Kenny Barron: The Jerry Jazz Musician Interview
By Robert J. Smith
If you looked up the word ubiquitous in some cosmic jazz dictionary, you’re likely to find “Kenny Barron” as its definition. Long considered one of the finest jazz pianists of his generation, Barron has forged celebrated collaborations as a sideman with such luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, Yusef Lateef, Ron Carter, Stan Getz, to name but a few.
Even with such a stellar résumé, this 56 year-old giant is hardly one to rest on his laurels. Since his duet recording with Getz, People Time, was released in 1992, Barron has embarked on a seemingly endless series of collaborations and experiments, all linked by his unique vision and deft touch at the keys. As a leader, his output has run the gamut from Brazilian rhythmic exploration (1993’s Sambao) to straight-ahead group interplay (1996’s trio recording Wanton Spirit and the more densely textured Things Unseen, in 1997) to experiments with form and technology (his collaboration with Mino Cinelu, Swamp Sally, in 1995). A stellar sideman himself, Barron has lent supple support to hundreds of sessions, adding his distinctive colorings to the music of both young lions (like Christian McBride) and old hands (Carter, Abbey Lincoln, et. al) alike. Barron accomplished all this while maintaining a professorship at Rutgers University and keeping a busy touring schedule in the US and Europe.
In the last year, he has also reunited with the stellar collective known as Sphere, joining forces again with bassist Buster Williams, drummer Ben Riley, and sax great Gary Bartz (who replaces the late Charlie Rouse in the group), to continue the unique interplay forged during their partnership in the 1980s. He has also stepped up his involvement in Joken Records, the label he began in partnership with his former manager, Joanne Klein.
Jerry Jazz Musician interviewed Kenny Barron on November 28, 1999, after a Sphere performance in Harrisburg, PA. Before the gig, Barron had endured a long flight from Italy and the mother of all Thanksgiving weekend traffic jams driving to the show.
JJM: First of all, we appreciate you taking the time to talk to us. What were you doing over in Italy?
KB: I did a few things. Actually, I was in Italy and Spain. I did two concerts in Spain with a trio, two guys who live over there – Reggie Johnson and Alvin Queen. And then I did a solo concert in Sicily, and in Milan I played with a symphony orchestra. It was kind of nice.
JJM: That’s interesting. Have you done that before?
KB: Not that often, no. It was something that George Gershwin had done quite a few years ago – “Variations on Four Hands.” They orchestrated it for a full orchestra. That was very nice.
JJM: What prompted Sphere getting back together again?
KB: Mostly it was just people asking. They’d ask Buster or myself or Ben, ‘You think Sphere will ever get back together?’ These were mostly older people who remember the group – a lot of young people don’t remember; they weren’t around. So we thought about it, talked about it, and eventually said ‘Why not?’ Of course, the obvious question was who would replace Rouse. We agreed we wanted somebody from our generation. So we agreed on Gary; we asked him and he was certainly into it.
JJM: What does Gary bring to the table that drew you to him?
KB: He brings different colors because he plays different instruments, number one – alto and soprano. He also brings a different concept. The music is a little more energetic, because Gary is a little more out of the Coltrane kind of thing. The music takes a different shape.
JJM: Is there a difference interplay when you’re onstage or in the studio with a group like Sphere, in which you’re all pretty much equals, rather than playing on somebody else’s date or playing as the leader of your own ensemble?
KB: It’s always different. I’m very comfortable in this situation, and I’m obviously comfortable as a leader. When you’re a sideman, sometimes you subjugate yourself to the leader’s musical vision, and there’s nothing wrong with that. So sometimes you feel like you’re holding back a bit; sometimes you are. It’s not your musical vision – it’s someone else’s. That’s just something you have to deal with.
JJM: When do you find time to compose?
KB: I don’t usually, because I really don’t have time, unless there’s a special project – a recording or something like that. It’s not something I do every day, although I should. Usually, there’s something special coming up – a recording or something – and then I’ll hunker down and hit the pen and paper.
JJM: Two of your recent records – Swamp Sally and Things Unseen – are really challenging, really different pieces. One difference is, of course, in the personnel – a difference between two people in the studio and a larger ensemble. Did you approach writing for each project differently, or were they simply collections of pieces you thought each ensemble could bring something special to?
KB: I had to approach them differently. Things Unseen is pretty straightforward; Swamp Sally was done using computers, MIDI, and all that stuff. A lot of that was done at Mino Cinelu’s house, in his living room – “pre-production” it’s called [chuckles]. I had never worked that way before, so it was a new experience for me. A lot of it was overdubbed.
JJM: There were a lot of different textures.
KB: Absolutely. For me, it was fun. It was something I’d like to try again in the studio. Not live, though, because I wouldn’t want to have to carry all that stuff [laughs].
JJM: Do you still teach at Rutgers?
KB: No, I’m retired. Retired as of May.
JJM: What did you get out of teaching? What did it do for you?
KB: I learned a lot. I learned a lot from the students there. Because they will test you [laughs]. It was challenging. Sometimes they would challenge me. They kept me on my toes; it helped me to organize things in a sequential manner so that I could give it out in some sort of logical way.
JJM: You taught composition?
KB: I taught jazz composition and arranging the last few years, but mainly it was piano. When I first started, the first couple of years, I taught classical theory.
JJM: Could you discuss Joken Records – why you created it, where you intend to take it, and how involved you are in it?
KB: I’m not involved in it as much as I’d like to be; time-wise, it’s a bit too much. But basically, I started it ten years ago or more, to give exposure people who I thought were deserving of some exposure. Not necessarily well known people, but definitely people who were talented. And then maybe some people who were out there but hadn’t had the exposure they deserved. I recorded Ben [Riley]; Ben’s been out there a long time and never had the chance to do an album of his own.
Of course, the problem for me is finding the time to devote full-time to that. Now that I’m retired I intend to devote more time to it. We’ve got a Web site now, but in terms of doing advertising and really going after it, I haven’t had the time until now.
We’ve got a new record coming out right now, actually, by Jeannie Bryson. It’s the first thing she did, actually. I like it better than all the other stuff she did [laughs]. It’s a simple thing with a trio – Victor Lewis and Ray Drummond and her pianist Ted Brancato. That should be coming out in the winter – January or February.
JJM: One of the other releases you’ve done is one by your brother, Bill. What does it mean to release his music under your own banner? Do you feel like something of a caretaker of his music?
KB: Well, when I recorded it he was still alive, of course, but by the time I released it he had passed away. Actually, this is probably the only record he ever did where he played standards. Every other record he did under his own name, he recorded only his own music. When we talked about doing this, I broached the subject with him – ‘Why don’t you do a couple of standards?’ [laughs]. He did, and it worked out well. It’s only been reviewed a few times, but the reviews have been really good. I’m very happy about that.
JJM: What’s next for you?
KB: I’m going back to Italy in two weeks to do a two-piano concert with John Hicks. Sphere starts Tuesday at the Vanguard, for a weeklong engagement. I have a new record coming out in February, called Spirit Song. I think it turned out pretty good – David Sanchez, Eddie Henderson, Rufus Reid, Billy Hart, Russell Malone, Regina Carter. I’m very happy with it.
JJM: Why work so much? You’ve been pretty ubiquitous for a long time now; you’ve done lots of different things with lots of different people. You just mentioned you’ve retired from teaching; do you see yourself slowing down a bit?
KB: Nah. For what? Actually, I just took another teaching job, part time, at the Manhattan School of Music. One day a week, five students. But no – I don’t see myself slowing down. Slow down for what? There’s time enough when the Big Sleep comes. I’ll sleep a long time then.
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If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with pianist McCoy Tyner.