Keys to the kingdom Pianist Kenny Barron
PIANIST KENNY BARRON
Pianist Kenny Barron is on the festival circuit, with an itinerary that includes dates in Ottawa, Tokyo, Paris, and Copenhagen before coming to Santa Fe as the featured NEA Jazz Master performer for the New Mexico Jazz Festival on Saturday, July 25. Eight days later, he begins a tour with bassist Dave Holland, playing a series of duet concerts in Sweden, Spain, Wales, and Italy. What a life. Airports, cabs, and hotels. Does one get used to that? “Well,” Barron responded, “as you get older, you start not getting used to it.” Now seventy-two, he has made more than 40 recordings as leader and hundreds as a sideman on albums by other musicians. He was a professor of music for 27 years at Rutgers University and is now in his 14th year at the Juilliard School, where he teaches jazz piano and jazz studies and is a coach for the Artist Diploma Ensemble.
Barron, who plays the Lensic Performing Arts Center with vibraphonist Stefon Harris, bassist Linda Oh, and drummer Johnathan Blake, is a very low-key interviewee. According to a cover story in the April 2015 issue of DownBeat magazine, that modesty relates to the spirit of a favorite book, The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, and to a piano player named Hassan Ibn Ali, whom he and his brother once knew in Philadelphia. “I remember he said that musicians should always be humble,” Barron told DownBeat’s Aaron Cohen in the story. “That’s because the music comes through you, not from you.”
DownBeat published the results of its 63rd annual critics’ poll of musicians in its August issue. Barron has the number-one spot in the piano category, beating out Jason Moran, Fred Hersch, Vijay Iyer, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, and all others this year.
He was born in Philadelphia and started playing the piano at age twelve. His first professional gig was with Mel Melvin’s R & B orchestra, which also included saxophonist Bill Barron, Kenny’s older brother. The pianist learned a lot about rhythm and swing while playing for dancers and singers in a variety-show atmosphere. His jazz experience broadened in subsequent gigs with drummers Philly Joe Jones and Tootie Heath, saxophonist Jimmy Heath, and multiinstrumentalist Yusef Lateef.
At nineteen, he moved to New York City to make music with drummer Roy Haynes, trumpeter Lee Morgan, and saxophonist/flutist James Moody. Moody hired him for an important date at New York’s Village Vanguard and then, in 1962, brought him into Dizzy Gillespie’s band.
He worked with the legendary trumpet improviser for four years. Did he learn specific things from Diz? “Well, yeah, I did,” Barron told Pasatiempo. “He never out and out showed you anything, but it was basically by example. I noticed the way he conducted himself onstage and the way that he interacted with people offstage, always respectful.
“And then musical things. He knew a lot about piano, for instance, and he was very generous with his knowledge. So he would show me certain voicings and things: ‘Why don’t you try voicing this chord like this?’ Things like that. He was very generous with what he knew. He also knew a lot about drums, about rhythms, which he would show Rudy Collins from time to time.”
Drummer Collins was in Gillespie’s mid-1960s quintet with Barron, Moody, and bassist Chris White. Their albums include Something Old, Something New; Jambo Caribe; and Mal Waldron’s soundtrack for
the movie The Cool World. The same band was expanded to an all-star roster — with J.J. Johnson on trombone, Coleman Hawkins on tenor, and Roy Eldridge on trumpet — for 1965’s Charlie Parker 10th Memorial Concert.
In the late ’70s, Barron began working in a trio with Buster Williams, bass, and Ben Riley, drums. The three added tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse to form Sphere, a band that was primarily oriented to music by, and original compositions inspired by, Thelonious Monk. Sphere left a legacy of eight albums, one of them with altoist Gary Bartz replacing Rouse, who died in 1988. At the end of that decade, Barron composed the score for Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing.
During the ’90s and 2000s, Barron worked with a veritable smorgasbord of jazz stars, among them Stan Getz, Ron Carter, Frank Morgan, and Woody Shaw. Along the way, he contributed piano duties to concerts and albums by many singers, including Chet Baker, Abbey Lincoln, and Jane Monheit. “I love working with good singers,” he said. “It makes you play a different way and you learn a lot, including repertoire.”
He has a similar opinion — one grounded in empathy — about working with various drummers through the years. Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, and Roy Hayne re three powerhouse percussion gurus with whom h eh as shared stages an cording studios. “Oh yeah, each one p ays differently, and you react different to each player. I worked with Roy when I first moved to New York, when I was only eighteen. He’s had the nickname Snap Crackle for a long time; he’s high-energy.”
MUSICIANS SHOULD ALWAYS BE HUMBLE. THAT’S BECAUSE THE MUSIC COMES THROUGH YOU, NOT FROM YOU. — KENNY BARRON
The list of Barron’s albums during the past decade includes 2008’s The Traveler, with West African guitarist Lionel Loueké and singers Ann Hampton Calloway and Gretchen Parlato guesting with the pianist and his trio mates Francisco Mela, drums, and Kiyoshi Kitagawa, bass. Trumpeter Claudio Roditi and other Latin stars appeared on the 2013 disc Kenny Barron & the Brazilian Knights. Last year, Barron and Dave Holland released The Art of Conversation.
“The first time Dave and I played together was 25 years ago, at least. Enja Records suggested I do a record with Dave and a drummer named Daniel Humair from Switzerland.” The album, Scratch, was released in 1985. “That was my first encounter with Dave. We’d never met until in the studio, and I was really impressed. A couple of years ago, we did some tours as a duo playing in Paris, and the producer for Verve France decided he would love to record it. That’s how the record date came about.”
Barron is renowned as much for his skill as a composer as for his prowess on the keys. “I haven’t been writing as much as I would like to,” he said. “That’s one of the things travel does: It keeps you from spending a lot of time writing.
“But I have an artist-in-residence gig coming up next year [April 20 to 24] at the San Francisco Jazz Center. I’m goin gto be there four or five nights, with a different group each night [including guest artists Holland, violinist Regina Carter, guitarist Romero Lubambo, and flutist Elena Pinderhughes], so I will have to do some writing for that,” he said with a laugh. “I have no choice.”
What inspires him? How does he keep it fresh every time he gets onstage? “What inspires me first of all is the other players. We kind of feed off each other. And also the audience. ou read the people and you just try and connect with them. So hopefully that will happen.”