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A Voyage (Trio) with Kenny Barron

Kenny Barron sits on a chair on a sidewalk, smiling.
Fran Kaufman
Courtesy of the Artist

The prolific jazz pianist performs with his Voyage Trio at the Modlin Center for the Arts on Wednesday.

Kenny Barron is among the most prolific and influential pianists with us today. Since his earliest sessions playing with the Dizzy Gillespie Quartet and Benny Golson’s Jazztet, he’s been praised for his far-reaching influences, and his unique ability to mesmerize listeners.

Now, at 80, he’s far from slowing down — in fact, he’s headed to the Modlin Center for the Arts this week as part of a birthday celebration tour with his Voyage Trio. Before Wednesday's show, he and I sat down to discuss the delicate art of reaching an audience and the benefits of not taking yourself too seriously.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Annie Parnell: You're performing at the Modlin Center for the Arts on Oct. 25. Tell us a little bit more about the show.

I know about as much as you know! But I'm looking forward to it. I'll bring my trio down there: Kyoshi Kitagawa on the bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. We'll play a program of some original stuff, some standards, some ballads and pieces from the Great American Songbook. Just have some fun.

How do you typically decide what you're going to play at a show?

Well, I'll either do a setlist — which I don't like to do — or my preference is to just read the audience when I see them. If it's an audience of older people, they're more likely to enjoy listening to standards. And by playing standards, that means I can do more adventurous stuff as well. But I don't really like to do a setlist unless there are time constraints.

The performance at the Modlin is part of an 80th birthday celebration tour. What made you want to celebrate onstage?

My manager! But yeah, I think 80 is worth celebrating. You know, I'll never see 80 again. So I think it's worth celebrating. 

Back in January, you released The Source, which is your first solo recording since the 1981 album Kenny Barron at the Piano. Was it difficult to adjust back to working on your own instead of with a group?

No, not really. We recorded in Paris at a very ornate theater. I think it’s unused, or at least there was nobody there at the time. There was just the engineer and the record label owner and myself, and that was it. So it was very neat — and a great piano, a really great piano. That was the main thing. So it was very, very easy to do.

Speaking of “a great piano,” does the instrument you're playing affect how a show will run or how a recording session will go?

Oh, very much so. I'm a Steinway artist, so most of the panels tend to be Steinway. And even in that, each Steinway can be totally different from another. With everybody, somewhere, there's a piano that's just for you. In other words, everything is perfect.

This one was just perfect for me. You run into them every now and then, but it’s not every day that you play one that's just made for you — has all your prerequisites, the action is just right and the sound is just right. The one in that theater was just right for me.

I'm curious about the album's title. What does The Source signify to you?

The source just hearkens back to everything that I've gotten from everybody. People that I've learned from, people that influenced me, from boogie woogie to stride, to avant garde, to playing ballads. All of that was influential for me. That's the source.

So, “the source” of who you are as an artist, in a way.

Yes, yes, exactly.

You've described solo piano as "nerve-wracking" in the past. What about it makes you feel that way?

Well, you're up there alone. If you make a mistake, it's all on you. You know, there's nobody to cover for you. With a trio, if you make a mistake, there are other things to pay attention to: the drummer or bass player. But when you're playing solo, there's nobody there with you. You’re very open when you're by yourself.

For that reason, for me, sometimes it used to be nerve-wracking, but not so much anymore. I’ve gotten used to it, so it's a little easier and I’m a little more relaxed about it now. I just try not to take myself too seriously, and I think that's a big part of it.

What are some of the other differences between solo and trio playing?

With the trio, I can play different kinds of material. For some people, it can be a little more exciting, with the drummer and the bass player. Plus, that means I have the support system. The bass player and the drummer, for me, that's a support system. And that can lead me into doing other things.

It’s great all around. I love both situations. I also have a quintet that I perform with sometimes that will be at the Village Vanguard in New York in December. With that, I tend to concentrate more on writing compositions — so they're all totally different.

At the Modlin, the Voyage Trio is going to be playing with you — Kiyoshi Kitagawa and Jonathan Blake. How did you all start playing together?

Well, Kiyoshi was recommended. The bass player that I had at the time, Ray Drummond, moved to California, so I needed a bass player. And Ben Riley said he had just played with this bass player from Japan, and he was really good — and that was Kiyoshi. And Kiyoshi has been with me for 30 years now.

Jonathan is from my hometown. I actually used to play with his father — his father was a wonderful jazz violinist, and so I've known him since he was a kid. I guess he started working with me about 20 years ago. So the band's been together for a while.

You all probably are very attuned to each other, in that case.

I think so. We kind of think as one, so to speak.

We talked a little bit about reading the audience. Do you have a particular philosophy that you use when you're approaching performing or playing in general?

The only philosophy, if anything, is that I want to be able to connect with the audience on an emotional level. Not so much on an intellectual level, but on an emotional level, because I want them to feel something as opposed to saying, “Oh, that's very interesting.” No, I want them to feel something. If I play a ballad, I want them to feel the emotion of it.

In my life, I've made people cry twice. In 60 years of playing, that's happened to me twice. And it's really a high compliment when somebody does that. I was playing a ballad one time in Japan, and I heard sniffling behind me. I thought maybe somebody had a cold! And the owner, after the set, came and told me that a young lady was in tears. That’s a high compliment to be able to do that, and it's not something you can do at will.

The idea is to try and make the audience feel the emotions that you feel. It doesn't always work, but you have to keep trying for that. So that that's what I'll be trying for in Richmond.

After your show at the Modlin, what's next?

I think I will have just come back from Europe actually, as the beginning of September I'm doing a solo tour for about two weeks. And then after Richmond, I'm not doing that much. In December, I play the Village Vanguard for two weeks. And then in January I’ll do the Jazz Cruise, which I'm looking forward to. That's for four weeks in the Caribbean, so I'm really looking forward to that.

I try to tell young players, “Sometimes you have to say no.” You can't do everything. And at 80, I don't want to do everything. At this point, I appreciate downtime.

The Kenny Barron Voyage Trio perform at the Modlin Center for the Arts on Wednesday, Oct. 25. The Source is available now.