The nuances possible with the EVI – a breath-controlled wind synthesizer – are mastered yet always being explored for further depths by Blu7 Music’s James Barela. Due to an injury to his lip, James had been unable to continue to play the trumpet, his instrument of choice when Blu7 was founded. But another door opened, and the EVI opened his mind for exploring fresh and innovative jazz, categories be damned.
Blu7’s sound is a journey on a road paved with sparkle; a bright percussion beat and emotional hooks where the musicians’ mutual enjoyment of performing together is obvious.
What was the music scene like growing up in Wyoming?
There wasn’t a scene at all. Several of my friends and I became interested in music, particularly jazz, when we were in junior high school. Our curiosity became an obsession in high school and eventually led us to seek colleges, festivals, jam sessions, concerts, you name it, that featured or emphasized jazz.
We had great teachers who encouraged us and quickly found others throughout the state who shared our compulsion. We would drive over 100 miles to sit in on a jam session or further to see a concert. Eventually, almost all of us chose to attend Northwest College in Powell, WY because of the jazz-centric music curriculum. It seemed more suited to our interests than did the University of Wyoming. Plus, a living legend, Ronnie Bedford, was there as an adjunct professor. I knew I had to tap that resource before I moved on.
I was fortunate enough to study and perform with his group for two years. The group played a large role in recruiting others who felt like we did and would have otherwise gone out of state. It was a special time for me and all of us.
Is there an appreciable jazz scene there now?
There is not. I have seen the colleges and university program grow and have excellent faculties, but the local scenes aren’t ideal for a jazz scene. After all, there are only about 400,000 people scattered across one of the largest states.
What is the scene like where you live now?
I live in Denver, CO now and the scene is very healthy here. There is a wonderful mix of older, mid-aged, and younger musicians here who all contribute. As is the case in most cities, there aren’t enough places to play and expose the amazing talent and creativity, but Denver has always been a jazz hotbed.
It seems taking up the EVI was the result of an injury. Are you one of the pioneers of this instrument?
I did take up the EVI because of an injury to my lip. I had torn the muscle in my upper lip (obicularis oris) and needed two surgeries to repair it. The injury is actually called “Satchmo’s Syndrome” as Louis Armstrong suffered from it as well.
While I have regained some of my ability to play, the EVI has become my main instrument. EVI stands for Electronic Valve Instrument. I play the MIDI EVI made by Nyle Steiner.
This is a wind instrument that is a MIDI controller. It is quite an ingenious instrument and one that I feel is very expressive and versatile. I wouldn’t call myself a pioneer but I know I’m one of a very few who have committed to this instrument full-time.
What were the challenges in learning it?
The ability to get around the instrument was not particularly difficult. Like any other instrument, I spent years learning the intricacies and continue to do so. The real challenge was/is making a non-acoustic instrument have the same presence as an acoustic instrument and being able to bring such an instrument to life. I am, after all, playing a computer and always trying to be creative, conversational and emotional on something that doesn’t necessarily have a sound or voice. Many of my colleagues and closest friends, those who know of my ability on trumpet, often say that when they hear me play EVI it sounds just like me when I was playing trumpet. That is probably the best compliment I could receive.
Talk about the different effects and how to achieve them: vibrato, bending a note?
Most of the effects (tonal/sonic) are built into the sounds. The EVI is set up to manipulate that sound wave/sample in a way that we, as acoustic instrumentalists, would normally do. However, rather than use my lip or breath to alter the pitch, bend or vibrato, there are controls on the instrument that allow me to do this in real time.
How do you play it, that differs from a traditional woodwind?
The EVI/EWI is really an instrument grouping in and of itself. Outside of the fingering system there is not any comparison I can make. The breath PSI on the EVI vs. the trumpet or a woodwind instrument is not even close. The breath sensor on the EVI is amazing and can pick up most nuances similar to that of acoustic instruments.
Though it is an electronic instrument it is a wind instrument as well. The air goes in but does not go through. The EVI uses the lower octave trumpet fingering from C up a major 7th to B. The fingering is the same in all octaves. The left hand controls a canister that revolves allowing the change of octaves. The left index or middle finger also controls a sensor that changes the partial much in the same way a trigger on a trombone or double French horn would.
Do you miss the trumpet? Still perform with it?
I miss playing trumpet every day. I practice almost every day hoping I’ll work my beaten down lip back to shape, but I know the damage is done and most likely permanent. The physical aspect is difficult enough, but the mental aspect is what works against the rehab process.
The muscle memory that we create through thousands of hours practicing becomes a major obstacle when trying to rehab or relearn. Not in every case, but in mine, where the shape of my lip (scar tissue and stretching) has changed, I have had to abandon the memory of what it was like to play and try to learn from the beginning.
This is not easy, as the mind is the all-powerful force in our body. My lip is still very damaged and doesn’t respond the way it should. There are a lot of dead zones that aren’t vibrating. With that said, I feel that it’s getting better very slowly but enough to give me hope that one day I’ll be strong and confident enough to perform on trumpet again.
Is an education necessary for listeners to appreciate the EVI’s sound?
I don’t think so. The sounds are all the same sounds we hear in everything. All sounds are just wave forms and the EVI allows the musical expression of wave forms just like any other instrument. The “education” actually comes in the looks of this thing. It is unlike anything else and people ask me more about the looks more than anything else.
When playing with other musicians, I think it takes some getting used to for them. We are trained to stand next to each other and we hear the sound/vibration/resonance coming from certain angles. Those angles are different when playing EVI. I almost always bring at least two monitors with me to create a “bubble of sound” that is somewhat similar to the angle others, including myself, are accustomed to hearing. With a monitor in front of me, on the side and behind I find that I have a presence very closely resembling an acoustic horn. Of course, it can get pretty loud and overpowering too.
Rather than buying new strings or valves, what are the costs of maintaining or repairing this instrument?
Pretty high when needed. Not many people have ever seen these, and those who have and can do repairs call the shots. Because my instrument is not a commercially made and marketed product, I have to be very careful and always have backups. I’m working on getting two more custom made for me…hopefully sooner than later.
How does it get tuned?
It’s programmed to be in tune when turned on. I have played around with tuning (microtonal) and decided that I did not want to go down that rabbit hole. There are several adjustment pots that can change the tuning, breath sensitivity, fingering sensitivity and portamento. I also have the ability to alter pitch with controls next to where my thumb is placed.
How would you characterize your particular sound?
I feel that I’ve always been a very modern player. I came into jazz through Miles Davis, Woody Shaw, Freddie Hubbard, etc. and always have looked to create a contemporary sound. Blues is at the heart of what we do and I don’t feel exempt from that.
I always want to be expressive and engaging but provocative as well. I have always felt that we should push the boundaries of what we can sound like artistically. As much as I love the “classics,” I believe we are mired in the past and that nostalgic affinity keeps the music from moving forward and attracting a new and young audience. I am always listening to other cultures’/generations’ music in hopes that it will influence my sound. I don’t want to sound dated.
Your 2008 CD “Cultural Instigator”- what was the inspiration behind it?
To put together a group of talented musicians with different backgrounds and fuse those dimensions with jazz and world music. My 30-second spiel on the band and the recording was jazz and world music, with the addition of contemporary musical trends.
If you listen to the tunes you will notice that there isn’t any semblance of a swing rhythm or bop stylings. While that would be fun and certainly in my wheelhouse, I wanted to have a band that was accessible but always on the edge of creativity. The title “Cultural Instigator” actually came out of a session where I was describing the direction I wanted to go. The studio head called me a cultural instigator and, at first, I laughed but realized that was what I was trying to do! Every tune is different and showcases the band in a different musical setting. The tunes were all mixed and recorded differently to capture what we wanted to convey artistically.
What is your favorite track and why?
It depends on the day. I love the back half of the CD. “Leather/Aimee/Pooja” were all written as a suite of music with sitar/table as a segue from piece to piece. I love how they turned out, but it was difficult trying to record them all at once so we had to record them separately.
“Kelly” is the second oldest of the tunes and has a special place in my heart as it reflected a time in my youth where I played jazz four nights a week for three years at the same club. It was a tune I came up with while walking to the gig one night and we ended up playing it almost every night since the initial conception. I have had the most success with “Kelly” because of its sound and style appeal to the masses.
I was proud of how the group pulled off “If She Only Knew.” This is a free-form tune that morphs from the minimalistic beginning through several time/feel changes and eventually group improvisation. Believe it or not, we spent the most time rehearsing that tune.
Talk about your band personnel and how you mesh together.
I put the band together in hopes of a long-term relationship. I wanted to create a unique “band sound.” We accomplished a lot in a short time and in a place (Las Vegas) that did not have much jazz going on at the time. Justin Vogel (bass) is one of my best friends and I initially talked to him about putting the album together. Justin is a bass player’s bass player and can play anything you ask of him. Listen to what he added to “Matador” after the trumpet solo. It’s only four bars but adds a lot and the tune can’t be played without it now.
Justin introduced me to Mitchell Anthony (drums). Mitch just blew me away with his technique and stylings but also his individual sound. Much of what I wrote for the CD only had sketches of what I wanted from the drums and Mitch took that and added his creative input. His style and solo on “Matador” and “Pooja” are great.
We found EJ Delgado (guitar) on Craigslist when he answered a call for an audition. We had other guys in mind for the guitar spot but EJ had a different background in rock/Brazilian/reggae/jazz and a very individual voice that I loved. I did not intend to feature guitar on every tune of the recording, but EJ rose to the challenge and gave me no better option.
EJ’s wife Rachel (keyboard) finishes out the group and was intended as a studio player only. However, she fit in very well with the group and is a great singer. Our live performances featured a lot of Rachel’s vocals. Overall, we had a great three-year run but eventually had to part ways. I think much of this was due to the economy forcing the larger festivals and clubs to limit booking newer groups. Forcing us to work mostly in Las Vegas made the commitment challenging.
Your favorite venues?
I loved playing at Dazzle (Denver), The Jazz Kitchen (Indianapolis), The Nash (Phoenix), Sonny’s Tavern (Las Vegas) and The Rhythm Kitchen (Las Vegas) because we had an instant appeal to the clientele here and did very well. The smaller, more straight-ahead jazz venues never fell in love with us and the feeling was mutual.
Where would you like to play that you have not yet?
I want to get on the larger circuit of festivals and concert halls. North Sea Jazz, Newport, Montreux, Umbria, etc. The music and band (even to this day) are made for larger audiences. It’s big, boisterous, loud, energetic stuff that larger audiences feed off.
What countries have you toured in?
Not necessarily toured but played in Norway, England, Canada, China and Malaysia.
What themes inspire you when you compose?
Life inspires me, and not necessarily my life directly. I can be an observer and get inspiration from watching others or events elsewhere. I am not much of an “I love you” or “I am pissed at the world” type of composer but take for example my tune “Kelly.” This tune was inspired by a woman named Kelly. She was a frequent patron of the bar at the club I played four nights a week for three years. She was young, attractive, and professionally successful as an attorney. Yet here she is, every night at the same place looking for “Mr. Right,” going home with someone different every night. I kind of felt sorry for her because she was a nice person but emotionally lost. The tune is in a minor key with a 4-measure melody that repeats itself time and again. It has a very sexy feel and a thrusting pulse by the bass but the melody is almost “3rd personish” and raises a questionable eyebrow with a note up a half step, as if her conscience is asking her if this is what she really wants.
How has jazz itself changed since you began performing?
The music has changed but has also remained very much the same. The learning curve has straightened out with the internet and learning to play this music has gotten easier.
I came about during the “Young Lions” movement. Being able to bop and play like Freddie, Lee, Clifford or Miles was imperative. A lot of creative people out there have been cast to the side because the industry only wanted young and fresh. With this music, time makes you better and being young is great but, doesn’t allow for longevity unless the artist is dedicated to moving in different directions and moving the art form forward.
There are much fewer places to play and almost no recording opportunities. Education and interest is, IMHO, at an all-time high but what are students supposed to do when they get out? There are so many great talents with nowhere to play and grow as artists. It’s much less now than when I started my professional career.
The art from is somewhat stagnant from the business/industry point of view. All the companies can market is straight-ahead or watered-down versions of the originals. There is amazing artistry and virtuosity all over the world but that is not what is being focused on. We constantly get more of the same and it’s pretty sickening.
Any CDs since “Instigator” or one in the works?
I have two that are in the works and if I can get the funding, maybe three. I would love to record them all at once. These will all feature a very unique sound in that the style will be modern and will feature me on EVI and not trumpet. Probably will have about 30-40 new tunes.
Future plans for the rest of 2017?
Trying to get this stuff recorded. I don’t feel touring or trying to book gigs is a good idea without a product to promote/market. I should probably look for a local-steady gig and maybe I will do that.
This art form is a music of assimilation. We take what we know and what we’ve just learned and combine to create. Please don’t stop doing that. That is what makes the art form so unique.
The musical regurgitation that has taken place over the past 30+ years has had catastrophic consequences to the art itself. The best thing about “jazz” is that it cannot be defined…let’s not try to put it in a box and define it, eh?
Thank you for the opportunity.
For more information, visit www.blu7music.com
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
© Debbie Burke 2017