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By Jerome Sabbagh
A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to record with NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron. The results can be heard on my album Vintage, which was recently released on Sunnyside Records, with bassist Joe Martin and drummer Johnathan Blake.
I first encountered Mr. Barron’s playing when he was working with Stan Getz. As a teenager, I got to hear Getz’s quartet with Rufus Reid and Victor Lewis at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, toward the end of the great saxophonist’s life. I had come to hear Getz, but his pianist made just as strong of an impression. I was blown away by the piano solos and, even at a time when I knew nothing about comping, I sensed that the interplay within the rhythm section — and between the saxophonist and the pianist — was uncommonly strong.
Even though they each had very distinctive personalities on their instruments, they seemingly played music as one organism, and Barron, to me, was the nucleus around which everything else revolved. He was the link between the earthiness and sophistication of the bass and drums, and the lyricism of the leader. Even aside from his own considerable contributions as a soloist, he was the glue that held it all together and allowed the band to become more than the sum of its members’ contributions.
This concert, an early seminal experience, provided me, first unconsciously, then in ways that I grew to be more aware of over time, with a blueprint, a direction, a set of values still important today, that have guided me through a variety of musical situations. Many years later, I would get to experience Barron’s mastery first hand.
At the rehearsal and the recording session alike, the first thing that struck me was the easy, unhurried way with which he approached the music. This was someone who had nothing to prove but who wasstillwilling to explore. Unfailingly, he would find ways to serve the music, some of which he was playing for the first time, yet remain wholeheartedly himself at all times. Most importantly, he instantly gave the music a focus and a center that made it come alive and gave it meaning.
Sometimes, among musicians of my generation and younger — particularly when playing standards and engaging with music that is directly in the lineage of the masters we revere — there can be a level of disconnect, an undercurrent of unease, a hint of inauthenticity that’s hard to pinpoint but also unmistakable. Honestly, I’ve struggled with that myself and I hear it at times in others. Jazz schools have provided many with skills, but truth, whatever it may be, is not just skills. It’s much more elusive, mysterious and hard won.
The elder masters I’ve been privileged to play with over the years — Frank Wess, Paul Motian, Al Foster, Kenny Barron — as different as they were from each other, have had in common the ability to instantly put the music in the realm of that truth, however one defines it: really playing instead of trying to play, swinging instead of forcing it, improvising as opposed to playing what you know, getting out of your own way and letting the music out, as opposed to trying to play what you think it should be. In ways largely unspoken, through their experience, the lineage they belong to, and the weight of their presence, they have shared their wisdom and allowed younger musicians to benefit from it, thus perpetuating the continuum of the music.
I certainly felt this way playing with Kenny Barron, if only for a day. He elevated all of us. Particularly on the duets we did, which might be my favorite parts of this record, I felt I was being invited to play music in a different way, being led gently into a beautiful space I didn’t know how to get into before. I’d like to think I’ll be able to find my way there a bit more often now.
Thank you, Mr. Barron, for inviting me in.
[caption id="attachment_57280" align="aligncenter" width="762"] Photo by Shervin Lainez.[/caption]
Saxophonist Jerome Sabbagh, 50, was born in Paris, France, and has lived in New York City since 1995. In addition to performing, he curates a weekly jazz series at Bar Bayeux in Brooklyn. His latest album, Vintage, was released by Sunnyside Records in September.
Featured photo of Kenny Barron by John Sann.