The Safety Net: Thomas Barber’s Janus Bloc – “Snow Road”

The Safety Net, a Bird is the Worm series which highlights outstanding older albums that may have flown under the radar when first released.



Trumpeter and big band leader Thomas Barber released his debut album Snow Road back in 2009.  And while it did get some attention at the time, since I find myself as enthusiastic today as I did a couple years back when I first heard it, I feel like maybe the attention it garnered wasn’t up to the level of the quality of the album.

Originally from Moscow, Idaho and now living in NYC (via University of Northern Colorado in good ol’ Greeley), Barber has a bunch of movie scores to his credit.  The imagery conjured up by Snow road, from the music itself to the album cover and liner notes, it has a strong cinematic feel to it all, which makes for a very moving listening experience.  I adore an album that can make me daydream like mad while simultaneously engaging me sufficiently to where I don’t just drift away in thought.

Your album personnel:  Thomas Barber (trumpet and flugelhorn), Claudio Roditi (trumpet), Tim Collins (vibes), Nasheet Waits (drums), Linda Oh (bass), Adam Birnbaum (piano), Michael Dease (trombone), Sharel Cassity (alto Sax, flute), Lauren Sevian (baritone sax, bass clarinet), Stacy Dillard (tenor sax), Peter Reardon Anderson (clarinet), Sydney Braunfeld (horn), Amy Schroeder (violin), Keiko Tokunaga (violin), Gillian Gallagher (viola), and Andrew Yee (cello).

The entire album has a satisfying counterbalance of polar emotions.  When the notes paint a gloomy sky, the compositions still let streaks of bright sunlight shine through, and when the tune bounds happily along with a smile on its face, there are moments that provide for serious introspection and a wariness that downcast days may be ahead.  The contradictory emotions coalesce into a pleasant, and intrinsically human, sense of glass half full or half empty depending on what you’re drinking.

The album opener “Song For Snow Road” is the quintessential example of this.  Opening notes are forlorn and full of weighty despondency.  But then trumpet turns the notes around and piano jumps in, and suddenly maybe all is not as doom and gloom as it appeared at first blush.  The sound grows brighter, more lively, both in tempo and loudness, and now the landscape has changed.  When second track “Shatzaquotek” gets under way, the album has shifted to one of buoyancy, even as piano and strings erode at it with a surge of dissonance.

Barber spreads the love around, letting ensemble members speak their voice throughout.  Birnbaum’s piano on second track “Shatzaquotek” gives the beating heart a brain to pair up with.  Collins’ vibes on “The Mind Beneath” is a thrilling gallop.  Barber and Roditi, both on trumpet, have a strong rapport, evident in the way that the shared responsibilities don’t cost the album its cohesion.  Waits sneaks in some nifty embellishments here and there, noticeably on “Stream,” even as he maintains a steady and pleasant sway.  The song “Lickety Split” allows several of the musicians to kick back with their instruments and blow.  And it’s nice hearing bassist Oh in the context of a big band in light of her recent quartet release Initial Here.  Barber employs the string quartet deftly… evenly layering its lush sound throughout the album without ever using it to carry the load; a lesson in effective accompaniment.  That said, the string quartet really shines in the spotlight on album closer “Come Sunday.”

I think that, for the casual listener, there is a belief that jazz big band albums all pretty much sound alike.  If the last decade has proven anything about the jazz genre, it’s that this is a false impression.  Ensembles like the Jack Davies Big Band and Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society (to name just two) illustrate the vast landscape of texture and complexities that a big band leader can aspire to.  However, an aspect that I believe has made Snow Road such an enduring visitor to my stereo speakers is that it doesn’t stray very far from a typically traditional big band arrangement, yet with some tweaks here and there, presents something still quite different.  As if by putting the nuances of his music out front, the differentiation in the music is more profound than the distance would indicate.  I suppose, it’s a so-close-yet-so-far kind of reaction the music elicits from me.  It’s why I keep returning to this excellent album.

Released on the D Clef Records label.  Not a lot of information on the label.  It appears to have been created by musician Michael Dease.  Snow Road was the label’s inaugural release.  The label doesn’t appear to have an actual website, as the link above would prove, but scooting around the internet has derived some results that indicate this is an active label that has put out several album since.  So worth doing some research if you’re interested to see who else this label is promoting.

You can stream the entire album, and purchase it, on Barber’s bandcamp page.

Available at Amazon: CD | MP3