LENOX -- Mention Kenny Barron to any committed jazz fan, and he, or she, doubtlessly will cite a favorite disc, perhaps more than one, among the more than 40 Barron has made as ensemble leader or soloist for more than four decades. And equally striking: During roughly the same period he has gathered an impressive discography as sideman with some of the world’s most important jazz players.
Demonstrating a policy of integrating jazz programs with classical music and pop events over the entire Tanglewood season, the Kenny Barron Trio will perform at 8 this evening in Seiji Ozawa Hall, in fact, on the first full day of the festival’s summer 2014 season.
Joining Barron for the occasion are the regular members of the trio, Kiyoshi Kitagawa, who has played bass beside him for some 20 years, and Jonathan Blake, the drummer who has been with him, he says, six to eight years.
So obviously broad are the repertory possibilities, Barron prefers not to be specific about the evening’s program details; he offers some general information: "There will be some Latin stuff, some [Thelonious] Monk -- you always have Monk in my performances -- mostly my compositions, ranging from ballads, bossa novas and very modern pieces," he suggested during a phone conversation from Palo Alto, Calif., one afternoon a week ago.
Settling into a session with Barron, one quickly appreciates his sensitive keyboard touch -- he has been called the most lyrical of jazz pianists by more than one person with a reliable ear for such things. He ascribes that quality in his playing to early lessons from Tommy Flanagan, the artist who cited inspiration from Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Nat Cole, a pianist who, conceded Barron, "really got me."
"I got all of this from his recordings -- I never got to hear him [perform] live until much later in life," he added.
Barron, while a teenager in his native Philadelphia, began playing professionally with Mel Melvin’s orchestra. By age 19, Barron had migrated to New York, there performing as a free-lance musician with Roy Haynes, Lee Morgan and James Moody. Upon Moody’s recommendation, Dizzy Gillespie hired Barron without hearing him play a note, and it was in Gillespie’s band that Barron developed his enduring appreciation for Latin and Caribbean rhythms.
After five years with Gillespie’s ensemble, Barron performed with Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Milt Jackson and Buddy Rich. Barron ascribes his early ‘70s association with Yusef Lateef as a key influence in his love for improvisation. Encouraged by Lateef, to pursue a college education, Barron balanced touring with studies and earned his B.A. in music at Empire State College, and by 1973, he had joined the faculty at Rutgers University as professor of music. a position he held until 2000, mentoring such artists as David Sanchez, Terence Blanchard and Regina Bell.
He recorded "Sunset to Dawn," the first of his many albums in 1974.
Among Barron’s other fruitful collaborations were those with Stan Getz, Ron Carter, Jimmy Heath and most recently with David Holland, performing in a duo that took them throughout America, as well as over to Europe.
Barron estimates that he plays more than 100 dates a year in concert halls and clubs -- he has few problems in getting work. But he is concerned about the younger players coming up. "There is an audience for jazz," he asserts, "but today there aren’t the working groups, not the number of venues. I’d like to see more places to play for younger players."
On jazz festivals: "My own personal opinion is that there is a misrepresentation of music -- they announce the lineups for jazz festivals and then none of them are jazz artists; they have pop artists, rhythm and blues artists. That hurts.
"It’s doubtful that a major rhythm and blues festival would hire me. But a major jazz festival would hire Elton John who has nothing to do with jazz," a matter of policy that, Barron suggests, has to do with money.
Barron offers praise for what he regards as the good jazz festivals -- he mentioned the one at Stanford, and the Detroit Jazz Festival.
"San Francisco has a brand new venue called ‘San Francisco Jazz Center.’ It’s in the Civic Center, and they have a policy of booking jazz; I’ve played there several times."