Many sides of jazz legend Kenny Barron emerging at SFJAZZ run

Many sides of jazz legend Kenny Barron emerging at SFJAZZ run

Taking the full measure of piano maestro Kenny Barron requires a lot longer than four nights, but his SFJAZZ Center residency offers a concisely delectable look at one of jazz’s most beloved artists.

At 80, Barron has been a defining figure for six decades, and his Feb.1-4 Miner Auditorium run presents him in four contexts in which he’s long thrived, including his trio, his quintet, a Brazilian jazz combo, and a wide-open free improv session.

“I’m kind of eclectic,” Barron said. “I love all kinds of music, Brazilian, Afro-Caribbean. It would be very difficult for me to do one thing. I think that’s one of the great things about jazz. You can draw on all kinds of influences.”

Part of this season’s SFJAZZ resident artistic director program, Barron opens the run Feb. 1 with his trio featuring Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Johnathan Blake (a resident artistic director himself who makes his West Coast debut as a leader with a four-night SFJAZZ run Feb. 8-11). They’ve been playing together with Barron for nearly two decades, making it one of the music’s most eloquent and responsive trios.

Barron expands the group into a quintet Feb. 2 with SFJAZZ Collective trumpeter Michael Rodriguez and East Bay-reared tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, “a really great saxophonist,” Barron said. “He’s got this creativity and this fire.” It’s the same group featured on his 2017 Blue Note album “Concentric Circles,” a project focusing on Barron originals distinguished by the group’s “execution, the distinctive substance end elegance,” Thomas Conrad wrote in the magazine “JazzTimes.”

Billed as “Brazilian Explorations,” the Feb. 3 show brings together some of the musicians involved on recent recordings, including flutist Anne Drummond and São Paulo-born percussionist Valtinho Anastacio (from Barron’s 2002 Sunnyside album “Canta Brasil”) and Rio de Janeiro-raised drummer Rafael Barata (who propelled the 2013 Rio-recorded project “Kenny Barron & the Brazilian Knights”). Baas virtuoso John Patitucci rounds out the band with Barron’s granddaughter Nikara Warren, part of a rising generation of vibraphonists making the instrument an essential part of the contemporary jazz scene.

The residency closes Feb. 4 with a program billed as “Freely Improvised Music,” with Patitucci, drummer Lesley Mok, trombonist Kalia Vandever, and vocalist/multi-string player Jen Shyu, a Guggenheim Fellow and Stanford University graduate who’s become a riveting solo performer.

Barron isn’t usually associated with free improv and directions explored by jazz’s 1960s avant-garde, but he’s got roots in experimentalism too. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Barron was ushered into the city’s vibrant scene by his late brother, saxophonist Bill Barron, who was 17 years older and part of various experimental jazz circles.

Barron came up in the thick of the late ‘50s Philly action, “working in the same band as my brother when I was 14,” he recalled. “I was exposed to a lot of older players and I think that was very beneficial. But my peers that I met in high school, Sonny Fortune, Reggie Workman and people like that, were also very helpful.”

An exceptionally accomplished player, he moved to New York at 18 and quickly landed work with heavyweights such as Roy Haynes, Lou Donaldson and James Moody. It was Moody who recommended him to Dizzy Gillespie, a gig that lasted from 1962 to 1966 and firmly established Barron as a one of jazz’s elite accompanists.

Philly has continued to figure prominently in Barron’s musical circle. He played on the late Philadelphia violinist John Blake Jr.’s 1984 debut album “Maiden Dance,” and some two decades later hired his son, Johnathan Blake, who’s been his primary drummer ever since.

As Blake tells the story, he owes the break to the pianist’s wife, Joanne. The Barrons had seen the drummer playing at Shanghai Jazz in New Jersey, and about a year later Ben Riley had to pull out of a week-long trio run in Europe with bassist Ray Drummond.

“Joanne remembered that gig and says ‘Why don’t you call Johnathan?’ And Kenny said, ‘Yeah, why don’t I?’” Blake said. “I was always in awe of him. He’s such an amazing musician.”

Joanne Barron might have gotten him on the gig, but Blake made sure that he kept it. He’s become one of jazz’s leading accompanists (and a highly esteemed composer and bandleader in his own right) by doing the work.

“I learned all of Kenny’s music and anything Kenny was calling, I knew,” Blake said. “I was calling tunes he hadn’t played in years and he realized, this cat really took the time to learn my book. We built this level of trust with one another to now where we’re almost inseparable.”

Contact Andrew Gilbert at [email protected].


When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 1-3, 2 p.m. Sunday Feb. 4

Where: SFJAZZ Center, Miner Auditorium, 201 Franklin St., San Francisco

Tickets: $25-$105,