Keys to the king­dom Pi­anist Kenny Barron


Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Paul Wei­de­man I The New Mex­i­can

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.”


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.”

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