Thurman Barker rarely performs in Chicago, even though his talents were forged here. At age 17, after studying at the American Conservatory and playing pop jazz at the Playboy Club, he joined the pit orchestra at the Shubert Theatre, filling the percussion chair for musicals ranging from Ain’t Misbehavin’ to Hair. But he’d also become a charter member of the AACM and was immersing himself in the burgeoning local avant-garde scene. This double life–free experimentation by day, precision score reading by night–taught the young drummer how to apply rigorous technique to music quite outside the academy. That’s him behind Joseph Jarman on the saxist’s landmark 1966 debut, Song For, and when he moved to New York in 1979 composers from Muhal Richard Abrams to Butch Morris to Sam Rivers were only too happy to enlist his services. In New York he also went back to school, first to get his bachelor’s in music and later to teach; he’s spent most of the 90s as an assistant professor at Bard College. He has put out just two discs of his own, both on his UpTee label: The Way I Hear It, from 1998, and Voyage, a 1999 reissue of a free-fusion date from the mid-80s. Voyage crystallizes his orchestral approach to jazz percussion: in a quartet that includes Rob Schwimmer on keyboards and James Emery on guitar, he uses marimba, gongs, and extra cymbals (in addition to the traps) to paint his rhythms in unusually vivid colors. Remarkably, Barker has reconvened three quarters of the Voyage quartet for this gig, rounding out the lineup with local hero Harrison Bankhead on bass. Emery, the longtime leader of the String Trio of New York and a gifted finger-style player of acoustic instruments (including the small-voiced little soprano guitar), hasn’t recorded on electric guitar almost since Voyage was made, so this is an unusual opportunity to enjoy his amplified virtuosity. Friday and Saturday, 9:30 PM, Velvet Lounge, 21281/2 S. Indiana; 312-791-9050.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert A. Sengtacke.