Readers Poll / Hall of Fame: The Quiet Elegance of Kenny Barron

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“I’ve learned over the years not to take myself too seriously,” Barron says.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

When pianist Kenny Barron heard he had been elected to the DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame, his immediate response was to deflect attention from himself.

“There are so many great players,” he said, “but I am honored.”

Such modesty is in keeping with the grace and elegance that have typified Barron — both as a person and a musician — for more than six decades. But recognition is not something new for him. The National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master in 2010 and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has nominated him for 11 Grammy awards. DownBeat critics have rated Barron the year’s No. 1 pianist five times, the Jazz Journalists Association, seven.

“I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more,” says Barron’s longtime collaborator, bassist Buster Williams. “It’s an honor for him, and it’s an honor for DownBeat to recognize his greatness.”

Barron, 79 and going strong, has produced an extraordinary body of work — more than 40 recordings as a leader, in excess of 500 as a sideman and more than 50 original compositions. Though primarily known as a mainstream player, his oeuvre has impressive stylistic breadth. There are, of course, the hard-swinging albums such as the Grammy-nominated Spirit Song (Verve, 1999), Live At Bradley’s (Universal, 1996), Concentric Circles (Blue Note, 2018) and his exquisite duet recordings made with Stan Getz in 1991. But then there are Brazilian gems such as Canta Brasil (Sunnyside, 2002); the creative funk cult classic with Mino Cinelu, Swamp Sally (Verve, 1995); hybrids like The Classical Jazz Quartet Plays Bach (Vertical, 2002); an album with avant-garde saxophonist Marion Brown, Soul Eyes (Baystate, 1979); and a streak of unusual records with Yusef Lateef.

Barron’s more recent, “inside-outside” duo collaborations with bassist Dave Holland, The Art Of Conversation (Impulse, 2014) and Without Deception (Dare2, 2020) highlight Barron’s willingness to stretch out in new situations.

“If left to my own devices, I may have a tendency to play it a little safe,” he admits. “But sometimes when there’s another player in the group, that’s a new opportunity to go somewhere else.”

“It’s a two-way street,” Holland hastens to add. “Kenny’s also inspiring to play with. He has his own personal take on what he’s learned and he’s advanced it, as well. He’s made his own contribution to the great tradition of jazz piano.”

Born in Philadelphia in 1943, the youngest of five siblings, Barron studied as a kid with Vera Bryant, pianist Ray Bryant’s sister, who later raised two jazz children of her own, Kevin and Robin Eubanks. But it was Barron’s older brother Bill, the well-known tenor saxophonist, who took the young musician under his wing, hooking Kenny up as a teenager with a local cabaret band. Though Philly was rich with jazz, Detroit pianists Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan caught Barron’s ear.

“It was their touch, both Tommy and Hank, and their lyricism, and the way they phrased,” explained Barron. “It was like a rubber band, their phrasing, it was very loose, it wasn’t rigid. An ebb-and-flow kind of thing. I loved that.”

Touch, tone, lyricism and phrasing. That pretty much sums it up when Barron’s solos spill out in cascades of speedy, single-note lines ornamented with bluesy turns, sudden splash-chords, arpeggios or pairs of notes that “climb the ladder,” top note first — a rare combination of romantic warmth, logical development and classical clarity.

Bassist Rufus Reid, a frequent Barron collaborator (check out The Moment from 1991 on Resevoir) says that clarity emanates in part from Barron’s rooted chords, which many younger players have abandoned.

“If I didn’t know a song, Kenny could play it once, and I could hear it,” Reid affirms. “When you play with Kenny, it feels like the grand piano is twice the size. With his beautiful touch and dynamics, he could actually make the piano levitate.”

When Barron came up through the ranks, Horace Silver and Wynton Kelly were also in the air, which no doubt helped shape his brand of rhythmic propulsion, or, as Williams puts it, “He swings his butt off.”

It didn’t take long for older players in Philadelphia to notice. Barron was just 17 when Philly Joe Jones hired him on the recommendation of Bill Barron. When Yusef Lateef came down from Detroit, he hired Barron, too.

“That was just a matinee at the Showboat Lounge,” Barron recalled, “but about two months later, I got a call (from Lateef) to play at the Minor Key in Detroit. I had just graduated from high school. I had to ask my mother if I could go. It was my first trip on a plane.”

Barron wrote arrangements for Lateef’s next album, The Centaur And The Phoenix (Riverside, 1960), and not long after attending the session at Radio City Music Hall, he moved to New York. That was 1961. He has been there ever since. Within a year, he was on the road with Dizzy Gillespie. Four years later, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Milt Jackson and Buddy Rich all came calling, and so did Lateef, whose unconventional instrumentation (oboe, bassoon, wooden flutes, chenai), unusual scales and non-traditional improvising offered Barron a wider horizon than he might have gained in a more traditional environment.

During this period, in 1973, Barron made his first album as a leader, Sunset To Dawn (Muse), an electric piano outing with creamy chords and bits of exotica that reflect the counterculture vibe of the times. Since then, Barron has covered far more ground than any one article could hope to include, but some of the highlights have been the cooperative quartet Sphere, devoted to the music of Thelonious Monk; Barron’s time with Getz; the pianist’s exquisite trios during the heralded era of Bradley’s nightclub in New York; and his various excursions into Brazilian territory.

The goal of Sphere was to highlight the brilliance of Monk’s compositions, but Barron also hoped the project might encourage the then-reclusive pianist to come back out and play. Sadly, in 1982, as the band was driving home from its first recording session, they heard on the radio that Monk had died. The albums nevertheless captured the public’s imagination and brought Monk’s repertoire firmly into Barron’s book. “Usually I’ll play some Monk every night, and there’s at least one Monk song on every record, too,” he said.

Williams, who played in that band, notes that Barron put his own stamp on the music: “I never played with Monk, but if it was anything like playing with Kenny when he played Monk’s music, it would have been great.”

When Getz called Barron to replace Chick Corea in 1986, they would sometimes end a set with a duet on the tune “People Time,” which prompted the album of duos by that name, recorded live at Copenhagen’s Jazzhus Montmartre. It’s a breathtaking matchup of two of the most lyrical musicians in the history of jazz. People Time netted Barron his first Grammy nomination. In 2010, Sunnyside released a seven-CD set of the sessions.

Getz gave Barron space as a songwriter, notably on the title tune of their first album, Voyage, the pianist’s most widely covered tune. Barron showcased nine of his original tunes on The Traveler (Sunnyside, 2007) with Gretchen Parlato, Ann Hampton Callaway and Grady Tate singing lyrics by Janice Jarrett.

From 1969 to 1996, the intimate Greenwich Village bar Bradley’s was like a clubhouse for Manhattan jazz, with Barron as one of the starring members. He recorded two live albums there with drummer Ben Riley and bassist Ray Drummond.

“If I was working somewhere else in New York, I would make sure I got to Bradley’s for the last set, and if not for the last set, the last drink,” said Barron. “Even if I was working in Philadelphia, I would leave while the last note was still ringing and drive back to New York. And the place would be packed. I remember one night Tommy [Flanagan] was playing, and Carmen McRae was playing at the Blue Note, and she came by after she was finished and played almost the entire last set, playing piano and singing. Where else would you see that?”

Barron played his first bossa nova when he was with Gillespie, which began his passionate love affair with Brazilian music. Especially notable are his collaborations with Trio Da Paz. Their album, Canta Brasil (Sunnyside, 2002) is a delight, as is the somewhat lesser-known 2012 outing Kenny Barron And The Brazilian Knights (Sunnyside), which features a lovely, yearning tune named for the famous Brazilian movie star Sonia Braga.

“I saw her in three movies and was captivated by this beautiful woman,” Barron said. “Unbeknownst to me, the guy I was playing with at [the Greenwich Village jazz venue] Sweet Basil knew her and invited her down to the club. Just as I was playing the introduction to that song, she walked in the door. Turns out she’s a very lovely person, very down-to-earth.”

Along with his full calendar as a player, for four decades starting in 1973, Barron pursued a parallel career as a teacher, first at Rutgers University, then at the Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard. Former students include Aaron Parks, Jon Batiste, Terence Blanchard, Anthony Brown and David Sánchez. Barron had two pianos in his studio, Parks remembers, and his method was more about playing together than telling his students what to do.

“For months, we would just play and he wouldn’t say much of anything,” Parks said. “Then maybe three or months into me studying with him, I was on my way out, and he said, ‘Oh, hey, one thing I wanted to mention. You should think about your touch.’ There’s something really beautiful about that.”

The art of jazz is such a demanding pursuit, players sometimes forget to take time to enjoy the art of living. Not Barron, who loves to cook and scout out gourmet meals. He counts chef Eric Gestel of the famed New York restaurant Le Bernardin as a “very good friend” and depends on his European promoter Jordi Suñol to recommend new spots when he’s abroad.

“During the pandemic I got to do a lot more cooking,” Barron said. “As long as you can read, you can cook. Baking is the hardest because it’s very precise. You can improvise when you’re cooking meat — a little of this, a dash of that.”

Barron is also an avid reader and can still quote lines from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. He also recalls enjoying the poetry of Allen Ginsberg when he first moved to New York, as well as the flowering of Black poetry of that era and a best-selling book of passionate love poems by Walter Benton, This Is My Beloved (issued in oral form by Atlantic Records), whose message must have stuck. Barron has been married for 60 years. Though he follows no regular spiritual practice, Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet has also been an important text since his youth.

“One of things he talks about is how music doesn’t come from you, music comes through you,” Barron said. “Music is not yours, you know? I try to bear that in mind when I get on my high horse. That’s not you. That’s the creator. You’re just a vessel.”

Now that the pandemic’s grip has loosened, Barron is back on the road and in the studio. He recently recorded a solo album, The Source, due in January from ArtWork Records. He’ll be back out with his Concentric Circles quintet at the Village Vanguard in December and out West in 2023. March brings him back to New York with the Brazilian singer Rosa Passos, and he reunites with Holland in Chicago in May.

When asked what he thought his legacy might be, Barron politely, but unsurprisingly, demurred. “I’ve learned over the years not to take myself too seriously,” he said. “I’m just doing what I do. And what I like to do is reach people on emotional level. I don’t want them to think too much about what I’m playing. If you had to put your hand up to your cheek and say ‘hmmm …’ — it might be too complicated.” DB

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