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Tony Barba takes a contemplative, eclipse-inspired journey across genres

The Madison-based saxophonist’s new album, “Blood Moon,” comes out on March 27.

Total lunar eclipses, which can make the moon appear red, are the freakiest of moon events, and many cultures have myths about the mayhem the so-called “blood moon” portends.

For Madison-based saxophonist and composer Tony Barba, the eclipse of January 2019 sparked not moonstruck lunacy but a wave of creative output. It  resulted in his new album Blood Moon, due out March 27 on Shifting Paradigm Records. The album, recorded at Madison’s DNA Music Labs, features Chicago-based guitarist Matt Gold, Madison’s John Christensen on bass, and Milwaukee drummer Devin Drobka.

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Blood Moon finds Barba melding his jazz background with elements from a variety of other genres. That shouldn’t be surprising by this point in his career. An active player in the Madison music community, he can be found playing anything from Latin to New Orleans brass styles. He even appears on Bon Iver’s 2016 release 22, A Million as part of an eight-piece sax choir. Barba seems committed to exploring a different approach with each successive album. His 2016 debut as a solo artist (though not his first as a bandleader), Winter’s Arms, consisted of extended ambient pieces that gave his tenor plenty of room for warm meandering. On last year’s follow-up, Ether, Barba delved deeper into software-driven electronic production, employing looping and other digital processing to powerful effect. 

From both an instrumental and compositional standpoint, Blood Moon is back to the basics, and the results are satisfying. The title track, a driving surf-rock update that takes the groove in directions Dick Dale couldn’t have envisioned, kicks off the album and signals the thematic and sonic flexibility ahead. The groove that underpins the third track, “Rounding Up,” suggests what Zenyatta Mondatta-era Police might have sounded like if Sting were a saxman instead of a singer and they didn’t care about selling zillions of records. “Washed Up” at times evokes the heavy plod of a classic-rock anthem, but with more interesting melodic and harmonic structures.

In promotional materials, the label describes “The Long Haul” as an “emotive cowboy ballad.” The “cowboy” aspect eludes me, but the track’s austerely beautiful sadness connects. One could imagine it morphing into a pop hit with the right overblown vocals layered over the top.

Interspersed among the pop genre flirtations are some more straightforwardly modern jazz tunes, including two of Blood Moon‘s strongest cuts, “The Hypnotist” and “Drifters.” The latter makes good use of Barba’s breathy bass clarinet at the beginning. The bass clarinet is featured even more prominently on “Wishlist,” a quirky piece driven by sustained shimmery chords from Gold and an active, melodic bottom end from Christensen.

While the energy is high at times, this is mostly a contemplative album that prioritizes composition over adventurous improvisation, though there are plenty of enagaging solos. Blood Moon isn’t afraid to show its softer side, but never sinks into easy listening territory. It’s a jazz album, but many of the tunes favor straightforward harmonies over fancy jazz chords.

Like pretty much all upcoming live music events, Barba’s Madison release show scheduled for April 3 at North Street Cabaret has been canceled, and the rest of the Midwest tour appears doomed as well. Recorded music, on the other hand, can’t be thwarted quite so easily, and Blood Moon is being released as scheduled.

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