Playing with Barrett
by Stu Katz
In the early 1980's, Penny Tyler came up with an innovative idea for a working quintet to be led by the great tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman, then approaching 80 years of age. She slated me on piano and the late virtuoso, Bobby Roberts, on guitar, in each case with full knowledge that we were beboppers. John Bany, a gifted mainstream player, was the bassist of her choice and, to round out the quintet as its percussionist, Penny picked the unclassifiable Barrett Deems.
How Penny had the foresight to see that this strange association would "click" is in some respects as surprising as the musical success of the group itself. The short-lived quintet performed at numerous venues—the Chicago Jazz Festival, the now defunct Rick's American Café and Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase, among others—and also recorded an album on the Principally Jazz label called The Real Bud Freeman - '84, which can probably be found on CD as well as in 12 inch LP format at the Jazz Record Mart.
While Bud was undeniably the leader, Barrett was at the same time the heartbeat of the quintet and defined its music. No matter what we played, it was special because of Barrett. One of the quintet's staples was a song written by Bud called "I Remember Rio", a samba based on the chord structure of "Body and Soul"—of course, there was no sheet music. Every time we played it, Barrett's joyous interpretation of how the tune should lay, dominated it. I enjoyed it so much, I could hardly wait until Bud would call the tune (by the way, it's on the album). In fact, Barrett's contribution really informed every tune we would perform, always elevating it.
Although I had known Barrett for years before the quintet was formed, I really came to cherish him in the too short time period that we worked together. To call him "The World's Fastest Drummer" is to ignore his musicality and his irrepressible ability to swing a band (obviously a major part of what made him so alluring to Louis.)
Barrett once told me that he really enjoyed playing drums with me. It's hard to imagine a compliment which would be more meaningful to me.
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