LIVE: The Kenny Barron Trio @ First Unitarian Society’s Whisperdome, 10/14/11

Kenny Barron
Kenny Barron

“You guys are really amazing,” Kenny Barron enthused, grinning out at the full house that had been enthralled with Barron’s trio for two shining sets. “One of the best audiences in the world!” I can’t speak for the world, but it was certainly one of the biggest crowds A Place For Jazz has ever had: Staffers had to rush out folding chairs to accommodate the rain-drenched audience that kept filing into the Whisperdome in Schenectady well after the 8pm start time. And their enthusiasm for the star of the night was palpable before Barron even played a note.

When he did play, he started in the clear with the Jimmy Dorsey classic “I Hear a Rhapsody.” Barron seemed to be treating the piece as a meditation, but he soon shifted into second gear and was joined by his rhythm section – bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Johnathan Blake. To paraphrase the late great Milt Hinton, Barron has shoes that are older than these guys, and Barron demonstrated through the night that he does perfectly well without any help; his solo-piano take on Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You” was a heartbreaker. But although the trio has only worked as a unit for a couple of years, they displayed the tightness and chemistry of a group that had been together for decades.

The first image that came to my head was that of a hand-tailored tuxedo, perfectly sculpted by dedicated artisans of the craft, with all of the luxuries and none of the modern frills many of today’s jazzers insist on. Even when Barron was going full throttle on the bodacious bopper “New York Attitude” or the vivacious show-closer “Calypso,” there was always the sense that every note had a well-chosen place. He didn’t pound; he didn’t bluster; he didn’t crank out showboating cascades that screamed, “LOOK AT ME!” It was just passages and passages of articulate dialogue, totally suited for whatever the occasion was, and somewhere Ahmad Jamal was smiling like a winner.

Barron also has a playful sense of humor, which he displayed in quick bursts. When Kitagawa and Blake were clearing the stage before “Memories”, Barron told them, quietly but sternly, “No drinking!” And after he introduced his second tune “Phantoms”, Barron intimated that he’d just “called an audible” when he pointed at Blake, grinning, and said, “Gotcha!”

As the night went on, though, you got the sense that Barron could have called “The Horst Wessel Song” or “Hickory Dickory Dock” and his rhythm section would have caught it. They were dialed in to everything Barron threw at them, and vice versa. The piano usually drives the trio, but Blake’s amazing drum work did more than a little driving of its own while Kitagawa’s uber-phat bass made the Whisperdome throb. To my mind, this band works so well together because they all have an indelible sense of melody – not just how to play one, but how to support one so you don’t step on its toes. It’s an overall feeling of elegance, with a place for everything and everything in its place.

Blake sets his cymbals lower than anyone I’ve ever seen. I thought he might have done it to resist the urge to “go big”, because Barron’s music doesn’t require Tony Williams “thunder drums,” but it turns out Blake had seen pictures of drummers back in the day laying out their kits that way and decided to try it. The experiment worked, because this matrix suits Blake’s compact style, and goodness knows, it doesn’t cramp that style: The drum solo he built in the middle of “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” was absolutely breathtaking, from its well-crafted begging to its titanic pinnacle; conversely, Blake displayed an immaculate sense of nuance during the Jobim-esque “Im Beiju” when he repeatedly tapped a cymbal with a stick and then muted it with his left hand. Kitagawa’s own solos may not have had opportunities for bombast, but we got to see his own talent for dialogue and melody when he went solo. His in-the-clear moment during “Softly” let him make his own inroads into the melody, and Kitagawa punctuated every solo with startling chords that achieved harmony and dissonance in the same breath.

A Place For Jazz has had every kind of group play their unique venue, but Barron’s trio had the perfect size and sound for the space. And the fact that they packed in the crowd on a night that wasn’t fit for visiting your next-door neighbor made an outstanding night all the sweeter.

Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk

Rudy Lu’s photographs at Albany Jazz
Jeff Waggoner’s review at Albany Jazz
Albert Brooks’ photographs at Albany Jazz
Excerpt of Matthew Maguire’s review at The Daily Gazette: “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.”

I Hear a Rhapsody
Memories of You (Barron solo)
New York Attitude
Im Beiju
Softly as in a Morning Sunrise
Blue Moon
Cook’s Bay

Kiyoshi Kitagawa and Johnathan Blake
Kiyoshi Kitagawa and Johnathan Blake

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