By Howard Reich. Chicago Tribune Arts Critic. October 22, 2007
Generations converged over the weekend at the Velvet Lounge, to remarkable effect.
True, the pairing of veteran drummer Thurman Barker with emerging Chicago talents such as bassist Junius Paul and pianist Justin Dillard might not have seemed particularly promising, at least at first glance. Pickup bands rarely achieve cohesiveness of purpose.
Yet these artists, plus the seasoned Chicago saxophonist Edward Wilkerson, Jr., created gripping music from the outset of Saturday's late-night show, and the reason can be summed up in a single phrase: Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).
Barker, after all, stands as a charter member of the AACM, a South Side organization that since the mid-1960s continuously has forged new techniques for improvising jazz. Though Barker moved to New York many years ago and rarely plays Chicago, his work long has epitomized the organization's aesthetic, which merges a quest for innovation with a profound respect for ancient African musical rituals.
Bassist Paul and pianist Dillard, both in their twenties, have been tutored by several of Chicago's AACM elders, which means they speak Barker's musical language.
The work was particularly impressive because the show featured complex, stylistically wide-ranging compositions by Barker. There were no familiar tunes, no steady swing back-beats, no comfortable cliches woven into the proceedings.
Instead, these players offered brief, tautly constructed pieces that avoided long solos in favor of ensemble improvisation.
In a characteristically volatile work such as Barker's "Trinity," the players careened from churning dissonance to bebop-tinged virtuosity to passages of raw blues exclamation. The seemingly intuitive give-and-take between Wilkerson and Dillard represented a high point of the evening. And in Barker's "Get Up," a palpable sense of funk rhythm drove the proceedings, thanks partly to Paul's ebullient electric bass.
Were it not for the protean nature of Barker's drum and percussion work, however, none of this music-making would have unfolded so seamlessly. But because Barker proved equally skilled at everything from old-school fundamentals to new-music experimentation, he was able to lead his colleagues into practically any musical direction he chose. A small but rapt audience responded warmly.
One hardly can imagine what this band might sound like if it played together regularly.
Strike Force Review
Latessa, Stephen. AllAboutJazz.com
I have a real fondness for percussion-based albums. Art Blakey's Drums Around The Corner and The African Beat, not to mention Sabu's Palo Congo, have a quirkily distinctive place in my collection. There is a certain unspoken challenge assumed in making a percussion album. The artist sets out to prove just how musical, for lack of a better word, his or her instrument is. They assert the primacy of the beat, eschewing the clutter of horns or strings.
So I was excited to receive Strike Force by Thurman Barker Percussion Quintet. I was even more pleased to hear the contents of the album, which are endlessly inventive and involving. The quintet plays everything from drums to vibes, marimbas, and xylophones. The layering of instruments makes for a fascinatingly spacious depth of sound, with the rolling thunder of tympanis bouncing chattering xylophones off their back. This is the type of music that is equally enthralling whether pumping from a turned up stereo system or played back on headphones, where you can hear the intricacies of all the moving parts.
Strike Force is an endlessly shifting and spinning album that never slows down enough for monotony to catch it. Just when the band gets locked pounding out a groove, an arresting theme emerges, sending them off to new vistas. The disc is a tour de force of imagination, combining power and finesse in equal measure.
Percussionist Barker has had great success playing with musicians who take the music out, and he is equally comfortable with those more inclined toward semi-structure. The artists on the recording fall into both camps, as does the music. As the title suggests, time is a measured element of the format, but it is a shifting, diversified form of time where the intricacy of the interplay causes the outcome to be unpredictable. Barker forcibly drives the quartet through songs having a multiplicity of time signatures. The music is continually moving in and out of musical styles, with pianist/organist Schwimmer adding a spirited touch to the whirlpool of sound concocted around Barker's propulsion. Each song breaks down into movements defining varying tempo, rhythm, and modes of expression, and each is expertly guided by the dominance of Barker. The format of the album is interesting. The set features short solo cuts from Barker and each of his associates. These individual mini-efforts are sprinkled among the group tunes and typically are freestanding ventures devoid of conventional time elements. Schwimmer aggressively attacks his piano keys on his turn; Harris sinks into a =reflective mood on his bass guitar piece; Emery blends melodic intensity and openness on his guitar solo; and Barker cuts loose with fiery eruptions on his two drum/vibes/percussion features. These adjuncts to the collective segments contrast the definition of time in free playing with time in more organized improvised music. Whether it's the lyricalness of "A Time for Love" or the eruptiveness of "Time Out," Barker displays his mastery over time as a motivator to creativity. He hosts a clinic on the subject.
Time Factor Review
Israel, Steve. Times Herald Record.
On a quiet country road in western Sullivan County lives one of America's most adventurous and exciting jazz musicians.
Thurman Barker is his name. He's played with pop/jazz starts such a Nancy Wilson and avant-garde heavyweights such as Muhal Richard Abrams and Anthony Braxton.
His new album is a gem that reveals the depth of his talent.
With talented jazz-ish musicians such as guitarist James Emery, keyboardist Rob Schwimmer and bassist Gerome Harris, Barker makes music that's challenging and compelling.
It often features the swinging, driving rhythmic structures of jazz countering melodies and riffs that defy those structures. That juxtaposition gives the music its tension and magnetism.
The Way I Hear It Review
Cadence Magazine, June 1999, Vol. 25 No.6
Percussionist Thurman Barker is largely associated with his performances with the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in the 1960's. Since the 1980's, he has been New York-based, and has worked with a range of mostly free-style performers, from Henry Threadgill to Leroy Jenkins to Cecil Taylor. The Way I Hear It collects a few different groups within the Jazz mainstream that the percussionist has led, all to reasonable good effect. Three duets with pianist Crispell ("Song for Jeanne Lee", "Zimbabwe", and "Double Feature") appear to have been recorded live at Bard College (where Barker teaches), and suffer a touch from poor fidelity. The two play well together, and Barker can be a powerful voice that energizes the pianist. While their music has a distinct melodic flow, they bounce off one another's lines, and sparks sometimes fly. "Forbidden Places" features Barker with vocalist Tom Buckner, pianist Yuko Fujiyama and violinist Melvin Gibbs, for what is probably the most adventurous piece on the album. The focus is on Buckner, whose strong and sonorous baritone voice is an acquired taste. Fujiyama and Gibbs are fine foils, and Barker, as usual, provides a wonderfully acquisitive backdrop. The five selections with pianist John Medeski and saxophonist John Stubblefield may hold the most appeal, at least in terms of accessibility. "Countn' on the Blues" is a simple, rollicking blues-drenched tune by Stubblefield that unleashes sparks. Medeski shows his nettle as a hard bop stylist with a natural knack fro swing. The energetic "Tenor Tantrum," written by Barker, powerfully launches its attach, but unfortunately fades as it generates steam. The boppish "Quai's Delight" another Barker chart (as are most here), is an attractive straight ahead piece with fine overall playing. Barker takes his mallets to the marimba on several tracks, showing singular skill. While Barker successfully produces an album with broad appeal, and while there is some fine blowing and composing throughout, the overall effect is somewhat diminished by a sense that these cuts were pasted together as almost a "best of" collection. Barker is a fine enough stylist to record, for a major label, a full album as a leader with a single and perhaps the self-produced The Way I Hear It will set that process in motion.
Steven A Loewy
The Way I Hear It Review
Gann, Kyle. Village Voice, August 17, 1999. page 122
Possibly the AACM's hottest drummer teams up with pianist Marilyn Crispell, baritone Thomas Buckner, and other for a half jazz, half new-music compendium. At one extreme is the bobby, heavily African "Zimbabwe" at the other, "Forbidden Places" calls to mind Muhal Richard Abrams's mystical Levels and Degrees of Light album, with Buckner crooning wordlessly above shimmering cymbals and Barker's meticulously agile mallet percussion. What isn't mellow jazz is evocative impressionism (including one delicate piece by Crispell), and thought the disc is unevenly recorded, Barker's elegantly intuitive precision shines through every cut. A MINUS
Outside-looking jazz, both electric and acoustic comes from drummer/percussionist Thurman "T-Bird" Barker's debut as a composer/bandleader. The title cut starts things off surging electrically forward driven by T-Bird's propulsive stick work and James Emery's barn burning guitar. By contrast, the second cut features keyboardist Rob Schwimmer grace with power tinkling as the band leader goes back and forth between marimba, gong and traps. "Hocus Pocus" anchors the second side as bassist Alonzo Gardner mettle on the upright. Though not quite on a par with say Jack Dejonette's recent electric/acoustic effort T-Bird and his fellow band mates manage to concoct a pretty good improvisational casserole.
Review of "Thurman Barker Quartet at the Velvet Lounge"
Sachs, Lloyd. Chicago Sun Times. March 20, 2000
It's hard to remember a more combustive combination of drums and guitar than the one unleashed Saturday at the Velvet Lounge by Thurman Barker and James Emery. If comparisons to Billy Cobham and John McLaughlin in the Mahavishnu Orchestra didn't quite fit. the unison volleys, streaming fluidity and rhythmic sizzle of these seasoned collaborators didn’t discourage them, either.
Leading a quartet also including pianist Rob Schwimmer (playing electric) and local bassist Yosef Ben Israel, Barker was celebrating his first homecoming in many a moon. One of the best-liked original members of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the classically trained percussionist has broadened his already expansive sound since settling in New York (where he teaches at Bard College).
Almost alone among AACM veterans to embrace jazz-rock fusion, he has gained immeasurably from his association with Emery, a virtuosic co-founder of the String Trio of New York who has played with a number of AACM luminaries. Bonded in their appreciation of music that comes right at you, honest and direct, they make listeners bond with them for the same reason.
Barker has the rare ability to make thunder intimate. if there is an art to playing softly with intensity, there is also an art to playing loudly with restive ease, and he's got it. With his sweeping, circling, note-springing attack, he created a kind of seductive safety net for himself and everyone around him. A master melodicist, he added color and texture on vibraphone.
Possessing a rare combination of fleetness and strength on the full-body guitar, Emery was in continual stylistic motion. He attached himself to Barker's voluptuous riding figures with bebop adrenaline and fed the music with the tangy undercurrent of hot jazz. Wes Montgomery-style octaves and Spanish-classical chops informed his fusion forays. His edgy, flattened notes had the surprising spin and density of a cut fastball.
With Schwimmer splashing the sound with his tumbling-down, single-note excursions, the quartet had a blend of power and delicacy all its own. The music was never predictable. Like a TV show momentarily going out of focus to denote a flashback, a tuneful 4/4 passage would suddenly morph into a jagged free-form pattern and, just like that, go in a different direction. You didn't need a compass to keep up, only open senses.
Review Thurman Barker trio with guest artist Sam Rivers
Gewertz. Daniel. The Boston Herald . Monday, April 28, 1986.
The old jazz avante-garde met the new this weekend. For the show's first half, Thurman Barker proved he's become one of the most astonishing, inventive drummers in jazz. He's that rare combination: a drummer of both raw muscle and fierce intelligence. He makes a time, counterpoint and rhythm serve as the glue that holds the sound together, much like a pianist would use melody. Although he often switches over to marimbas for a tune's softer portions, his drum solos are equally musical: they move along like compositions.
Barker has created a trio approach of perfect equality, with each instrument constantly reacting to the subtleties of the others. There was an exciting edge to this equality, as if all three, bassist Dan O'Brian, the often stunning pianist Rob Schwimmer, and Barker were diving headlong into an ever moving adventure.
This delicate balance was broken by the addition of veteran saxophonist Sam Rivers. As a saxophonist is apt to do, he overpowered the quartet. And his bellowing free-form eruptions seemed far less interesting than Barker's fertile synthesis of many musical ideas.
Woodstock Times Excerpt from Review "A Rivers runs through it" of Sam Rivers Concert
. . . Bard faculty member Thurman Barker is responsible for this extraordinary concert. It was Barker who anchored some of Rivers' most compelling trios over the years, the most impressive of which matched Rivers and Barker with our own musical giant, Saugerties bassist Dave Holland. That trio equaled the near-legendary Ayler trios with Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray, and the explosive Archie Shepp Trio with Murray and Henry Grimes. That the Rivers trio was an outgrowth of Holland's watershed Conference of the Birds session is musical history at its most sublime. The passage of years has broadened Rivers's music, but it has not softened his attitude about the importance of playing today's music today. . .
. . .The Bard gig provides a very rare opportunity to hear the music from the source. Thurman Barker, who's previously brought Marilyn Crispell, Warren Smith and Jane Ira Bloom to Bard, has once again booked a significant artist to appear in our valley; the college should recognize that he's done for improvised music what Leon Botstein has done for the classical repertoire in our area. Barker is the most visionary of presenters and deserves great support for his enlightened efforts. I know that he tried to get Dave Holland to join them for this gig, but Dave was out on the road.
Review of Thurman with Cecil Taylor
San Francisco Examiner, Wednesday, January 25, 1995
What a treat! Not only are drummer Rasheed Bakr and bassist Lisle Ellis in pianist Cecil Taylor's group which opened Tuesday at Yoshi's -- also on stage, front and center, is the remarkable brilliant and empathetic percussionist and marimba player Thurman Barker. And although Taylor even as a soloist can be, and usually is, among the most inventive, fascinating and frustrating keyboardists of our time (his recording career began in 1956, as did his first New York club engagement) his whole musical universe seems to expand with the addition of Barker, who has played with him sporadically for a number of years. The addition of the mellow-toned marimba, especially when Barker uses two mallets in each hand, creates another "keyboard" in the group -- a sound, a timbre that can (and does, in Barker's hands) weave in and out of Taylor's astonishing piano lines. The mixing of rhythms, of counter-melodies, of harmonic patterns between Taylor and Barker is provocative, exciting and often surprising,. The Taylor quartet's first set, a solid 90 minutes of uninterrupted instrumental free-expression, began with Ellis and Barker descending the Yoshi's Nitespot balcony staircase playing tambourines and other rhythm devices; Bakr was close behind, whacking a large tom-tom borrowed from his stage drum set. The mood was thus established. Taylor arrived at the 9 1/2 foot Boesendorfer grand keyboard just as his colleagues shifted the meters and rhythms to their set-up instruments -- and the rambling stream-of-consciousness music began. Taylor's is mood music; not in any sense of the "elevator" or "background" style of mood music but rather of the variety that grabs an attentive, thoughtful listener, engulfs him and established a near-cerebral, emotional bond between keyboard and ears. I have no doubt that the same relationship creates the bond that makes the quartet appear to be magnetically drawn together -- each playing with a seeming free-spirit, with exhilarating abandon, yet also obviously constantly aware of his colleagues' instrumental adventures. Barker whirled a wind-wand to begin with -- three notes from this novelty instrument became the basis of the first series of Taylor's keyboard inventions, over which he (at first) recited some faintly-heard incantations, perhaps poetry. The piano became increasingly dominant, Taylor plowing on after introducing a fragment of melody. Here is where bassist Ellis began to shine, working top-to bottom from the neck to below the bridge, playing free rhythms, obscure harmonics, thoroughly entranced and singularly effective in his artistic attachment to Taylor’s way of musical life. There were about ten minutes halfway through the quartet's performance where everything was in synch, even the audience's attentions. Bakr's steady beat-- like a fulcrum balancing all the other rhythms -- and Barker's marimba solos and full "keyboard” zaps; Ellis, playing solo all the time even through his colleagues were also improvising independently, and Taylor, both masterminding structure and direction and soloing in his most melodic manner. This is classic instrumental expression in the purest "jazz" sense -- all the elements of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic structure are there to be utilized. You won't get "stardust" or "In the Mood" but you'll get an earful of where modern, century’s-end improvised music is coming from. And going. Examiner music critic