Plungers aren’t just for plumbing. Nashville-based trombonist, recording artist and plunger mute specialist Roland Barber brings his warm and soulful sound to the 14th annual UNCP Honor Jazz Festival on Saturday, April 1.
The concert will be held at 4:30 p.m. at Givens Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $10 and are available at the door. The show is free for students 18 and under or with a valid UNCP student, faculty or staff ID.
A fan of the Great American Songbook yet equally well-versed in modern jazz, Barber loves a good swing feel. “I like to keep toes tapping and entertain the hips and mind,” says Barber. “Listeners will hear the blues. As an artist, I keep returning to the sound of the blues for context and inspiration. Music should make you smile, laugh and think.”
The plunger mute can help deepen the meaning of the blues, approximating the human voice to convey a story. Barber is among the few contemporary performers to take a serious interest in a return to muted techniques that were a highlight of early jazz, notably in the Duke Ellington Orchestra with trumpeter Bubber Miley and trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton. One of Barber’s musical idols, trombonist Al Grey, known for his work with the Count Basie Orchestra, told him that “everyone knows the plunger can make you laugh, but it can also make you cry. Go sort out the sounds that connect people to the music.”
Barber grew up in Nashville in a multi-generational household, listening to his parents and grandparents’ music. He credits his grandmother, Zepher Selby, with piquing his interest in music. His oldest memory is hearing her practice the piano, which she did daily from 3 to 5 a.m. “She was a busy soul,” Barber recalls of Selby, who was a schoolteacher, church musician, wife, mother and heavily involved in the community. The wee small morning hours of the morning were the only time she had to herself, and she spent it playing Chopin, Ravel and Debussy. She was also a fan of jazz and had an extensive record collection.
It came time for the 12-year-old Barber to select an instrument. “I didn’t like competition, so I wanted to pick an instrument nobody else wanted to play.” He narrowed it down to trombone and oboe. He entered his band director’s office, where a trombone sat on a stand. “I picked it up, played a big ugly note, and felt my lips tingle––I thought it was cool.”
One of the early influential moments for Barber was attending the Jamey Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshop in Louisville, where he met legendary educator and NEA Jazz Master David Baker. The 15-year-old Barber was in the practice room when Baker peeked his head in and said, “Young man, if you keep that up, I’ve got a spot for you in my band at Indiana University.” Several years later, Barber graduated from Indiana University with a degree in jazz studies and an artist diploma.
Barber credits his musical lineage on the trombone to J.J. Johnson, Al Grey and Steve Turre. As a high school student, his band was selected to perform in the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s (JALC) Essentially Ellington competition. JALC sent a representative to work with each chosen band, and his clinician was Steve Turre. “The first time I heard him, I was blown away,” Barber recalled. “His sound felt like it reached around you and gave you a hug from 30 feet away.” Barber would attend the Manhattan School of Music for graduate studies after Indiana University to study with Turre. “I had always heard New York was like finishing school,” said Barber. He spent seven years studying and performing in New York before returning to Nashville.
Barber has performed with a long list of luminaries in Jazz and other genres, including Clark Terry, Branford Marsalis, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the Chico O’Farill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra, Lauryn Hill, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Take 6 and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
You can hear him on his first album as leader, “Heart Expressed, Art Finessed.”