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REVIEW: Moving Solo Songbook Show by Kenny Barrons (Crooners)

A publicity photo of jazz master Kenny Barron. Photo by Philippe Lévy-Stab.

It has been a great week in the area for jazz piano, with Cyrus Chestnut leading a trio last week at Vieux Carre and Kenny Barron giving a magnificent solo performance last night at Crooners Lounge and Supper Club’s Dunsmore Room.

Barron is 75 years old, an NEA Jazz Master, and has dozens of albums and two honorary degrees to his name.  He has worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, Yusef Lateef, Stan Getz, and Ron Carter, as well as being the leader of various trios, quartets, and quintets.  He taught for many years at Rutgers University, and, more recently, at Julliard School of Music.  He has been selected as Best Pianist by the Jazz Journalists Association seven times.  (One can get a good sense of both the person, the player, and the music in this interview from 2017.)

But how does one explain to Millennials how important Barron is?  The honorary degrees and his 11 Grammy nominations may not be sufficient.  Perhaps younger listeners would appreciate his musical significance if one told them that he has inspired an iPhone app, called Jazz Piano with Kenny Barron. This app allows one to see Barron playing songs with a view over the player’s shoulder down at the keys, with a subscript naming the chords being played.  With “Rhythm Changes,” the free song that comes with the app (others require payment), one can get a sense of the lightning chord changes that characterize Barron’s playing.

The CD back for Kenny Barron’s recent album Concentric Circles.

Barron’s most recent album, Concentric Circles, came out just this past May.  On this album, Barron plays as part of a quintet (Mike Rodriguez, trumpet; Dayna Stephens, saxophone; Kiyoshi Kitagawa, bass; and Johnathan Blake, drums), and seven of the eleven tracks are Barron’s own original compositions.  Last night’s performance at Crooners was in sharp contrast to this recent album: Barron was on his own, playing on a 9-foot Steinway piano, and the set list was filled with jazz and American Songbook standards – none of his originals.  In the set, he wound his way through Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan”, Freddie Hubbard’s “Up Jumped Spring”, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”, Theolonious Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t”, “Body and Soul”, “How Deep is the Ocean”, and “Love Walked In”.

Barron has often expressed his great admiration for Hank Jones, and for how Jones could make his playing seem effortless.  Barron’s playing does not have that same appearance.  It often seems as though each song poises a difficult problem that he as the performer must work through.  Barron says that he follows the advice of Dizzy Gillespie, in trying to “build” a solo, rather than simply throwing in everything one is able to play.  During the performance, his head is sometimes tilted in concentration; other times, he will softly sing (or scat sing) to what he is playing.  Inevitably, the tensions in the improvisations are resolved, and problem of the piece is solved.  Like Monk, Barron’s music could be aptly described as “angular,” with regular use “percussive” chord playing.  Another distinctive part of Barron’s playing, the use of Brazilian rhythms (a product in part of his playing with Gillespie and Getz), was somewhat less evident this evening.

In recent interviews, Barron has stated that, for him, music is about connecting on an emotional level, trying to move people.  And the packed house at Crooners last night was clearly moved.

Brian Bix