Interview by JOE MUCCIOLI (First published on Red Bank oRBit Febrary 15, 2010)
Formidable. Intimidating, even.
That’s the vibe we get over here at the oRBit desk when we consider Mr. Kenny Barron — mystic keeper of all 88 keys plus the sonic spaces and silences between. An artist who hit the ground running in the kind of company that starts at twelve steps beyond “legendary” — Dizzy Gillespie (in whose quartet the twentysomething pianist first entered the public eye), Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter.
His is that fearless presence that’s made itself at home in contexts that range from hi-octane big-bandwagon Buddy Rich, to the coastal cool of Stan Getz and Chet Baker, to the bop/pop fusion of Michael Brecker, the free-range expeditions ofOrnette Coleman and Yusef Lateef and his own Monk tribute project Sphere.
Throw in an armload of Grammy nominations and it’s like we said — formidable.
When we learned that Kenny Barron would be coming to Red Bank at the head of the touring Monterey Jazz Festival Allstars — and that we’d have a shot at corraling him for an interview — we reckoned we’d be needing a little preparation time. When word came down that Barron had just been named a recipient of this year’s ultra-prestigious National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award — and that the artist “appreciates promptness” in his interviewers — we figured we’d best call in expert assistance.
Like we said — intimidating.
Paging Joe Muccioli — sought-after pianist and arranger; internationally jetsetting conductor and music scholar; impresario behind the nonprofit Jazz Arts Project and the Red Bank Jazz Orchestra. A formidable chap in his own right for sure, but a tad more approachable thanks to his highly visible and eminently audible efforts (such as December’s annual Sinatra Birthday Bash) in and around the Basie-birthing borough of Red Bank.
The man called Mooch sets the scene for us by recalling his days as a student at the Manhattan School of Music; a time when “we used to trek down a few blocks to 114th or so and Broadway and hear live jazz any night of the week (at) The West End Cafe.
“Back then it was programmed by Phil Schaap, and he got every one from Clark Terry, to Cat Anderson to Tiny Grimes…a lot of the old guys we got to see before they passed on…but as I remember now there was a fairly youngish Kenny Barron already established; holding his own and showing us all something!
“This was the kind of place where, if audience members were talking during the set, the performer would at best wait without playing on stage until the chatter stopped…or they would dress them down for disrespecting the music! Even running some of them right out of the joint with applause and support from the rest of the audience.”
This Thursday night at 8pm, the Barron will be joined on the stage of the Count’s Crib by his fellow Allstars Russell Malone on guitar, Kurt Elling on voice,Johnathan Blake on drums, Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass, and lastly but not leastly the amazing jazz/classical violinist Regina Carter. Joe Muccioli sat down to chat with the newly anointed JazzMaster (who of course is a true gentleman and not at all scary in actual fact) on behalf of Red Bank oRBit. Take it, Mooch…
JOE MUCCIOLI: Thanks for talking, Kenny; I’m a big fan, a musician myself, and I’m sure we have a couple of friends in common — Jon Faddis, Harry Harris. And congratulations on your NEA award — you’ve done North Philly proud!
KENNY BARRON: (laughs) Well, thank you very much!
Well, you’ve had an amazing career; you’ve certainly worked with all of my heroes, and I remember Chick Corea a few years ago when he won the JazzMaster award, said pretty much that same thing — it’s amazing to be sitting here with all of my heroes.
It’s a real honor, you know, I’m in great company. I told someone else, when I found out about it, my initial reaction was wow, does that mean I’m old now?
Well, I think it just took them that long to figure out you were a JazzMaster. Now when you started out, you’re playing with Dizzy Gillespie, Philly Joe Jones— did you even realize the greatness you were a part of?
That I was around, yes — I didn’t feel great by myself. I did feel good about being asked to play in the band. A big boost to my ego. My self-confidence, that’s a better word.
Would you consider that to be your real musical education?
Well, I did go to school — Empire State College. Probably the best musical education I could have received.
Years ago, going out and playing, well that was jazz education. Nowadays it’s sort of turned around; it’s part of a university curriculum.
One of the good things about right now is that the young people coming out of the universities are really technically incredible, in terms of their proficiency on their instruments. The only thing they don’t have is the life experience — it’s hard to tell a story if you haven’t lived it.
You were actually a pioneer on the education side of things — years ago, before it was really a common thing for a jazz artist to join a college faculty,
There were other people who started teaching way before me — I’m thinking ofDavid Baker in Indiana. So I don’t want to say pioneer. But I got to have some really good students — Terence Blanchard, Harry Allen. A pop singer named Regina Belle also studied with me.
You’re teaching still at Manhattan School of Music, which was my old alma mater — long before they had a jazz program!
I was, but I’m at Juilliard now.
Kind of blue: Allstars Barron, Malone, Carter and Elling.
That brings to mind a question — when you practice, do you sometimes delve into the classical side of things; classical technique?
Well, first of all I don’t practice nearly as much as I should! But it’s good to practice classical repertoire, just in terms of the technical aspects of the instrument. Just learning how to negotiate the chord changes; how to stimulate your imagination.
I get a sense of intelligence in your playing, in that things seem to have an order — every single note has a reason to be there. Now when you improvise, are you thinking in terms of composition as you go along?
Actually my mind is kind of a blank slate! If I’m thinking of anything, the one thing that’s on my mind is being as lyrical as possible. How can I make it, you know, tell a story?
You do compose as well — you find a definite distinction in the craft as far as composition?
Only in the sense that composing is improvisation — you make it permanent by writing it down! It’s a slower process of course; you have time to think about ‘do I want this note or not’ — but sometimes when I compose I just sit down to noodle and play, and ideas will come from that.
Any inside information as to what our audience can come loaded for, with this concert at the Count Basie Theatre?
Well, I think you’ll be hearing compositions from all the musicians, along with some of the American jazz standards. A combination of all sorts of things. I’m not sure, but I think I played the Count Basie once, many years ago.
Well, they’ve restored it since then and you’re going to be seeing a beautiful venue; a great tribute to Red Bank’s own Count Basie. And it sounds like a great group you’ve got up on the bandstand with you — have you guys been touring already?
No, actually we’re just starting…it’ll be about three and a half weeks, and all in the States, so that’s unusual right there. And it’s in two parts; we’ll do this thing in February and then in April we’ll start on the West Coast. In March, after the first part of the tour, I have some duo projects I’d like to get to, and then some things with my trio. And then I’m gonna take a vacation!
I think it’s great that for once you see this country supporting a great group like that…what are your feelings about how this country supports jazz? Or for that matter, the arts?
I think it’s okay…obviously it could be better, but you do have the National Endowment for the Arts, and they’ve got all sorts of grants for performers. There are places where there’s almost no support for the arts, so…I feel pretty good about it.
Do you ever change your performances by what you get back from the audience?
Sometimes you make a conscious effort to do that, but what I’ve found is that it really doesn’t work — for me! It’s best that I just do what I do. One of the things I think the audience can relate to is honesty — I think they respond if what you’re playing is real. If they feel that you’re really into what you’re doing, they’ll get into it with you.