I wrote this for Atlanta magazine when Scotty released his wonderful solo project a few years ago:
When Scotty Barnhart began composing and arranging his first independent jazz album, he recalled some practical advice from the preacher who baptized him.
“My mother used to tell me that Daddy King was always instructing Martin, ‘Keep it simple, and say it plain,’” says the Grammy-winning trumpet player, referring to the Civil Rights dynasty that galvanized his upbringing in the pews of Ebenezer Baptist Church. “That’s how I envisioned this CD — accessible and uplifting, with something to move everybody.”
Barnhart, 44, has toured and recorded with the Count Basie Orchestra since 1993, and he is expected to assume leadership of the seminal big band this year. “Say It Plain,” his solo project released this month by Unity Music, swings with melodies that are “unusually hummable and danceable for jazz,” as Barnhart notes, but with ethereal contributions from Wynton and Ellis Marsalis, Clark Terry, and Marcus Roberts, it is anything but simplistic.
“They all create what some call ‘tall smoke,’ heat reaching up to the sky,” writes critic Stanley Crouch in the album’s liner notes. “One hears deep feeling, tonal variety,
different kinds of swing and equally different kinds of wit, from the broad joke to the sly observation in the way a note is colored or bent.”
The title song, dedicated to the King family, especially jumps with jubilation.
“I was trying to evoke what takes place after a sermon, the opening of the doors of the church, when the music turns upbeat,” Barnhart says. “So I got Herlin Riley (a Marsalis percussionist) to play tambourine to give it that old Baptist feeling. We recorded that song in one take, and — oh, goodness, the gyrations going on!– everybody was dancing, trying not to knock over microphones. It was a deeply spiritual thing.”
On the album, Barnhart, who has been dubbed “a young Walt Whitman of the trumpet,” also draws from the brassy Second Line tradition of New Orleans jazz funerals, and ever-mindful of roots, pays tribute to author Alex Haley. After years of hepcat adventures playing behind legends such as Frank Sinatra, Nancy Wilson, and Joe Williams, Barnhart says his family takes pointed pride in the myriad ways that he always comes home, riff after riff, to the call-and-response cadences of Ebenezer.
“I was mesmerized by the walking bass lines that the organist would play while the choir literally rocked the foundation of the church,” Barnhart says “That music became part of me early on and never left.”
Now it function as a benediction for the rest of us.