Taylor Barnett's Richmond career is at a high-water mark. The 26-year-old Charlottesville-born trumpeter has earned both undergraduate and master's degrees at Virginia Commonwealth University, and has proven his abilities as both an educator and a bandleader. Now it seems the only thing left to do is leave.
Fronting the Taylor Barnett 10-tet at the Skyy Restaurant and Jazz Palace on West Broad Street, his wife (the equally accomplished Tiffanie Chan) in the audience, the young trumpeter's local achievements are manifest. His playing is burnished but not flashy, favoring lyrical clarity over technical fireworks. The music, both original tunes and covers ranging from Bart¢k to the Beatles, is both sophisticated and accessible. And the nine other players in his group are some of the area's best.
"It's a large enough group to provide the colors, texture and power of the music, but small enough to be commercially feasible," Barnett says, adding, "not that there is any way to make money." The performance is only a small part of the effort, which includes hours of writing and rehearsal, not to mention getting in-demand players, many of them leaders of their own bands, to commit the time and effort.
For years Barnett has been a sideman, a steady member of groups like The No B.S. Brass Band, Steve Kessler's Quartet and the Devil's Workshop, but often willing to fill in wherever a trumpet is needed.
His longest and perhaps most important association is with the VCU Jazz Orchestra II, one of the two big bands in the Jazz Studies Program. Barnett started playing with the group when he was still in high school and as a graduate instructor became its leader. Direction of the large jazz ensemble was an opportunity to expand compositional skills and musical vision, but, for Barnett, the true revelation was his affinity for teaching. Getting in front of a class to teach was life-changing.
"Of all the things I've done, it's the one I've had the most knack for," he says. "It's like improvising. I'm always thinking, 'How can I explain this to them? How can I rethink and re-present these ideas so everybody gets it?'"
He draws on the differing lessons of his mentors, Charlottesville trumpeter John D'earth and VCU Jazz Program founder Doug Richards.
"John has the ability to challenge you and make you want to do better just by telling you how great you are. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," Barnett says. "Doug is more overtly challenging. For him, music is a sacred tradition. OK is never good enough. He expects the best of everyone, including himself, and he never lets up until you get there."
Barnett works to find his own balance of inspiration and example. "My job isn't to tell students what they can't do, but to show them what they can," he says. He put his skills to the test for two years as a replacement teacher at Maggie L. Walker Governor's School. He rewrote stock arrangements to fit the strengths of the players, encouraged harmony players to learn the melodies and tried his best to focus on what really counts: inspiring a love of music.
"My goal is to be in a full-tenured position in a good, relevant music school in a town that supports music," Barnett says. "That's why I need a doctorate, and I can't achieve that by staying in Richmond."
This year would have been the perfect time to go. Barnett applied to some of the most competitive schools in the country, and Chan, his new wife (director of marketing for VCU's department of music and house manager at University of Richmond's Modlin Center), started looking for jobs in New York and Boston.
They almost made it, and Barnett is preparing for the next round. He's completed a CD with guitarist Trey Pollard and continues to strengthen his credentials. As he builds escape velocity, life intervenes. Leaving their families behind won't get easier: They learned recently that Chan is pregnant.
It's a crucial time for Barnett. Everyone knows he should go, but nobody wants to say goodbye. S
Taylor Barnett and his 10-tet play Skyy Restaurant and Jazz Palace Friday, Aug. 17, at 9 p.m. Admission is $5. 343-7599.