Amazing Grace: Kenny Barron Stands Tall as the Quintessential Jazz Pianist

Kenny Barron has just had his Steinway tuned, and he’s agreed to let me hear how it sounds.

Since this will be a relatively quick demonstration, he doesn’t move the bench into place; instead, he stands at the keyboard, bent at an oblique angle from the waist as he moves through a rubato chorus of “Body and Soul.” It’s an impromptu performance, but still it bears the impeccable balance heard in pretty much any improvisation Barron undertakes. At the beginning, arpeggios chase each other from hand to hand, then reappear in the harmonically inventive coda. The music brims with the understated technique that’s become his calling card. He integrates his virtuosity so cleanly into the flow that you could almost miss it.

Credit: Lukas Beck

Wearing a T-shirt and shorts, Barron plays just the one chorus, but by the time he hits the bridge, I start to feel a sympathetic crimp in my back. The music’s casual elegance belies his awkward stance as he hunches over the keyboard and, after all, Barron turned 75 just a couple weeks earlier. When he finishes, he straightens up with his hands supporting the small of his back and exhales a swoosh of relief. “I wondered how long you could keep that up,” I remark. “Not long,” he says with a rueful laugh.

The piano sits in Barron’s living room, opposite a small parlor where family portraits and waist-high African wooden sculptures flank a large-screen TV. The parlor looks out on the front porch of the 120-year-old house he shares with his wife, on a leafy street in a historic Brooklyn neighborhood. Many years ago, when he moved in, Barron himself stripped three layers of paint off the gleaming woodwork and the brick fireplace; the week after my visit, he’ll bring in professionals to redo the top-floor office where he composes on a Clavinova digital piano, which he uses exclusively for that purpose.

And Barron still writes a lot. He composed eight of the 11 songs for his latest disc, Concentric Circles, the 51st album released under his own name. These tunes cover the waterfront: A couple post-bop swingers rub elbows with the lilting and reflective title track; a minor-key hard-bop anthem called “Blue Waters” complements the Latin-jazz locomotion of “Baile.”

 

These songs can sound deceptively straightforward, a result of Barron’s flowing, lyrical melody-making camouflaging his more inventive compositions, the structures and arrangements of which can subtly depart from the familiar. As usual, the new recording includes a Thelonious Monk tune — Barron loves Monk’s compositions, and for many years played in Sphere, the cooperatively led Monk-inspired quartet — and there’s a gorgeous melody by the iconic Brazilian troubadour Caetano Veloso, an indication of Barron’s abiding interest in Brazilian music.

Concentric Circles is the first album by this quintessential jazz pianist — among the most recorded jazz pianists alive — on Blue Note Records, the quintessential jazz label. The powerfully expressive saxophonist Dayna Stephens, who plays on the disc, describes Barron’s playing as “the essence of grace, whether it’s uptempo or ballad, calypso, whatever. He’s just got this effortlessness. It’s especially impressive on fast tunes, because it helps hold everything together.” Stephens, who has known Barron for two decades, since first studying with him at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, adds, “It’s this straight reliability. The music is obviously spontaneous, but someone’s got your back.”

Concentric Circles is also the first album to feature Barron’s current quintet, which performs primarily in and around New York City. But because they have played together for six or seven years, this recording debut presents a buffed and burnished group in the classic two-horn format — the one in which the pianist cut his teeth in his teens and 20s, in bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody and Freddie Hubbard. The quintet balances experience with comparative youth in that three of its members — Stephens, trumpeter Mike Rodriguez and drummer Jonathan Blake — are more than 30 years younger than Barron. (Blake and the album’s veteran bassist, Kiyoshi Kitagawa, make up Barron’s touring trio.) And this configuration suits Barron just fine, for two reasons.

Johnathan Blake (left), Dayna Stephens, Kenny Barron, Kiyoshi Kitagawa and Mike Rodriguez (Credit: Gulnara Khamatova)

First, he says, “I do more composing when the band includes horns. Just having those additional voices kind of lends itself to that — for me.” And the younger players, each of whom ranks among the best-regarded players of their generation, also keep him on his toes. “I enjoy working with younger people, because they kick my butt,” he explains. “They have all this energy. And I get exposed to that, so I get to absorb some of that and utilize it. It’s great fun for me.”

Growing up in Philadelphia in the ’50s, Barron got his first gigs in a band that also employed his older brother and earliest mentor, the chronically underrecognized tenor man Bill Barron. Seventeen years his senior, Bill was closer to an uncle than a big brother. “He was a very big influence,” Barron recalls, “but for many years he didn’t know I was playing, even though we were living in the same household. He had a day job, and when I was a kid, I’d see him in the evening, when he came home from work and before he would play his gigs around Philly. Then one day he came home from work — this was before I started taking lessons — and he heard me playing some blues chords on the piano, and he said, ‘Where’d you get that from?’ So that’s how he started taking an interest.”

Eventually, Bill brought Kenny into the Mel Melvin Orchestra, an education unto itself. “We played cabarets, dances, mostly for black audiences, and it was like a little variety show. We had to play for dancers — usually what we called ‘shake dancers’ [scantily clad women who waved around a lot] — and a singer and a comedian. … And that was a great experience. The dancers would dance to songs by Ellington and others, so I learned a lot of repertoire. I learned to pay attention — after I stopped looking at the shake dancers, that is.”

In 1961, at the age of 18, Barron moved to New York City’s Lower East Side, a stone’s throw from several legendary jazz clubs. Shortly after he arrived, he went to the Five Spot to hear James Moody, who became his next mentor and champion. “Moody knew my brother, so he invited me to sit in, and then he started calling me to work with him. After he went to play with Dizzy Gillespie, I happened to run into him one day on Broadway, and he said, ‘Listen, Lalo Schifrin is leaving; would you be interested in the gig?’” On Moody’s recommendation, Gillespie hired the barely 20-year-old pianist, sound unheard.

 

Was it intimidating to suddenly find himself in a quintet led by a co-creator of bebop, whom he’d heard on record since he could first identify jazz? “It was incredible,” Barron recalls. “But it was not intimidating, because Dizzy wasn’t that kind of person. He was very gracious, and, of course, funny, on stage and off. I don’t think I ever heard him get mad at anybody.”

After working with Gillespie, Barron made a few albums with Hubbard, one of Gillespie’s stylistic descendants. He then joined a band led by reedist and musical philosopher Yusef Lateef, with whom he recorded and toured for much of the ’70s. Lateef explored not only the blues and bop but also an Eastern-inspired spiritualism (often alloyed with pure funk), and Barron’s years in that band helped open his ears and expand his horizons. Going back to Barron’s first recordings as a leader — a series of albums made between 1973 and 1975 for Muse Records — you can hear this process taking place, as Barron adds, subtracts and experiments with new ideas and stylistic elements.

On his 1992 album, Sambao, Barron began to embrace Brazilian music, which has become a defining characteristic of his musical life in the last quarter-century. He already had a feel for Latin jazz, as might be expected from someone who’d played in the bands of Dizzy Gillespie, who pioneered the use of Afro-Cuban rhythms in jazz. But Barron’s interest predated those years. “The disc jockey Symphony Sid used to do a program of Latin jazz once a week, and once I got to New York, I would listen to that on the radio,” Barron recalls. “I was living with a bunch of other musicians from Philly — nobody had a television — and that’s where I got into it.

“I remember being in San Francisco when somebody played a record of Sérgio Mendes and Brazil 65. From that I started checking out samba school and all this other Brazilian music. And then I met the guys from Trio Da Paz, which got me even further into it.” [Trio Da Paz comprises guitarist Romero Lubambo, bassist Nilson Matta and drummer Duduka Da Fonseca, all Brazilian-born musicians living in the United States.]  My wife and I were in Union Square [in lower Manhattan] for the Saturday green market, and we went to a Brazilian-owned restaurant there. Every week they would have a Brazilian group, and Trio Da Paz was there for a couple years. So then I put together a band with them.” (Their resulting collaboration can be heard on the 2002 album Canta Brasil.)

“It’s not just the rhythms,” Barron adds. “It’s the harmonies, they’re so subtle. It’s like one note changes the whole complexion of the tune. They utilize that a lot. There’s actually a name for it: ‘the shifting function of a single tone.’” That phrase could almost describe Barron’s career: Without changing his style or approach, he finds a way to inhabit and illuminate an enormous, shifting array of musical settings.

Barron’s recording history now spans six decades, and the 50 albums previously issued under his own name — including a 1990s stretch of brilliantly realized dates for Verve Records — only begin to tell his story. He first appeared on disc as a teenager, on early-’60s albums by his older brother, and has since contributed to more than 300 other record dates, sandwiched around some 40 years of teaching at Rutgers, Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music. Barron’s discography includes eight albums recorded with Gillespie, 11 with Moody and another dozen with Ron Carter — all of whom, like Barron, have earned recognition as NEA Jazz Masters. Barron also played on 10 indelible albums with Stan Getz toward the end of the brilliant tenorist’s life. “He was certainly influential because he was such a lyrical player,” Barron says now. “I think that’s where we connected.”

The breadth of Barron’s discography goes beyond numbers. He made several albums with small and large bands led by Buddy Rich, whose flashy, often bombastic virtuosity seemed a world away from the sophistication of altoist-trumpeter Benny Carter, the Louis Armstrong contemporary with whom Barron also recorded. In the 1980s, he made a few dates with Chico Freeman, an early member of the AACM, and in 1978 he recorded with another saxophone modernist, Marion Brown. Less adventurously, he appears on one date by laid-back vocalist Michael Franks and on others by such pure jazz singers as Ella Fitzgerald and Dianne Reeves. In 1984, he played on the disc Maiden Dance led by violinist John Blake Jr. — the father of the drummer in Barron’s current quintet.

The demand for Barron’s services relies on his sparkling touch and technical acumen, of course, but also on his versatility. Bassist Harvie S, who has worked with Barron on several duo albums and, notably, in small groups with vocalist Sheila Jordan, says admiringly, “He’s like a chameleon. One of the things that makes him so great is his ability to play in a band where you may not even notice him, but he’s making it happen. That’s why he’s on so many records. He has this amazing ability to fit into any situation. He’s the ultimate jazz pianist, as far as I’m concerned, on the same level as Herbie [Hancock], McCoy [Tyner] and Chick [Corea]. When you get to the top, there’s nobody better.”

Credit: John Sann

That same versatility may help explain why people may not immediately think of Barron in the same sentence as Herbie, McCoy and Chick. A listener can often identify those pianists from a few measures, because they paint with such broadly identifiable strokes that may not easily fit in certain contexts. But for all their genius, you probably wouldn’t have paired Hancock with the often ethereal Yusef Lateef, or Tyner with the trumpeter Chet Baker or Corea with the rawboned blues sound of guitarist George Freeman.

 

Barron has played with all of those people, however. He has evolved a portmanteau piano style that incorporates an encyclopedic array of influences encapsulating the state of jazz piano in his time. In that sense, he wears a mantle passed down from Hank Jones and, later, Tommy Flanagan, two other impeccable pianists — both deeply admired by Barron — whose virtues also shone brighter the longer they played.

But neither of those revered elders assembled a new band after hitting senior citizenship or continued, well into their 70s, to write for a younger generation. Barron relishes the challenge.  “It makes me play another way,” he says with obvious pleasure. “Sometimes there’s a tendency, if I play with guys my own age — I mean, it works perfectly, but it’s too comfortable at times. So this allows me to make some mistakes.”

Of course one man’s so-called “mistake” is another’s opportunity. Like the master improvisers he learned from, Barron has evolved in part by moving beyond his comfort zone, taking risks and incorporating what works into a continuing process of discovery. And if his younger colleagues really do kick his butt, he still handles it with the effortless grace that’s become synonymous with his name. —Neil Tesser

The Authoritative Voice in Jazz

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