In the early '70s, Altschul was the drummer for Circle -- a band which (with a membership that also included Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Anthony Braxton) might possibly have been the most technically adept free jazz ensemble ever. Altschul's drumming with that band was stylistically all-encompassing - thanks to his background in traditional jazz styles, which gave him a solid grounding on which to build his free playing.
From his days with Circle to his more recent work as a leader of his own ensembles, Altschul has demonstrated a notable consistency, especially in the way he inevitably manages to generate an enormous momentum without overpowering the ensemble. Much of his power as a rhythm player stems from the subtlety of his touch; Altschul's sound is very tight and exceedingly well-defined. A strict attention to rhythmic and tonal detail has always characterized his playing.
Altschul was largely self-taught until 1960, when he began study with Charlie Persip. From 1964 until 1970, Altschul played regularly with pianist Paul Bley; their relationship continued intermittently through the '70s and '80s. In 1969, he studied with Sam Ulano. Altschul was a member of the Jazz Composer's Guild and the Jazz Composer's Orchestra Association from 1964-68. He spent a portion of the '60s playing mainstream jazz in Europe.
In the '70s, he recorded with the individual members of Circle. In '72, under Holland's leadership, Altschul recorded the classic album Conference of the Birds, with Braxton and saxophonist Sam Rivers. Around this time, he also made records with Bley, bassist Alan Silva, and pianist Andrew Hill, among others. In the '80s, Altschul made records of his own for Soul Note and continued his sideman work with such musicians as the Russian-born pianist Simon Nabotov and Kenny Drew, Sr. Altschul's 1985 album, That's Nice, shows him to be an exciting and good-humored bandleader in a rather modern-mainstream vein. Unfortunately, since that album was made, little has been heard from him as a leader.
Altschul also made albums as a leader, but after the mid-1980s he was rarely seen in concert or on record. Recently, he has become a little more visible again, with two sideman appearances on the CIMP label with the FAB trio (with Billy Bang and Joe Fonda) and the bassist Adam Lane.
Barry Altschul has played or recorded with many musicians, including Roswell Rudd, Dave Liebman, Andrew Hill, Sonny Criss, Hampton Hawes, and Lee Konitz.