Barry Finnerty: All kinds of players would come and sit in, including Mike and Randy Brecker, Joe Farrell, Dave Liebman, Steve Grossman … Video

03.12. – Happy Birthday !!! Barry Finnerty, was born in San Francisco on 1951. My father, Warren, was an award-winning actor (he received the Village Voice Obie for Best Actor of 1960 for “The Connection”) and my mother, Ruth, was an excellent classical pianist who later got her PhD and taught English at UC Berkeley.

I began playing piano and reading music at age 5, then got my first guitar (a classical) for my 13th birthday. I got my first electric guitar, a Fender Jaguar, for my 14th birthday while living in Hong Kong (my mom had gotten a Fulbright grant to teach there for a year), and that same year my first band, The New Breed, opened the show for Herman’s Hermits! I seemed to get some attention for my ability to play the guitar solos from the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” and the Rolling Stones’ “Heart Of Stone” note for note! The band also played songs by the Who, the Kinks, and the Yardbirds. Jeff Beck was my first real guitar hero.

I returned to San Francisco in 1966 and played in high school bands while absorbing the new hippie rock scene at the Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms. Here I heard Jerry Garcia with the Grateful Dead, Mike Bloomfield with the Butterfield Blues Band, and later, Eric Clapton with the Cream, and Jimi Hendrix, along with virtually all the top bands of the time. Hearing Jerry Garcia’s smooth melodic playing influenced me to trade in my Jaguar for a red single cutaway Guild Starfire. But I really identified more with Jeff Beck, so I traded that one in for a ’57 cherry sunburst Les Paul…with a Bigsby tremolo! (I had it removed..I had worked hard on my finger vibrato and I didn’t want anyone to think I was cheating!) The price of that guitar..500 bucks. Now it would be worth at least $25,000!

Around that time, I began to be interested in jazz, and studied jazz guitar and theory with Dave Smith at Sherman Clay music store in downtown SF. I listened to records by guitarists such as Howard Roberts (my first real jazz influence), Kenny Burrell, and George Benson, as well as Dave Brubeck (with Paul Desmond), Miles Davis (”Kind Of Blue”) and John Coltrane. I traded in the Les Paul for a 1960 blond Gibson Johnny Smith. I played and sang in a band, Beefy Red, that opened shows at the Fillmore and Avalon and featured some of the Bay Area’s top young musicians. In 1969 I entered UC Berkeley and studied philosophy, astronomy, ear training and sight singing, which considerably advanced my musicianship and conceptual abilities. In 1971 I attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston for one semester, during which time I went to New York and heard some real heavyweight artists, live, including George Benson (who I still consider the greatest jazz guitarist in the world, bar none!), Joe Henderson, Chick Corea, and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. I could see that I wasn’t quite ready yet, so I returned to San Francisco for two more years of “seasoning.” I played some gigs around the area and bought another Les Paul from my old high school band mate Adam Silver…a beautiful ’59 sunburst…for $500 again!

In April, 1973, I moved to New York City, determined to break into the world of big time professional jazz. A good friend from the Bay Area, saxophonist Alex Foster, had been there already for a few months and had just started to play with Chico Hamilton, and after auditioning, I got the gig! Three months later, in June, 21-year-old Barry was performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland on the same bill as Miles Davis! A live recording of that concert, featuring one of my first compositions, “In View”, was released on Stax Records, for which I never received one cent of royalties…welcome to the music business!

The early ’70s were good years for jazz in New York. There used to be jam sessions almost nightly at various downtown lofts, where guys would come to hone their chops. All kinds of players would come and sit in, including Mike and Randy Brecker, Joe Farrell, Dave Liebman, Steve Grossman, Tom Harrell, Woody Shaw, all good people for a young player to brush elbows with. In fact, they were all pretty young then, too!

In 1974, on a recommendation from Billy Cobham, who had heard me at a club, I got the gig with Airto and Flora Purim. They were quite hot at that time having just done Chick Corea’s “Light As A Feather” album. We played the Monterey Jazz Festival that year with bassist Charles Fambrough and pianist Mike Wolff. Also that year, Claude Nobs, the promoter of the Montreux festival, who had liked my playing, arranged for me to cut a demo for Atlantic Records with Alex Foster and trumpeter Tom Harrell…it sounded great…they didn’t buy it.

In 1975, I played with Joe Farrell in a band which included Victor Lewis on drums and Jeff Berlin on electric bass, and also worked for the first time with Hubert Laws (still the world’s greatest jazz flute player and, I’m proud to say, a good friend of mine), with Mark Gray (one of my favorite piano players, unfortunately now deceased) and Mike Richmond on bass.

In 1976, I switched back from the very clean jazzy sound I had been using and started to use distortion again. Since I had been weaned on Beck, Clapton, and Hendrix, this transition came more easily to me than to a lot of pure jazz guitar players who couldn’t bend a note if their lives depended on it. I played with Ray Barretto at the Bottom Line club in N.Y. and Randy Brecker heard me there. I had been pestering Mike and Randy to try using me sometime for their new Brecker Brothers band, but they had only heard me playing jazz, and I figured they didn’t think I could rock out enough. But that night changed Randy’s mind, I guess, because he called me to be in the new 1977 edition of the band, with Terry Bozzio on drums (who I had known from the Bay Area…he had even played with Beefy Red for a few gigs…and had become a star with Frank Zappa and a true monster on his instrument), and Neil Jason on bass. I had made a little extra money dealing weed that year, so I plowed all of it into having a new axe put together, the “Guitorganizer”. It was a combination of a Black Beauty Les Paul (reissue), a B3 organ-like tone generator that was triggered by wired frets and went through a Leslie speaker, interfaced with an Arp Odyssey monophonic synthesizer, which went through its own separate amplifier. It made one ungodly racket, I can assure you! We did the first Heavy Metal Bebop tour just as a five-piece…with Mike and Randy both playing their horns through every new-fangled electronic effect then available and two massive Sunn amps! That was one high-energy aggravation of musicians!

Also in 1977, I met the Crusaders, who had been called in to produce Ray Barretto for Atlantic. We recorded my tune,”Salsa Con Fusion” in L.A.(Bozzio played drums on that session as well), and later that year they called me to play on Joe Sample’s first solo record, “Rainbow Seeker”. I had a pretty nice solo on Joe’s “Fly With Wings Of Love” that got quite a bit of airplay. After that, I decided I wanted that gig. I called their office and pestered them often for the next year and a half before they finally broke down and called me to play on their “Street Life” record, which became the biggest selling jazz record of 1979…over a million.

But then, in 1979, I got my first experience at shooting myself in the foot, career-wise. I had started to feel that I would never make any real money in jazz. That the career prospects of a sideman were limited at best. I wanted to take a shot a the big bucks, and I started trying to write what I thought was more commercial material. Pop/rock/r&b stuff. I started singing again (I had always been the lead singer in my early groups). I made some fairly good demos, and then Carl Palmer came into the club I was working. He told me he was trying to put a new band together. He heard my demos and liked them. He offered me a full share of the new project, so, like an idiot, I told the Crusaders I couldn’t do their (VERY well paying) big European tour, and off I went to L.A. to rehearse with this new thing, which we called “P.M.” There were some talented people in the band, such as Todd Cochran and John Nitzinger, but it was just the wrong combination, never mind the fact that Carl Palmer himself regarded a “groove” as some kind of ethnic African nonsense that has no place on a set of drums! He really was the antithesis of funkiness! To make a long story short, I wasted a year (at $250 a week!) in an ill-advised attempt to make my square peg fit into that band’s round hole…or maybe it was the other way around! We did release one record, “1 P.M.”, in Europe. If anyone ever hears it…my condolences.

Meanwhile, the Crusaders were riding high, flying to Europe on the Concorde, living it up big time. After P.M. went post mortem, I ran into Joe Sample at Seventh Avenue South, the infamous N.Y. musicians’ hangout owned by the Breckers. I told him that I had fucked up, I was sorry, and I wanted the gig back. He said no way. But…they called me back anyway, and I worked with them again from late 1980 ’til 1984. It was great at first. They were flying everyone first class. Once we even had our own private bedrooms on the upper deck of a 747 on a JAL flight to Tokyo. We were drinking champagne and eating caviar, a couple of us were even smoking joints up there! I didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have, because in retrospect, it doesn’t get much better than that! And sure enough, it didn’t. After the first year, the main 3 guys (Joe, Stix Hooper and Wilton Felder) flew first class and the sidemen were downgraded to business class. Still, you couldn’t complain…much. Then, they flew first while we went economy on a separate flight. By 1984 I figured it was time to leave or the sidemen might have to get there by rowboat! Still, I learned a lot from playing with those guys. They were very picky and demanding about their grooves, and I became a much better rhythm player as a result.

I should say a few words here about my association with Miles Davis. I had met Miles in ’79. Julie Coryell (Larry’s wife) was a friend, and she brought me over to his house, which was right in my West Side neighborhood, and introduced me to him. Miles was in bad shape at that time; he had recently broken both his legs in a car accident and was taking a lot of drugs, both the legal and illegal varieties. But he liked me. One night Julie called me and told me that Miles was staying at her house in Connecticut for a weekend of recuperation, and he needed his Percodan prescription. I went to the drugstore for him, threw my Guitorganizer in the car, and drove up, and we hung out for a couple of days. Miles hadn’t been playing much during his “retirement” period, but he had his horn there. I set up my stuff and we made a groove based on a sample-and-hold pattern from the Arp Odyssey (it was a little like the intro to the Who’s tune “Who Are You”, but funkier), I added some chords and a little melody, and Miles played over it, and we made a cassette of it. I drove Miles back into the city later, and we went over to the studio of a friend of his on the West Side, and listened to our tape over and over again, as we snorted lines long into the night. That was when he said to me, “Let’s get a band.” I was in heaven, since Miles was the man I had always dreamed of playing with when I first came to New York! I used to call him and say hello occasionally in the following months, and ask if anything was happening. But he was still not well enough. It wasn’t until almost two years later, in early 1981, that I got a call from Bill Evans, the sax player, who was making Miles’ calls, that Miles wanted me to record. He had done some tracks with his nephew from Chicago, Vincent Wilburn, and he wanted me, Bill Evans, and Sammy Figueroa on percussion to overdub on them and spice them up. Bill Evans also had a few of his tunes in the can. We tried to overdub on them, but only two were “dubbed” good enough to be on the record: “The Man With The Horn”, which we left untouched and became the album’s title track, and “Shout”. On that one, Miles had told me, in that trademark whisper of his, “Barry, just play dadaladaladalada!”… but he wouldn’t tell me WHERE to play it. It took me about 20 tries before I figured out that he wanted it at the end of the bar, on the first sixteenth note after the fourth beat!

However, since it appeared that we needed more (and better) material to finish a record worthy of Miles, we started talking about cutting some more tracks, with a new rhythm section. I suggested that we get either of the two top bass/drum combos in New York at that time, Marcus Miller and Buddy Williams, or Anthony Jackson and Steve Gadd. But Miles loved Al Foster (with good reason!), who had been his main man on drums for a long time, so he came in and Marcus was the choice on bass. The tracks were mostly improvised in the studio. I always thought I should have gotten composer credit for “Back Street Betty”, because I spontaneously came up with the opening power chords (which are the closest the tune has to a melody) after Miles just said to me, “Play something!” I should have made sure I got at least co-writer’s credit. Especially in light of what happened later…

Miles had mentioned that he remembered the little tape that we had made at Julie Coryell’s place a couple of years back, and that it would be cool to record it. So I wrote out the melody, and we rented an Arp Odyssey (mine had been lost the year before by the P.M, road crew!), and I set up the groove and we started to play along with it, using headphones to sync the bass and drums with the repeating sample-and-hold beat. It was a little tricky, but we were just starting to get the feel of it when Mr. Bill Evans abruptly stopped and said, “This sounds like shit, I don’t want to play it.” I was dumbfounded. “What do you mean?” I said. “Miles wants to play it.” “Well, I don’t like it,” he replied. That moment has haunted me for years. Instead of saying, “OK, Bill, why don’t you sit out on this one” or “Hey, Miles, I know another sax player who sounds a lot better than this cat” or even “You want to step outside, motherfucker?”, I just stood there, unable to believe that a sideman would try to stop another man’s tune from being recorded…at a Miles Davis session! Anyway, I just looked at Miles, hoping that he would put the guy in his place. Instead, probably punishing me for my lack of testicular fortitude, he just said, “Well, let’s play something else then.”

After that, I didn’t hear anything about any more sessions until I got a call from Bill Evans, saying, “Hey, I got the mix of the record, you sound great on it!” I went over to his apartment, and Mike Stern was also there. That’s when I found out that he had been brought in for the last session…and that he got the only guitar solo on the record! I had also made the mistake of telling Bill Evans that I didn’t know what I was going to do about the gigs I had already committed to with the Crusaders that year, and I found out later that he had told Miles that I was going with them…effectively insuring that I would be off the gig.

I don’t like to dwell on the past in a negative way. Miles is dead and gone now, and I’m fortunate to have known him and played with him at all. But I have always tried to treat my fellow musicians with friendship and respect, and that situation still stands out…it’s the only time I can remember that another musician went that far out of his way to hurt me. But hey, as my dad used to say, “Time wounds all heels.” Karma will balance it all out eventually. Hopefully when Bill Evans comes back as a bug.

OK, back to 1984. The Crusaders and I had parted company, and I was back in New York. I had just ended a truly disastrous three-and-a-half-year relationship with a woman who can only be described as secretly certifiably psychotic! Somehow, the living hell I had been through with her became my inspiration. I began to write songs for a new band, the concept of which was forming in my mind: The Negatives! I wrote the first few tunes, “Stay Away From Me”, “Take A Cab”, “You’ve Got A Problem”, and “Not A Chance”, and recorded them on 8-track with money loaned by my friend, organist Jon Hammond. Then Jon’s former roommate, Lazy Larry, offered to pay to have them manufactured, and so in ’85, the first Negatives cassette, “In The No”, featuring Crazy Barry on Everything, and Lazy Larry on Nothing, was released. Later the band grew to include drummer Graham Hawthorne and bass players Paul Nowinski and later Frank Gravis. The songs were a humorous mix of negative concepts…expressed in a very positive way. I mean, we felt that negativity is not always a bad thing: we were negative about HYPOCRISY! and BULLSHIT! and POLITICS! And let’s face it, if you were tested for HIV, what would YOU rather be?? We really felt we were on to something…we played at Kenny’s Castaways, a Greenwich Village club, every Tuesday for six months, and used to pack the place every night. Everyone loved our stuff. Our level of musicianship was high…much higher than most rock bands…and we covered a LOT of musical territory…but our show was nevertheless highly entertaining. And the songs still sound good and fresh to me…but not surprisingly, the record companies didn’t buy it.

It takes a lot more to make it in the music business (or in any art form) than exceptional talent, a highly developed aesthetic, great material, a trio of foxy back-up singers, or even a johnson of superhuman proportions! (Although you’re getting closer with the last two.) It takes a whole lot of luck, plus the total determination and persistence to keep going, keep pushing, against incredible odds, against a sea of motherfuckers less talented than you, but infinitely more persistent and determined, and absolutely convinced that their personal pile of excrement smells like roses! Real creative artists, usually sensitive, neurotic, vulnerable types, would need an endless reservoir of sheer bull-like stubborn stupidity to pit themselves against the corrupt politics of the record companies, hoping against hope to penetrate their monolithic structure that holds all the power, that has a vested interest in letting mediocrity reign supreme, that seems designed to keep out any real artistry, any real individuality, only admitting that which conforms to the McDonald’s and Coca-Cola tastes of the unthinking consumer masses. I think it was Frank Zappa that once said, “If you don’t sound like the five bands that sound the same, you don’t have much of a chance in the music business.”

It’s not a new observation, but one that has sent many a talented artist into bitterness, depression and a sense of futility. And can provide an excuse for some to seek solace in self-stimulation.

I wasted a LOT of years getting high. That’s all I want to say about it. I’m sure I would have been ten times more productive (and successful) in those years if I had not been so desperate to anesthetize myself from my various frustrations, career and personal, but the fact is, when cocaine is involved, after a while, any excuse will do. “What time is it? 4:37? Time to do a line!”…”Not getting along with your girlfriend? Aah, the hell with her! Let’s do a line!”…”Space shuttle exploded? Man, what a drag! Let’s do a line!”

I finally went through rehab in the fall of 2001, and I’m now clean for over a year. And you know what? I have a great relationship with my lovely girlfriend Clarita (soon to be my wife!), my music and creativity feel rejuvenated, and I’m happier than I ever was during those dark years when my happiness was of the artificially induced, powdered variety.

I did manage to put out a few records during the last 15 years. My old friend Teruo Nakamura allowed me to make a very nice album, “2B Named Later”, for his Cheetah Records in ’89, with the wonderful rhythm section of Steve Ferrone on drums and Darryl Jones on bass, and with Hubert Laws as guest soloist. I did my “Straight Ahead” jazz album for Arabesque in ’95 with Dave Kikoski (who is now my favorite piano player), Victor Lewis (drums), Mike Richmond (bass), and Chuggy Carter (percussion). Then in ’96, I made the “Bargain Hunters” for the German HotWire label with a very talented young rhythm section from Hamburg, Jost Nickel on drums and Arnd Geise on bass. HotWire also released a compilation of my first two Japanese recordings, “New York City” (’81) and “Lights On Broadway” (’85), packaged with some other stuff I had done with Billy Cobham, Jon Hammond and the Late Rent Session Men, and Victor Jones, under the title “Space Age Blues” (’98).

Other interesting highlights of those years: touring Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania,and Czechoslovakia in ’88 with Randy Brecker on a State Department-sponsored cultural exchange tour (before the fall of Communism!); many tours of Europe with my old high school comrade, organist Jon Hammond, including one live broadcast on Radio France in Paris where I MC’ed the whole show en francais; touring Japan with my friend,Tom Reyes, the painter who is making a name for himself with his “Visible Sound”, a live performance of spontaneously created music and his abstract expressionist art (we did two weeks with just guitar and paint!); shows with my own live band at the Blue Note and the South Street Seaport in New York; doing the Blue Note clubs in Japan with the Brecker Bros. reunion band; and being the lead singer from ’87-’98 for Bob Hardwick’s Society Orchestra (doing everything from Gershwin and Cole Porter to ’60s and ’70s rock and roll at every place from the Plaza Hotel to President George Bush’s Inaugural Ball in ’89).

In 1998, I finally decided to leave New York and return to the Bay Area. I had gotten tired of wearing a tuxedo to work most of the time, and after 25 years I figured if it had come to that it was time for a change. It turned out to be a very good move. I almost immediately started getting called for shows…I did the San Francisco company of “RENT” for six months (on guitar AND keyboards) and later, “Mamma Mia”. The shows paid really well, and left me time to pursue my other musical interests. Plus, in 2000, I was doing a short two-weekend production of “Tommy” when I met Clarita, who was singing in the show, and she has turned out to be, in my estimation, the most wonderful woman in the world. She is an amazing artist as well as a gifted songwriter and singer in both English and Spanish; she’s gorgeous, funny, sexy, and she’s made me a happy guy!

At the NAMM show in January ’01, I heard an instrument that interested me greatly: the Yamaha RS-7000 sequencer/sampler. I realized that although it was designed for Master MC hip-hop type guys, in the hands of a musician such as myself it could be something really different, at least in the jazz world. I had been looking for a way to play “jazz” in such a way that people who don’t really know or even like jazz (let’s face it…most of the world!) could relate to it. So I began to design a type of style that is groove-based, that has a modern sound and a natural flow, within which I could freely create my own improvised melodies and rhythms…go in any direction at any time, but never losing that basic groove and flow. I decided to call this new thing TRAZZ…trance jazz.

I premiered TRAZZ in Germany, at the Aalen Jazzfest, in November ’02. It went really well. We got a live CD off the board, and some clips can be heard in the Music section of this site. The first complete TRAZZ CD will be coming out in early ’03. And I will be producing several other projects in the coming year, including “Deep Down & Out”, a really cool live jam project with John Whitelaw and Jim Preston, the old rhythm section of Beefy Red (what kind of grooves can three guys who have known each other for 35 years come up with??); a classical orchestra piece featuring electric guitar; and other gems from my incredible catalog of unrecorded fusion and straight ahead stuff.

So, as someone once said, yesterday’s history, tomorrow’s a mystery, but the future is looking good!

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