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Kenny Barron: Spirit Song

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Long the sideman of choice, pianist Kenny Barron has quietly built up a respectable discography as a leader in recent years. He could have settled into a predictable pattern, for instance, of trio projects-a format he excels in. But so far into his impressive ’90s run on Verve, he has favored roads less traveled and heeded the muse of restless creativity. As with his previous album, Things Unseen, Barron changes up the textures and colors here, with a range of guests: guitarist Russell Malone, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, David Sanchez on tenor sax and violinist Regina Carter. The sum effect is a varietal garden of sounds and ideas, within the framework of Barron’s post-mainstream jazz sensibility.

He graciously metes out improv space to his guests, but Barron’s playing still nabs the ear every time it’s at the forefront, blending subtlety and technical bravura-but never for its own sake. His songwriting and arranging skills come to bear here, too, from the devilish twists of the title tune’s head to the lustrous waltz of “The Question Is” and the suave sashay of “Cook’s Bay.”

For cover material, Barron serves up a softly percolating version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower,” with a piano solo that epitomizes Barron’s simmering-yet-adventurous sense of swing. He also ups the tempo ante with McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance,” a heated duet encounter with Sanchez. Another duet closes the album: “And Then Again” is a steamy tete-a-tete with Malone in which the musicians dart in and out of the bebop groundwork at dangerous speeds and angles. A soft-spoken titan, Barron is doing more than almost any pianist out there to give mainstream piano jazz a good, progressive name.