Kenny Barron in Concert


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While the staff at Rifftides world headquarters labors over outside writing obligations, Washington, DC correspondent John Birchard fills the gap with his impressions of a concert by a major pianist and his new trio.


May 3, 2008

Review by John Birchard

Any lingering suspicion that jazz is a purely American art form could have been wiped away last night (May 3), as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, presented the Kenny Barron Trio, made up of Philadelphia's Barron at the piano, Kiyoshi Kitagawa of Osaka, Japan on bass and the drummer Francisco Mela from Bayamo, Cuba. We caught the first of two sets in the Center's Family Theater, an intimate box that features excellent acoustics and steeply-angled seating with good sight lines throughout.

Barron eased into the program with Luis Bonfa's “Manha de Carnaval", first as an unaccompanied solo, then with a comfortable medium bossa nova rhythm. The pianist moved through the changes, making marvelous, unexpected chord substitutions as he explored the familiar tune. Mela is an interesting drummer. His time is loosey-goosey and he plays around the beat but never loses it.

He has a light but firm touch and uses humor in his fills and solos. Bassist Kitagawa reminds this listener of Charlie Haden in that he usually keeps to the lower register on his instrument, playing firm time with occasional, tasteful decorations inserted in appropriate spots. As for the international aspects of their backgrounds, the two could well have come from Detroit or Central Avenue in L.A. Their playing reveals no “foreign" accents.

The standard “How Deep is the Ocean" followed, taken at a medium tempo. Barron seemed to be thoroughly warmed up, as he spun out a number of finger-busting runs during his solo. The leader introduced each tune with remarks that displayed a warmth and sense of humor, but were not long-winded. Rather like his piano work, his ad libs got straight to the point. An original came next - “Lullaby", a waltz with interesting twists and turns in the melody. Barron followed that with a Monk tune, “Ask me Now" played as a ballad. In so doing, he gave the tune a chance to breathe and he played Monk without trying to sound like Monk. That was refreshing.

In the only “commercial" note of the evening, Barron mentioned that the original titled “Calypso" will be found on his new CD, The Traveler, coming out later this month. This Calypso is one of the few that doesn't sound like “Saint Thomas". It has surprising hesitations built into the melody, but the rhythm is pure infectious Caribbean. Barron exercised his considerable Latin chops on this one.

Inspired by a wedding anniversary visit to Tahiti - the Barrons' 45th, he pointed out - he expressed another attractive original known as “Cook's Bay", with a light Latin beat. The piece has the sort of lilting sound that makes one want to visit that part of the world to see what caused Barron to come up with it. “Cook's Bay" rounded out the set and prompted a loud and long ovation from the sold-out house.

Barron returned to the stage alone and, for an encore, performed the old Eubie Blake-Andy Razaf standard “Memories of You" in what might be described as a delicate stride. It was a captivating performance that demonstrated just how much jazz history Kenny Barron has at his fingertips. He is not an overwhelming player in the manner of Oscar Peterson. But think of all the great players who have hired him over the years and sung his praises, from Dizzy Gillespie to Stan Getz. He is in the middle of the mainstream, but his touch at the keyboard, his rich knowledge of chords, his taste, inventiveness and subtle soul make him, in this listener's book, a national treasure. It was a joy to spend a couple of hours in his company.

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