by Russ NeffHarrisburg, PA Patriot-News
copyright © 2000
Talking with Kenny Barron is much like listening to his music. The pianist's words are honest and grounded in a heartfelt modesty. Even Barron's lifelong goals are, by his own admission, modest.
On the phone from his New York home the pianist described his goals in an almost casual manner, "My goal never really changed from when I was living in Philly and learning about music. What I wanted to do was just come to New York and play music. I never really thought beyond that."
Under the group name Sphere, Barron, along with drummer Ben Riley, bassist Buster Williams and saxophonist Gary Bartz performed Sunday November 28, 1999 in Harrisburg. The performance is part of the Central Pennsylvania Friends of Jazz 20th. concert season.
Sphere, dedicated to continuing and preserving the music, and spirit of Thelonious Monk, was formed in 1979 by Barron, Riley, Williams and saxophonist Charlie Rouse. They performed and recorded to the delight of fans and critics alike until Rouse's untimely death in 1988.
Sphere remained just a fond memory for the three musicians and their fans for the next ten years. Then in 1998 the trio brought saxophonist Gary Bartz into the fold, recorded a highly acclaimed album for Verve and hit the road.
Barron is well aware of the importance to Jazz of groups like Harrisburg's Friends of Jazz. He said, "Those organizations are really great. Not only do they provide a real place for us to work, but they also provide a place for people to hear the music. "
Well-traveled performer that he is, Barron finds what he termed "these little jazz organizations and jazz societies" in the most unexpected locales. He said, "They're in the strangest places. That's probably because they don't have a lot of clubs and anything they want to happen, they have to make it happen."
Places for jazz musicians to ply their craft continue to disappear. As Barron put it, "Most of the work we do is concerts and traveling overseas and that's unfortunate. When I was with Dizzy Gillespie in 1963 we would be out on the road for three or four months, just working clubs. Now, in terms of a nightclub tour if you can book two weeks you're doing good."
Along with live performances, recordings are the lifeblood of a musician's career. Barron's name can be found within the credits of many significant and important recordings in the jazz library.
When asked as to the number of his recording credits, the pianist confessed ignorance of the exact tally saying, "I think in terms of sideman dates I've been on at least 300, maybe 400 recordings. As a leader I've done maybe 30 or 35 sessions."
"Michael Fitzgerald, a former student of mine, put a discography of my recordings on the Internet. I didn't even know it was out there until I was in Europe and somebody gave it to me. It was pretty large"
The significance of the band Sphere's position in jazz didn't make it immune to the vagaries of the record industry. Barron and company were among some 75 jazz groups dropped from the Verve Records roster in 1999.
The quartet responded by forming their own label known as Ambiance Records. Barron expects they will release a recently completed recording sometime after the first of the year.
Sphere revisited familiar territory for part of the session, recording two Thelonious Monk staples "Well, You Needn't" and "Green Chimneys." The Billy Strayhorn song "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing" and compositions by group members round out the initial release.
The record will be supported by a site on the internet and a coordinated outreach to independent radio stations. As Barron explained, "We are going to do it right."
Russ Neff - MFT Productions
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