Severn’ just around the riverbend, Jeb Loy Nichols talks to Will Barnes of the Will Barnes Quartet about local luthiers, the mid-Walean landscape, and not going to London. Artwork: Erin Hughes.
The new record by The Will Barnes Quartet, Source of the Severn, is a celebration of both jazz and the landscape of mid-Wales. It’s music deeply imbedded in the roll and fall of the hill country, the land in which Will Barnes grew up. His music flows with the graceful intensity of the Severn. As Wendell Berry once said: The impeded stream is the one that sings. Or as his friend Gary Snyder said: To be music it must be slant. This music reminds us that both landscape and jazz are constantly unfolding, constantly ungraspable, constantly now.
JLN: Why the guitar? Why not the flute? Or banjo? Or tennis?
WB: I started out on piano at a young age but soon turned to clarinet, which I guess you could say was my first instrument for a while. I always played guitar alongside other instruments but when I got to high school (and with a little help from the playground bullies) I decided to ditch clarinet in favour of electric guitar.
JLN: You’re a young kid in your bedroom in rural Wales, what are you listening to?
WB: Preschool age I would sift through my parents’ rather eclectic record collection whilst being watched by my grandmother. Some of the earliest artists/records I remember listening to were Donovan, Black Sabbath, Pavarotti, John Martyn, Kate Bush and Jeff Wayne’s ‘War of the Worlds’!
JLN: How did you get from there to jazz?
WB: My Aunt (who was a music teacher) gave me ‘Night Train’ by Oscar Peterson one Christmas and it all started from there. Around the same time, I also got a copy of Jim Hall & Pat Metheny, which I think was a collection of studio and live tracks from their work together in the late 90’s. I think it stands up as one of the greatest jazz guitar duo albums ever released!
JLN: Django Reinhardt, Derek Trucks, Metallica. Discuss.
WB: Innovators, rule breakers, social outcasts. I think each of these artists have such a unique voice and that comes from growing up on the periphery, albeit in vastly different circumstances.
JLN: You’ve remained loyal to Wales. You could have gone to London, why didn’t you?
WB: I agonised over this one for years, and still do. What if? In short, I just love it too much. I’m like Frodo or Samwise Gamgee, I love an adventure, but I’ll always return to the shire.
JLN: On the new record you place your music and your compositions firmly in the Welsh landscape. Was this a conscious decision?
WB: A lot of these pieces were composed during lockdown which forced me to slow everything down and focus on the environment directly around me. Fortunately, I lived in a rural location at the time, and still do, so I started writing in reaction to the things I was seeing every day.
JLN: The band on the new record are great. How, in mid-Wales, did you find them?
WB: Talk about a stroke of luck… These guys are so great, it is exactly the sound I’ve been searching for. I have been trying to nail down a trio/quartet for many years and have played in groups all over Wales and England searching for “the” sound. I never would have believed I could find it in my postcode! Clovis (bass), I have known of for years, he is somewhat of a revered musician and producer round our parts. He asked me to join The Westwood All Stars for a few runs in UK and Europe. We got to know each other musically and developed a friendship on and off stage. It was Clovis that told me about Jack (piano) who was working in the local health food shop at the time. I did not believe at first that we could have such an incredible young jazz pianist locally until he turned out to jam one day. Boy, was I wrong! I first met James while I was producing a pop session at a local studio, and he came in on Piano, Drums and Vocals. I knew he was a talented musician, but he really surprised me when I heard him play jazz kit. One jam with James is all it took!
JLN: What kind of guitar do you play?
WB: I play a 17” Archtop made by local luthier Rob Williams. Believe it or not, Rob actually lives next door to my in-laws. I have always loved his instruments and when the opportunity to work with him on a new line of jazz guitars came up, I jumped. He is an artist and makes the most beautiful guitars right here in Montgomeryshire.
JLN: Jerry Reed. Discuss.
WB: The coolest cat. I was lucky enough to be informally mentored by incredible UK jazz and country guitarist Gary Potter for a couple of years when I was like 18 or 19. We met by chance at a blues gig and I followed him back to the after party and eventually he agreed to give me his number if I stopped following him! I would hang out at his place most Saturdays and it was Gary who turned me onto JR. He would teach me Django standards and we would jam until my fingers bled, then afterwards he would lay some JR on me.
JLN: How and where do you write? At home? Out walking? In the bath? While doing the shopping?
WB: At home, in the car, in my sleep, at the studio, on the farm, up on the hill….
JLN: Talk me through your barbeque strategy.
WB: Oak kindling, lump wood charcoal, home-reared pork, SL-1200s, good friends.
JLN: If you could sit in, next week, with any musician or group, dead or alive, who would it be?
WB: Oscar Peterson Trio (Peterson, Brown, Thigpen)
JLN: JJ Cale once said that the best guitarists play with their feet and not their hands; meaning I suppose, that it’s all about feel and groove instead of technique. And Kenny Burrell said that pianists are poets and guitarists are peacocks. Whattaya reckon?
WB: Yeah, I get that. Although, I would have to liken myself more to the Red Kite, chowing down on the scraps of jazz legends laid bare in time across the metaphorical hillsides of Radnorshire.
JLN: What’s for breakfast?
WB: This morning it was Christian McBride Trio Live at the Village Vanguard.