For more than 40 years Kenny Barron has been a first-call pianist known for his rhythmic drive, rich harmonic sensibility and generous spirit. It’s no wonder so many young musicians want to study with him. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Barron first came to prominence with Dizzy Gillespie in the early 1960s, moving on to stints with Freddie Hubbard, Milt Jackson, Ron Carter and Yusef Lateef.
Throughout the 1980s he played with the Stan Getz Quartet and collaborated with Getz on the achingly beautiful 1991 series of duets “People Time.” Barron co-founded the Monk-inspired quartet Sphere and spent nearly 27 years as Professor of Music at Rutgers University, mentoring many of today‘s leading musicians. We met on a broiling hot summer afternoon during the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival, where he was playing three nights of duets at the Montreal Bistro with flutist and former student Anne Drummond.
1. Duke Ellington
“B Sharp Blues” (from Piano Reflections, Capitol) Ellington, piano; Wendell Marshall, bass; Butch Ballard, drums. Recorded in 1953.
Before: My first thought is Duke. The touch, the way it’s very percussive and the use of certain intervals. Also, at the beginning it sounded a lot like Monk, and Monk was greatly influenced by Duke. There are certain things that tip you off that it’s Duke, certain things he does with his left hand, like the octave thing with the bass note. Like Monk, he doesn’t play a lot of notes and it’s deceptively simple. You think it’s easy but then you try to play some of this stuff. I hear him using the flatted fifth a lot. [listens] That little rhythmic phrase there, that’s Duke. I got a chance to see him a few times when I was working with Dizzy in the 60s. I’d love to know what he was thinking about with some of those compositions, like “Warm Valley,” how did he come up with some of that harmonic movement? “Star Crossed Lovers.” Those are gorgeous songs.
After: Butch Ballard? My homey. Yeah, he’s from Philadelphia. I played with him a few times. Young musicians should know that Duke was a genius. They should listen to his playing, his compositions and his orchestrations. He was The Maestro.
2. Wayne Shorter
“As Far As The Eye Can See” (from Beyond The Sound Barrier, Verve). Shorter, tenor saxophone; Danilo Perez, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums. Recorded between 2002-2004.
Before: I like it but I haven’t the foggiest idea. It’s out there but at the same time I hear structure, it’s cohesive. I can’t really identify anybody. I can’t tell if it’s the pianist’s or the saxophonist’s record. It sounds a little like Charles Lloyd or Joe Lovano, maybe, somebody like that. The pianist’s phrases are expanding and contracting. Very percussive, using both his right hand and his left hand. It sounds like somebody current. I have no idea who it is but I like it. I like it a lot.
After: Wayne Shorter? Wow [laughter]. That’s great, I love that. So, that’s Danilo? I haven’t heard this record. I love it. I’ve always loved Wayne’s playing. I like to think of the lines he plays as snakes, cause they kind of slither through the chord changes. His compositions are unique. They’re not the standard II-V, II-V-I kind of thing. I use a lot of his pieces with my students, like “Yes And No” and “Fee Fi Fo Fum” to illustrate how to move from one chord to another, how to use common tones. You don’t have to use D-minor to a G 7 to a C-minor to an F 7. And that’s what I like about his music. It’s very challenging. I wish I could play piano the way he plays saxophone--incredible. I’m going to buy this.
3. Ahmad Jamal
“I’m Old Fashioned” (from After Fajr, Dreyfus Jazz). Ahmad Jamal, piano; James Cammack, bass; Idris Muhammad, drums. Recorded 2004.
Before: I know the song, I’m Old Fashioned. Ahmad Jamal? It’s certain things that he does, and the feeling of the group. That’s a rhythm he used on Poinciana. I have a song that utilizes that rhythm, so what you have to tell people who are old enough to remember is: Poinciana rhythm. If this is a newer record it might be Idris Muhammad and James Cammack. When he came out with Live at The Pershing, I think I was in junior high school or high school. It came on the radio and I said who is THAT! I went out and bought the record. Originally it was the way he used space, he used silence as part of the music. And the way Vernel [Fournier] and Israel Crosby played together. That was a trio. He seems to be a little more percussive now than he was back then, but there are certain things still there: the looseness, the way that he uses the rhythms, the way he uses his left hand. It’s kind of off-center. It throws you for a minute. One thing that’s he’s always had is a group sound. And I love Idris. He’s from New Orleans and he’s got the feeling. You know when it’s there, and he’s got it.
After: This is another one I have to buy.
4. Wynton Kelly
“Char’s Blues” (from Someday My Prince Will Come, Vee Jay). Kelly, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums. Recorded in 1961.
Before: Wynton Kelly. Wow [laughter]. Woo! That’s a groove master there. It’s such a joyous feeling when he played, swinging. Yeah, this sounds like it might be the trio with Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. Paul, I recognize his sound. Jimmy, it’s his cymbal beat. That was a great trio. This is the kind of stuff that I really loved. Just swing. There’s no substitute for that. His feeling, it has a kind of snap. Very lively phrasing. Incredible.
After: Wow, I never heard this one. We were actually neighbors in Brooklyn, in Crown Heights. I love that. My wife just gave me an Ipod, so all that’s gonna go on there.
5. Kenny Wheeler
“Iowa City” (from What Now, CamJazz). Wheeler, flugelhorn; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; John Taylor, piano; Dave Holland, bass. Recorded in 2004.
Before: I know it’s somebody a little more current. I like it but at the same time, for me, it seems a little busy. There’s so much going on. The bass player is interacting a lot. So, for me it doesn’t really settle, which is not necessarily such a bad thing. This is everywhere, it’s all over. These are obviously good musicians, great musicians. I can hear the structure and the changes, but the rhythmic concept is a little busy for me. I’d be interested to know who this is.
After: I know Dave and Chris. I did a workshop with Chris. I like his sound. John Taylor I don’t know. I know Kenny Wheeler’s name but I’m not familiar with his playing. Dave did one record with me called Scratch. For me, the overall concept is a little busy, but it’s not a bad record. It’s just a matter of personal taste.
6. Nat Cole
“How High The Moon” (from The Best of the Nat King Cole Trio, Capitol) Cole, piano;
Oscar Moore, guitar, Johnny Miller, bass. Recorded in 1947.
Before: How High The Moon. Sounds older. The pianist sounds familiar but I can’t put my finger on who it would be. I’m stumped. I like it. Just piano, guitar and bass. Oscar did that with Herb Ellis and Ray Brown. I recognize the style but I just can’t put my finger on it. This is very comfortable.
After: I was gonna say that. Wow. That’s incredible. I’ve heard a lot about his piano playing but I can’t say I’ve really checked him out. You stumped me with that one. This is one I want to buy.
7. Vijay Iyer
“Song For Midwood” (from Reimagining, Savoy Jazz). Iyer, piano; Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Stephen Crump, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums. Recorded in 2004.
Before: Woo! It’s different. Rhythmically, I can’t figure out what the meter is. Interesting. Here again, I don’t know if the pianist or the saxophonist is the leader. I like the rhythmic thing that’s happening, I really like that and what they’re doing on top of that. They’re kind of going everywhere but this thing is constant underneath, like a pedal. I can’t figure out the time signature, and they’re using Indian or Middle Eastern scales or something like that. But there’s some space in there. It settles and there’s kind of a groove, actually. I wouldn’t know who this is but I might hazard a guess. It might be Vijay. I heard him once at Sweet Rhythms. I know he’s into doing that sort of thing and I don’t know anyone else who is.
After: Yeah, I like this. I like what he’s doing. Very interesting. See, this is one I would investigate.
8. Dick Hyman
“Making Whoopie” (from Dick Hyman and Randy Sandke: Now and Again, Arbors Records). Hyman, piano. Recorded 2004.
Before: Making Whoopie? It’s somebody who’s listened to Art Tatum, somebody who really likes him. Yeah, that’s classic Tatum right there. [arches eyebrows at the modulation]. I like that style. How can you not? Wow. It wouldn’t be Benny Green? I’m trying to think of people who like that style. Dick Hyman. I know he’s got the chops to do that, but I’ve never heard a recording of his. I did a recording with Dick Hyman, Gerald Wiggins, Alan Broadbent and Roger Kellaway. It was nice.
After: He’s a great pianist. He knows all those styles and can play them backwards and forwards. He’s got amazing chops. He’s a great musician. I always think of Dick as somebody who does other people’s stuff, a devotee of this person or that person. I would really like to hear what he does, what Dick Hyman does.
9. Cecil Taylor
“It” (from Momentum Space, Verve). Taylor, piano; Elvin Jones, drums. Recorded in 1998.
Before: Hmm. Ok. Cecil Taylor? Yeah. I don’t know anybody else who plays like that. For me, I can certainly appreciate it as a musician. This is how he plays, so I have to respect that. But I don’t know if I could sit and listen to that, for say an hour. I don’t think I could, unless I was in a certain mind-set.
What kind of mind-set would that be?
I don’t know. [laughter] But sometimes you could be in that mind-set. It’s fascinating to watch. He’s also endowed with a lot of technique. My brother [Bill] worked with him. He loved him. There’s room for everything. I remember playing with Freddie Hubbard and we played opposite with Cecil. After a while there was no differentiation between moods and colors, so it became hard to listen to, for me.
After: Oh, it’s Elvin Jones? Wow. This would be a record to check out anyway, just because. I’ve been in situations that were kind of like that, with my brother and Roger Blank and Ronnie Boykins. It never came out and I don’t even know where the tapes are.
10. Mary Lou Williams
“Credo” (from Mary Lou’s Mass, Smithsonian Folkways). Williams, piano; Carline Ray, electric bass; Sonny Henry, guitar; David Parker, drums, Abdul Rahman, congas. Recorded in 1971.
Before: It sounds like another era, like maybe the 60s or something. It’s kind of funky with the Fender bass. It sounds like a Rudy Van Gelder recording, the piano sound. I really don’t recognize who it might be. It’s a happy kind of thing. At first I was thinking it was The Three Sounds, Gene Harris or somebody like that.
After: Mary Lou Williams? Wow. This is Mary Lou’s Mass? It’s weird. Hearing the Fender bass I wouldn’t have said Mary Lou Williams. When was this done? Not in a million years would I have said Mary Lou. Yeah, she was ahead of her time; harmonically, [her] lines and stuff. People should listen to her, check her out. As should I.
11. Miguel Zenón
“Jíbaro” (from Jíbaro, Marsalis Music). Zenón, alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums. Recorded in 2004.
Before: It’s almost like a calypso, but not quite. Nice, I like it. It’s interesting the way it moves. Is it Miguel Zenón? I haven’t heard this, is it new? It’s kind of danceable, actually. The intellectual is there, in terms of the harmonic thing and the rhythmic thing and the kind of lines he’s playing. So, there’s emotion and the intellect involved, which is the ideal combination. Nice sound, I like his sound too.
After: [notices the studio] Systems II. That’s where I do all my recording. It’s walking distance from my house. Ah, Luis Perdomo, and Antonio Sanchez. Yeah. Is this for Branford’s label? He’s doing some nice stuff, I’ve got to give him credit. Another one to buy.
Your three favorite records of all time?
Well definitely John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. That’s one of my favorites. Billie Holiday’s Lady In Satin, and John Coltrane Live At The Village Vanguard.
This B&A, recorded at the 2005 Toronto Jazz Festival, originally appeared in JazzTimes. Photograph by Larry Appelbaum