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Jonathan Barber: Blazing Forward

Jonathan Barber: Blazing Forward

Courtesy Tre Davis


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I try to get out of the way and approach the stage and my various music endeavors with the mindset that I'm open to serve in whatever capacity. I think being a musician, you're in service.
Jonathan Barber is a force to be reckoned with.

Pulling out a drum solo with just one high hat, making it an artful and meaningful rhythm to the composition at hand with intentional rhythmic sonority is rare. Yet this is one example of the ways that Jonathan Barber pulls out a surfeit of ideas from his drum set, which is a distinctive feature of his musical caginess. He's also taking jazz into a futuristic, digimodernism path. Recently, Barber was asked to present the Evans Hybrid Sensory Percussion System, a multi-sensor drum setup, that provides innovative technology for drummers, led by music instrument retail giant Sweetwater and Sunhouse.

The 33-year-old drummer has the international attention of drummers, amateur and professional, who are gleaning and being inspired by his rhythmic dexterity. In 2022, Drumeo.com nominated Barber as one of the Jazz Drummers of the Year alongside Terri Lyne Carrington, Mark Guiliana, DOMi + JD Beck and Allison Miller.

For this reason, the highly sought after drummer/composer/bandleader's name is ringing throughout the world of jazz, as he provides rhythm for artists such as Pat Metheny, Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton and Gretchen Parlato—just to name a few. Modern Drummer Magazine readers voted him the #1 Up and Coming Drummer in 2018. Terence Blanchard chose Barber as the drummer for the soundtrack of HBO Max's Father of the Bride starring Andy Garcia, released in 2022.

The members of Barber's band, Vision Ahead, are all in their thirties, and have developed a seasoned sonic tête-à-tête from past albums Vision Ahead(self-released 2021) and Legacy Holder(self-released 2020), to his third album, Poetic (self-released 2022). Much of the band met at the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford while Barber was a student.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, while shows were canceled as the world temporarily closed down, Barber and fellow musicians responded with Poetic, an eight track, 'neo- soulish' stream of consciousness where pianist Taber Gable (pianist) replaced his typical keys with a Fender Rhodes, and effulgent musical ideas were presented through alto saxophonist Godwin Louis, bassist Matt Dwonszyk and guitarist Andrew Renfroe.

We spoke to Barber about his music and latest album, Poetic.

All About Jazz : What was the motivation or the inspiration behind your recent album Poetic?

Jonathan Barber: This record was recorded over the pandemic. In February 2022, we had a couple of shows in the East Coast, one in Vermont and Connecticut, and so it made sense for the guys to stay a couple of days in Hartford, Connecticut, where I live, and record. Over the course of the pandemic, I relocated back to Hartford, and I acquainted with Stephen Cusano, a good friend of mine. He holds a space called Parkville Sounds where musicians can rehearse or record. It's a multi-purpose space where I rent a private room from him. It's also where I keep my drums, I do recording and give lessons. As for this album, I decided we would just block out two days and record. At the time, I was writing a lot of music and I told each band member to bring a song that had a vibe, and let's just record and see what happens.

At that time, I didn't think that it would be a record, I just thought that it would be a nice moment to record. We weren't really working that much and the world was so shut down. But after that session, I thought "Wow, we really have something here." I didn't release all the songs that were recorded but I released eight songs that embodied our direction and maturity. And that became the record.

AAJ: How do you feel that you've evolved from this from the last album to this album? What can we expect?

JB: I think relocating back to Hartford, Connecticut, my hometown was something that aided my transformation, as a human, and as a man. What you will hear in this record is maturity.

AAJ: Highly skilled and imaginative musical personalities with egos must be kept in check to play harmoniously and skillfully within the improvisational canvas. Finding the right personalities for an ensemble can be tricky. Many jazz critics are saying that Vision Ahead has that.

JB: It is evident that this band really has a language and a code within our conversation. I think that's something that I champion with my band, because it's not the easiest thing to really build synergy with other musicians. Of course, you can improvise with anyone, but at the same time to really make something really cohesive—and poetic—is not the easiest thing.

On each of my previous records you will hear that, but on Poetic,it became evident that it doesn't matter the distance, separation or amount of time that my band members and I spend away from each other, when we come back together as a band, it's like we were never apart. That was a motivating thing. Initially, I wanted to record the music just to do it. During the pandemic, we weren't working and I wanted to see what would happen if we just got together spontaneously during this time, and recorded music. After listening to what we created, I realized we had something special. It confirmed it. These guys and I have been playing for so long—we trust each other. We listen to each other, we honor musical ideas and opinions—and we respond to them with open arms.

AAJ: So it is a different sound from Vision Ahead's previous albums. There is this sense of spiritual and contemplative reflection, even reflected through the titles such as, "Give Us this Day," "Acceptance," and "Now and Forever.' In the Bible, King David uses poetry in the Psalms, as he tries to navigate through moments of uncertainty during his personal journey of leading his nation. Poetic evokes a lot of introspection and the social responsibility of music.

JB: During that time, I was thinking about just the direction that I'm trying to go in as a person, and as a musician. I wanted to create something that wasn't just rhythmic or harmonic. So when I think of poetry, it's so similar to the elements of jazz. It embraces the abstract. It has repetition. It is lyrical. It is intentional with words. Poetry is also challenging, you know, as it has opposing questions in response to something. I felt that the pandemic brought so much emotion out of us just with the world being shut down, and as a musician I felt the best response was to respond in a poetic way, to be intentional with our words, actions and presentation, in whatever way, even with music. So I wanted to bring the listener in where they could follow along. So I think this record feels poetic as if words were written to it. There's no words in the record, but when you listen there is a sensibility that words could be tied in with the melodies presented.

AAJ: Tell us about Parkville Sounds, the recording studio. It's becoming perhaps a Jazz movement, or initiative in Harford. You recorded Poetic there, and have a musical collaboration with them where you are presenting concerts to the Hartford, Connecticut community.

JB: So Parkville Sounds was founded and created by Stephen Cusano. Stephen and I actually went to college together. He's had the space for maybe five [or] six years. When I relocated back to Hartford, at first I was using that space to do masterclasses, and that's when we started working together. I have a lot of wonderful jazz contacts, some of the best musicians around the world. Hartford has such a great jazz scene and a community where people love and support live jazz—I thought it'd be a great place to host concerts in the city of Hartford. So I became this curator of great, heartflow jazz sessions.

AAJ: We talked a little bit earlier about music as a social responsibility. Not only are you producing music and producing concerts, but you are an outstanding educator teaching at the University of Connecticut, and at music workshops for all ages multiple times a year.

JB: I realize that music is much bigger than album covers, album titles and producing. So I always want to approach the music in this state, which is to be as selfless as possible. Because with just my existence, I know that I'll be used to connect and to uplift people, and in any way meet their needs and meet them where they are. So as a musician, I try to get out of the way and approach the stage and my various music endeavors with the mindset that I'm open to serve in whatever capacity. I think being a musician, you're in service.

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