in performance: kenny barron

kenny barron. photo by carol friedman.

kenny barron. photo by carol friedman.

If you had only the initial moments of his splendid solo piano concert last night at the University of Louisville’s Comstock Hall to go by, you might have pegged jazz pianist Kenny Barron as something of a standards man. His touch was light and approachable, his tone was clean and melodic and his repertoire was full of the familiar – namely, ample inclusions from the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn songbook along with such often-covered covers as How Deep is the Ocean, Love Walked In and Body and Soul. And truth be told, if the performance delved no deeper than that, the evening would have still wound up in the win column.

There was such a subtle punctuation to Barron’s playing, as in the rumble of left hand blues in Strayhorn’s Isfahon and the even gentler right hand sweeps during Melancholia (part of a four song Ellington/Strayhorn medley) that the soulfulness inherent in the tunes was effortlessly enhanced.

But Barron proved a wily player, as well. You don’t clock time with greats like Freddie Hubbard and Stanley Turrentine on top of a famed five year stint in the mid ‘60s with Dizzy Gillespie and not pick up a few tricks. On the original New York Attitude, Barron let loose with runs that, in the tune’s madder moments, possessed the danger level of a cab ride through Midtown Manhattan. But Calypso, another Barron composition, favored dynamics over tension for a bright, lyrical, tropically inspired bounce.

As Barron is deeply versed in the music of Thelonious Monk (he is a co-founder of the great Monk tribute ensemble Sphere), there was also room in the performance for the modal mischief and overt playfulness of Well You Needn’t. But the gems of the night were two other Barron works – the decades old Lullaby and a tribute to South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim titled Song for Abdullah. Within their sparsely designed frameworks, Barron created passages of unhurried lyrical warmth balanced by the solemnity of a hymn.

Neither could be classified a standard. Yet. But the unforced elegance, soulful charm and emotive beauty that defined the performance suggested another learned pianist a few decades down the pike may be exploring Barron’s music with the same reverence he afforded the Ellington generation last night.

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