If pianist Kenny Barron wore an insignia pin for every award, citation, honorary degree and top-of-the-list jazz publication he’s earned over his long, splendid career, he’d look like a brigadier general.
You’d somewhat expect all this tribute as a buildup from his years working with so many of the greatest names in modern jazz: Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Morgan, Freddy Hubbard, Eddie Harris, Sonny Stitt and Stan Getz among others. And you’d have to factor in his sheer longevity. He turned pro at the age of fourteen playing for a dance band in his native Philadelphia, and joined Dizzy Gillespie’s band in New York as a nineteen-year-old in 1962.
At 75, Barron has by no means staled with custom. For those who hear him play on Saturday at the Segerstrom Center’s Samueli Theater, it won’t take long to appreciate not just his broad technical mastery and his knowledge of the canon, but his alertness, his clarity of musical thought, and his ability to find whatever is nascent in the air between him and his audience and the musicians around him. Then you’ll see what all the fuss has been about.
In the past few decades, Barron has spent a lot of time performing Latin jazz and music from the Caribbean, but those genres tend to be strictly rhythm-based. It’s in some of the older ballads and pop tunes that he’s able to slow down and open up, and here you can appreciate the captivating architecture of his solos as he builds out at length without losing the thread of his story. His right-hand touch is impeccable, as evocative as a pebble dropped in a pond – touch is a conscious pursuit for Barron, and recalls that of Teddy Wilson, Nat “King” Cole and Oscar Peterson. But he blends it with darker, roiling left hand chords that plumb heavier depths. When he’s at the top of his game, which is standard, his playing generates a suspenseful, meditative spell.
“I credit that to my biggest influences, Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones,” he said during a phone interview recently with Voice of Orange County.
“I learned from them by osmosis, just listening to their touch. Lyricism, trying to tell a story when you play, as opposed to just playing a lot of notes–I still aim for that. That’s usually true of a lot of the older players. Stan Getz was a master at it. His choice of notes, his sound. He told a story when he played.”
Before he gave up teaching a couple of years ago, Barron was a professor of music at Rutgers University. Beyond the basics of music – that is, melody, harmony and rhythm and their variants – he was asked: how do you teach the unteachable?
“I tell my students to make sure you’re choosing this music for the right reasons,” he said. “If you’re in it for fame or fortune, playing jazz is not the way to go. You have to love it. It requires dedication and commitment.
“With the piano you’re dealing with a lot of different things. You deal with harmony and technique. With a saxophone player, you’ll deal with sound; with a piano, it’s touch. I don’t want to turn my students into playing like Tommy Flanagan. He’s someone to consider. To find your own style, you analyze what they did, how they did it. What’s the difference between [Thelonious] Monk’s touch and Flanagan’s touch? There’s a world of difference. Out of that, hopefully, the students will find their own way.”
Any good performance art is the art of playing the moment. A great performance connects it with the age. When Barron was coming up, the jazz moment occupied a broader, more vivid part of the culture than it did before and does now. The post-war ‘50s in America is much maligned as an uptight, conformist age of Cold War anxiety and sexual repression, of gray eminences running the country, sprawling suburbia channeling the world through commercial network television, that “vast, hollow wasteland,” as F.C.C. chairman Newton Minow memorably termed it (can you imagine hearing that now from anyone other than Bruce Springsteen?).
But the ’50s and early ’60s were also an explosive, restless, exploratory era, high on the shock of the new. There was Jack Kerouac and the Beats, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and T.S. Eliot to inform a literary decade. Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” sounded a surging new generational theme of anguish. Abstract Expressionism knocked painting out of its frame. Marlon Brando electrified the American acting scene in theater and movies. Live TV drama sent scores of writers, actors and directors west to give Hollywood an answer to Europe’s cinematic New Wave.
Jazz was a big part of it. The improvisational sortie was a metaphor for the time, as were the new sounds and styles from a robust cohort of musicians like Monk, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, and what the ebullient Dizzy Gillespie periodically brought back from his trips to Cuba. Trumpeter Miles Davis’ thin, melancholy tone perfectly embodied the Edward Hopper-like loneliness of life in the big city, the solitary individual’s life inside a clamorous age, even with people looking in from the heartland and aching to be part of it. (Davis “Kind of Blue” is regularly voted the greatest jazz album of all time; it was released in 1959.) In short, you couldn’t be in the conversation if you didn’t know something about jazz.
Barron doesn’t play the somewhat faded conventions of jazz; he plays its freshness. But he senses the change.
“That restlessness, that seeking and searching, it’s still there,” he said. “It just takes a different form now. It’s not so much about playing, it’s more about composition, guys playing in a compositional way. Different rhythmic concepts, drawing from different cultures – that’s a very big thing now.
“It’s true that more people were into it in a broad social way back then. It’s still true in New York. One of the sad things is that there are so few places to perform outside New York. There are no clubs anymore. I wish I knew the answer to why that is.”
Barron will be bringing his quintet with him, consisting of bassist Kiyoshi Kitigawa, drummer Jonathan Blake, Dayna Stephens on tenor and soprano sax, and Mike Rodriguez on trumpet. They’ll play from his last release, “Concentric Circles,” plus a Spanish dance piece called “Baile.” They’ll also play a mood piece called “Blue Waters” and a dance hall number called “I’m Just Sayin’.”
“There’ll be some straight-ahead stuff, some swing, some Latin, some ballads, everything.”
Asked about any unfinished business in his music, Barron replied,”There’s still a lot for me to learn, especially when I hear younger people. There’s a lot to figure out, and I do want to get better. As somebody said, ‘Music is a journey, except you don’t ever really want to arrive.’”
Lawrence Christon is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.