Beyond This Place

Kenny Barron

Artwork Records, 2024

  1. The Nearness of You
  2. Scratch
  3. Innocent
  4. Blues on Stratford Road
  5. Tragic Magic
  6. Beyond This Place
  7. Softly As In a Morning Sunrise
  8. Sunset
  9. We See

Kenny Barron – piano
Kiyoshi Kitagawa – bass
Johnathan Blake – drums
Steve Nelson – vibraphone
Immanuel Wilkins – alto saxophone

In his 80th year, Kenny Barron — NEA Jazz Master, 13-time Grammy nominee, DownBeat Hall of Famer — is arguably the greatest jazz pianist currently at work, and a still-thriving link to jazz’s midcentury golden age.

From his collaborations with jazz aristocracy (Dizzy, James Moody, Stan Getz, Freddie Hubbard, Yusef Lateef and so many others) to brilliant collective groups (the Monk tribute unit Sphere) to his own vast discography as a leader, Barron has demonstrated his preeminence in most any jazz format, in any jazz idiom, in any jazz pursuit. To wit: His last album, 2023’s Grammy-nominated The Source, was his first solo-piano release in over four decades. “The music draws from a seemingly bottomless well of stylistic perspectives under Barron’s command,” wrote DownBeat, “revealing exactly why [Barron] has long been esteemed as a master of his craft who thrives in any setting.”

Now comes Beyond This Place, a quintet effort featuring one of the most gifted and synergistic groups that Barron has led yet. An intergenerational ensemble, it includes his longtime rhythm section of bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Johnathan Blake, along with the nonpareil vibraphonist Steve Nelson, who received one of his earliest recording credits with Barron, for the pianist’s 1982 LP Golden Lotus. Also onboard is the 26-year-old alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, whose leader recordings for Blue Note, The 7th Hand and Omega, have earned him deep respect and renown among critics and dedicated jazzheads. The saxophonist’s “quartet … has become a band that members of the young generation can measure their own ideas up against,” posits the New York Times. Wilkins’ presence also serves as a reminder of Barron’s enduring commitment to mentorship in jazz, as both an employer of rising players and a celebrated music educator. Indeed, the Barron school’s cast of alumni is mighty, and includes Terence Blanchard, Jon Batiste, Aaron Parks and Gerald Clayton, among countless others.

What’s more, for a resourceful bandleader like Barron, a quintet is never simply a quintet; it’s also a thrilling piano trio, various inspired duos, and a deft quartet. And although the pianist has utilized the quintet format before, notably on Concentric Circles, his acclaimed Blue Note debut from 2018, the alliances throughout Beyond This Place demonstrate an exceptional kind of clairvoyance in improvisation, as if each member can foresee the other’s next move. (Maybe it’s something in the water: Barron, Wilkins and Blake all hail from Philadelphia, that storied jazz town where the pianist experienced a lightning-bolt moment in hearing John Coltrane’s Classic Quartet at the legendary Showboat.) The compositions Barron has chosen amount to a career-spanning survey, in which meaningful selections underscore past triumphs and steadfast enthusiasms. Per usual, the program is expertly unfurled; live or on record, the man knows how to pace a set.

Beyond This Place kicks off with a quartet read of the standard “The Nearness of You,” which highlights the ageless kinship between Barron and Wilkins — two modernists at once forward-looking and reverent of jazz history, with technique to spare. Barron’s “Scratch,” which the composer introduced as the title track to a 1985 trio record with Dave Holland and Daniel Humair, is a delightfully Monkian theme attacked here with Parker/Roach zest.

“Innocence,” a Barron tune that titled his 1978 LP for Wolf Records, is archetypal post-bop, with a sleek, noirish theme and a slow-burning tempo; later on, Barron’s “Tragic Magic” is a brisker, edgier post-bop vehicle that pays homage to his piano hero Tommy Flanagan. Blake’s offering, “Blues on Stratford Road,” is self-explanatory in the most gratifying way — durable corner-bar hard bop of the Blue Note variety. (Blake is in fact a Blue Note recording artist as a leader, though his dates are more resolutely contemporary.)

Melodically and harmonically, Barron’s patiently grooving “Beyond This Place” is gorgeous, with a gospelish lilt. At a bit over three minutes, a Barron-Blake duet of “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” is an album peak — a raw and candid burst of virtuosity that makes you feel as if you’re eavesdropping on an especially rousing rehearsal. As ever, Blake’s drumming is a model of tautly controlled strength. The inclusion of “Sunset” takes Barron back to his very first LP — very first track, even — as a bandleader. In 1973, on the Muse release Sunset to Dawn, Barron played electric piano and opened the piece with an ambient, psychedelic overture. Here, “Sunset” proves just how fully formed Barron had arrived as a bandleader a half-century ago; it feels representative of his best and most personal work — a smart, simmering modern-jazz composition that betrays a love of Latin rhythm, and acts as an ideal ballast for transparent, revealing solos. With regard to Steve Nelson, his spotlight presents his unerring good taste and thoughtful musicality; in other words, he seems incapable of playing even one note without meaning. “We See,” by Barron’s guiding light Thelonious Monk, is a duologue between the pianist and Wilkins, and it evokes nothing short of Barron’s historic tandem sets with Stan Getz.

Beyond This Place is a superb way for Barron to commence his ninth — ninth! — decade. Even inside a discography crowded with wondrous music, it is a special recording by an extraordinary band.

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