I recently saw Kenny Barron in performance during the San Francisco Jazz Festival. He is an elegant and melodic player and was in top form on October 24th.
Barron was born in Philadelphia in 1943 and was already playing piano professionally as a teenager. After moving to New York City, he was hired by tenor saxophonist James Moody. He was a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s Quintet for five years in the 1960s. Barron also played with a number of jazz luminaries, including Freddie Hubbard, Milt Jackson, Ron Carter, and Stanley Turrentine. In the 1970s, he was a member of Yusef Lateef’s band.
At this time, he also became a professor of music at Rutgers University, a position he maintained until 2000. Barron also toured and recorded with Stan Getz in the 1980s and co-founded the quartet Sphere with Charlie Rouse, Buster Williams, and Ben Riley. He has made over 40 recordings as a leader and has five Grammy nominations.
At SFJAZZ, Barron was playing with his trio - Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums - as well as David Sánchez, a former Rutgers student of his, on tenor sax. The program got off to a fast start with a Tommy Flanagan tune called “Freight Train,” with everyone taking solos. This was followed by a more relaxed Kenny Barron original called “New Samba.” There was also a lovely version of “My Funny Valentine,” including a terrific extended solo by Kitagawa on bass.A couple of other Barron originals, “Bud Lite” (a tribute to Bud Powell) and “Lemuria” (from the album of the same name), showed how fleet a player Barron is. However, from my sonic vantage point in the balcony, the piano was not sufficiently enunciated from the rest of the band. Fortunately, Barron did a solo medley of Ellington/Strayhorn tunes, showcasing his lovely technique (he does seem to tickle the ivories). The evening ended with a selection (“Theme #1”) from a film soundtrack that Barron had composed but that was never used in the final movie (a straight-to-video classic, apparently). This was the most straightforward bit of jazz played during the whole concert, but the simple melody was a real crowd pleaser.