Jonathan Barber is Maximizing his Craft


Jonathan Barber’s debut album is titled Vision Ahead.

(Photo: Gulnara Khamatova)

Jonathan Barber sits atop the drum throne in trumpeter Jeremy Pelt’s and saxophonist Marcus Strickland’s touring bands. Over the past several years, he has worked as a sideman with some of the top names on the New York scene, including Jimmy Greene, Wallace Roney, JD Allen, Kenny Barron, Harold Mabern and Stefon Harris. But the 28-year-old’s greatest accomplishment to date is his debut as a leader, Vision Ahead.

Barber’s concept with Vision Ahead is shapely and sure, fortified with youthful energy, yet tempered by mature skills. His compositions are solid, his performance grounded, full of dance feel, and one with a future. For the recording, he assembled a band that consists of fellow alumnae from University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music: pianist/keyboardist Taber Gable, guitarist Andrew Renfroe, alto saxophonist Godwin Louis, bassist Matt Dwonszyk and vocalists Denise Renee and Sasha Foster.

Currently living in Harlem and performing all around the city, Barber reflected on the importance of moving to the Big Apple from Connecticut after completing his university studies. “Being in Manhattan is about maximizing my potential, maximizing my gift, maximizing my craft and realizing the fullness of what I want to do: be a working musician and tour and travel,” he said the morning after an appearance at Smoke, where he performed with the Nicholas Payton Quartet. “Things are definitely going according to plan.”

But Barber said that he had to overcome some early misconceptions of the New York scene.

“I wondered, ‘How do you make a living in New York as a musician?’ he recalled. “Living in Connecticut with my parents, expenses were low. I had some gigs, but I didn’t understand New York. ‘What do you during the day?’ [laughs] But once I moved here—I didn’t have a plan, I just did it—I realized you find a rhythm within your career, as far as linking up with other musicians. You learn how to budget and save money. I give some private lessons, and I can practice in my apartment. That’s a plus.”

Barber plays with keen technique, insightful interpretative skills and an outward sense of determination and dedication. His M.O. always is to be prepared, know the music and be ready for anything—like invitations to work with high-profile artists, such as Pelt and Strickland.

“My work with Jeremy, including his latest album, Live In Paris, came through a recommendation from my drum teacher at Hartt, Eric McPherson,” Barber noted. “But I’d been checking out Jeremy’s records and was already in love with his music and his band. I knew the set order and all the music. So, when he reached out to rehearse—which we did as a duo only—I didn’t need sheet music. He was impressed that I knew his music. That was a good indication that I was serious and reliable. He can count on me to deliver and know his music.”

Regarding his introduction to Strickland’s Twi-Life group, Barber said, “Marcus just reached out. We’re all in the scene and we float around the same people. I’d played with him and bassist Ben Williams at Dizzy’s [Club Coca-Cola] when I was subbing for Charles Haynes. I thought it was a one-off. Then Marcus emailed me about dates in Europe, which I realized I could fit around Jeremy’s schedule. You never know who is checking you out. Sometimes you get the call.” DB

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September 2023
Kris Davis
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