Up & Coming

Jonathan Barber

“In New York you always have to bring your ‘A’ game,” says the rising jazz star. So far, his report cards would make the elders proud.

by Ken Micallef

Back in 2011, this writer saw a then twenty-two-year-old Jonathan Barber performing as part of a workshop held in Norwich, Connecticut, by world-renowned jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. Working with Metheny, drummer Antonio Sanchez, bassist Larry Grenadier, and a large student ensemble, Barber was required to learn and perform a twenty-minute original Metheny composition, with only three days to master the Herculean task. Whether reading or improvising, playing time or soloing, Jonathan stood out as a musician with a sharp mind, keen abilities, and an unerring sense of musicality, all of which defied his age. Here was a young man with a future.

Fast-forward five years to today, and Barber’s time has come. At Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York City during the summer of 2016, performing with saxophonist Kris Allen’s quartet, Barber drummed with authority, creativity, dynamics, and heat. His maturity on the set was a revelation. For one song he summoned the Afro-Cuban spirit of Elvin Jones, for the next a tumbling tom figure reminiscent of Jeff “Tain” Watts. Barber’s trademark, a fiery time feel augmented by considerable technique, supercharged the music.

Adding to a busy performance schedule, Barber has tracked considerable recording time, including for Kris Allen’s Beloved, JD Allen’s Bloom and Grace, Jovan Alexandre’s Collective Consciousness, Andy Jaffe’s Arc, Mimi Jones’ Feet in the Mud, and Nat Reeves’ State of Emergency! More recently the drummer recorded albums by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and by Terrace Martin, renowned producer of Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-winning To Pimp a Butterfly.

Barber runs his own night at Smalls Jazz Club in Greenwich Village, gigs with the Hartford Legacy Jazz Orchestra and with Jimmy Greene’s big band and quartet, and recently toured the Pacific Rim with the Japanese jazz singer Juju. And he’s feverishly writing material for his debut recording.

Is there one tried-and-true method for establishing yourself in the epicenter of the jazz world, New York City? Jonathan Barber may be writing the book.

MD: You’ve hit New York like a storm. You’re already running a session at Smalls and recording and gigging all over town. How did you begin playing the drums?

Jonathan: Seeing my father play the drums in church was my introduction to the instrument. The drums were always set up in the living room as if they were furniture. So I played drums as much as anything as a kid. Then in high school I played in the jazz band. I immersed myself in the drums after that. In my junior year I entered the Artists Collective in Hartford, Connecticut, Jackie McLean’s after-school program. After Jackie died, his son René took over the program, and he became my musical father. He helped me get into the Hartt School at the University of Hartford, where I met Eric McPherson, who became my main drum instructor. [Barber graduated from Hartt in 2011 with a degree in jazz studies.]

MD: What was your focus with Eric?

Jonathan: In my first lesson Eric wrote down the five drummers I should focus on: Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds, Chick Webb, Cozy Cole, and Kenny Clarke. Papa Jo Jones too. Eric was adamant about knowing not only the music but the history of the drumset. We worked on technical things using George Lawrence Stone’s Stick Control and Ted Reed’s Syncopation. Eric would always flip it. We would play the material straight, then after a while he’d switch the feet and the hands. You really gain the sensibility of using all four limbs in multiple ways.

MD: While performing with Kris Allen’s quartet at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, you played in a Jeff “Tain” Watts style on one song, then like Elvin Jones on another. Are they among your major influences?

Jonathan: Elvin is definitely an influence, for his intensity. Tony Williams, Max Roach, Billy Higgins, Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey as well, and I’m a huge fan of Papa Jo Jones. His phrasing was wonderful; he doesn’t waste a note. His technique was great; he played the brushes like no other. He was ahead of the curve as far as his solos, the way he used his hands, and his dynamics. And the drummers I’ve rubbed elbows with are a big influence: Eric McPherson, Nasheet Waits, Lewis Nash, Ralph Peterson, Gregory Hutchinson, Gerald Cleaver. I would commute to New York to hear them play when I was in school. That alone inspired me motivationally.

MD: What surprised you about the New York music scene once you arrived?

Jonathan: That I had to constantly push and play at a high level. In Hartford, some gigs are meaningful, others are not. But in New York you always have to bring your ‘A’ game. You never know who’s going to be there. Even playing Smalls at 1 a.m., I’ve had Kamasi Washington, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Peter Bernstein come by to hang. The intensity you feel in New York City every day grows on you. Moving here made me a better musician.

MD: One of your gigs is the Generations in Jazz trio with Eric McPherson and saxophonist Abraham Burton. Do you and Eric play simultaneously in the trio?

Jonathan: It’s give and take, push and pull. Eric and I often play drums together in lessons and at sessions. We’ll play off a melody or an idea and create this whirlwind. Or we might play a polyrhythm off each other using different time signatures. Or one of us will play an ostinato while the other solos. It’s a drum ensemble approach. When you add a melodic instrument it brings clarity to that approach. It’s definitely a lot of listening and melodic phrasing. Most of it is based off compositions, from McLean to Monk.

MD: Like Marcus Gilmore and Kendrick Scott, you’re playing Sunhouse Sensory Percussion?

Jonathan: Yes. Trevor Lawrence, who plays with Herbie Hancock, hooked me up with them. I was hearing drum triggers but without using pads. The Sunhouse rep came to the studio in L.A. while I was recording with Terrace Martin. It sounded so great, we added it to the record. It creates a different flavor. It’s not a drum loop or drum machine, but it gives you this other sound. It can sound like a droplet of water, or a timpani with a lot of reverb on it, or a door slamming…. I can incorporate it into my playing without the rigidity of electronics. It’s very subtle.

MD: In your short time in the city, what have you learned not to do?

Jonathan: I try not to overplay—that’s a don’t for me. The drummer is the engine behind the band, and everybody wants a drummer that has some oomph, but at the same time I’m keenly aware of what the bassist and pianist are playing. Dynamics are very important. That makes a drummer stand out, creating that wave with volume.

MD: You summon different drummers at will. Is that a conscious tool?

Jonathan: At school I went through the different drummers in sections, from Tony to Elvin to Roy to Art. Over time I took bits and pieces of each of them, using different bags. I was really inspired by Eric McPherson. He has one foot in the past and one in the future as far as influences. I’d like to do the same, honor the tradition but also push and inspire younger drummers to do the same. It seems like a lot of drummers today are stuck in one dimension, even within jazz. They play straight bebop and shun the evolution of music. Jazz isn’t all about 1950 to 1960. Jazz always changes.

MD: I first saw you when you were twenty-two, playing in a Pat Metheny workshop. What has been your road to developing as you have?

Jonathan: I’ve always improved the most when put on the spot. Church developed my ears. College was about improvising: improvising on the form, with a concept, and searching out other drummers. Experiencing Tony Williams, Max Roach, and Roy Haynes for the first time was life-changing. Then in New York, there’s a certain energy and a standard you have to maintain if you want to work and be noticed. I played a gig with Jimmy Greene, Kurt Elling, and John Patitucci. That’s not something you can prepare for—you just work the tools you’ve accumulated over time and go for it. That’s part of the continuum of jazz; it gives people the chance to put the new guys on the spot. That’s the best lesson and the best way to learn. You find those moments that are bigger than you are.

Tools of the Trade

Barber plays a Canopus Neo-Vintage kit with black sparkle finish and gold lugs. It features a 5.5×14 snare (6.5×14 birch alternate), an 8×12 tom with an 8×10 alternate, 14×14 and 16×16 floor toms, and a 14×18 bass drum with a 14×22 alternate. His cymbals include circa-1960s 14″ A Zildjian hi-hats, a 20″ Istanbul Agop Special Edition ride with three rivets, and a circa-1950s 20″ A Zildjian ride with five rivets. His Evans heads include a G1 Coated snare batter and 200 Hazy snare-side, G12 Coated tom batters and Black resonants, and either a G1 Coated or EMAD Coated bass drum batter and G1 Coated front head. He plays Promark Select Balance Rebound .550″-diameter hickory Teardrop sticks, TB3 Jazz Telescopic wire brushes, H-Rods Hot Rods, PMBRM2 Small Broomsticks, and PST1 Performer series maple timpani mallets. And he’s recently become a Sunhouse Sensory Percussion artist.