Jon Ross | 28 JAN 2020
The Kenny Barron Quintet has an eye on the front line. While the septuagenarian pianist has lately performed and recorded in trio and duet formats, the addition of saxophone and trumpet to form the quintet – which released its debut recording, “Concentric Circles,” in 2018 — gives Barron’s compositions new depth.
In the band’s performance Saturday at Spivey Hall on the campus of Clayton State University, trumpeter Mike Rodriguez and saxophonist Dayna Stephens joined Barron’s longtime triomates, bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Johnathan Blake.
“Concentric Circles” has Rodriguez and Stephens front and center from the downbeat, with Barron lending a supporting hand. That’s nothing new for Barron, of course. The pianist honed his accompaniment style in the 1960s in bands with Dizzy Gillespie, Yusef Lateef and other jazz giants, so he likely relishes his current mentor role. (In a nod to mentorship, Barron dedicated the Spivey concert to saxophonist Jimmy Heath, a longtime friend who died on January 19 at age 93.)
Barron’s primary currency is bebop, which is by now, even to those only passingly familiar with jazz, a familiar aesthetic. But Barron and his band infuse elements of tango, salsa and other Latin jazz sounds to the standard fare, giving the tightly wound swing music twists and turns. The band’s up-tempo, quick-as-a-whip bebop tunes still excite.
Barron, a titan among piano players, has a deliberate but never aggressive attack, tenderly brushing the keys on bubbly runs up the piano, his left hand skipping along as a melodic mimic of his right. And this was very easy to hear, especially early on when the piano mikes asserted an amplified keyboard sound at the cost of the rest of the ensemble. At one point the microphones caused a brief pause to the music as feedback arose from the mics. Barron paused the proceedings for a split second, briefly considered the errant noise, and continued his melodic thought as if nothing had happened.
The two horn players create an exciting aesthetic by playing mostly as polar opposites. Rodriguez brokered dervish-like sixteenth note solos Thursday; Stephens’ saxophone aesthetic was a study in contradictions. There’s poise to his tenor sound, which is laid-back but pushing forward, bright but also shaded and masked. From the first tune, Stephens played with a sophistication and an assurance that his alternate take on soloing was as valid as Rodriguez’s frequent trumpet flights of fancy; Stephens didn’t move toward on instrumental pyrotechnics during fast-paced bebop, but instead crafting a solo in strings of careful notes, rhythmic permutations and silence. The saxophonist’s angular, creative solo lines added more depth to an already exceptionally musical group.
As an accompanist, Barron is a thrill. Always active, Barron mixes bits of melody into rhythmically interesting, broad chords, allowing the soloist room to navigate but also giving pokes and prods with melodic material. Barron culled much of the evening’s music from the quintet’s debut record, and he chose to begin and end the evening with a pair of standards. “How Deep is the Ocean, How High is the Sky” kicked off the concert by showcasing Barron in a rubato intro, the melody wrapped in interlocking chords and arpeggios. From there, Barron and the band transitioned to easy, in-the-pocket swing.
The pianist’s whirling, twirling solo piano returned at the close for the labyrinthine Thelonious Monk tune “Well You Needn’t.” Barron again played the melody amid lush chords and arpeggiation, alone with his thoughts, until slowly the other band members picked up the thread. After an extended solo section, the concert closed with an ensemble restatement of the melody, articulating not the prodigious individual talents of the group but the rewarding ensemble sound Barron has created. ■
Jon Ross writes about jazz, pop and classical music for Downbeat magazine, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine and other publications.