5 Ways to Sound Like Kenny Barron

Jon Regen shows how to play piano like the jazz master
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In a genre chock full of keyboard legends, Kenny Barron stands out as one of the most revered and in-demand jazz pianists on the planet. With his eloquent touch and fervent swing feel, Barron’s recorded and live work still soar well into his fifth decade as an artist. Many a transcription and book have been written on Barron’s signature sound, but in this lesson I will touch on just a few of his licks and tricks that sent me on my musical way when I studied with him years ago at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. 1. The Kenny Baron Minor 11 Chord Example

1. The Kenny Baron Minor 11 Chord

Example 1 illustrates a sonority that Kenny uses so often: Known in jazz circles as the “Kenny Barron Minor 11 Chord,” it’s a lush minor chord voicing built by stacking two perfect fifths in the left hand, and doing the same in the right hand, beginning a minor second above the left hand’s top note. Once you get the sound and feel for the voicing in your head and hands, move it around into all 12 keys so you can use it whenever inspiration strikes. You can hear this sonority (along with variations of it) on Kenny’s song “Spiral.”

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2. Descending Altered Chord Licks

Kenny uses a plethora of signature keyboard licks in his solos, but the descending altered chord lick seen in Ex. 2a was one of the first I heard him play. It’s simple in its construction, but when played with a forward sense of swing, it can be a potent solo device. To play this lick over an altered dominant chord (a dominant chord with altered tension tones like raised or flatted ninths or thirteenths), play a dominant “shell” voicing in your left hand (here I’m in the key of C using the third and seventh of C7), and in your right hand play the following scale degrees descending: #9, b9, b13, 3, #9, b9 (spelled here enharmonically for reading ease). Ex. 2b shows the same lick in the key of F.

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3. More Descending Altered Chord Licks

Ex. 3a is a variation of the descending lick seen in Ex. 2a. To play this lick over an altered chord in the key of C, again play a third and seventh “shell” C7 voicing in your left hand and the following scale degerees: #9, b9, root, seventh, b13, 3, #9, b9. Ex. 3b shows the same lick in the key of F. Again, getting the notes right is only a part of the goal here. To swing like Kenny Barron, always pay attention to how the notes are played, instilling a forward sense of swing in each of them. (To practice this, try playing licks and lines like those in this lesson alongside a drummer’s ride cymbal or a metronome, locking your eighth notes together).

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4. Blues Licks

One of the hallmarks of Kenny’s sound is his ability to tackle chord changes with solo lines that swing yet simultaneously make perfect harmonic and melodic sense. Ex. 4 illustrates a typical Barron solo line over the first four bars of a standard blues in the key of F. Notice the contour of the line is almost horn-like in design, deftly navigating both chord and passing tones in a logical way. Try building your own solo lines over blues and other standard chord progressions, paying attention to their shape and swing.

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5. Colorful Chords

Another way to sound like Kenny Barron is to find colorful ways to voice your chords. The two-bar phrase in Ex. 5 is a device he uses in one of his most affecting compositions, entitled “Song for Abdullah.” With a gentle keyboard touch, Barron takes what could be a boring Db to Ab sequence and gives it life by adding colorful tensions and arpeggiating chord tones in the bass to impart movement and life to the progression. Try moving this I 6/9 to Vmaj7#5/ii around into different keys so you can use it in your own chording explorataions.

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“One of the things that makes Kenny Barron’s playing so impactful is his rock-solid sense of time, which is simultaneously swinging and laid back ” says singer, songwriter, pianist, and Keyboard editor-at-large Jon Regen. Regen’s latest album Stop Time was produced by Mitchell Froom and features members of Elvis Costello’s band The Imposters. Find out more at jonregen.com.

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