Categories can be hateful, but they start discussions. So here’s one to chew on.
“Hard” geniuses of jazz piano — like Earl “Fatha” Hines, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk — chisel their sonic signature into the air with one or two notes.
“Soft” geniuses, nimble and adaptable, go with the flow while propelling it forward. They have just as much to say, but don’t poke your chest while saying it. They play exceedingly well with others.
One of the greatest living jazz pianists, 72-year-old Kenny Barron, is a paragon of the soft genius.
Barron arrived Monday for a week-long residency with MSU Jazz Studies students, culminating in a concert Friday with MSU’s Jazz Octets and MSU faculty members.
Barron, a jazz legend with hundreds of recordings under his belt and a longtime teacher at the Juilliard School, tells students not to worry about finding their own voice.
“This emphasis on finding yourself is misguided, because it’s going to happen anyway,” he said. “It winds up being contrived. You’re trying to do something that’s not really organic. You will find yourself. You just have to play. But if you’re constantly checking yourself, you’re going to get lost.”
That’s Barron’s career arc in a nutshell. He started out as a dazzler in the bebop mold, playing clubs in his home town of Philadelphia before he was old enough to drink. In his mid-teens, people lined up to hear “the kid from North Philly,” according to record producer Joel Dorn.
“They weren’t necessarily coming to hear me. They were coming to hear the music,” Barron demurred.
He joined trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s combo before he was 20.
“It was intimidating,” he confessed.
Barron can still bebop with the best of them. He loves Monk and fills the pianist’s chair in a long-running tribute band named Sphere, in honor of Monk’s middle name.
But when it comes to his closest influences, Barron named three lesser known pianists: Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones and Barry Harris, all arguably “soft” geniuses.
“That was my kind of style,” Barron said.
“They are all lyrical and have a nice, light touch. That was very important to me.”
They had one more thing in common.
“They are all Detroit cats,” Barron noted. The Detroit-Philly connection is a longrunning theme in Barron’s life. He has worked on and off for decades with spiritual reedman Yusef Lateef, another jazz great with Detroit roots.
Along the way, Barron has earned the reputation of a consummate team player, in small or large groups.
Among Barron’s many sublime collaborations is “People Time,” a valedictory set of duets with saxophonist Stan Getz, who died in 1991 just a month after the sessions. The music, all of which is now available in an absorbing five-disc set, is almost painfully raw. Supple and songful, Barron is the perfect complement to Getz’s gutsy thrusts.
In Barron’s liner notes to the collection, he called the music “real, honest, pure and beautiful.” Virtuosity for its own sake doesn’t interest him.
“People don’t necessarily respond to music that’s very intellectual, very heady,” Barron said. “I can appreciate it on an intellectual level but it won’t bring a tear to my eye. That’s one of the reasons I started playing, hearing the passion of John Coltrane’s group, or Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.”
College has a way of intellectualizing jazz, Barron said. He has to keep pulling his students back to the essence.
“If you say ‘composition’ to a jazz student, they say, ‘Oh, how complicated can I make this?’” he said. “The lyricism and simplicity are lost. It becomes a head thing. You need both the intellect and the emotion.”
At MSU, Barron will tell students volumes about every facet of jazz.
“I’ll talk to them about what it’s like to be a jazz musician, the things that are expected of you,” he said. “You have to deal with the business end of it without forgetting the most important question: Why do I want to play jazz?”
In the unlikely event that they fall short on reasons, Barron can add a few.
“Studying music, especially jazz, does something to your personality,” he said. “You become kinder and gentler person. And you become more disciplined. People who study music do better academically.”
Barron is a living embodiment of jazz tradition, but no stickler over it. He’s made forays into electric funk and world music and just finished writing a classical string trio.
“That was daunting,” he said. “The guys that commissioned it don’t improvise.”
Like a long-flowing river, jazz is being shunted into tributaries that snake around the globe. Barron is proud that a former student of his, Sunny Jain, started his own India-influenced funk group, Red Baraat.
“He’s taking jazz roots and mixing it with Indian ragas and been very successful,” Barron said.
International cross-pollination fascinates Barron. He welcomed African-born guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke as a guest on his last album, “The Traveler,” and wants to work with him again. He’s also planning a follow-up to the offbeat “Swamp Sally” LP with French multi-threat percussionist and electronics master Mino Cinelu.
“It was mostly stuff that was foreign to me, using a lot of overdubs,” he said. “I played electric keyboard bass, upright bass.”
Barron’s versatility will be on full display in San Francisco this April, where he’ll do a week-long residency with a different group each night. There will be a trio, a quartet with vibraphonist Stefon Harris, a night of Brazilian music and a night of strings featuring violinist Regina Carter, bassist Dave Holland and the cellist Mark Summer of the Turtle Island Quartet.
It’s a long way from Barron’s bebop days, but he shrugs off any notion he’s changed very much.
“Well, it’s the same 12 notes,” he said. “At this point I’m just trying to have fun. I’m 72 years old. I don’t take anything too seriously.”
Kenny Barron, piano
With MSU Jazz Octets, Diego Rivera, Randy Napoleon 7:30 and 9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 12 $10/$8 seniors/FREE for students Cook Recital Hall, Music Building 333 W. Circle Drive, East Lansing (517) 353-5340, music.msu.edu