Ron Schepper, Textura
All of us experience turning points in our lives, drummer Jonathan Barber no exception. A particularly devastating one occurred in November 2016 when the Hartford, Connecticut native learned of the death of his only brother, an event that prompted Jonathan to struggle with life’s meaning and his own purpose. The feelings of confusion and despair that naturally accompanied that event gradually grew into an outlook focused on the future, positivity, and life’s possibilities—in short, Vision Ahead, the title of both his debut album and the band featured on it. It’s an inordinately assured and mature collection that features Barber not only fronting pianist Taber Gable, guitarist Andrew Renfroe, saxophonist Godwin Louis, bassist Matt Dwonszyk, and vocalists Denise Renee and Sasha Foster, but also writing most of the tunes and even singing. Its focus is primarily contemporary jazz, but other influences, among them R&B and hip-hop, find their way into the album also. The recording satisfies on many levels, and impresses in showing that great creative work can result from perseverance and the overcoming of adversity.
Though it’s early in his career, Barber’s already seen and done much. After graduating from the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music, the drummer established himself in the immediate area and in the New York jazz scene, and soon compiled a list of performance credits boasting names such as Jimmy Greene, Erykah Badu, Wallace Roney, Kenny Barron, John Patitucci, Harold Mabern, and Stefon Harris. A recent honour of note arrived in January 2018 when Jonathan was named best “Up & Coming” drummer in the ‘Modern Drummer Readers Poll.’ Currently promoting the just-released Vision Ahead, Jonathan found time recently to talk with textura about the new album, his key influences, and his experiences working with others and as a leader himself.
1. You were named best “Up & Coming” drummer in the 2018 ‘Modern Drummer Readers Poll,’ and your drumming on the album indicates that at this relatively early stage in your career you’ve reached an incredibly high level of technical proficiency. How has receiving such an accolade made a difference in your life on personal and professional grounds, and what challenges or goals are left to you as a drummer?
Well, first off, I’m honoured to received an award from Modern Drummer. As a kid growing up, I had a subscription to the magazine and always wanted to be featured in it. I guess this accolade truly exceeded beyond my expectations, and it’s motivated me to continue to work hard and be true to my artistry. To see my work identified in the jazz industry and to receive global attention for my drumming is inspiring, and I hope it inspires other young drummers. I also hope it creates a higher platform for drummers playing jazz, especially when the attention jazz drummers receive isn’t high compared to rock or pop drummers even though our influence on society and pop culture is just as viable as theirs. What’s next on my list to is to tour my band as well perform solo at drum festivals and conferences.
2. One of the things I love about the album is its stylistic variety. Jazz is the core, but there’s also your vocal tune (“Airport”) plus a few that sound as much rooted in soul balladry (“Think on These Things”) and hip-hop (“Carry On”) as jazz. Was it a conscious goal from the start of the project to include pieces that would encompass your different musical interests or is that something that simply arose as the recording process developed? Another thing that impresses about the music is that it doesn’t shy away from embracing jazz tradition yet also feels thoroughly modern. Is that integration of traditional and contemporary forms something you deliberately set out to achieve?
The album Vision Ahead showcases the many styles that have influenced me. Being a working professional drummer, I get exposed to a lot of styles and musical sensibilities, but jazz, a music that has birthed so many genres, is definitely the core. While composing for the album, I wanted to create a story and a body of work that would represent me as a musician and a person; I also felt there was a calling for an album that’s well-equipped in musicality and can give something to every type of listener.
I made a conscious decision to write songs with an undercurrent of improvisation and wanted to compose music that would unravel itself and show the unity of five musicians telling a story. “Statement of Vision,”“The Covenant,” “Time will Tell,” “Believing in the Reunion,” and “Carry On” are performed with no solos (“Airport” has one). The album’s title song is a representation of the ‘Vision Ahead’ concept: standing on the shoulders of the tradition while also foretelling what’s to come. In composing the song, I took different isms from different jazz aasters. For example, during guitarist Andrew Renfroe’s solo, I told bassist Matt Dwonszyk to play off the idea of Jackie Mclean’s “Third World Express” and Micheal Jackson’s “Shake Your Body,” and also told pianist Taber Gable to comp like Herbie Hancock’s “Actual Proof” while I laid down an afrobeat groove. Andrew then quotes a line from Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor “Poetry,” which sets up saxophonist Godwin Louis’s solo over Benny Golson’s “Stablemates.” I felt like that was a good presentation on taking the music forward.
3. Eight out of the twelve tracks on Vision Ahead were composed by you (and lyrics written by you on the ninth), and it’s all high-quality, ambitious material. Is writing a difficult or easy process for you, and is it something that happens quickly or requires a lengthy period of time?
Composing the music was a process for me. It wasn’t hard, but I was constantly constructing the songs and adding ideas on top of what I’s already composed. I wanted the songs to have a flow from start to finish. I focused on each instrument and wanted to create room for all of the band members to contribute their musical voices to the music. The lyrics to the songs came to me easily; once I wrote down one lyric the rest followed, and many times I hear words with musical phrases. I wanted to add lyrics to my album so the listener would have something to remember and feel apart from the music by saying or singing the phrase.
4. Obviously your late brother was a key inspiration for the album, but were there specific musical figures who served as inspirations or influences for the album material? And if so in what ways did they inspire and/or influence you?
My father, John Barber Jr., is the person who introduced me to the drums so he’ll always be an influence. Jackie Mclean, Rene Mclean, Eric Mcpherson, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, George Duke, Fred Hammond, Pat Metheny, Weather Report, and Yellowjackets are artists I grew up listening to or studied in college and who helped me develop as a musician. In creating the album, I wanted to create a sound that reflected the influenced of the people I grew up listening to. Although it physically took about eight months to complete Vision Ahead, my entire lifetime was involved in its creation.
5. You’ve played with an impressive number of well-known figures, among them Erykah Badu, Wallace Roney, Kenny Barron, John Patitucci, and Charnett Moffett. What has the experience of playing with artists of this calibre taught you about fronting your own outfit? And was there an experience or two that was especially pivotal to your development?
Performing with all of those incredible artists, there’s a certain level of intensity you have to bring to the stage. It’s an amazing feeling improvising with those musicians. The biggest revelation I got from by playing with them is how well they make others sound. It can be intimidating performing with elite players, but tagging along their musical vision while also presenting your own personal statement is something special.
I’m really into bands and the cohesive sound they produce (Miles Davis Quintet 1965-1968, Weather Report, The Roots, Earth Wind and Fire, Commissioned, Yellowjackets, Jazz Messengers). It’s a goal of mine to be recognized as an artist who has a great band, and I must say I take pride in the chemistry and sound that my band produces. I want each of my band members to feel special and important about being in Vision Ahead.
We expect debut albums to show promise, but we don’t necessarily expect them to be fully realized and mature statements. A rare example of the latter, Jonathan Barber’s Vision Ahead presents a twelve-track collection of modern jazz by the Hartford, Connecticut native that dazzles on multiple levels: performance, writing, arranging, and sequencing. Eight out of the twelve pieces on the release were composed by the drummer (he’s also credited with lyrics on another), and the material is performed with conviction by the leader, pianist Taber Gable, guitarist Andrew Renfroe, saxophonist Godwin Louis, bassist Matt Dwonszyk, and vocalists Denise Renee and Sasha Foster (the latter lend their sultry voices to four tracks, while Barber himself is credited with vocals on two). As a drummer, he’s a kinetic wonder whose dynamic playing energizes the others, and the recent best “Up & Coming” drummer accolade he received in the 2018 ‘Modern Drummer Readers Poll’ is very much supported by his playing on the album. The musicians he’s assembled for the project are strong, too, and Barber’s compositions are well-served by such a tight unit.
If it seems like a strong sense of purpose pervades the album, it can in part be traced to a particularly traumatic event in Barber’s life, the 2016 passing of his brother, which understandably threw the drummer into states of confusion and despair. With time and perseverance, a new appreciation for life and its possibilities emerged, and Barber began to look to the future with renewed hope; to that end one can regard Vision Ahead, both the band name and album title, as physical embodiments of that spirit. It’s no accident that track titles such as “Doubt,” “Carry On,” and “Gone Away” allude to the emotional and psychological states he wrestled with as the album production progressed. Similarly, as titles, “Vision Ahead,” “Airport,” and “Time Will Tell” emphasize the importance of looking forward and the liberation that such a mindset brings.
Clearly Barber gave considerable thought to the compositions and their arrangements. Strong melodic hooks give the tunes thrust, while the progression through composed material and solos (in the title track, for example) maximizes the impact of the material. Sequencing is a strength, too, not just track-by-track sequencing but the flow within an individual piece. In place of tunes that follow a simple head-solos-head structure, Barber designs a performance so that soloing is satisfyingly ordered, and the compositional design often changes from one solo segment to another.
The album kicks off with a brief scene-setter “Statement of Vision” that leaves no doubt as to the leader’s drumming prowess, after which the eight-minute title track appears, its title memorably voiced by the female singers by spelling out the first word and uttering the second. That rhythmic motif serves as springboard for the full band, which, powered by the leader’s muscular attack, elevates the performance with ensemble swing and individual soloing. A fiery turn by Renfroe’s up first, after which the tune segues into a driving jazz segment for a rapturous solo by Louis and a tasty Fender Rhodes spotlight by Gable. Barber weighs in thereafter with a tumultuous solo that leads in to a coda featuring revoicings of the track’s multiple themes. In addition, the band’s jazz chops are amply accounted for in the high-octane burners “Crown” and “Mr JB,” the latter a driving shape-shifter the musicians power with playing that’s passionate and engaged in the extreme.
The jazz performances impress, obviously, but the set’s also enriched by tracks that reflect Barber’s other sides. Rooted in hip-hop, “Carry On” serves up two-and-a-half minutes of instrumental boom-bap, whereas “Time Will Tell” offers serious head-nod of its own, though this time it’s with Barber, Renee, and Foster adding vocals. Warmth and soul ooze from the ballad “Think On These Things,” which finds the leader supporting solos by the bassist and guitarist with brushes before the vocalists deliver words of perseverance and hope, while “Airport,” originally written by pianist Eldar Djangirov, grew into a vocal piece after Barber set lyrics to it. He’s a drummer first, but his singing on the cut’s credible, and the tune effectively conveys its themes of freedom and liberation. Filled with excellent performances and writing, Vision Ahead is such a remarkably assured set one wonders how Barber will equal it—not a bad problem for a young and talented artist to have, all things considered.