By George ColliganBy George Colligan
Kenny Barron is a true master of jazz piano. He paid his dues as a sideman for years before striking out on his own, where today he remains at the very forefront of modern jazz. From his empathetic work with Sphere, a mainstream quartet he started in the 1980s as a Thelonious Monk repertory ensemble, to his storied work as a leader in his own right, Barron’s style is classic, tasteful, and often surprising. He’s a master of both traditional jazz (which has made him extremely sought after as an accompanist), as well as more modern, exploratory genres. Check out Barron’s acclaimed albums Scratch and What If? for an example of his stylistic bravado. Barron is an accomplished composer, (authoring popular jazz tunes like “Voyage” and “Phantoms”) and educator as well, having taught Kenny Kirkland, Aaron Parks, and Keyboard’s Jon Regen, among countless others.
Here are five characteristics of Kenny Barron’s unique pianistic persona.
Ex. 1 is an example of Kenny Barron’s fluid comping style. As one of the most in-demand accompanists in jazz, Barron is known the world over for his sympathetic piano comping. Barron doesn’t just state a song’s given chord progression—he fuses modern chord voicings with rhythmic punctuations to create a true musical dialogue on the piano. Note how his comping is conversational in style, as if he is truly conversing with both the soloist and rhythm section simultaneously.
2. Solo and Ballad Piano
Ex. 2 illustrates how Barron masterfully marries dense harmonies, passing bass tones, and inventive voice leading to build rich passages for solo and ballad piano playing. Barron’s playing is all about balance, with improvisational and harmonic excitement always anchored by a rich piano sound and an even rhythmic articulation. This is just one example of why Barron is known for having some of the best timing in the business.
3. Improvised Bebop Lines
Barron’s horn-like melodic lines often begin with bebop hallmarks. His improvisations brim with both creative combustion and harmonic accuracy. Notice how in Ex. 3, Barron’s lines bounce with fluidity while they simultaneously outline the chord progression’s harmonic touch points. Many pianists cite Barron as their gateway to greater understanding of the informed, improvised line.
4. Harmonic Development
Barron doesn’t always rest his harmonic head in the bebop and post-bop stylings in which his playing is rooted. He often journeys into more contemporary territory, creating lines that pull from the work of modern masters like Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner.
Ex. 4a and Ex. 4b illustrate Barron’s modern improvisational musings over a G minor seventh chord.
5. Brazilian Style
Barron’s piano playing draws as much from the blistering rhythms of Brazilian music as it does from the canon of bebop.
Ex. 5a and Ex. 5b show Barron’s frequent use of Brazilian rhythms in both his chordal accompaniment and rhythmic conception. Check out his albums Canta Brasil and Sambao for more examples of his inclusive improvisational approach.
Pianist and composer George Colligan has worked with Cassandra Wilson, Buster Williams, Don Byron, Ravi Coltrane, and many other acclaimed artists. Most recently, he joined drummer Jack DeJohnette’s new quintet, and released Pride and Joy on the Piloo label. Colligan is also Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies at Portland State University. Find out more at georgecolligan.com. Jon Regen