It’s always sad when an important artist passes away, but it’s sadder when that passing goes unnoticed. Today I learned that great Chicago drummer Robert Barry died on January 8 at age 85, at Chalet Living and Rehab at 7350 N. Sheridan. And as far as I can tell, aside from his obituary nothing has been written about it—the only reason I can imagine for this state of affairs is that the people in a position to publish something just don’t know he’s gone. Barry was a quiet man in life and music, a lean and subtle drummer with a tightly coiled swing and an adaptable aesthetic—but as powerful as his presence, creativity, and rhythmic drive could be, he never let them distract from the design of whatever band he played in.
Barry graduated from DuSable High School, where he studied under the storied Captain Walter Dyett, and in the early 1950s he became one of the most important members of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, cutting numerous records with the band—including classics such as We Travel the Space Ways, Nubians of Plutonia, and Sun Song—before it left Chicago in 1961 and he stayed behind. His slim discography also includes Richard’s Almanac (Argo), a lovely 1959 trio album by bassist Richard Evans, who went on to become a legendary soul producer and arranger.
I didn’t hear about Barry till the late 90s, when a younger generation of musicians began to employ his sparse, forceful, and inventive playing. I have vivid memories of him in early versions of Rob Mazurek’s Chicago Underground Quartet, and Ken Vandermark built a double-drummer group called the Sound in Action Trio around Barry (and Tim Mulvenna). I’m a huge fan of the 2005 album Chicago Overtones (Hatology), a quartet session with Barry, Italian saxophonist Daniele D’Agaro, trombonist Jeb Bishop, and bassist Kent Kessler. But none of Barry’s late work can match his fantastic 2001 duo album with tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson, Duets 2001 (Thrill Jockey). Below you can check out “We,” a track from that record—a meeting of two Chicago stalwarts, both in the autumn of their years but playing at a very high level.
Janet Bean, drummer for Eleventh Dream Day and cofounder of Freakwater, had been visiting Barry at Chalet. She’d gotten to known him when he and her late father shared an assisted-living facility in Lincoln Park called the Ivy Apartments. “They ate meals together and I would take them out together,” she says. Judging from Bean’s account, it seems that not many people knew where Barry was. “He felt super left out when Fred Anderson died,” she says. “How wrong is it that he found out about Fred’s death from me? No one bothered to invite him to the service. Maybe people tried to contact him to tell him, but they couldn’t reach him.”
Olga Neuwirth, Chamber Music (Kairos)
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Abdullah Ibrahim, Ancient Africa (Delmark/Sackville)
Alexander Sigman, fcremap (New Focus)