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Take Five Gives the Drummer Some, with Justin Brown, Jonathan Barber, Susie Ibarra and More

Gulnara Khamatova
Jonathan Barber, whose new debut album is 'Vision Ahead'

There has always been something special about a good drummer-led band, and this installment of our weekly playlist features five new examples, spanning a galactic range of style.

Jonathan Barber, “Vision Ahead”

There’s a good chance you’ve heard Jonathan Barber in groups led by Jeremy Pelt, J.D. Allen or Christian Sands. His focused fire and dynamism recently led to his recognition as “Best Up & Coming Drummer” in the 2018 Modern Drummer Readers Poll. Now comes Vision Ahead, which he just released on his own label — a debut album that puts him forward as a clear-eyed and confident bandleader besides.

The album was inspired in part by tragedy: the death of Barber’s brother, in 2016. Within his fog of grief, he took heart in the phrase “Vision Ahead,” claiming it as an exhortation. And that sense of forward purpose is clear on the title track, which Barber composed with the phrase in mind: it begins with a pair of vocalists (Sasha Foster and Denise Renee) spelling out “V-I-S-I-O-N Ahead,” with chantlike asymmetries of pulse. The melody then quickens and smooths out, with saxophonist Godwin Louis and guitarist Andrew Renfroe forming an articulate front line. A Fender Rhodes piano solo, by Taber Gable, leads into a stylish blur of percussion over the outro vamp, which echoes the invocation.

Learn more about Jonathan Barber at his website.

Justin Brown’s NYEUSI, “Lots for Nothin’”

For anyone following the new rhythm science in jazz, Justin Brown’s NYEUSI feels like the can’t-miss statement of the summer. Due out on June 29 on Biophilia, it’s another debut album from a drummer of spectacular prowess; Brown has been the live wire not only in Ambrose Akinmusire’s combo but also in the future-funk confabulations of Flying Lotus, Thundercat and others.

NYEUSI — Swahili for “black,” and the name of both the album and the band — has been a good laboratory for Brown over the last several years, cropping up every now and again at The Jazz Gallery. The core group has been fairly steady, with Fabian Almazan and Jason Lindner on keyboards and Burniss Earl Travis on electric bass. Joining them for the album is saxophonist Mark Shim, playing an electronic wind controller. The feeling of this music can be gluey or concussive, futuristic or stylishly retro. On “Lots for Nothin’,” which premieres here, an undulant, strafing beat moves beneath a melody that evokes Sunlight-era Herbie Hancock — an evocative point of reference for this band, but hardly the only one.

McClenty Hunter Jr., “Blue Chopsticks”

The Groove Hunter is an apt title for the debut album from McClenty Hunter Jr., who has put in notable hours with guitarist Dave Stryker and saxophonist Kenny Garrett. Released this month on Stryker’s Strikezone label, it’s a strong show of breadth within the postbop mainstream, featuring the talent and imprimatur of elders like trumpeter Eddie Henderson and saxophonist Donald Harrison.


But the opening track, a take on Herbie Nichols’s trademark “Blue Chopsticks,” sets a piano trio loose on the racetrack, swinging hard and fast. On piano is Eric Reed, who brings all the fire and soul you’d expect; on bass is Corcoran Holt, who has been Hunter’s partner in more than a few bruising rhythm sections. There’s a thrilling play between plunging intensity and bedrock clarity in this performance; Hunter and crew highlight the peculiarities in the tune without exoticizing Nichols, or overplaying their hand.

Susie Ibarra, “Alegria”

Perception is the most recent album by percussionist and composer Susie Ibarra, released at the end of last year. Somehow it slipped under my radar at that time, but it’s well worth drawing attention to now. Ibarra has made a career out of exploring the dimensions of rhythm and texture; she doesn’t approach the drumkit with a sense of rigid utility or preconceived methodology.

The album presents Ibarra’s percussion in the context of an ensemble with vocals, electronics and strings. This instrumentation gives her a lot to work with as a composer — and the breadth of her approach is fully evident in this track, “Alegria,” which takes a serenely measured approach to its subject matter, which is joy.

Antonio Sánchez with the WDR Big Band, “Minotauro”

By now we’re accustomed to hearing Antonio Sánchez in every available format, from solo percussion (as on both the Birdman soundtrack and his recent album Bad Hombre) to trio (with Pat Metheny and others) to combo (as in his Migration band). Still, his new album, Channels of Energy, represents another scale of ambition.

Recorded in Cologne with the WDR Big Band, featuring charts by Vince Mendoza, it’s a broad-canvas statement, consisting of Sánchez’s own compositions blown up to orchestral scale. And the full scope of possibility is laid out with the opening track, “Minotauro,” an enlargement of a piece that first appeared on the 2013 album New Life. Listen for the exquisite interplay between sections in the band, and the way that Sánchez propels to — and listen, too, for the intensity of his drum solo, which begins around 5:20.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.