Music review: Barron a jazz titan with uncommon virtuosity

Pianist Kenny Barron is universally judged as a titan of jazz, and he showed why Friday before a ful

In mainstream jazz, players are assessed by the professional and artistic company they keep: musicians they work with, styles they master, tunes they play.

By these measures, pianist Kenny Barron is universally judged as a titan of jazz. He showed why Friday before a full house of about 300 of the region’s most committed jazz fans at one of the region’s top jazz venues, the Whisperdome at the First Unitarian Society.

With bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Johnathan Blake, Barron glided through nine tunes in two sets and an encore that showcased versatility and artistry expected only from grandmasters.

Barron emerged from Philadelphia a half century ago to accompany Dizzy Gillespie while still in his early 20s. Since then, he has accompanied a roster of stars that reads like the index to a who’s who of jazz and, in the process, earned spots on best-player lists, Grammy nominations and induction into the American Jazz Hall of Fame.

Barron is no stranger to these parts. He appeared in Schenectady in duets with the late Nick Brignola, and the Whisperdome included him in its concert series of 1994. He remembered.

“This place always amazes me,” he said of the acoustics before launching a four-tune, 50-minute first set.

The opening standard, “I Hear A Rhapsody,” could hardly have taken a more familiar shape — rubato opening, a statement of melody with a busy “two feel,” piano and bass solos, exchanges with the drummer and a final restatement of melody. “New York Attitude,” an uptempo and straight-ahead original, also unfolded in familiar fashion: melody, solos, fills, melody.

These forms may be common. The virtuosity is not.

Barron blends lyricism reminiscent of Tommy Flanagan with a powerful percussive attack. This relentless, driving swing keeps energy high without sacrificing the beauty of melody.

On several originals, Barron also displayed an easy mastery of Latin, Brazilian and Caribbean rhythms on “Phantoms,” with bossa nova echoes for “Um Beijo” and “Cook’s Bay,” a lilting melody that evoked images of the site in Tahiti that inspired it.

At slower tempos, Barron’s musicianship was especially clear. He honored American ragtime master Eubie Blake with a slow and soothing solo interpretation of Blake’s standard, “Memories of You.” And he reminded the audience of the power of melody with an unadorned but stirring interpretation of another American standard, “Blue Moon.”

Kitagawa and Blake accompanied Barron boldly and supportively, and their solos matched Barron’s excellence, especially on a concert highlight, “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise.” Each sideman soloed out of tempo. Kitagawa offered a haunting slow turn marked by double-stop harmonies. Blake dazzled with technical brilliance and entrancing polyrhythms.

This venue is fully worthy of players of this stature. For a modest $15 a ticket, $7 for students, this concert series and this venue rank among the gems of the region’s arts scene.

Categories: Entertainment

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