May 27, 2024

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Joey Baron brings his awareness and command of seemingly every musical style heard in North America: Video, Photos

Joey Baron is a treasure, a fount of wisdom and experience, a restless, uncompromising inventor with the highest musical standards. I last saw him in New York at Birdland in the summer of 2022, playing with Marc Copland, Randy Brecker, Billy Drewes, and Drew Gress, a beautiful night of music.

Throughout the set, Joey swung and smiled, subtly shading the music by coaxing countless tiny gradations of tone from his cymbals and drums. He was deeply inside the tunes, spurring the soloists, blending with the band, generating heat, cooling it down, an individual and a team player simultaneously. It was a joy to behold.

On the surface, that night at Birdland might seem a far cry from the 1980’s NYC avant-garde milieu of John Zorn, Tim Berne, and Bill Frisell which brought Joey Baron to the ears of millions of listeners. Beneath the surface, however, in the details, Joey Baron is moving forward and suggesting possibilities, as he’s done his whole career.

Joey Baron - Wikipedia

This is what makes Joey Baron special:

Joey Baron brings his awareness and command of seemingly every musical style heard in North America to every setting he plays in. He can play jazz, rock, and soul/funk/R&B of course, but he keeps going. Even if he’s playing with a relatively straight-ahead piano trio, Joey might reference gospel, blues, or country drumming. Joey has a deep awareness of Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean traditions, and might, depending on his mood, nod towards radical versions of rock music- punk, metal, grindcore- or something from the celebration music of the Jewish diaspora. Finally, there is a reverence for the full spectrum of American commercial music and entertainment- jingles, TV theme songs, soundtracks, TV orchestras, and so on.

I could hear all this, in flashes and implications, that night at Birdland with Marc Copland. But that’s simply Joey’s voice. He’s sublimated his influences and skill into a seamless, instantly identifiable sound; this might be the highest level of mastery.

For instance, I remember Joey playing “Wipe Out” with his band Killer Joey at Tonic, ca. 2000. At first, I couldn’t believe the great Joey Baron was playing “Wipe Out”; seconds later, I was wondering why I didn’t have a band to play “Wipe Out”, because Joey and his band made “Wipe Out” sound amazing. Joey’s musicianship and generous spirit had completely convinced me.

Finally, Joey Baron is as big an influence as there’s ever been. Based on my non-scientific method of talking to every drummer I know about drummers, all the time, Joey Baron’s name always comes up. Just off the top of my head, Ben Perowsky, Josh Dion, Jim Black, and Mark Guiliana have all talked about his influence.

Here’s Dave King:

“I’m usually able to keep my shit together, but to this day, when I run into Joey Baron, it’s difficult for me to not remind him of the impact [of seeing him play in the late 80’s]…seeing Joey Baron at that time was very eye-opening.” 

To me, the swing thing was the real challenge. How could these guys play four quarter notes and get it to feel so full? So it was my goal to really investigate that, and I got the hands-on view of it from working with Carmen [McRae].  -Joey Baron

Joey started his career in Los Angeles, playing with Blue Mitchell, Art Pepper, Hampton Hawes, and, most notably, Carmen McRae. Carmen McRae at the Great American Music Hall (Blue Note, 1977), featuring Dizzy Gillespie, is the first easily-available release with Joey Baron on drums.

It’s an incredible album, we should all be listening to it right now. McCrae is on fire, the band is great; heavy 4/4 swing, ballads, backbeats, a samba, its all here. Check out the seriously swinging eight-bar duet of Carmen and Joey on “Too Close For Comfort”; the very slow (less than 40 beats per minute!) version of Bill Withers “Paint Your Pretty Picture”; the space Joey leaves in his beat on Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed”, and, of course, “On A Clear Day”.

“On A Clear Day” is the special track for me. After Carmen sings a chorus, Dizzy takes a chorus and a half solo- magic. But! Beat 4 in the fifth bar of Dizzy’s bridge, Joey SMACKS a crash cymbal and a snare drum; a great choice, loud, brave, ear-catching, slightly irreverent.

A telltale sign- we know who this drummer is.

With Carmen McRae, the Joey Baron we know and love is present, loud and clear. But in 1976, he hadn’t even met Bill Frisell, or John Zorn, or any of the NYC musicians he made his name with. Baron wasn’t fated to play with Frisell et al, or they with him;

Rather, Joey chose to be involved with them and their community. It was no miracle, no accident; Joey worked hard, made some tough choices, and became the player and force in music we know. That’s how he did it.

“I spent 7 years out there [in LA] and that’s when it started to hit me that something was wrong…I needed more of an outlet than just working other people’s gigs functionally. I liked doing that for the first few years, but later I was trying to do something else, and I didn’t know what….So I started to feel that maybe I should leave LA and come to New York.”
– Joey Baron

When Joey arrived in NYC, his first order of business was to make a living, so it was “club dates, strictly club dates

”, but he was soon doing gigs with Toots Thielemans and Jim Hall, and appearing on records by Jimmy Rowles, Fred Hersch, Gary Dial and Dick Oatts, Roseanna Vitro, and Herb Robertson.

It was on Herb Robertson’s Transparency (JMT, 1985) that Tim Berne, Bill Frisell, and Joey Baron first recorded together. Not one track from Transparency is streaming on any platform as of January 2023

I made up my mind that I would take what I love about traditional jazz and add to it. I went from being someone who had a rep as a tasty accompanist to someone who people thought couldn’t play a bar of of straight time!” -Joey Baron
In March 1987 (the same year that Ralph Peterson began recording for Blue Note with Geri Allen) Bill Frisell, Hank Roberts, Kermit Driscoll, and Joey Baron, entered the Power Station in NYC to make Lookout For Hope. (ECM, 1988).

This was the first in a series of four albums recorded in a 12-month period (March ‘87- March ‘88) with a similar personnel, giving us a snapshot of Joey Baron as he transitions from a “tasty accompanist” into the musician and spirit we know and love today. The change was conceptual: now Joey let every influence come through; not consciously, but naturally, and musically.

The four albums are:

  • Bill Frisell: Lookout For Hope (ECM)

Bill Frisell/Hank Roberts/Kermit Driscoll/Joey Baron. Recorded March 1987, Power Station, NYC.

  • Tim Berne: Sanctified Dreams (Columbia)

Tim Berne/Herb Robertson/Hank Roberts/Mark Dresser/Joey Baron. Recorded October 13-15, 1987, Power Station, NYC.

  • Hank RobertsBlack Pastels (JMT)

Hank Roberts/Tim Berne/Ray Anderson/Robin Eubanks/Dave Taylor/Bill Frisell/Mark Dresser/Joey Baron. Recorded and mixed November/December 1987, RPM Sound Studios, NYC.

  • Miniature: Miniature (JMT)

Tim Berne/Hank Roberts/Joey Baron. Recorded March 1988, RPM Sound Studios, NYC.

Joey Baron's Deep Listening Manifesto

For Baron, suddenly, all options were on the table. His radical openness was not for the sake of novelty, or easy effects. Joey Baron allowed the whole range of musical styles to be present to make the music sound good. This community of players- Frisell, Berne, Roberts, Robertson, etc.- all achieved this, in their own way, and each executed it differently.

Respect and gratitude.

Joey was not alone in bringing this sound to the drums- Phil Haynes, Alex Cline, Anton Fier, Bobby Previte, and others were making contributions as well. But these records and these players traveled far. As Joey said, “What you’re hearing is rooted in ordinary things- that’s where I start.

I really love these albums; this is powerful music. Let’s take a brief listen.

In Philip Watson’s invaluable new biography of Frisell, Bill Frisell: Beautiful Dreamer (Faber and Faber, 2022) he suggests that Lookout For Hope is a landmark in Frisell’s discography, a meaningful statement of intent. Without a doubt, the Frisell sound is in full bloom here; so is Joey Baron.

As great as Joey always sounded, he simply wasn’t playing like this with Carmen McRae, Fred Hersch, or Red Rodney.

On the 12/8 title track, Joey is powerful and explosive, almost a co-soloist with Bill. But he never overwhelms; this is just the chemistry of the band. “Lonesome”, a classic Frisell melody, has Joey playing a lovely straight-ahead country beat with brushes, but the spontaneous and mood-changing cowbell and woodblock fills connect the track to the avant-garde.

“Alien Prints” closes the album with some joyous, virtuosic rock/R&B drumming for Frisell’s solo, with Hank Roberts playing like a rhythm guitar and Kermit Driscoll keeping it all connected; Joey’s 7-second flam fill at 3:51 is…..OMG!!! The energy recedes, and they ride off into the sunset.

Tim Berne’s Sanctified Dreams (Columbia, 198) was his second and last Columbia Records release, the follow up to his critically acclaimed Fulton Street Maul (CBS, 1987). Recorded just a few months after Lookout For HopeSanctified Dreams demonstrates how quickly Joey was expanding.

With Bill Frisell, Joey could play idiomatically- rock vocabulary, jazz vocabulary, through his own filter. But Tim Berne’s music is much less idiomatic, with fewer direct references to rock, jazz, R&B, and so on. No problem; Joey uses his musicianship and artistry, and his voice comes shining through.

“Velcho Man” features Joey setting up Tim’s melodies with the wisdom and grace of Mel Lewis, navigating an elaborate, fully-realized arrangement as easily and lightly as if it were a collective improvisation. On “Elastic Lad”, Joey seamlessly transforms an  improvised duet with Hank Roberts into a rocking 6/8 for a full-band reading of Tim’s theme. “Terre Haute” (Hank Roberts’ hometown) starts with an unforgettable four bars of Joey in funky 5/4, then transforms into a ruminative, African-influenced voice and drum duet.

At the end of 1987, Hank Roberts’ Black Pastels (JMT) features Bill Frisell, and Tim Berne, and three trombonists. All the tunes are by Roberts, and no track follows a predictable course. An inviting, wholly unique set of music, connecting the avant-garde energy of Tim Berne and Bill Frisell to cutting-edge pop music, Black Pastels is a perspicuous classic, and shows how diverse and wide-ranging the cohort of Baron, Berne, Frisell, Roberts etc truly are.

The opening title track, played by a trio of Roberts, Frisell, and Joey, features a slow, dramatic buildup centered around Roberts’ wordless vocals, Joey rocking and filling, alternating between two distinct feels, and setting up a classic Frisell solo. Genre distinctions simply don’t matter here; when Joey enters on Hank’s lovely “Jamil”, he seems to be almost singing along with Roberts, he’s so connected to the song.

Joey plays a quasi-calypso on “Choqueno” with Frisell on a 12-string; soon they’re joined by a trombone choir for a melody that suggests gospel, Eddie Palmieri, and 80’s pop. I can’t think of another track like this anywhere in jazz, sort of the intersection of AACM experimentalism and David Bowie. Stunning.

On “Lucky’s Lament”, the album closer, Hank, Frisell, and Mark Dresser keep the funeral march feel, while Joey shakes his shakers and rattles his toms, while Tim gives his blues and R&B side a chance to shine.

In the midst of all this, Tim Berne had organized a trio of himself, Joey, and Hank Roberts, called Miniature. The group was a collective, so everyone brought in tunes, though Hank Roberts told me repeatedly, regarding Miniature, “So much came from Tim; he made so much happen”. Miniature has a distinct personality, with a lot of humor many references to current pop music, and stands out in Tim’s vast discography.

That sense of fun and play comes through on their first album, Miniature (JMT, 1988). This is the debut of Joey’s ‘electronic’ set, where his 4-piece Sonor kit is outfitted with MIDI triggers and augmented with a Casio CZ 101 keyboard. However, the liner notes state that there were no overdubs on the album; everything we hear is live.

Roberts’ “Ethiopian Boxer” suggests R&B and the new ‘world’ music sound; Joey playing with his hands on MIDI-triggered drums and generating a lot of density with his keyboard.

Berne’s “Circular Prairie Song (For Bill Frisell)” a through-composed three-part suite in two and a half minutes, features some whoopee-cushion sounds on Joey’s keyboard and Hank’s spoken outro. Yes, I actually LOL, every time I hear this track.

Joey’s “Lonely Mood”, a serious and effective piece, features a moment of stark beauty when Hank and Tim play in unison, broken by a sung note from Hank, while Joey creating a forest floor of texture with keyboard, cymbals, and MIDI drums.

Tim’s “Narlin” has a second-line groove from Joey, a bluesy melody from Tim, and a moment of Hank Roberts gospel cello (at 4:20) that makes me want to cheer. Hank’s “Abeetah” abruptly switches from quasi-punk to slow swing with the funniest keyboard solo (played by Joey) I’ve ever heard.

Tim Berne’s “Sanctuary” features a motivic Baron drum solo

and concludes with a tough, beautiful melody, masterfully orchestrated, built up, and swung by Joey, bringing us to the close of an astonishing 12-month run of recording.

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