|Pianist Kenny Barron|
Kenny Barron, 74, has long been hailed as one of the finest jazz pianists around. Known for his elegant and his delicate playing. When Barron lays out on a ballad, for example, his fingertips glide across the keys as if covered with feathers. Even on up-tempo tunes when Barron is raising holy hell his playing and improvising are imbued with loads of sophistication. A native of Philadelphia Barron built a sound reputation with some leading figures in jazz such as James Moody, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and Freddie Hubbard. If proof is needed that Barron is deserving of all the high praise afforded him over the years-- nine Grammy nominations, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz master is a taste of some of his accolades-- survey any area of his discography as a bandleader. You’ll likely find trio gems, duets with the likes of Dave Holland and Regina Carter, masterpieces with the legendary group Sphere, and some solo outings where Barron’s virtuosity is heart stopping. In 2016, Barron made one of his best trio recordings yet “Book of Intuition” with his longstanding trio, proving although he’s been active nearly five decades his chops remain in mint condition. Last week, Barron released another wonderful album “Concentric Circles,” a quintet date of mostly originals. I Dig Jazz spoke with Barron Monday morning about an array of topics dear to him such as his affinity for Detroit pianists, how the jazz scene has changed over the years, and the enjoyment he still derives from composing and recording.
I’d like to start with something you said the last time you played in Detroit with Regina Carter.
You were interviewed before the concert and you were asked about your musical influences. You said you were influenced principally by some of the great Detroit piano players.,
You mentioned Barry Harris, Hank Jones, and Tommy Flanagan. Will you expound on how their playing touched you?
I first heard Tommy when I was in junior high school. A friend of mine had this recording. I think it was either a Miles Davis record or a Sonny Rollins record. They were doing a Dave Brubeck piece ’In Your Own Sweet Way’. What immediately struck me about Tommy was his touch. Just the way he touched the piano. It was very light, very delicate, and very clear. That was the thing. And then, the lines that Tommy played made sense. It was like speaking in sentences. It wasn't just running up and down the scales. He actually played ideas, beautiful ideas. That was the thing that got me about Tommy. When I was young I really tried to emulate him. Hank was the same way. He played the same way, a pearly touch and just beautiful ideas.
So, do you believe that kind of sophisticated playing is still out there today?
Young people are doing different things today. That kind of lyricism isn't necessarily there. Young players got other things happening. The stuff they play is maybe a little more sophisticated in terms of rhythm and stuff like that. They're more harmonic now, and not necessarily a lot more sophisticated than 40 years ago. They're still melodic but in a different way. Although there are some who rely primarily on technique. I won’t mention any names. That kind of playing leaves me cold a little bit.
Do you believe younger players are more technically driven nowadays?
Yeah, I think that's just mostly among younger people. Another reason is probably that many of them have been going to school, academia and the conservatories. Conservatories kind of rely on that. That's a very important aspect to conservatories. There's nothing wrong with that, but I don't think it should be done at the expense of emotional content.
Does emotional content come with age?
When you've lived a little longer, you got something to talk about. I think that's a big part of it. Just living longer. Then you'll have something to say.
On the Detroit scene, there's a lot of good young players that are coming up. When I listen to them their technical proficiency is apparent and they can really play. They have a lot of technique, but I wonder if they ever listen to the masters because I can't hear the history of their instruments when they play.
That's all part of it. For a lot of young players, they don't go back far enough. For a lot of them, the saxophone history starts at maybe John Coltrane and that's old fashion to them. Never mind Ben Webster or Coleman Hawkins, and saxophonist like Stan Getz. They don't listen to that. There's a lot to be learned from listening to older people. One of the things that we were able to do years ago is you can listen to somebody's sound and identify them. That's hard to do now.
Do you think it's partly because their training is coming from academia as opposed to good down home jam sessions?
That's just part of it. Definitely, that's a big part of it. There's so much reliance on technique and everybody kind of sounds the same.
Do you think it can ever go back to that? Where everybody is technically literate and they have their own uniqueness, their own sound, too?
I think it can go back to that. I don't know what it will take, but I think it can go back to that. Most of the stuff is academically driven. It's a different scene so it's hard to ask a person to just get out there and try to be unique. First of all, there aren't the opportunities, so that's one thing that's missing.
There aren't the opportunities for young people to get out there and play. When I was coming up there were a lot of different bands. So many bands, professional bands and then local groups that you could play in. Those opportunities don't exist anymore. It's not the young player's fault they don't get that kind of experience anymore.
What's happening here in Detroit is that a lot of the young musicians graduate high school or college and go straight out and start their own bands as opposed serving an apprenticeship in an established band.
Well, again that's one of the things that doesn't happen anymore. You don't get a chance to serve an apprenticeship with anybody. There's a lot of experience they're missing. It's hard when right out of college, you're a bandleader. Leading a band comes with a lot of responsibility. You're the band leader, that's more than a person who calls the tunes.
How long did it take before you felt comfortable with leading? You've played in some great bands over the course of your career.
I don't know what year it was, but I just maybe struck out in the 70's or 80's. I first started locally, in New York. Going around with the trio and that kind of escalated. Then after I had worked with Stan Getz, it kind of blossomed a little bit more. To where I had an agent in Europe who started booking me on European tours with a trio, which at the time was Ben Riley and Ray Drummond. We did a lot of tours. We did several records in Europe. Then after that, I had a quintet for a while with Victor Lewis and David Williams, Eddie Henderson, and John Stubblefield.
That's a great band.
We had fun. Back to the trio, between the trio and quintet so my trio now is Kiyoshi Kitagawa, on bass and Johnathan Blake, on the drums. We’re coming to Detroit as a quintet, we just finished last night actually at a club called the Jazz Standard in New York.Then in the quintet, there's Kiyoshi Kitagawa and Johnathan Blake, and Dayna Stephens on tenor and Mike Rodriguez on trumpet, fantastic players.
Which setting do you enjoy playing in the most a trio or a slightly larger ensemble?
I like both. With the trio, I may play more standards. I can kind of go in any direction at any moment. Not so much with a quintet because you have horn players, and they have parts to play. Solo is probably the hardest of all for me.
Yeah. It's always scary at least in the beginning.
How so? What do you find so daunting?
There's always just little knots in my stomach before I play. Which is normal I think.
How was it playing with the great stylist Stan Getz?
It was great. He was also a very lyrical player which I can certainly appreciate, and he had a beautiful sound. Very identifiable. That's what I'm talking about. He had an identifiable sound. Even my wife, who's not a musician, she can identify Stan. She can identify John Coltrane because she grew up listening to music.
Did Getz approach you about joining his band?
He got my number from somebody and the first time I played with him, I actually took Chick Corea's place. Stan had a band that was playing mostly Chick Corea's music, and they called it the Captain Marvel band. It was Stanley Clark on bass and Tony Williams on drums.
I took Chick's place with that group for just maybe two or three weeks? That was kind of the beginning and maybe sometime after that, Stan started calling me regularly to come out to California to play. He was an artist-in-residence at Stanford University so I would go out there and play with him. Then it escalated into a summer tour with all the festivals and stuff and then full time.
Another of your big named bands was Sphere named in honor of the great Thelonious Monk. Was Monk another of your chief influences?
Yeah, he was a big influence, but the thing is with that band we tried not to play like Monk because Monk was such a stylist. Monk was one of those musicians who could play any standard and it sounded as if he wrote it. We had two guys in the band who played with Monk Charlie Rouse and Ben Riley, so it was a great opportunity to play some of Monk's music. They knew how Monk’s music was supposed to sound. How it was supposed to be. That was a great opportunity and it was a cooperative band without a leader.
We all shared in the responsibilities. Everybody got paid the same amount of money. One person took care of this, one person took care of transportation, so it was a shared responsibility.
I recall watching the Thelonious Monk documentary ‘Straight No Chaser’. In a scene, you, Barry Harris, and Tommy Flanagan were sitting at the piano trying to dissect one of Monk’s compositions. Do you recall that documentary and is Monk’s music really that complicated to dissect and to play?
Some of his melodies are there's a tune called ‘Four in One’ and ‘Trinkle ‘. Technically those are very tricky. They're like, finger-busters. That’s what I call them. Harmonically, it's not that complicated. Sometimes it moves in different directions than you might think, but harmonically it's not that complicated. The melodies sometimes are pretty complicated. Then the other thing is that sometimes his stuff is deceptively simple harmonically. So simple that it's hard to play.
Did you ever get any pointers from Monk?
No, I never really got a chance to really meet him. I would go see him at the Village Vanguard. I was very young and to me, he was kind of a larger than life figure. I knew Ben Riley. He was playing with him at the time. But Ben didn't really introduce me to him. I wasn't the kind of person to go up and say hey how are you doing and meet him. That Just wasn't me.
Going back to the Detroit pianists did you ever get a chance to get any pointers from Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan or Barry Harris?
Oh yeah, with Tommy, I did a recording with him, a duo recording. Two pianos. That was for a Japanese label. For me, that was scary because I was playing with my idol. I couldn't play for listening. I wound up doing this gig in the 90's. I toured in Japan, with ten piano players. It was called 100 Golden Fingers. I was the youngest one. It was Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, and pianists like Cedar Walton, John Lewis, Roger Kellaway, and Monty Alexander. I had a chance to listen to Tommy every night for three or four weeks. It was great. I learned just from listening to him. Hank was kind of the acknowledged master back then. Whenever Hank played, everybody was right there backstage, checking him out. That was a great experience and no egos. No egos at all.
How fertile was the jazz scene in Philly back in the day when you decided you wanted to be a jazz musician? Did you get your act together there or did you have to go away to really understand the music?
No, I kind of had good beginnings there because Philly had a pretty good jazz scene. There were lots of small clubs where young players could play and work on their stuff. Then Philly also had dances they were called cabarets where people would bring their food and stuff and drinks. It was like a big party and so you would have to play for dancing, but what they danced to was jazz. Then there were some rhythm and blues bands, so a lot of those gigs and then a lot of little small bars in Philly I used to work at. Then Philly had two major jazz clubs. One was called The Showboat and the other was called Pep's. I liked to go there.
Yusef Lateef did a great recording at Pep's.
That's right. ‘Live at Pep's’. I have that recording
At what point did you decide jazz was going to be your thing? Was it early on? Had you been exposed to it as a kid?
Oh yeah, definitely. I was definitely exposed to it. My oldest brother was a musician who played tenor. He had a whole bunch of records. When I was 10 years old I used to go and find those records and listen to them. We also had a great 24-hour jazz station. I've never really thought about anything else. I just wanted to play music that was it.
Did you go from Philly to New York?
Yeah, I graduated from high school in 1960 and I stayed in Philly for a year. In 1961, I decided to move to New York. My brother was already there. I wound up actually meeting with a bass player from Detroit and he was living right next door to my brother. He said I'm hardly ever here because I'm always at my girlfriend's house. You can stay here, just take care of the rent, so I did. Rent was like sixty dollars a month or something like that. The New York scene was great. It was really beautiful.
How long did it take you to find work there? Did you kind of make a name for yourself right away or was it a process?
It was a process. I don't think anybody can just go there and sweep the city by storm. That's not going to happen. Where I was living. I lived down in the east village. I could walk to the two major jazz clubs. One of the clubs was the Five Spot and the other one was the Jazz Gallery. I happen to go to the Five Spot one night and James Moody was playing. He was playing with a great sextet and he knew my brother. He asked me to sit in. I said sure, so I played and shortly after that he hired me. That was kind of my first break in New York City and that wasn't long after I'd moved there so I was very lucky in that way. Luckily because of him, I got the job with Dizzy. He recommended me for the tour with Dizzy. That was a really big step for me.
Has there ever been a period where it got so bad or so difficult to make a living as a musician that you wanted to quit and pursue something else?
I stayed with Dizzy for four years. I quit, and it was kind of an impulsive thing. I had just tied the knot and then my wife was pregnant with our second child. I wanted to stay in town for a while, I didn't want to travel anymore. Being young, I didn't really save any money. That was a really dumb move, but we got through it. I thought about a day job. I just didn't know what kind of day job I wanted. I'd actually got some applications for airlines and stuff like that. Luckily, I didn't have to do any of that. By that time, I was living in Brooklyn and it turned out Freddie Hubbard lived right around the corner from me. He started calling me to work with him. That was also another great neighborhood in Brooklyn. Pianist Wynton Kelly lived in the neighborhood so did Cedar Walton. It was great. Anyway, I started working with Freddy, which spared me having to get a day job. He came along at the perfect time.
A good piano player can always find work.
You can, but there are other variables. One of the things that I wish, which unfortunately today a lot of musicians aren’t aware of. Taking care of business. Showing up at a gig on time stuff like that. That's a very, very important part of it, too. You can play your butt off, but if you're not responsible, nobody's going to call you.
You have a new album coming out ‘Concentric Circles’.
It came out Friday.
Will you talk about the album and how it ranks among your other albums?
Well, it's a quintet date and it's the same group I’m coming to Detroit with. I'm very happy with it. It's a great band, they really play and they're very energetic and have a lot of fire. The music is primarily originals. I'd say it's about 80% or more. On every record, I do a Monk piece so this record I did a solo. I did ’Reflections,’ one of his ballads. I did a Lenny White composition called’ L's Bop,’ which came out really good. I've very happy with the recording.
Do you still derive a lot of enjoyment from recording and composing music?
I still look forward to it. Every time we record, it's a chance to document where we are at a particular time, but also it's just great and inventive to hear your music played well by great people. That's a big incentive. It keeps me composing and then working and trying different things.
Do you ever have periods where you go back and listen to recordings that you did in the 60's or the 70's?
Oh yeah, and usually when I do, I'm just like God, that sounds horrible. You listen to yourself and you always hear what you could have done better.
They say that's growth though when you look back and you can say, "Yeah, if I'd have played that note it would have been that much better" or whatever.
Yeah, that is growth. Learning what not to do. What not to play.
How has the jazz scene changed?
Well, it's changed quite a bit. The number of places to play first, that's a big change. When I was with Dizzy we were guaranteed to work 40 weeks out of the year and most of that was on the road traveling in the states. One of the big differences for us is that you would work in a club, let's say we would go out to California and work at the Jazz Workshop or in San Francisco, but you're always in a club for two or three weeks as opposed to two or three nights. Two or three weeks in San Francisco then you go down to LA and do three weeks at the Lighthouse. We were away a lot. One of the things that happened was that there were more clubs. Many more clubs from New York to the Midwest.
There were even a couple clubs down in the south. In Atlanta. Clubs in Atlantic City.
In Detroit I used to go hit the Minor Key, and we played Baker’s a lot. Then they had a whole thing on the west coast. Seattle, Portland all the way down to San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego. All of those places we would play for two to three weeks. It was great. That doesn't exist anymore, so you can't book a tour. It's very hard to book a tour in the United States. Unless you're just doing one-nighters. So that's one of the big differences. Just the sheer number of. That doesn't exist anymore. I kind of miss that.
The other thing is that most of the jazz festivals now aren't jazz festivals anymore. That's kind of a downer. I look at some of the international jazz festivals that like Montreux jazz festival. That festival is down to jazz night. Some of the big jazz festivals may have Elton John as the headliner. He's nowhere near being a jazz artist. I actually understand the necessity for selling tickets. I do understand that, but they'll spend a million dollars on Elton John.
That kind of bums me out and then the fact that you won't find a blues festival hiring jazz artists at all. Rock festivals they're not going to hire me. That kind of turns me off a little bit, but then there are some good and positive changes. There are a lot of young players doing different things. Trying to widen the audience. Hopefully, that'll work.
Are you speaking about artists like Robert Glasper who's created a hybrid between jazz and hip-hop?
Yeah, I mean I don't necessarily agree, but I've heard Robert play in a trio setting and he's an incredible musician, Everybody's got a family you got to make money. I do understand that.
I figured that was a part of it. Once they get a taste of that R&B and that Rock money it's hard for them to come back to jazz.
Yeah, I've seen him win a Grammy so the focus may be there. Which I get. I understand.
For the most part, are you happy with the level of new talent that's out there?
Oh yeah! The musicianship is incredible. Do you know Gerald Clayton?
I love Gerald’s playing.
He studied with me at Manhattan School of Music. He's an incredible player. I love that boy. There's another young guy, he's from New Orleans, Sullivan Fortner. He's seriously bad.
I taught Jon Batiste. He was one of my students too. Batiste has always been more of an entertainer. That's his thing. I remember when he did his senior recital at Juilliard. He did a second-line thing at the end. It was fun, but he's got that entertainer thing.
Last question. You're regarded as one of the best jazz pianists in the history of the music, so if a young player came to you and asked, ‘Mr. Barron, what can I do to achieve what you achieved and even more.’ what advice would you give him or her?
That's hard to say. Thirty years ago, I would have said just hang out, practice. I know there are some good students coming out of college. What are they going to do though? Everybody's not going to be able to play. Everybody won't be able to earn a living playing music, but if that's what they want to do then, they have to practice and they have to play. You could practice forever, but you have to play.
The music is basically a social thing. It's a group effort. You have to play with people, and you somehow have to play with people better than you. Who’re all matured and so that you can learn from them. You find all these people coming out of jazz, graduating from college and are band leaders. It's so easy to make a record now. You can pretty much do it yourself in your living room. Years ago, people actually had to seek you out. The best advice would be to just practice, listen, and play. Those are the main things.
The Kenny Barron Quintet plays Paradise Jazz Series at Orchestra Hall Saturday May 12th 2018-8:00 pm Special guest saxophonist Melissa Aidana (3711 Woodward Ave 48201 Detroit, MI 313-576-5111)