If you love jazz piano, Kenny Barron is a north star of sorts.
If you love jazz piano, Kenny Barron is a north star of sorts, a talent who is and always was top-shelf. His new quintet recording for Blue Note, Concentric Circles, maintains this sterling quality in the year that Barron will turn a youthful 75.
Barron is the kind of musician who can play any style and with anyone. Having been hired by Dizzy Gillespie before he was 20, Barron learned early to be fluent not just in bebop but also Latin jazz, bossa nova, and lush ballad playing. His stints through the years playing with legends such as Stan Getz, Ron Carter, Buddy Rich, Freddie Hubbard, Milt Jackson, and Yusef Lateef made him a paragon of sensitivity, versatility, and melody. As a leader (40 recordings . . . so far), he has specialized in the Thelonious Monk repertoire (with the band Sphere), in solo piano, in classic original composition, and in working across cultures.
This Blue Note debut places Barron in front of strong trio with a pair of younger horn players, playing eight originals by the pianist and several thrilling standards. What will strike any listener first is that this program sounds like it could come from a leader in his thirties: seasoned but eager to make a mark. Barron is as crisp and clear as any young pianist out there. Yes, it’s mainstream jazz piano, not vanguard stuff, but the sense on intention and clarity is unmistakable. Nothing on Concentric Circles sounds like the same-old, same-old, like a something tired.
The set starts with driving hard bop. “DPW” is a tight theme for Mike Rodriguez’s trumpet and Dayna Stephens’ tenor saxophone, with Barron playing rippling lines all around the edges of theme. It is a sumptuous swinger, in league with the themes that Wayne Shorter wrote for his Blue Notes discs of the 1960s. Stephens has the first solo, a quick but harmonically hip line that nods in tone to strong mainstream players such as Benny Golson or Oliver Nelson. Barron’s solo comes third but easily out-flashes the rest—demonstrating that he is not here merely as a senior statesman or wise old head. Barron is mixing it up with the young guys. He’s got what it takes.
This is a program marked by variety as well as quality. The title track is a breezy theme in three with gorgeous harmonies between the horns on the theme. The lovely, transparent melody that rises up into the clouds like good Herbie Hancock or Cedar Walton tune. Barron is out first with his solo, and he is does a beautiful job of moving between the section of suspended pedal point and three-four swing. Rodriguez is exceptionally fluid in his sound here, grabbing the full tone of a player like Art Farmer but the quicker articulation of Freddie Hubbard. it is a superb solo.
Barron’s affection for Latin grooves is here in spades. “Aquele Frevo Axe” begins with a sweet, Bill-Evans-ish piano introduction that segues into a gentle bossa nova for the trio. The horns take solos and then come back at the end to play the Caetano Veloso melody out. “Baile” uses a slow, modified habanera bass line at the start, then goes into a straight Afro-Cuban groove beneath an attractive melody. The horns trade eight (and then four, then two, and so on) bar phrases, joyfully, in a hip conversation that is as much about the groove as the chord changes.
Two of the originals are more modern in approach. “Blue Waters” uses a creeping, sultry descending melody that rides atop a groove-based rhythm section feeling. “I’m Just Saying” is a funky odd-metered Barron original that lets drummer Johnathan Blake demonstrate how he can bring the band into the sound of the current New York jazz scene, dolloping on a dose of angular hip-hop over the backbeat four. The horn players take more liberty here, playing funky but also slightly outside the basic blues framework. Here, as everywhere, Barron the soloist never gets outplayed. As he moves from a single-note line to chords, Blake gets more active, then Barron starts doubling the bass line again with his left hand as the melody returns.
Barron also excels with slower tempi. “A Short Journey” begins as a moody, modal exploration, with Stephens and Rodriguez floating atop a pedal point from bassist Kiyoshi Kitigawa. The trio plays flowing tempoless time as Stephens’ soprano sax and Rodriguez’s trumpet trace cirrus clouds of melody in the atmosphere.
Barron’s closes the program with a solo piano version of Thelonious Monk’s “Reflections,” which is certainly a nod to Barron’s most critical influence. The second time through the theme, Barron plays a spare, silence-punctuated kind of stride-piano accompaniment to the melody, nodding back to Monk’s own influences, but in an utterly original way. This portion of the performance slowly veers into improvisation, but it never goes too far from Monk’s timeless melody, eventually returning to ballad format. It is a valentine to one of the jazz masters, a category to which, honestly, we should add Kenny Barron, one of the music’s living legends.