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Jonathan Barber

The Arts

Leading voices

Vermont Jazz Center presents drummer Jonathan Barber’s Vision Ahead, a band of a new generation of trendsetters

Eugene Uman is director of the Vermont Jazz Center (vtjazz.org). On Saturday, Feb. 20, at 8 p.m., Vision Ahead will perform a livestream concert at the Vermont Jazz Center, which will be viewable at vtjazz.org and facebook.com/VermontJazzCenter/live. Live streaming for this event is free, but donations to the Vermont Jazz Center will be gratefully accepted.

The online music website All About Jazz calls drummer Jonathan Barber “wise beyond his years” and writes that he “carries and commits to the very notion of a legacy holder in his every gesture.”

On Barber’s newest recording, Legacy Holder, he pays tribute to the great drummers who have come before him, especially Tony Williams. But his voice is fresh and informed by the new trends laid out by a new generation of trendsetters like Makaya McCraven, Mark Guiliana, and Corey Fonville.

The Vermont Jazz Center will feature the 31-year-old Barber with the band he has been playing with for years: Vision Ahead. The musicians met at the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz in Hartford, Conn. before moving to New York City to network and cut their teeth.

Each member is now recognized as a leading voice in a city full of remarkable players. Vision Ahead is Barber (drums), Godwin Louis (alto sax), Andrew Renfroe (guitar), Taber Gable (piano) and Matt Dwonszyk (bass).

Barber has also been working as a sideperson with Kenny Barron, Buster Williams, and Wallace Roney.

Now on his third album as a leader, Barber and Vision Ahead were touring the world when COVID-19 brought their journey to a halt.

In interviews and reviews, Barber presents himself as someone with his eye on the prize. He has the tranquil assurance of a person with his desired future clearly mapped out. He also knows from experience what it takes to create the reality he envisions.

His work as a sideperson with jazz legends like Pat Metheny, Jeremy Pelt, and Nicholas Payton demonstrates that he has the skills and talent to play with those in the top tier.

But Barber also knows that the path to his dreams was a combination of factors: growing up in the gospel scene, the presence of a musical family, and his laser-focused dedication to studying, planning, and networking.

As the leader of Vision Ahead, Barber has molded his compositions and group concept into a unique and compelling sound. Acknowledged by Downbeat as “a future facing ensemble” with “pristine precision,” Barber’s clean drumming is the band’s heartbeat and conscience.

His compositions are carefully arranged to feature soloists away from the typical melody-solo-melody construction common in swing and bebop styles. He employs ostinatos (short repeating structures), ensemble hits, and harmonic contrasts to envelop improvised solos into the structure of the piece itself.

As a drummer, his playing is the antithesis of boisterous; his approach is compositional, not flashy. He develops ideas gradually, building ideas architecturally, using space and sound to build rooms where listeners can explore and abide.

The musicians in Vision Ahead respect Barber’s concept; they understand their roles as both creative individuals and team members contributing to a greater whole. They all improvise with imagination and dexterity and are capable of sculpting their sound to achieve soaring arcs.

But amidst all that virtuosity, there’s a sense of patience in the presentation of the material that brings to light a humble vibe that is transmitted to the listeners. Everyone in the group works together to serve the music. The unity is especially evident in the tight ensemble sections, where their cohesiveness is a reflection of their years together.

Louis, Vision Ahead’s alto saxophonist, was a finalist in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Saxophone Competition in 2013. He attended Berklee College of Music and the Thelonious Monk Institute for Jazz Performance. A world traveler, Louis has performed in Mali, Senegal, Togo, France, Spain, United Kingdom, Italy, Russia, Azerbaijan, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Venezuela, Colombia, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, and Australia.

As a composer, Louis has received the Jerome Foundation Emerging Artist Grant and the Jazz Gallery’s residency commission. As an educator, humanitarian, and ambassador, he has traveled from Ghana to China to help promote cross-cultural understanding through music.

Louis is the founder of Experience Ayiti, a nonprofit educational multidisciplinary arts organization doing work in Haiti.

Gable, the pianist of Vision Ahead, recently received his master’s degree in music from the Juilliard School. He has performed or toured with Marcus and E.J. Strickland, Terrace Martin, Trevor Lawrence, Braxton Cook, and many others. He has appeared on recording projects with Barber, T@NE, Josh Bruneau, Matt Dwonszyk, and others and recently released Hidden Driveways, his first album as a leader.

Renfroe, Vision Ahead’s guitarist, received his undergraduate degree from the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz and his master’s degree in music from the Juilliard School. He attended Betty Carters Jazz Ahead program in 2013. He has performed in the bands of Steve Davis, Nat Reeves, Javon Jackson, Terrace Martin, Mike LeDonne, and J.D. Allen.

Currently, he is a member of many working groups, and his own projects include a reimagining of the music of Delta blues legend and originator Son House through the aesthetic of the John Coltrane Quartet, as well as a project which takes traditional music from Burkina Faso and Mali, West Africa and places it into a modern-jazz-quartet setting. Both of these projects were presented at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Dwonszyk, who plays bass in the band, has shared the bandstand with world-renowned jazz musicians such as Steve Davis, Harold Mabern, Jazzmeia Horn, Bennie Wallace, Dr. Eddie Henderson, and Herlin Riley.

In 2018, Dwonszyk toured through Russia as part of the Rainy Days Jazz Fest. In 2019, he toured through Canada with the Oleg Butman Trio, the year he released his debut recording, Wonderful World. He frequently performs at some of the top jazz clubs in New York City.

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In a recent interview on Bernie’s Bootlegs Podcast, Barber states, “You’ve got to set goals and give yourself reminders about the goals. Don’t just write them down and forget about them. Review them and figure out how to achieve those goals.

“The process is subject to change, but at least it gives you an idea on how to work towards them. Set goals, be patient, be a good person.”

This simple recipe reflects how Barber organizes his life and leads his group. It is fascinating to hear a band led by a person with such conviction.

The VJC is grateful for the generosity of dear friend and long-term supporter Dave Snyder, owner/manager/engineer of Guilford Sound, who is this concert’s sponsor.

An accomplished drummer himself, Snyder has been encouraging the VJC’s programming for years. Over the years, his sponsorships have supported appearances by such legendary drummers as Terri Lyne Carrington, Louis Hayes, Matt Wilson, Billy Hart, Johnathan Blake, Carl Allen, and Jimmy Cobb.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #600 (Wednesday, February 17, 2021). This story appeared on page B1.

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