Kenny Barron has never had anything going for himself except excellence. He is neither charismatic nor flamboyant. Perhaps because his mastery of modern mainstream jazz piano is so comprehensive, he has been more admired than loved. He has also transcended the flaws and mannerisms that humanize lesser piano players.
While excellence usually prevails, and while Barron has won virtually every important award that the jazz world bestows, it took him until age 75 to debut as a leader on Blue Note. Concentric Circles introduces a new band with three strong emerging players (tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, trumpeter Mike Rodriguez, drummer Johnathan Blake) and a long-term Barron associate (bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa).
The set list is not unusual, containing mostly recent originals plus typical choices like a Brazilian piece and a Monk tune. What makes a Barron record special is execution, the distinctive substance and elegance he gives equally to hard-bop anthems (“DPW”), waltzes (the title track), funk workouts (“Blue Waters”) and rapt, hovering ballads (“A Short Journey”). Stephens and Rodriguez respond to this rich material with sensitivity and interesting ideas, but Barron’s solos are on their own level, emerging so fully formed they sound foreordained.
Here are two of many high moments: “In the Dark” is a haunting seven-minute ritual of rising and falling two-note figures by Stephens and Rodriguez. Barron traces a strand of light, like hope, all through the song’s looming night. “Reflections,” with its hard angles and jarring intervals, is Monk’s most austere ballad. Barron makes it sing, rendering it lush and poignant. Yet he retains Monk’s irony, ending with three resounding clanks. On an outstanding quintet record, the fullest, deepest, most complete statement is this solo-piano track.
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