Cadence Jazz Records CJR 1119

Tenor saxophonist Bill Barron (1927-1989) was one of those musicians born just slightly out of time. Known today, if at all, as the older brother of better-known pianist Kenny Barron who made his recording debut with him in 1961, Barron was one of the close-knit group of Philly saxophonists, including Jimmy Heath and John Coltrane, who made their mark in the late 1950s.

In New York after 1958, Barron held his own in the heavy company of masters like pianist Cecil Taylor, bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Philly Joe Jones and recorded a series of his own LPs in styles ranging from hard bop to quasi-experimental.

Best remembered for a group he and trumpeter Ted Curson led in Europe during 1964, Barron later wrote original music for Swedish and Danish radio bands plus arrangements for American ensembles. Trouble is, by that time the saxophonist’s conception was too modern to play in mainstream hard bop groups, but not far-out enough to be really part of the New Thing. Turning to academe, Barron eventually earned a doctorate in Education, ending his life as full professor and director of Jazz Program at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

The five tunes on this CD date from 1984 and 1985, when Barron and other Wesleyan faculty members would give regular concerts on campus. Including some of the more accomplished musicians of the time, the performances are choice example of advanced mainstream jazz, mixing Barron’s earlier influences with his own ideas. The only let down is a short run through of “My Funny Valentine”, not because there’s anything wrong with yet another version of the classic tune, but because it’s a flowery piano solo for Fred Simmons and features none of the other musicians.

Firmly in the McCoy Tyner - (1960s) Herbie Hancock mould, Simmons goes on at great length with some swirling arpeggios on his own “Going Forth”. Tubaist/bass trombonist Bill Lowe earns MVP status for his work here and elsewhere on the CD. An unheralded section man who in late 1980s added bass trombone bottom with Henry Threadgill’s Sextett and played both instruments with little known James Jabbo Ware Orchestra, he can make Tubby the tuba shake and dance. Capable of constructing melodies in booming rock-bottomed tones, that doesn’t stop him from flexing his valves with the subtlety of a bebop trombonist. Leader Barron exhibits knife-sharp phrasing and long-limbed lines, while drummer Ed Blackwell sticks pretty close to the theme until unleashing some woodblock-stressed counter melodies almost at the end.

Timing for that tune and Barron’s “Blues In B Flat Minor” are reversed, probably to the relief of bassist Wes Brown. Otherwise he would have had to slap out the unvarying, four square beat for almost 19 minutes. A simple acoustic funk piece, that may have arisen out of Barron’s early R&B experience and is reminiscent of a barn burning two tenor date he did with Booker Ervin in the early 1960s, it allows the composer to unveil a sweet’n’sour tone. Even here, though, except for the odd honk, most of his solo takes place mid-range and mid tempo.

That and the group’s version of a free piece, “Waiting For You”, adding the reverberating, cushiony vibes of Jay Hoggard and sans Blackwell show decisively why Barron was better as a pedagogue than as a Trane-like influence. Although he does introduce some freak high notes and reed squeaks to his solo, they seem pro forma, detracting from the comfort level he feels in a well-played melody, like the final run-through of “Giant Steps”. Only when Lowe introduces some ascending tuba blasts does the tenor man appear to be fully engaged, adding some tougher qualities of his own.

Much of the playing here must have reminded Blackwell, veteran of Ornette Coleman’s breakthrough free jazz quartet of his hard bop apprenticeship in New Orleans. But it was designed that way and so faculty members could exercise their jazz chops. Putting aside a slight technical flaw, where Lowe’s slipping and sliding ‘bone is off-mike for a time in “Giant Steps”, the tunes are respectably recorded. At the same standard of most mainstream/contemporary jazz of the time, it shows that none of the musicians had lost anything in a scholastic setting.

If there’s a companion COMPILATION sometime in the future, however, a concentration on Barron’s compositions and arrangements may be even more valuable.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1.Waiting For You* 2. Going Forth 3. Blues In B Flat Minor 4. My Funny Valentine 5. Giant Steps

Personnel: Bill Lowe (tuba or trombone); Bill Barron (tenor saxophone); Fred Simmons (piano); Jay Hoggard (vibes)*; Wes Brown (bass); Ed Blackwell (drums)