Today marks Kenny Barron’s 70th birthday. I have written before (click here) about the impact he had on me as a teacher and a role model for class and dignity. Here, though, I will focus on his incredible recorded legacy. Whittling down the recordings that have shaped my own conception to 10 was pretty well impossible, so I picked 10 desert-island highlights and explored (with 4 additional “honorable mentions” after each one) some of the trends that they represent. I’m still leaving out plenty, but this will provide a snapshot, as well as some suggested listening for anyone itching for more KB.
1 ) “You Go To My Head” (from Lemuria-Seascape)
Rubato piano intro. Melody comes around and Ray Drummond enters with an ethereal bass line while Ben Riley plays subtly with brushes. Then, in perfect sync, Riley moves to sticks and Drummond plays a rock-solid walking bass line while Kenny swings elegantly over the top. I’ve heard this “formula” used by this trio live and on recordings dozens, maybe hundreds of times, and even if I know what’s coming, the sublime execution still knocks me out every time.
Honorable Mention: Swinging Medium-Tempo Trio Performances
“Embraceable You” (from New York Attitude) with Rufus Reid and Freddie Waits
“On the Sunny Side of the Street” (from The Only One) with Drummond and Riley
“I’m Confessin’” (from The Moment) with Reid and Victor Lewis
“Minor Blues” (from Minor Blues) with George Mraz and Riley
2 ) “Hindsight” (from Quickstep)
I was ambivalent about putting an out-of-print track on this list, but y’all need to hunt down this album anyway. When I think of Kenny Barron as a bandleader, it always starts with his “classic” quintet with Eddie Henderson on trumpet, the late John Stubblefield on tenor, David Williams (preceded by Cecil McBee) on bass and Victor Lewis on drums. This album (featuring gorgeous original tunes by various band members as well as this Cedar Walton gem) is embedded in my DNA and hearing this band live throughout the ‘90s was monumentally influential to me. They’re represented on Live at Fat Tuesdays and Things Unseen as well.
Honorable Mention: Quintet
“Hey, It’s Me You’re Talking To” (from Other Places)
“Marie Laveau” (from Images)
Tom Harrell: “Twenty Bar Tune” (from Moon Alley)
Claudio Roditi featuring Paquito D’Rivera: “Pent-Up House” (from Milestones)
3 ) “You Don’t Know What Love Is” (from Invitation)
If I had to point to a single “a-ha” moment with Kenny, it was in our very first lesson when he played this tune. It took me years to absorb what he was doing, but those 5 minutes encapsulated the nuances of ballad playing that I have spent the subsequent 20+ years working on. He has recorded this song several times (and not always in a ballad format – check out the swinging version on The Perfect Set) and it is always elegant and soulful.
Honorable Mention: Solo Piano Ballads
“Star-Crossed Lovers” (from At the Piano)
“But Beautiful” (from It Might As Well Be Spring by Frank Morgan)
“Dolores St.” (from Spiral)
“Memories of You” (from The Traveler)
4 ) Sphere: “Eronel” (from Four In One)
It is a shame that the whole Sphere catalog isn’t easily available. Kenny, Buster Williams and Thelonious Monk alumni Charlie Rouse and Ben Riley did a wonderful job of capturing Monk’s spirit (whether playing his tunes or other material, as on the wonderful Bird Songs album) without being slavish to any particular musical conventions or clichés. Kenny’s Monk influence continues to be an essential and completely organic component to his style.
Honorable Mention: Monk Tunes
Bobby Hutcherson: “Well You Needn’t” (from In the Vanguard)
Jimmy Owens: “Pannonica” (from The Monk Project)
“Shuffle Boil” (from The Perfect Set)
Ron Carter: “Epistrophy” (from Peg Leg)
5 )“Blue Monk” (from Peruvian Blue), featuring Ted Dunbar, guitar
Because Kenny is such an attuned ensemble player and such a flexible improviser, it stands to reason that he would be a great duo partner, and he most certainly is. I have a particularly deep affection for the highly interactive and deeply soulful work he did with guitarist Ted Dunbar, whose influence on me was second only to Kenny’s among my teachers at Rutgers.
Honorable Mention: Duets
Stan Getz: “Soul Eyes” (from People Time)
“Giant Steps” (from 1+1+1), featuring Ron Carter, bass
“Dexterity” (from What If?), featuring Victor Lewis, drums
Jim Hall: “Something to Wish For” (from Panorama: Live at the Village Vanguard)
6 ) “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise” (from Green Chimneys)
Playing at bright tempos is equal parts chops and general comfort with the pulse. Kenny, of course, has a surplus of each, and for years this standard has been a go-to vehicle for him to burn.
Honorable Mention: Uptempo Performances
Freddie Hubbard: “Take It to the Ozone” (from Superblue)
“518” (from Live at Fat Tuesdays)
Eddie Harris: “Lover, Come Back to Me” (from There Was A Time)
Gary Bartz: “Impressions” (from There Goes the Neighborhood)
7 ) Stan Getz: “Voyage” (from Serenity)
Kenny’s work as a composer is a bit underrated, perhaps because his work as a player rightly attracts so much attention. He has developed a distinct voice as a composer and boy are his tunes fun to play (though often challenging). A number of these tunes were recorded with Stan Getz, whose glorious later years consistently bear the stamp of Kenny’s playing.
Honorable Mention: Playing His Tunes as a Sideman on Others’ Records
Joel Frahm: “Song for Abdullah” (from We Used to Dance)
Bill Barron: “Row House” (from The Next Plateau)
Ron Carter: “Sunshower” (from Piccolo)
Charlie Haden: “Twilight Song” (from Night and the City)
8 ) “Zumbi” (from Canta Brazil)
Kenny does a great job (surprise surprise) with Latin music and is particularly enamored of the sounds of Brazil. This record is a delightful collaboration with the group Trio da Paz, and they push one another to inspiring heights.
Honorable Mention: Latin/Brazilian Compositions
“Calypso” (from Landscape)
“Gardenia” (from Sambao)
“Cinco” (from Golden Lotus)
“Cook’s Bay” (from Spirit Song)
9 ) Jimmy Scott: “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” (from All the Way)
I’ll come right out and say it: as an accompanist on ballads, Kenny is unsurpassed. His playing in this context equals that of the all-timers (Teddy Wilson, Hank Jones, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, etc.). Rich voicings, elegant touch and great sensitivity add up to precisely the support that anybody would want. This whole Jimmy Scott album is a gem, and I find myself particularly drawn to this track in part because Kenny has also recorded it in a robustly swinging context and it therefore displays his flexibility.
Honorable Mention: Ballad Accompaniment
Benny Carter: “Misty” (from All That Jazz – Live At Princeton)
Joe Henderson: “Chelsea Bridge” (from The Kicker)
Christian McBride: “Miyako” (from Number Two Express)
Abbey Lincoln: “Skylark” (from It’s Me)
10 ) Yusef Lateef: “Nubian Lady” (from The Gentle Giant – KB on electric piano)
Though obviously Kenny’s legacy as an instrumentalist revolves around the piano, it isn’t the only thing up his sleeve. He has done some great work on electric keyboards and plays a mean double bass. It feels a little funny to include a track on which he isn’t a featured soloist, but a) his playing is so tasty here, b) his interplay with fellow Philadelphian Ray Bryant on acoustic piano oozes with soul and c) it’s appropriate to give a shout-out to Dr. Lateef (heard here on flute), one of Kenny’s most important mentors and employers.
Honorable Mention: Playing Something Other Than Acoustic Piano
“Spirits” (from Lucifer – KB on electric piano and clavinet)
“Swamp Demon” (from Sunset to Dawn – KB on electric piano)
Dizzy Gillespie: “Barbados Carnival” (from Jambo Caribe – KB on acoustic bass)
James Moody: “Kris Kross” (from Feelin’ it Together – KB on electric piano and harpsichord)