The baron of the jazz spread

Seasoned Philly-born pianist Kenny Barron performs at TAPAC with his Super trio.

Jazz festival 311 (photo credit: GEORGY STOLIAROV)
Jazz festival 311
(photo credit: GEORGY STOLIAROV)
Kenny Barron has been described as one of the more lyrical improvisational musicians of our times. The 68-year-old jazz pianist will, no doubt, demonstrate that facility, and plenty more, at his upcoming concert at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center next Friday (9:30 p.m.), when he plays here with his trio as part of the Opera House Jazz series.
Barron’s cohorts this time around will be the Super Piano trio of Japanese-born American bass player Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Johnathan Blake.
Barron was last in these parts in January 2011 at the inaugural Red Sea Winter Jazz Festival in Eilat. On that occasion, he performed with Israeli saxophonist Eli Degibri in a pared down instrumental duet format. It was an intriguing artistic foray that offered the audience an intimate glimpse of how musicians went about producing the goods with a surprising instrumental combination, without the help of a standard bass and drum rhythm section.
In fact, Barron has enjoyed a number of sax-piano synergies over the years, including with iconic reedman Stan Getz during Getz’s final years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Happily, the results of that confluence were captured on an album called People Time, recorded live in Copenhagen, Denmark, just weeks prior to the legendary saxophonist’s demise.
“Yes, I have had occasion to play in duos with a few saxophonists, but there was only one Stan Getz,” observes the pianist.
In fact, Barron has dipped his nimble fingers into numerous genres of jazz over a career that has lasted more than half century and counting. He was born in Philadelphia in 1943 and moved to New York in 1961, where he worked briefly with some of the established stars of the jazz scene, such as saxophonist-flutist James Moody, trumpeter Lee Morgan, drummer Roy Haynes and saxophonist Lou Donaldson. He also enjoyed long sideman tenures with trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist-flutist Yusef Lateef and bassist Ron Carter.
He started making more of his own mark in the jazz community as co-leader of the group Sphere in the 1980s, along with bassist Buster Williams, drummer Ben Riley and reedman Charlie Rouse.
Considering Barron’s highly melodic approach to jazz, the group’s choice to focus on the often obliquely angled music of bebop founder pianist Thelonious Monk may seem a bit incongruous.
“Yes, Monk’s style was a little corky,” notes Barron with a laugh, adding that part of Sphere’s raison d’etre was to try to coax the then reclusive Monk back onto the stage and into the recording studio. “At the time, Monk was getting a lot of recognition. He even made the cover of Time magazine [one of only four jazz musicians to warrant that honor to date] but, for whatever reason, he decided to stop playing and hid away at the home of the baroness Nica [arts patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who had also cared for ailing modern jazz founding father saxophonist Charlie Parker in the early 1950s]. Sphere started because we heard he was ill and wasn’t playing. We hoped that if he heard us playing his music, that would inspire him to get better and come back to playing.”
Unfortunately, Barron and his colleagues’ efforts proved to be a lost cause, and Monk never resumed his career before his death in 1982 at the age of 64 on the very day Sphere recorded the group’s first album of Monk material.
“We kept the flame burning, at least for a while,” says Barron.
Sphere ended in 1988 when Rouse died, only resurfacing a decade later when saxophonist Gary Bartz joined the group.
Barron has also performed and recorded his fair share of Latin-seasoned jazz and was initially drawn over to that side of the musical tracks by legendary trumpeter-bandleader Dizzy Gillespie. Barron’s ability to ebb and flow among so many areas of musical exploration is very impressive. For his part, the pianist says he takes it all in his stride.
“There is so much music out there and I love all of it,” he states, stressing however that there is nothing premeditated about his musical roaming. “I try to learn as much as I can about all the different styles. I say to myself, ‘Let’s see how that would work’ or ‘Let’s see how this goes’ and, hopefully, it’s organic.”
Part of Barron’s genre border-hopping approach also came from playing with now 91-year-old saxophonist-flutist Yusef Lateef, who was one of the first jazz artists to delve into the musical intricacies of the non-Western world.
“He was really into different musical cultures, especially Africa and the Middle East, and their rhythms and scales,” says Barron.
“It led to a lot of interesting things.
I remember hearing Yusef when I was still in high school. That was in the late 1950s, and I was very intrigued by what he was doing.”
The pianist has also spent much of his career working with the classic jazz trio format of piano-bass-drums, producing quite a few memorable recordings, such as Live at Bradley’s and The Perfect Set.
Kenny Barron and the Super Piano trio will perform at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center on January 13 at 9:30 p.m. For more information and tickets: (03) 692-7777 and