Issued on ABC in 1976, John Klemmer's Barefoot Ballet was the follow-up to the tremendously successful Touch in 1975. That set began to wrap up the various places he'd been musically in the early '70s while entering a new phase, where warm, rounded tones became his signature. Klemmer always stood outside of fusion circles, but his use of an Echoplex for his tenor opened many fusion fans to his sound. This date uses the Echoplex a lot less, tames the energy a bit, and looks with a confident gaze toward the era that would become smooth jazz with one major caveat: Klemmer was already a master technician who had come up through the big-boned honking tenors of hard bop and the modalism of John Coltrane. And unlike the hundreds of saxophonists who would follow him, Klemmer was, and remains, a brilliant melodic improviser. This set bears out the laid-back side of that gift. Accompanied by Dave Gruisin on Rhodes piano, Larry Carlton on acoustic guitar, Bernie Fleischer on flutes, bassist Chuck Domanico, drummer John Guerin, and percussionist Joe Porcaro, Klemmer wrote and arranged all but one of these nine tracks. The lone cover is of Janis Ian's classic "At 17," which was issued as a hit single and may indeed be the first track claimed for smooth jazz -- not a fair co-opting at all, since in Klemmer's reading of the tune, painted beautifully by Carlton and Gruisin, is a much deeper, darker emotionalism and sophisticated musicality than virtually any tune that ever came from the latter genre. Indeed, Klemmer was swinging for the commercial fences, but when the music is of a caliber this high, success should follow, right?
Klemmer creates a vibe on Barefoot Ballet beginning with the opening title track, he allows his rhythm section to expand the pocket enough for him to inhabit and blow out of from the jump. He uses his Echoplex a bit here to paint ribbons of lyric harmony all around the middle and then soars in his solo making the entire cut a song. The shimmering drift of Gruisin's Rhodes on "Forest Child" offers a slow entry to the mellow Latin percussion by Porcaro that Klemmer takes as his inspiration for the melody and later his solo. The West Coast vibe that haunts "Crystal Fingers" is a beautiful moment on this set. Klemmer's melody just sings out of the tune's frame and prompts the rhythm section to pick up the pace very gradually until they literally soar together. The slightly harder blowing on "Poem Painter" adds a soulful bounty -- underscored with Fleischer's flutes; they add a lush, textural effect to the harder Echoplex blowing, and you have something lush enough to make you ache. Klemmer took heart in the popular acceptance of Touch and Barefoot Ballet, and he began to sink deeper into the warm bubbly sound of what can only be called amniotic afterglow. His ensemble records after this began to sound increasingly formulaic for a good long while. Nonetheless, up through this point Klemmer was untouchable as an artist.