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Saxophonist Tony Barba improvises into the ether

The Madison-based musician celebrates a new solo album on April 24 at Art In. (Image: Detail from the album’s cover art, by Jamie Breiwick.)

On his first solo album, 2016’s Winter’s Arms, Tony Barba used electronics to give his tenor saxophone some atmospheric accompaniment and loop his improvised phrases into layers that opened up his music to a wealth of harmonic and textural exploration. It worked not because Barba was tweaking the sound of the saxophone beyond recognition, but rather because he didn’t. Tracks like “Therapy,” “Dreamworld,” and “Insomnia” placed listeners at once in a warm acoustic space and somewhere along a signal chain of delays, oscillators, and pitch-shifters. Barba, who says he often feels like an interloper in the world of electronic music, basically managed to make a fully realized piece of ambient music while keeping jazz improvisation and the warm projection of the sax front and center.

When Barba got enough time in between other commitments—including the bands Golpe Tierra, Immigré, and Youngblood Brass Band—to consider where to go next with his solo work, he decided it was time to think more about process. He wanted to improvise with his electronic processing just as fluidly as he does with his saxophone, and while he improvised with his saxophone.

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“I’ve been using effects on my saxophone for probably 15 years now,” Barba says. “I only feel like really in the last two or three years, maybe since Winter’s Arms came out, that I’m actually getting somewhere in terms of how I want it to sound and how it makes sense in some kind of cohesive, organic fashion with the instrument.”

After getting a grant from the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium to support the making of his next solo album, Barba devoted a lot of time to learning a new, software based setup and practicing with it, trying to turn the acoustic and electronic elements into aspects of a more unified whole. He put aside his effects pedals for a laptop running Ableton Live and a couple of MIDI controllers that allow him to capture loops and change effects parameters on the fly, with less hunching over.

“Basically what was happening was I was putting a couple effects on the horn, and then putting it through a looper and adding a couple effects after it,” Barba says of his earlier sax-meets-electronics work. “But unless I wanted to really expand a lot of cables and MIDI controllers and stuff like that to add in a lot of other hardware loopers, I was like, I could just do this all on a laptop and it would be a lot easier.”

The new solo album Ether, which Barba will celebrate with a Wednesday, April 24 show at Art In, gets his whole setup closer to sounding like a distinct instrument in its own right. The acoustic and processed signals sat nicely together on Winter’s Arms, but on Ether they’re more wrapped up in each other from the start. Harmonies and modulated layers spring up as melodies do, not contingent upon Barba first creating a clean loop. The pieces here also get substantially longer: the album has three tracks, and two run for about a half-hour each.

Barba’s sax begins harmonizing with itself right at the start of the album’s first track, also called “Ether,” as if he’s trying to collapse the space between mouthpiece and circuit. “Time Will Take Its Toll” mines the more percussive qualities of the sax, from pops of breath to rattling keys, and these sounds quickly accrete into a rustling mass. All of this is happening in front of an audience, too: Barba recorded Ether at a December 2018 show at Arts + Literature Lab on the east side. Engineer Jim Newhouse recorded the performance with room mics, and Barba mixed those recordings with what his own software captured, doing very little editing and adding only some compression and reverb.

“The times that it really improves are just every time that I get to perform,” Barba says. “Putting in 10 hours in my basement just making sounds is equivalent to, like, one 45-minute performance. Or maybe a whole week of practicing in my basement is equivalent to one performance. I think the performance aspect of it just completely upends how you’re responding to what you’re doing. Performance in front of an audience, I think it just makes your brain respond differently and be more willing to think about things in different ways than you maybe would be when you’re just by yourself messing around with sounds…when I’m playing with stuff at home, I have a lot more ability to not respond right away or not think about the aspect of performance. I can just be more deliberate. When you’re in front of people and trying to do this…there’s definitely something that comes in and makes you respond differently to what the stimulus is.”

“Whether they’re ready for a 35-minute piece of very ambient drone or not, oh well, but that interaction between me and the audience is kind of what makes it go forward,” he adds.”

Going forward, Barba plans to incorporate more electronics into his sets with other musicians. “I want it to be more a part of my general sound that I play with. Of course, there’s groups that it’s not gonna work with,” he says. “If we’re playing standards, I’m probably not going to play ‘Autumn Leaves’ or ‘All Of Me’ with my delay pedals or my harmonizer. I think that would be a weird kind of gimmick.” But he has written a whole additional new set of material that will push his solo approach into a quartet setting, with drummer Devin Drobka, guitarist Matt Gold, and bassist John Christensen. That group plans to record this summer at DNA Music Labs. Barba also collaborated with drummer Michael Brenneis on an improvised album called Outside The Sphere, released in February.

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