Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Baron, Joey

Drummer Joey Baron has built a career that straddles commercial music and avant-garde jazz. Baron has demonstrated with his work with singers Carmen McRae and Laurie Anderson, guitarists Jim Hall and Bill Frisell, and saxophonist John Zorn and others that a musician can maintain a sense of balance between seemingly irreconcilable camps of modern music.

Joey Baron was born on June 26, 1955 in Richmond, Virginia. Born into a blue-collar Jewish family, Baron began to teach himself the drums at the age of nine largely by watching other performers and listening to radio broadcasts, records and television. Before he could purchase his own drums, Joey would often practice on different pieces of furniture in his family’s home.

Baron’s initial influences were varied, ranging from drummer Art Blakey and singer Ray Charles to James Brown and The Beatles. One summer, Joey saved up all of his money from mowing lawns and brought himself a snare drum. He also took private lessons where he learned basic rudiments and fundamentals, though most of his education at this point came from playing along to records.

Baron received his first performance experience as a teenager, performing in Dixieland bands as well as rock and roll groups. In 1971, Baron attended a summer session at the Berklee College of Music and was impressed with the academic capacity of the school. Though thrilled with Berklee, when he returned to Virginia he was so excited about playing the drums that he initially wanted to drop out of high school in order to pursue his career. He eventually decided to finish school and continue his education.

Upon graduating from high school in 1973, Joey decided to study at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. He attended Berklee for a year where he studied with trumpeter Herb Pomeroy and drummer Alan Dawson, eventually performing with Dawson’s big band. Joey was forced to leave Berklee due to a lack of money to pay his tuition.

After leaving Berklee in 1974, Baron toured with a lounge group that played top-forty music. The group decided to break up while on tour in Denver, leaving Baron without a job. A friend told him that singer Carmen McRae was looking for a drummer and Joey decided to go to Los Angeles in order to audition for her.

After a successful audition, Baron spent the next two years performing with McRae. A highlight from his time with McRae was the recording of the live album Carmen McRae at the Great American Music Hall, which featured trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. After his stint with McRae, Joey spent time freelancing around Los Angeles, occasionally subbing on the Merv Griffin show.

During his time in Los Angeles, Baron was offered a chance to perform in pianist Bill Evans’ trio, but turned it down in order to play with another trio that was playing jazz seven times a week. Joey decided that he would be able to explore more with the other trio and have an opportunity to build his style.

Shortly after, Baron received a call from singer Al Jarreau to join his band. Joey spent a brief amount of time with him and appeared with him on the PBS special Up From Jumpstreet. Joey continued to freelance, eventually forming a trio with guitarist Lenny Breau.Baron also performed with singer Lou Rawls, pianist Carl Schroeder and even appeared on a record with actress Cybill Shepherd. Throughout this time, Joey taught at the Percussion Institute of Technology in Hollywood and performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Feeling frustrated with the west coast scene, Baron decided to move to New York City in 1982 with his wife Leslie. Upon arriving, Baron once again had to pay his dues, taking any gig that he could get. One of his first gigs in New York was performing in an orchestra led by pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi.

Joey also performed early on in New York with pianist Fred Hersch and bassist Marc Johnson before receiving the opportunity to perform with trumpeter Red Rodney and multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan. An early east coast gig of Baron’s was the chance to perform with saxophonist Stan Getz in Washington D.C. with pianist Kenny Barron and bassist George Mraz.

After leaving the Rodney-Sullivan group, Baron began to make advancements in the downtown scene, starting a trio with saxophonist Tim Berne and cellist Hank Roberts called Miniature. While performing with the trio, Joey was encouraged to develop and contribute his own composing talents.

While gigging in New York, Baron met guitarist Bill Frisell at a jam session and soon started to perform together. Joey made his first recording with Frisell on the 1987 album Lookout For Hope. A year later, he began to appear at the famed Knitting Factory as a solo performer. Through Frisell, he was introduced to alto saxophonist John Zorn, who has been a frequent collaborator of his ever since.

In 1988, Baron performed with guitarist Jim Hall, trumpeter Randy Brecker, and singer Judy Niemack. The same year, he became a member of Zorn’s group Naked City, an avant-garde ensemble that blended jazz, rock and country influences. The group featured Frisell, bassist Fred - Frith and keyboardist Wayne Horvitz. The following year, the group released their self-titled debut on the Elektra/Nonesuch label.

1989 also saw Baron performing on singer Laurie Anderson’s album Strange Angels. Through Anderson, Joey met influential producer Brian Eno, who introduced him to singer David Bowie. Joey eventually recorded with Bowie on his 1995 concept album Outside.

In 1990, Baron appeared in the documentary film Step Across the Border, a film chronicling the career on Fred Frith. A year later, Joey began leading his own trio entitled Barondown with trombonist Steve Swell and tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin. The same year, Joey performed on guitarist John Scofield’s album In 1992, Baron performed on Bill Frisell’s album Have A Little Faith. The album also featured clarinetist Don Byron, bassist Kermit Driscoll, and accordionist Guy Klucevsek. The album was lauded for the ensemble’s take on songs from a variety of musicians including tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and pop icon Madonna.

On "Live To Tell,” Baron maintains the solemn atmosphere of the song by playing with brushes and adding subtle accents on the snare drum and cymbals. With the reverb saturated tone of Frisell and the delicate chordal work of Driscoll, Baron is given freedom to emphasize the ambiance of the song without letting the song fall into a mess, rather allowing the cymbals to enhance the excitement of the song.

The following year, Barondown released their first album Tongue In Groove featuring the song “Scottie Pippen." In 1994, Baron joined Zorn in the creation of Masada. Initially started to record a soundtrack for an independent film, the group included bassist Greg Cohen and trumpeter Dave Douglas.The group has gone on to record music that combines jazz improvisation with scales and rhythms found in Jewish folklore.

The same year, Baron began to perform in Dave Douglas’ sextet with alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, bassist Ron Carter and pianist Amina Claudine Myers. In 1996, Joey formed the Down Home Band with Blythe, Carter and Frisell.

In 1998, Baron appeared with Frisell and guitarist Pat Metheny on Marc Johnson’s album The Sound of Summer Running. On “Faith In You,” Baron provides a strong performance behind the ensemble by playing with a loose feel that allows Frisell and Metheny to freely improvise. Joey’s use of space lets Johnson fill in some of the back round sound with his lyrical playing. His solo further demonstrates his use of space, choosing not to clutter his time with a flurry of rhythms.

The same year, Baron performed with Masada at the Jazz Festival Willisau in Switzerland as well as the Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle. In 2001, Masada released the double album Live at Tonic, which featured two live sets the band performed at the now defunct club.

In 2004, Baron appeared with pianist Enrico Pieranunzi on his album Live In Japan. On “Winter Moon,” Baron simultaneously reflects the rhythmic motifs that Pieranunzi displays while trying to further connect the ensemble. Along with Marc Johnson, Joey exhibits a strong foundation that proves to augment Pieranunzi’s improvisations.

As of late, Baron has been performing with his group Killer Joey with guitarists Steve Cardenas and Brad Shepik and bassist Tony Scherr. In 2008, Joey performed Zorn’s album The Dreamers as well as singer Marianne Faithfull’s album Easy Come Easy Go.

Baron lives in New York where he continues a prolific performance and recording schedule.

Select Discography

As a leader

Tongue In Groove (1993)

Raisedpleasuredot (1993)

Down Home (1997)

Crackshot (1998)

We’ll Soon Find Out (2000)

Lookout For Hope (1987)

Before We Were Born (1988)

Is That You? (1989)

Have A Little Faith (1992)

This Land (1992)

With Marc Johnson

Sound of Summer Running (1997)

With Carmen McRae

Carmen McRae at the Great American Music Hall (1976)

With Enrico Pieranunzi

Live In Japan (1994)

With John Scofield

Grace Under Pressure (1991)

With John Zorn

Naked City (1989)

Torture Garden (1989)

Radio (1993)

Absinthe (1993)

Contributor: Eric Wendell