Any list of important pianists at the moment has to include Kenny Barron, the versatile player who has been a mainstay of the New York jazz scene since the late '60s. He's a reliable pillar and coveted side man who makes other musicians sound good and rewards attentive ears.
Suddenly, at age 53, Barron is getting some just deserts as a band leader with several acclaimed albums on the Verve label. He'll perform at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara on Monday in a trio, a familiar setting for him.
Barron is widely respected for his work in mainstream acoustic jazz. But last year he threw listeners a curve ball with the refreshing album "Swamp Sally," a collaboration with percussionist Mino Cinelu. Cinelu, who had played on Barron's Brazilian-esque 1992 album "Sambao," came to the pianist with the idea of doing a duet project.
As Barron recalled, "I automatically assumed it would just be some live stuff--go into the studio, turn the tape on, and we'd be finished in a few hours. But he had something else in mind, something more orchestrated. I enjoyed it. It was a new slant on things for me."
What makes the album so unique is its delicate balance of electric and acoustic sounds--including synthesizer and banjo--and of rehearsed and improvised playing. They defied the typical jazz-recording process by doing a fair amount of pre-production. After that, they trusted the muses. The result is an album richly endowed with improvisational spirit.
"We wanted it to be loose. We didn't want it to be too prepared," Barron said. "With a lot of the stuff, I didn't know what was going to happen. It was fun doing it like that because you get to respond to what you were hearing. There were no second or third takes. This is what it is."
Though best known for his acoustic work, this was not Barron's first foray into electronic keyboards. In the '70s, he used electric piano on some of his recordings, and he's not one to make hard-and-fast distinctions between tools or genres. "I've always felt that if the music is heartfelt, as long as it's real and honest, it's fine," he said.
Like many well-rounded modern jazz pianists, Barron started out studying classical music as a kid in Philadelphia. Among his teachers was Vera Bryant, sister of pianist Ray Bryant and mother of guitarist Kevin Eubanks.
"As a teenager, I used to do classical recitals around Philadelphia, at churches and things like that," he said. "But you wouldn't call it professional. I couldn't do it now to save my life. You do have to stay in shape. Also, it's a different mind-set."
He knew early on that jazz was his calling, influenced in part by his older brother Bill, who moved to New York City to play saxophone while Barron was still a teenager, and later taught at Wesleyan University.
One of Barron's pet projects was the critically acclaimed group Sphere, originally formed as a tribute to Thelonious "Sphere" Monk, who died the day of the group's first recording session in 1982.
Except for Barron, the band consisted of Monk alumni: Buster Williams on bass, Ben Riley on drums and Charlie Rouse on sax. Rouse's death a few years ago put at least a temporary halt to the band's work after they recorded several albums for American and European labels.
"For me, that was big fun," Barron said of the Sphere experience. "When Rouse died, it was a big blow for all of us. However, Buster and Ben and I are talking about reviving the group, with (sax player) Gary Bartz. We all love Gary. He's an incredible player."
Barron's last significant side-man gig was as foil for the late, great tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. They appeared together in the '80s for the first Santa Barbara Jazz Festival, and recorded the Grammy-nominated duet album "People Time" in 1991, four months before Getz's death from cancer.
"People Time" proved to be a bold swan song for Getz and the spark for Barron's life as a leader. The strength of the album helped secure him a deal with Verve records after years on lesser-known labels.
"I'm settled now, which works out better. Also, in terms of doing stuff as a leader, I think I'm going to record less and not do quite so much."
Now that his career as a leader and recording artist is in full swing, Barron has plenty of ideas to pursue and already has a few recordings in the can. Watch out for: a quintet album; a live trio recording from a date at the now-defunct Bradley's in New York; and a duet album with bassist Charlie Haden recorded live at Iridium in New York.
As solid as he is behind a piano, Barron is also a fine composer. His music was recently the subject of saxophonist Harvey Weinapel's album "Ambrosia." Writing music, though, isn't Barron's main focus. "I'm not obsessive (about it). I'm still learning how to play over (chord) changes," he said in a self-effacing tone.
At the heart of it, Barron still sees his musical life as a continual quest. "Sometimes you hit the mark, sometimes you miss the mark. That's part of the learning process," he said. "If you do the same thing all the time, there you are, in the same place."
* WHAT: Kenny Barron.
* WHERE: Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara.
* WHEN: 8 p.m. Monday.
* HOW MUCH: $26.50; $21.50 for students.
* CALL: (805) 963-0761.