In 2018, the esteemed pianist, composer, bandleader and educator Kenny Barron celebrates his 75th birthday and marks the 50th year of a remarkable recording career that shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, the year is punctuated with yet another milestone: the release of his Blue Note debut Concentric Circles, a sublime 11-song set that finds the 11-time Grammy nominee returning to a dynamic quintet setting.
On Barron’s previous two Impulse! releases – The Art of Conversation and Book of Intuition – he created magic in more intimate settings: duo with bassist Dave Holland and trio with drummer Johnathan Blake and bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa, respectively. And while duo and trio outings have set many of the high-water marks of Barron’s enormous discography, his 1968 debut LP You Had Better Listen was a quintet session co-led with trumpeter Jimmy Owens, as well as his critically acclaimed 1986 LP What If with trumpeter Wallace Roney, saxophonist John Stubblefield, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Victor Lewis.
Barron was born in Philadelphia in 1943, and moved to New York City when he was just 19 years old. His distinguished career has seen him collaborate with jazz titans including Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, Milt Jackson, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, and Yusef Lateef. Barron has made notable appearances on Blue Note records going all the way back to 1967 with the likes of Stanley Turrentine, Booker Ervin, and Bobby Hutcherson, and in more recent years with Sonny Fortune, Dianne Reeves, and Terence Blanchard.
On Concentric Circles, he introduces a new edition of the Kenny Barron Quintet featuring Blake and Kitagawa along with saxophonist Dayna Stephens and trumpeter Mike Rodriguez. “I’ve wanted to do a quintet date because I get to write more,” Barron says matter-of-factly, clearly relishing the opportunity to expand his sonic palette on these eight original compositions plus new interpretations of songs by Caetano Veloso, Thelonious Monk, and Lenny White.
The album opens with the barreling “DPW,” an up-tempo hard-bop delight that pays homage to Barron’s Brooklyn neighborhood, Ditmas Park West. Composed in 2013, the song jolts with an enticing frontline trumpet-and-tenor saxophone melody and urbane harmonies reminiscent of those heard in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis’ mid-’60s quintet. Atop a sterling groove that slides between straight-ahead swing and Afro-Latin rhythms, Barron hammers a crystalline yet lyrical improvisation that illuminates his mastery of touch, phrasing and harmonic guile.
On the title track “Concentric Circles,” Barron delivers an alluring waltz, buoyed by the rhythm section’s fluttering rubato, and adorned by supple solos from the leader then Stephens and Rodriguez. Blake’s jostling 6/8 rhythms propel “Blue Waters,” another new Barron composition that brims with blues-laden passages. “A Short Journey” – a ballad marked by languid horn melodies, ruminative piano, suspended cymbals and throbbing bass accompaniment – moves the opening sunny vibes of Concentric Circles into darker sonic corridors.
The mood brightens again with Barron’s bewitching makeover of the Caetano Veloso and Cezar Mendes composition, “Aquele Frevo Axe.” Introduced to Barron by Gal Costa’s version, the lithe samba gem continues the pianist’s established love affair with Brazilian music. That tranquility, though, soon gives way to Barron’s capricious original “Von Hangman,” on which piano, trumpet, and saxophone navigate through a labyrinth of zigzagging phrases while the rhythm section spurs them forward with a driving gait. The tenor returns to the contemplative with Barron’s soul-stirring “In the Dark,” which he originally composed for the score of a movie. This song reveals Barron’s gift for penning picturesque music, with its lurking pace, forlorn harmonies and descending melody.
Barron’s love for Latin rhythm returns with his sanguine “Baile,” on which he nails an infectious, mid-tempo piano groove on which Stephens and Rodriguez trade sensual, hip-swerving passages before he unfurls a percussive, melodically dramatic essay. Lenny White’s shimmering “L’s Bop” provides an ideal vehicle for the two horn players and the leader to delve into the unfettered joy of cohesive momentum with their solos. Barron initiates a funky bass line which Kitagawa soon picks up on the strutting “I’m Just Sayin,’” which boogies to an implied Crescent City groove.
The spirit of Thelonious Monk – one of Barron’s most prominent touchstones – is present in all of Barron’s recordings. Like he’s done on so many other albums, Barron pays his respect to the jazz icon by including one of his cherished compositions. Concentric Circles concludes with a sumptuous solo piano reading of Monk’s “Reflections,” a song that Barron has recorded numerous times, beginning with the group Sphere on the 1992 LP Four In One.
Eight years after becoming a National Endowment for the Arts “Jazz Master,” with critics declaring him “one of the top jazz pianists in the world” (Los Angeles Times), Barron is still striving to reach new creative heights as he continues to record and tour with many different instrumental configurations. With numerous awards such as the 2009 Living Legacy Award from the Mid-Atlantic Foundation and six wins as the Jazz Journalist Association’s “Best Pianist” Award, Barron rests on no laurels. Concentric Circles is another sparkling jewel in Barron’s crown; and it surely won’t be the last.