Six-time Grammy®-nominee Kenny Barron has, in the last decade, emerged as one of the premier pianists in mainstream jazz. Critics and listeners alike have heralded several of his Verve recordings and last year alone, he won several awards, including top pianist in Down Beat's 47th Annual Critics Poll and Best Jazz Pianist at the 1999 Jazz Awards (voted on by hundreds of jazz journalists, musicians and leaders of the jazz industry) held in New York at the conclusion of the city's Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival. Not resting on his laurels, for his sixth Verve recording, Spirit Song, Barron stretches into a new direction while simultaneously staying rooted in the post-bop vein.
"I wanted to do something different, to try some new things that veered away from the straight-ahead (jazz)," says the 56-year-old Brooklyn-based Barron. He adds, "I feel that sometimes I've been pigeon-holed into being a bebop piano player. So I deliberately set out to use chord progressions different from the standard bebop 2-5-1 as well as move away from playing tunes in 4/4 time. The tunes are still bebop-oriented, but I'm experimenting with using different chord changes and playing off a tonal center. None of this is startling, but it does represent a relatively new direction for me."
Barron hastens to note that having the right supporting musicians makes all the difference in exploring new territory. "After I wrote the music, I went out to find the players," he explains. "I ended up enlisting people I've worked with before in various configurations and in different contexts." One of Barron's first draftees for Spirit Song was trumpeter Eddie Henderson, with whom he shares a long history of gigging together. "I love Eddie. He can play anything."
Also on board for the recording is the rhythm team of Rufus Reid on bass and Billy Hart on drums ("another two players who can handle anything thrown their way," says Barron). In addition, rising-star tenor saxophonist David Sanchez, who used to be the leader's student at Rutgers, plays on several tunes. "I was there when David first auditioned at Rutgers," says Barron. "I'm very proud of what he has done with his career and it was a pleasure to use him for these sessions." Another of his students, Michael Wall, also sits in on congas for one number. Featured guests include guitarist Russell Malone and violinist Regina Carter, both of whom Barron recruited for their improvisational prowess as well as their ability to bring different hues to the sound mix.
Barron gives a couple of examples of numbers where he takes creative liberties. In the robust, swinging leadoff track "The Pelican" (Henderson's nickname for saxophonist Gary Bartz who performs with Barron in the group Sphere). "It's still like a bebop number, but the chord changes are different," explains Barron who soars with sparkling pianistic energy on his solo spot. "It's a straight ahead tune, but the way the chords move makes for an unorthodox feel."
On the title track, Barron changes the playing field by working inside and outside the tonal center. He recalls that the number began as a bass line looking for a melody. "I kept toying with that bass line because I really liked the feeling of it. One day at school Michael Wall, who is one of my piano students, brought his congas in because he plays percussion for some dance classes. While I was playing around with the bass part, he started filling in on the congas. I liked the feel so much I asked him to be on the recording." As for that elusive melody line? Barron says it came to him special delivery a week before the recording session.
Over his career, Barron has often played in duo settings. On Spirit Song, he delivers two duets, an exultant ride with Sanchez through McCoy Tyner's tune "Passion Dance" and a jaunty spin with Malone through the original composition "And Then Again", which closes the album. "Certainly for me playing in a duo situation is very challenging and can even be a little scary at times," says Barron. "But I love doing it because it's exciting and you can learn a lot from the other person. You get immediate feedback. Plus, without a bassist and drummer, I'm not as confined rhythmically, so I can play in a variety of styles."
"And Then Again" was recorded in one take. On the tune Barron and Malone play off each other and engage in rich, playful conversations. "We both had a good time that day. This is what happens when two musicians are listening to each other and reacting." On "Passion Dance", Barron explains that he and Sanchez "just let the song play itself. That was also a lot of fun."
"Passion Dance" concludes a three-song sequence characterized by expressions of deep emotion. It opens with the gorgeous, gracefully pensive "Um Beijo" (which means "the kiss" in Portuguese), a tune that began as a sketch Barron worked on during a break in his classes. "In the beginning there was only the ad-lib section that I play with Regina Carter on violin. Then the tune gradually evolved into the melody. I liked the flow, which eventually turns into a bossa nova." Barron points out that the structure of the tune is again unorthodox. Instead of the band members soloing on the melodic head, they play off the opening vamp before the melody is stated.
The "kiss" opens the door for more passion: a radiant rendition of Billy Strayhorn's "Passion Flower", again featuring Carter, Henderson and Sanchez. "I love all of Billy Strayhorn's compositions," says Barron, who offers some of his finest playing of the CD on this tune. "I recorded this before as a ballad on Wanton Spirit (1995), but I like how it works as an ensemble piece."
Other tunes on Spirit Song include the moving "Sonja Braga" (named after the Brazilian actress who starred in such films as Dona Flor and Kiss of the Spider Woman), the breezy "Cook's Bay" (the Tahiti-inspired tune penned for Regina Carter's debut Verve disc Rhythms of the Heart ), the lyrical beauty "The Question Is" ("one of the closest tunes on the album to straight ahead") and arguably the strongest track of the date "The Wizard" (teeming with whimsical soloing by all participants).
Of the latter tune, Barron says that like many of the tracks on Spirit Song, it was recorded on the first take. In fact, it was the first song of the sessions. "We didn't have a rehearsal. This was the first time everyone saw the music. I ran through the notes quickly, for maybe five minutes, then we played it. I'm like Miles in the way that I lead my bands. I don't say much. What you hear is how each player responded to what I had written. What can I say? That's another reason why I chose the musicians I did for this date. You don't have to tell them what to do. They played like wizards."