Armchair Interview: Kenny Barron

Kenny Barron is to Jazz piano what Michael Jordan was and is to Basketball. This is a man that was hired by Dizzy Gillespie sight unseen going on reputation alone. Dizzy, Ron Carter, and Freddie Hubbard have all seen the massive impact that this talent has brought to their recordings and live shows.

I caught Kenny as he was touring in support of his new release The Perfect Set. This recording is with his long-time bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Ben Riley. It truly shows us what a perfect set of Jazz sounds like. This musical genius is the humblest and giving man I think I have ever met. Battling a cold and breaking in a new drummer he still took the time to meet one on one with not only us but also other media members.

BGO: Kenny let me first off say thank you for taking the time to meet with us. Back when you first started playing piano who were your influences? What did a 12-year old Kenny Barron listen to?

KB: Actually, I was 6 when I first started playing the piano. I don’t know why but the media always reports that number as 12.

BGO: We’ll set the record straight on the age thing this time around. I read somewhere that early on you fell in love with the album “Jimmy Smith Plays Fat’s Waller”. With such a love for the organ, why did you only show up once on an album playing a Hammond?

KB: That is a great album. I love the way Jimmy Smith played. That recording of me playing the Hammond wasn’t planned the organ really isn’t my thing. I love the touch of a piano. With an organ to adjust the volume, it is like this: (Kenny makes a motion on the piano as if it has a volume knob) the second you hit a note no matter how hard or soft it comes out at the same volume. The recording that I am playing the organ wasn’t planned. I dropped by a recording studio to see some friends and ended up filling in. They were using an organ player named “Sleepy” Anderson. His nickname was “Sleepy” because he had narcolepsy or something like that. When I showed up at the studio he was out cold so they ask me to fill in.

BGO: There is yet another instrument I haven’t heard you play in a while. If I bought you a fresh 9-volt battery is there a chance that you will plug the Fender Rhoades back into the phase shifter? I love that stuff you did with Freddie Hubbard on Black Angel.

KB: I did a lot of that electric piano stuff on my first album Sunset To Dawn but I don’t see myself going back to that anytime soon. But I never say never.

BGO: So, I am getting the feeling you are not a big fan of electronic keyboards?

KB: That’s not it at all. I have an album I did with Mino Cinelu called Swamp Sally that I did a lot of electronic stuff. Right now, I am dealing with this thing (pats the piano) kicking my ass.

BGO: So how many hours per day do you get in front of a piano?

KB: If I get an hour per day I am lucky. Two hours in front of a piano is a luxury.

BGO: What is the rest of the day filled with?

KB: [laughs] Nothing exciting when I get home from the road. Dishes, laundry, taking out the trash; the same stuff as anyone else.

BGO: So, if I wanted to hip someone to Kenny Barron which album should I put on first?

KB: Wow that is a tough one… nobody has asked me that one before. I would have to say Live At Bradley’s The Perfect Set it is very straightforward and very assessable.

BGO: That is a great disk. I was actually listening to what I think is some of your best playing. I have Ron Carter’s “New York Slick” in the car. I was getting into one of Art Farmer’s solos as I was pulling into the parking lot here. Is it tricky when you are in a room with that much talent? Do egos ever clash?

KB: Art is amazing isn’t he? There are a lot of great players on that disk. I don’t focus on egos. I am there for the music. I just sit down and do my job.

BGO: Speaking of jobs rumor has it that you were hired by Dizzy Gillespie sight unseen?

KB: I don’t know if it was quite like that. Dizzy was looking for a piano player and James Moody suggested me. I think he offered me the job because I was a married man and he figured I was grounded and steady. I was recently married and out of work. I don’t think I could have said yes fast enough.

BGO: Everything I have read about Dizzy suggests that the man was a howl, quite the jokester.

KB: What you see on stage is just a bit of the personality. Dizzy will keep you laughing all day long. He is a very funny and very talented man.

BGO: The early 60’s must have been a magical time in New York. The talents that were walking in and out of the clubs sitting in on each other’s sets must have been amazing.

KB: There was quite a bit of talent walking the streets of New York in those days. I saw a lot of talented people play back then.

BGO: So, what is next for Kenny Barron?

KB: After this gig I am off to Japan.

BGO: Well, we appreciate the time we got from you today and we will be in the audience tomorrow night. Thank you for making so much great music for so many years.

Special thanks to Barry Silverman for contributing to this interview