He's spent over half a century making a masterful mark as a pianist, composer, and educator. Now nearing 75, jazz great Kenny Barron continues to impress on his Blue Note debut Concentric Circles. He talked to Keyboard about his latest recorded triumph.
How does it feel to be making your Blue Note Records debut as you near 75 years of age?
It feels great. It’s weird the way it happened. I’m signed with Universal France and this record was really supposed to come out on impulse!, but in the middle of doing it there was a big shakeup there. The producer was let go, as well as his assistant. So the record was kind of in limbo. Then [Blue Note President] Don Was said, “I’ll put it out on Blue Note.” So that’s how it happened, actually. And it’s nice to be on that label.
What’s amazing about Don is that many people think of him being more in the pop world, but he has an encyclopedic knowledge of all kinds of music.
Yeah. I think it’s great.
The last time we talked you said to me, “Music is a journey, but you never want to arrive.” You also spoke of how even to this day you keep searching and trying to find new things.
I think that’s what it is. It’s about self-discovery. You find things that are new for you. So I think that kind of leads you on your journey, because there’s nothing new under the sun, really.
Concentric Circles is the name of your new album. What does the title signify?
That’s a good question [Laughs]. It just appealed to me. I floated it by Karen, my manager, and she said, “I like that title, Concentric Circles.” It’s a bunch of circles with the same center.
The new album is a quintet record, which is sort of a departure from your recent trio outings. When I put it on, I was immediately reminded of Live at Fat Tuesdays, the album you made with [trumpeter] Eddie Henderson and [saxophonist] John Stubblefield back in the '90s. Has it been a while since you’ve recorded in that format?
I have performed in that format - probably the last time was when I did a couple of weeks at Dizzy’s [jazz club in New York City]. But it’s been a while since I recorded in that format. So I’m very happy to been able to do it.
Do you remember when the last time you recorded with a quintet was?
I think it was that group with Eddie and John Stubblefield.
It seems like you’re also having a lot of fun with the titles on this record. Are you at liberty to tell people what “DPW” stands for?
DPW is just an acronym for the neighborhood I live in, which is Ditmas Park West in Brooklyn.
What about the song “Von Hangman”?
That’s something that Eddie Henderson whenever he’d encounter a difficult piece of music. He’d say, “Oh, Von Hangman!” In other words, it’s hanging him up. Von Hangman.
We talked a little bit last time about your rhythm section - why you use them and why you feel they give you such good support. On this album, [drummer] Johnathan Blake is really propelling the band. I was reminded of drummer Keith Moon from The Who and how he would always surprise the listener. Johnathan always seems to be doing something to elevate you and the band.
Oh, always. And that’s a nice thing because he’s kind of kicking my butt, actually. He makes me play differently and he makes me take chances.
Is it hard to arrange for a quintet? Were you writing the horn lines out and harmonies out?
Yeah, except for one piece, which was [drummer Lenny White’s] “L’s Bop.” I just had the lead sheet from The Real Book. I had actually played it with Lenny one time. I really love the song, and I think I heard Chick Corea do it too. There was a harmony line that’s not on there. Do you know who wrote out the harmony line for the saxophone? Johnathan [Laughs]. He went home and transcribed it and wrote it out.
Like many of your other albums, you recorded this one at Systems Two in Brooklyn. Is that sort of home base for you?
Yeah. First of all, I can walk there. So that’s a big plus. Plus, I like the piano there.
Compared to your last release, there seems to be a lot of uptempo pieces on this one. Do you think it’s because you have a quintet and you kind of want to push the envelope?
I think that’s part of it. Whenever I perform or record with a larger group, there tends to be more uptempo stuff. Sometimes it’s just about having the horn players there as sort of extra inspiration. Plus, it allows me to write more. I write for the trio, but it’s not quite the same as writing for horns.
Did you write specifically for this album? Or did you pull together things that you had been writing?
It was a combination of both. Most of the stuff was specifically written for the record, but there were some other things that I had been working on that just kind of fell into place. And then there was one song I just fell in love with it because it was on my iPod and I kept hearing it. It was “Aquele frevo axe” by Caetano Veloso. I kept hearing that song, so I finally just transcribed it and wrote it out and have been playing it a lot.
Novelists and people that write long form prose often talk about how they write every day. Do you carve out time on a regular basis to write music, or is it tough because you’re on the road a lot?
There’s a little bit of a method. It’s hard for me to carve out time. I can’t say, “Okay, it’s five o’clock. Time to write music!” Nothing will come out, or I won’t like what comes out.
Tom Petty once said, “People think you just sit down and say, ‘Now I’m going to write a song about a dog,’ but it’s not like that.”
No, not at all. But if you know you’re faced with a deadline, that can help. Sometimes I just sit down at the piano and noodle, and then things will come out. For me, that’s the best process - to sit down at the piano and try and find stuff without any particular purpose in mind and just see what happens in terms of writing.
Do you still write on paper? Or do you things like the iPhone Voice Memo recorder?
No. But that’s actually a good idea. I actually have a [Yamaha] Clavinova, so what I can do sometimes is I can write out, or play a bass line or something. I can play that and play the changes. And I can write over top of that, or play over top of that, just to get an idea what it sounds like and I can play a particular rhythm. That’s what I did when I wrote “Magic Dance.” I had the changes, and let me see what will work. So I played a rhythm - a bossa nova or samba rhythm, and I put down the piano track with the chords and bass line and all that stuff. And I just played over the top of it just to see what would happen, and the melody came out of that actually. It has a little recording studio in it and you can overdub and stuff like that.
Is that a recent addition?
No, it’s not recent. I’ve had it for a while. I still don’t really understand the functions. I have to read the manual some more. I use it to write and to get an idea of how things would sound.
Maybe the title of this article should be “Kenny Barron Owns a Digital Piano and We’re Shocked!"
[Laughs]. You know one year - many years ago, I got voted Downbeat [Magazine]'s Best New Artist on electric piano, and I didn’t even own one! I just played Fender Rhodes on a couple of records.
But you still write primarily on acoustic piano?
You covered Thelonious Monk on your last record Book of Intuition, and on this one, you end with his song “Reflections.” Is it a time of your life when you’re “reflecting” on things, or is it really just that you like the song?
There’s nothing esoteric. I just love that piece, as I do most of Monk’s ballads. He writes some very beautiful ballads. That’s one I especially love.
What kinds of touring will you do to support the new album?
I think the bulk of things will actually start in the fall. We’ve got some gigs in Europe in July and August. And then we’re doing a short tour out on the West Coast in San Francisco - some places in Sonoma and Southern California.
Your credo seems to be, if you spend your life trying to get better, good things will happen.
Yeah. I think that’s what it’s about. Not just for me but for a lot of other people. They just do what they do and try and get better on a personal level as much as they can and try and play music with some passion. I think it's important to try and reach people on an emotional level.
For more information on Kenny Barron visit www.kennybarron.com