Live review

Kenny Barron Trio at Ronnie Scott’s

Kenny Barron Trio
(Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. 4 August 2019. International Piano Trio Festival. Review by Peter Vacher)

Kenny Barron in Oslo, 2018 (Photo credit: Tore Sætre/Creative Commons)

The standout booking for the club’s 2019 International Piano Trio Festival was this opening two-day appearance by the Kenny Barron Trio. A rare visitor these days, the 76-year old Philadelphian is still one of the commanding figures in present-day piano jazz with a storied career who, on this evidence, is in the very best of form. He’s clearly at one with his current companions and they with him as was confirmed on their recent trio album, that same sense of collective inspiration again apparent throughout this Sunday night performance. Regular bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa (from Osaka, Japan, as Barron announced, but a New Yorker now) and drummer Johnathan Blake are both forthright improvisers but locked in their support for Barron to make this trio as tight a unit as you could wish for.

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Barron likes to open a piece, such as Billy Strayhorn’s evocative Isfahan, quietly, often solo, letting the theme gradually dissolve as he moves into his initial improvisation, at which point bass and drums enter, again calm, but gradually building in intensity as Barron seems to enter his period of greatest concentration, the lucidity of his extemporisations the key aspect. There are no thunderous chords a la Tyner, more a kind of controlled drive. He doesn’t interact or duet with his trio, there are no fours. As he stops, so Kitagawa takes over, his supple command especially impressive, then it’s Blake’s turn. He has all four cymbals including the hi-hat set low, just above knee height you could say, and builds solos marked by clever variations from one hand to another and the most commanding kick accents from his bass drum. Somehow, these often-furious fusillades stay within the compass of the melody, Barron resuming at exactly the right moment.

Surrey With A Fringe On The Top from Oklahoma may not seem an obvious choice for a mainstream-bebop player like Barron but he enjoyed tinkering with its jaunty theme, his dexterity a hallmark, the lines unfolding without restraint, before bassist Kitagawa launched into an exceptional solo combining double-stopping with a sliding action that seemed to create an entirely new sound. A further surprise was Barron’s reading of Monk’s Well You Needn’t in totally un-Monkian fashion, up-tempo, the swing straight ahead, no jagged twists and turns, again unleashing a response from Blake that suggested an imminent bandstand collapse. Magical music, a full house and an ovation, but no club front-man on duty to acknowledge the applause or salute the musicians. Strange.

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