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Bill Barron: Compilation

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Bill Barron was an important, largely overlooked transitional figure of the late ’50s and early ’60s, a tenor saxophonist and composer who consolidated advanced jazz-harmonic logic with an eye on the emergent “new thing.” He made his recording debut on Cecil Taylor’s ’59 Love for Sale, sharing the front line with trumpeter Ted Curson, with whom he enjoyed a fruitful partnership into the mid-’60s. Barron’s two ’61 Savoy dates, recently reissued together as Modern Windows Suite, reflect his unique blend of theoretical acumen and improvisational zeal (they are also noteworthy as the first recordings featuring his kid brother, pianist Kenny Barron). The untenable jazz economy of the mid-’60s prompted Barron to attempt expatriation in Europe, where he articulated his theory of a “total composition concept within an improvisational framework,” which provided the foundation for his academic legacy. By the late ’60s, however, he was pursuing his Ph.D. and matriculating in academia. Barron became a pedagogical force during a 12-year tenure at Wesleyan University, culminating in his chairing of the music department from ’84 to ’87. Barron remained a compelling composer and improviser until his death in ’89, as evidenced by Higher Ground (Joken), recorded just months prior to his passing.

The combination of significant artistic innovation, a spotty discography and a trove of private recordings makes Barron the perfect subject for a series of archival recordings. The prospects are all the more promising by the cooperation between Anna Barron, Wesleyan University and Cadence’s Bob Rusch in realizing Compilation.

Still, there is nothing in Barron and Rusch’s respective liner notes to suggest that Compilation is the first of an ongoing, if only occasional series. Additionally, Volume 1 is conspicuously absent on the packaging. Anyone familiar with Barron’s music has to be tantalized by the idea of a series culled from the boxes of tapes now in Anna Barron’s possession and the additional material in Wesleyan’s collection, but they will be equally chagrined if this appetite-whetting collection is all that comes from this rare alignment of the stars.

If there are to be future installments, increased curatorial rigor is indicated. The something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue format of Compilation does not yield substantial new insight into Barron’s compositional approach, as he penned only one of the album’s five pieces, the funky “Blues in B-Flat Minor.” One can dicker about the inclusion of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” The case for inclusion is based on Barron and Coltrane’s shared Philadelphia roots, and their respective systems of harmonic extensions; plus, hearing Barron take on the technically treacherous flag-waver is a pleasure. The case against centers around the inclusion of pianist Fred Simmons’ “Impressions”-like “Going Forth.” It is a rousing performance in and of itself. But the two pieces give Coltrane’s legacy a weight in the program that it did not have in Barron’s work, generally. The rationale that Barron’s simmering solos are reason enough to include both pieces cannot be applied, however, to the nonsensical presence of Simmons’ serviceable solo reading of “My Funny Valentine.”

This begs the question of what was left behind from these three mid-’80s concerts at Wesleyan’s Crowell Hall, particularly the October ’84 event that yielded the stunning “spontaneous composition” called “Waiting for You.” The title refers to drummer Ed Blackwell (who appears on the other tracks), whose travel delays caused the concert to commence without him. Barron begins alone, plaintively slipping through phrases, inferring a song structure that never hardens. As Barron launches long streaming lines, vibist Jay Hoggard enters, giving Barron a lush harmonic base for a soft landing. Barron lays out for much of Hoggard’s absorbing contemplative statement, adding occasional commentary that hones the mood. Simmons enters with crisp scalar runs and dramatic use of the low register; with Hoggard on the stand, Anthony Davis comes to mind (it is frustrating that this is Hoggard’s only performance on the CD). Everyone lays out for Bill Lowe, who hands in a conceptually daring tuba solo, which evolves into an exchange with Wes Brown’s plump, bluesy bass. The edge sharpens in the final ensemble, leading to a concise, empathic climax.