Jonathan Barber: The Drummer as Storyteller

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​Barber’s method of shaping up the music with fragmented beats, responsive polyrhythms and a surgical precision from behind the kit places him solidly in the ranks of other creative under-40 drummers on the scene today.

(Photo: Tré Davis)

Drummer Jonathan Barber has had the rare good fortune of being around the same like-minded crew of musicians since attending Hartford’s Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz, the jazz studies program within the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford. He and his colleagues — guitarist Andrew Renfroe, pianist Taber Gable and bassist Matt Dwonszyk — studied, woodshedded and gigged together during their years at Hartt. They moved to New York together around the same time (in 2014) and even lived together in a Harlem apartment for a period while establishing themselves on the New York scene by playing together at Smalls, where Barber hosted late-night jams for three years. Eventually, after adding alto saxophonist Godwin Louis to the group in the fall of 2016, they began recording together as Jonathan Barber & Vision Ahead.

After cultivating a collective sound on 2018’s self-titled debut and 2020’s followup, Legacy Holder, they’ve hit on a winning formula on their third studio album, Poetic. Recorded at Hartford’s Parkville Sounds, a rehearsal and recording studio established in 2017 by drummer and fellow Hart School alumni Stephen Cusano, this latest offering by Jonathan Barber & Vision Ahead travels from the leader’s melodic title track, underscored by his signature interactive drumming and polyrhythmic aplomb, to guitarist Renfroe’s lyrical “Gathering,” to a suite of three potent compositions by Louis: the hymn-like “Give Us This Day,” the Ornette Coleman-influenced “Lead Us Not Into Temptation” and the thoughtful “Now And Forever,” the latter a lightly swinging number underscored by Barber’s whirlwind exclamations on the kit. Taber’s gospel-tinged “Acceptance” and his contemplative “South” both feature the leader essentially soloing from bar to bar in the highly interactive manner of his drumming hero Roy Haynes. The lone groove number, Barber’s rock-tinged, Thundercat-inspired “Denim,” is the drummer’s catchy ode to his favorite fabric. “There’s something about the feel of a good pair of jeans or a good jean jacket that’s undeniable,” he laughed.

Taber’s use of Fender Rhodes electric piano throughout Poetic sets a retro ’70s tone for the group, while Renfroe’s slightly distorted, post-Scofield guitar lines bring a modernist edge to this band of brothers, marking Vision Ahead as a kind of contemporary corollary to the Brian Blade Fellowship.

“I’m definitely a fan of Brian’s drumming with Wayne Shorter, Joshua Redman and as a leader,” said the 32-year-old Barber. “Coming up, I was inspired by drummer-bandleaders like Art Blakey, Tony Williams, Ralph Peterson and Brian Blade … guys that have a definite band sound in mind and are not just putting a gig together.”

His method of shaping up the music with fragmented beats, responsive polyrhythms and a surgical precision from behind the kit places him solidly in the ranks of other creative under-40 drummers on the scene today like Marcus Gilmore, Allan Mednard, McClenty Hunter, Justin Brown, Kush Abadey and Mark Whitfield Jr. “I started playing the drums because my father was a drummer who played in church,” he explained. “I always remember him saying, ‘When you play the drums, tell a story.’ That was his thing. So I began playing in church, too, and then at home my dad would play records by George Duke, Yellowjackets, Weather Report. I was just listening for pleasure, but then when I got to the Artists Collective for the summer program between my junior and senior years in high school, that’s when I got into the whole history and lineage of the music.”

Rene McLean, who took over running the Artists Collective when his father, Jackie McLean, died on March 31, 2006 (just a few months before Barber began his summer program there), became an important mentor for the young drummer. “He took me under his wing, and that’s when I learned who Jackie McLean was, who his friends were and who he played with. It just opened up a whole Pandora’s box for me and made me want to dive deeper into that.”

During Barber’s tenure at Hartt, he came under the tutelage of trombonist Steve Davis, bassist Nat Reeves and drummer Eric McPherson, all former members of Jackie McLean’s quintet. Both Davis and Reeves also used the young drummer on gigs, while McPherson became a hands-on mentor.

“I owe a lot of my development to him,” Barber said. “Eric is a very musical drummer and orchestrates from the kit by playing very melodically, which really opened my eyes. And then, after I moved to New York, I got close to other drummers like Nasheet Waits, Louis Nash, Ralph Peterson, Gerald Cleaver. To me, they all shared another side of the narrative of jazz drumming and what it is to be musical.”

While hosting the late-night jams at Smalls, Barber was introduced to a slew of musicians on New York scene.

“It kind of legitimized us,” he said. “For maybe two to three years, every second and fourth Monday at 1 a.m., we would play a set, and then I would run the jam session. So we definitely got a lot of traction from that and people started recognizing us as a unit, which led me to wanting to kind of take it to the next level. So I came up with the band name Vision Ahead and started to brand it that way. One thing led to another, and we started getting more gigs at places like Smoke and the Jazz Standard and at festivals. Then, suddenly, we’re touring and recording. It’s all been a series of stepping stones to being viewed as a band and also a staple of our generation.

“I definitely want to showcase our sound, the maturity of our compositions and also share this other side of our musicality,” he continued. “And as the drummer, I want to add commentary to it. Usually, that’s more the role of a horn player or piano player, but I want the drums to actually color and give commentary to the overall sound. That’s kind of the aim of Poetic.” DB



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