Thomas Barber’s Janus Bloc – Snow Road (2009)

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photo: Chris Barber

The history of jazz is a history of a continuum of leaders where the next generation of shining stars emerge when the leaders of the prior generation are still in their prime period. The torch of the premier trumpet player passed on from Louis Armstrong to Dizzy Gillespie to Miles Davis to Wynton Marsalis, encompassing nearly the entire history of this great music form and epitomizing most of its developments. Other trumpet players, like Dave Douglas, has made their mark as much as—if not more than— a composer and bandleader as they have as a performer. Coming in Douglas’ wake is a twenty-nine year old prospect from Moscow, Idaho by the name of Thomas Barber.

Barber’s biography doesn’t read like someone who is content to merely participate in blowing sessions his whole life. Back at the University of Northern Colorado, he sought a classical degree to not only polish his technical ability on the trumpet, but also to develop his composing skills. Afterwards, he attended Julliard to study jazz performance. From that experience, he gained valuable knowledge in how ensembles work. Since he’s moved to New York, Barber has composed for major names like Steve Turre and Joe Alessi, arranged for the Dease Bones trombone ensemble as well as a multitude of recordings, and has written scores for four films. Among all that, Barber keeps his playing chops sharp as a sideman for various groups, having performed with an impressive list of artists over the years: Paul Simon, Wynton Marsalis, Slide Hampton, Louie Bellson, Nicholas Payton and Maria Schneider.

Even though Barber plays in smaller, quartet settings, his own large ensemble Janus Bloc is the fullest realization of his wide vision. Last July 28 came forth Barber’s debut album, Snow Road, a set of mostly original compositions Barber recorded with this large group a year earlier.

For the first time out, Barber sure shows a lot of ambition. “For this group, I want to be able to switch from a jazz trio setting to an orchestral palette to a big band sound on a whim,” he explains. Janus Bloc, the name of the Roman god of beginnings and endings, reflects the duality of its music. JB is expansive, sporting a seven-piece horn section, a four-part string section (aka the internationally acclaimed Attacca Quartet) and a three-part rhythm section. And then there’s two guest soloists. Yeah, it’s big.

Big…and bodacious, too. The long roster is a who’s who of other young talents who stand on the cusp of making big splashes in the jazz scene: Michael Dease, Sharel Cassity, Nasheet Waits and Linda Oh. Dease also serves as the album’s producer.

Barber uses all these talents in the service of his modern, impressionistic compositions, but here’s the twist: each of the three sections are employed tactfully, bringing the strings or the full horn sections to bear selectively at strategic points. The opener “Song For Snow Road” puts these tactics into practice, creating a moody, texturally thick piece that utilizes the background Barber has attained from writing those film scores. Starting with the somber French horn of Sydney Braunfeld and moving on to his benign trumpet, Barber deftly uses the unique vocabulary of each instrument to get across the right sound at the right time.

It doesn’t just stop there, though. These concepts play out on the next track “Shatzaquotek,” which features a very tight integration of the string quartet with the jazz rhythm section. Underneath all the horns and strings playing countering lines is some pretty exquisite bass work by Oh, which comes into more focus during the piano solo by Adam Birnbaum. Oh’s lines are aggressive and compelling to the point the she is co-soloing with Birnbaum. Dease’s sassy trombone statement kicks off the light waltz “Elizabeth Rose.” It’s on this tune that we are greeted with the first appearance of eminent trumpet veteran Claudio Roditi, and while Barber likely could have handled the lead trunpet duties fine, Roditi’s highly expressive and brassy style fits this subtlely Latin-flavored song better.

Barber’s most advanced composition that he presents in this collection is probably the labyrinthine but elegant “The Mind Beneath.” Set in 7/4 time, Barber himself takes the lead with a fat, controlled tone, and shares solo space with guest vibraphonist Tim Collins, as well as Oh and Waits. Fittingly, Barber finishes the album with an Ellington tune, “Come Sunday.” Barber’s arrangement called for a “strings” intro that only went to demonstrate how much the Duke respected and incorporated elements of classical music when composing his own, an ideal Barber clearly shares. Roditi contributes his refined and weighty flugelhorn in the jazzier main body of the song.

It’s way too soon to say if Thomas Barber will develop into the next Ellington, Schneider or Douglas, but with such a high-minded effort Snow Road, he shows much promise as the complete package as performer, composer and bandleader. His ability to grasp not only complex musical concepts, but pull them all together effectively puts him well on the path toward the lofty status enjoyed by those predecessors. In the meantime, Snow Road can already be appreciated for a fully-realized work of jazz as a form of high art.

Visit Thomas Barber’s website here.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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