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Jazz Notes: Two Weeks of Maestro Kenny Barron at the Village Vanguard

By Dan Ouellette, ZEALnyc Senior Editor, December 11, 2017

Two years ago Kenny Barron brought his piano magic to the Village Vanguard in the holiday season. This year he’s aboard for two six-day stands at the club he calls home. The National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master (class of 2010) and nine-time Grammy-nominated pianist opens his Vanguard stint with his quintet, comprising trumpeter Mike Rodriguez, tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Johnathan Blake. He settles into his longstanding trio for week two, playing music from his latest recording, Book of Intuition (Impulse).

“It’s not earth-shattering, but I’ve been pigeonholed into being a bebop player,” said Barron in a conversation. “There’s nothing wrong with being a bebop pianist. That’s what I grew up doing. But my ears are a little more open than just that. I want to do something different, things that are further ahead of the straightahead.”

While the 74-year-old Barron too often goes unrecognized among the elite jazz pianists, he’s been fully embraced by the jazz cognoscenti as one of the genre’s best, evidenced by him being a six-time recipient of the best pianist honor by the Jazz Journalists Association (including this past year’s winner) and the pianist of the year in 2008 in DownBeat magazine’s critics poll.

His music is best described as refined, elegant, totally soulful, extremely lyrical and sturdy—his well-designed solos are remarkable, so much so that he was nominated for best improvised jazz solo in the Grammy Awards on the tune “The Eye of the Hurricane” on young drummer Gerry Gibbs’s trio recording Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trio. In 2005, Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center devoted three weeks for its Kenny Barron festival focusing on his contributions to jazz.

“I’m just trying to stay as young as I possibly can,” Barron told me. “As far as the Jazz Masters award, well, that just means you’re getting old.” He laughed but then added that age factors in his desire to grow as an artist. “I’m not going to change my style,” he said. “It is what it is now. But one of the advantages of getting older is that you can take more chances. You take a risk and not really care what anyone thinks. When you’re younger, you think in the back of your head, will the jazz police like this? But hey, it’s the same twelve notes no matter what kind of music you play. And that makes me enjoy utilizing all twelve.”

Born in Philadelphia in 1943, Barron played in his hometown before heading to New York when he 19. He met and played with James Moody at the Five Spot Café on the Lower East Side, then was introduced by the saxophonist to trumpeter icon Dizzy Gillespie who was looking for a new pianist. Barron remembers his four-year creative association with Diz: “He hired me on Nov. 13, 1962 and I left Nov. 13, 1966.” Even though by that time his wife was pregnant with their second child, he took the risk of freelancing, but because of his growing prowess was quickly scooped up by such jazz greats as Freddie Hubbard and Stanley Turrentine to fill the piano chair.

It was during his time with Dizzy that Barron became fascinated with Brazilian music. The band inserted some bossa nova tunes into the set list, but he went deeper especially after hearing Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’65 on the radio. He explored the samba and toured in Rio where he recalled, “I saw the beautiful mountains and beaches and ocean, and then I knew why they wrote such beautiful music.” He recorded an album of Brazil-influenced music, Sambao, in 1993 (which garnered him his first Grammy nomination) and returned to the fount nine years later collaborating with a Brazilian threesome living in New York. Just “purely by chance” Barron met Trio da Paz (with guitarist Romero Lubambo), who were playing a Saturday afternoon gig every week at a coffee shop on Union Square. “My wife and I ended up going every Saturday to see them,” he said. He recorded the album Canta Brasil in 2002 which features Trio da Paz. In 2013, he recorded in Rio de Janeiro another album with Brazilian artists, Kenny Barron and the Brazilian Knights.

Two years ago Barron delivered a gem, this time in a duo setting with the great jazz bassist Dave Holland: The Art of Conversation, released on the resuscitated jazz imprint, Impulse.

When asked about his bands which proved to be the spawning ground for a number of future jazz stars, including trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard, Barron said, “I don’t really see myself as a mentor. But I love playing with younger players because they bring a certain kind of excitement and a spirit of adventure. Sometimes when I play with guys my own age, there’s just too much sophistication that you don’t get with the younger guys who are excited.”

In our conversation, he stressed that he didn’t feel he was an innovator in his music. “But what I am proud of is my commitment to the honesty of the music,” he said. “I’m still evolving and trying to grow. But there are so many people trying to be innovators…and, yeah, that’s what it sounds like. You’re either an innovator or you’re not. When you try to be one, when you’re deliberately trying to be different, it sounds contrived because it’s not organic. Look at John Coltrane who walked from the bar to [the avant project] Ascension. He wasn’t just screaming and honking. He was searching. He wasn’t trying to be different—he just was.”

At the Village Vanguard, Barron is not going to be propped up as jazz’s piano champion upending the tradition. Indeed, he’s just going to be playing himself as an explorer within the jazz legacy with groups that feature the stalwart rhythm base of Kitagawa on bass and Blake on drums. The music will be lyrical, punctuated with steady rhythms and graced by the sensitive, soulful spirit of a true jazz master.


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