Kenny Barron is one of the most admired and most widely recorded pianists of the past 30 years, but his great versatility may have prevented him from leaving a deeper mark as a soloist. His impeccable technique bursts with influences ranging from 1940s Bud Powell through 1970s McCoy Tyner, and he seems to have no outright quirks or flaws of his own, which makes it difficult to recognize his work the way you instantly know Thelonious Monk’s broken-jalopy runs and stuttering accents. Even in the quartet Sphere–which Barron cofounded in 1980 with two of Monk’s former sidemen and which focused on Monk’s tunes–he played crisp and clean, allowing his comrades to spotlight their idiosyncrasies. His aesthetic modesty has made him a first-call sideman–he played with Dizzy Gillespie while still in his teens, then in the touring bands of Yusef Lateef and Freddie Hubbard, and in 1991 backed Stan Getz on People Time, the series of duets that would be the saxist’s final recording–but also helps explain why he so rarely performs with his own groups. Barron recorded a few gems under his own name in the 80s and early 90s–including the trio album Scratch, the quintet date What If? (both on Enja), and a solo concert at Maybeck Recital Hall (Concord)–each of which features a handful of his breezy and redolent hard-bop tunes. But not until ’92, when he made the first of an ongoing series of high-concept albums for Verve, did he begin to build a reputation as a leader. Rather than settle into a rut, he’s used this larger platform both to experiment with new formats, like the piano-percussion duet Swamp Sally, and to renew a classic–the 1994 piano trio date Wanton Spirit is the best such work of his career. On the excellent new Spirit Song, also on Verve, all but two of the tunes are Barron originals; the title track has a touch of Santeria in its dramatic percussion and spooky melody. He plays in Chicago with that album’s all-star cast: exciting young saxist Jimmy Greene, making his local debut; electrifying trumpeter Eddie Henderson; and the spectacular rhythm team of bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Billy Hart, who’s every bit as encyclopedically versatile as Barron himself. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 and 10 PM, next Friday and Saturday, April 21 and 22, 9 and 11 PM, and next Sunday, April 23, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sann.