Bill Barron

There's no shortage of jazz reissues, re-releases or compilations out there, but the majority of them spotlight a relative handful of artists. You can collect practically every note every played by, say, John Coltrane, if you are so inclined, but tracking down the early recordings of Ronald Shannon Jackson may be more of a challenge. So applaud Atlantic for its latest series, which concentrates on vintage stuff by worthy acts that, for one reason or another, never ascended to the jazz pantheon -- like, for instance, The Last Savoy Sessions, a nice Yusef Lateef twofer, and On 52nd Street, a stylish offering by underappreciated pianist Marian McPartland. The real find here, however, is Modern Windows Suite, a thrilling collection of works by saxophonist Bill Barron, a player who will be unfamiliar to all but the most encyclopedic jazz trivialist.

If the name rings half a bell, it should: Barron's younger brother Kenny is an accomplished keyboardist with a justifiably elevated rep. But Bill, who died in 1990, was very skilled as well, with a gruff but likable tone that recalls the playing of his idol, Dexter Gordon, without aping it. Moreover, he was one bopper not frightened off by the '50s rise of experimental jazz as practiced by the likes of Ornette Coleman. These sides, cut with brother Kenny and several other noteworthy instrumentalists (including bassist Jimmy Garrison) back in 1961, find him acknowledging modernity rather than fleeing from it. "Men at Work," the opener, is introduced by a succession of chugging, aggressive riffs that spin off Barron solos like pinwheels. This brawny approach rubs off on the other musicians, leading to a dizzying display of one-upmanship. Other tunes demonstrate Barron's range: "Tone Colors" is relatively deliberate, allowing him to splash his thick lines across a borderless canvas, while "Dedication to Wanda" exudes a compellingly mournful air. But he's at his best on up-tempo pieces such as "Keystone," which benefits from Jay Cameron's baritone sax; "Blast Off," an exuberant sonic explosion with an exhilarating big-city vibe; and "Backlash," replete with a swirling horn chart that inspires some of the main man's most memorable honking.

Barron's best moments are so good that they may leave listeners asking why he eventually faded into obscurity. The answer to this question is fairly simple: The '50s and '60s spawned so many high-quality jazzers that many of them disappeared through no fault of their own. But thanks to the lameness of the current scene, Barron is getting another shot -- and that should make young turks trying to catch up on the genre very grateful indeed.


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