Roland Barber is not only one of the most accomplished musicians I know of on his chosen instrument(s), but he's also one of the more exceptional human beings that I've had the honor to work with over the years -- a gentleman and a scholar, a listener, a thoughtful, soulful, deeply spiritual individual.
Like a good number of musicians I have met in NYC and come to work with in my band, I was led to Roland by that great connector Kevin Louis, who suggested I give Roland a try on a little New England tour we had coming up. When it comes to matching me up with musicians who fit well with my music, Kevin has never once suggested anyone who's been less than stellar, and Roland was that -- stellar, from the very first gig we did together at the now-defunct Church House Concert Series in Haddam, CT.
Although we were performing as a full-on brass band, with trumpet (Mr. Louis himself), trombone, tuba and drums, on the bandstand that night I quickly sensed something about Roland's playing -- a subtlety and a sensitivity -- that I was eager to shine a ight on. Putting him on the spot a bit, I told our audience that Roland and I were going to play a duet or two on a couple of old standards, and spontaneously launched into renditions of two chestnuts that I've been performing for about as long as I've been performing -- When I Grow Too Old To Dream, and I'm Confessin' in an attempt to feature Roland's skills. My gamble was rewarded, and if you follow those two links, they'll take you to recordings I've just posted of that very performances, the beginning of what would be a long musical partnership with Roland -- a special moment caught for posterity.
Since that time, Roland has played hundreds of concerts with me. He can blow the roof off the joint anytime he wants, and then play so quietly that you can literally hear the audience holding its collective breath. Sometimes he will pull out his trusty conch shell, and take a solo on that, as he did in this performance at Joe's Pub in NYC with me a few years ago in a concert that also featured Skye Steele on violin, Jon Flaugher on bass and Mark McLean on drums:
I was also thrilled to play a small role in the emergence of Roland Barber the vocalist, his voice yet another powerful asset in what seems to be his virtually limitless range of talents. On brass band gigs, I was sometimes able to coax him out of his modesty and shyness into singing an old traditional like "Comin' Round The Mountain," but it wasn't until he honored me with a version of my song "Want You To Be Mine" (at yet another outing at Joe's Pub in NYC) that I feel like Roland the singer really blossomed. This clip also features Mazz Swift on violin, Marika Hughes on cello, Mark McLean on drums, and Nathan Peck on bass. Have a look:
In addition to performing on my albums Better Get Right and No Further Instructions, Roland played an invaluable role behind the scenes in the mixing of those two records, offering penetrating and thoughtful insight as a particpant in that process, weighing in on what was working and what wasn't until we arrived at results that I'd like to think we're both pretty proud of. Roland's attention to detail, and his keen understanding of the things that make music work are deep, and spring from a finely-developed ear for hearing truth in music rather than just a series of notes.
Roland is also a natural born teacher. Time and again, he's provided me (and, doubtless, countless others) with guidance, insight and wisdom that belie his years. He's caused me to question fundamental elemets of what I do and why I do it, and -- like any great mentor -- has inspired me to do better, to always try to reach beyond my limitations.
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Although Roland has since relocated his native Tennessee, he still tours with me when he's available to do so (here's a video of him performing with me in Estonia last summer), and I was lucky enough to be able to see and perform with him in his hometown of Nashville a few weeks ago when we were invited to do a showcase set at this year's Americana Music Association Festival. While the audience turnout for our show was pretty dire (see page 2 of Craig Havighurst's roundup review here), the trip was salvaged, for me, by the opportunity to spend some quality time hanging out with Roland, and to meet his wonderful family.
After our performance, Roland's Dad came up and offered his hand to me, telling me how much he admired my music and how he felt that Roland's rendition of "Want You To Be Mine" was faithful to the original even as he thought Roland put his own stamp on it (I agreed). He couldn't have been kinder. Roland's Mother was similarly effusive, and wouldn't let me leave the venue without giving me a big hug. "My Mother would never forgive me," she said, "if I didn't give you a proper Nashville greeting."
I got to meet and spend time with Roland's girlfriend Micah, and the three of us spent the better part of an afternoon at their favorite gelato spot unpacking what this term "Americana Music" might be all about, how my music might fit into it, and about the much larger and disturbing topic of race relations in Nashville and how segregated the music scene (and even society at large) still is down there. It was a sad and sobering perspective to hear on what's generally regarded as one of America's great music towns.
The highlight may have been the brief visit we made to Roland's grandmother, Mrs. Zephyr Selby, who'd just celebrated her 91st birthday. Although she hadn't physically been feeling well of late, her mind, heart and spirit were as open and present as a young girl's. I got the same sense from her that I did from Roalnd's parents, and it was plain to see where Roland gets the qualities that make him such a special person: presence, humility, generosity, warmth, spirituality, humor, and grace.
It is my pleasure and my honor to have Mr. Roland Barber as a collabortaor, a teacher, and a friend. You can check out some of his own music right here.