Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Kenny Barron at the Dakota

Kenny Barron blew into the Dakota last night, trailing an all-star band—as they call it. Kenny himself has long since graduated from “world’s best jazz sideman” to “world’s best lyric jazz pianist” though such monikers are tossed around mostly by club owners trying to fill the house. (He barely made the top ten in the latest Downbeat Critics Poll.) Kenny’s style is distinctly linear, as opposed to the bold, impenetrable chordal thickets so often thrown our way nowadays by the likes of Brad Mehldau, Jason Moran, and Chucho Valdés. In his frenzied moments, the mix of furious arpeggios and rapid-fire riffs can sound like one holy muddle, but the pianistic “touch” and sheer musical thought Kenny exhibits in quieter moments more than redresses the balance.

In the end, you go to a Kenny Barron show to hear the kind of jazz you’ve been hearing all your life—straight-ahead bebop with a few modernist furies and a touch of “stride” here and there. That’s why I go, anyway.

Kenny’s current quartet features David Sanchez, a firebrand tenor in his mid-forties who was once Barron’s student at Rutgers, and two musicians I’d never heard of, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Kim Thompson. Kenny met Kim in Cuba in 2001 at the Havana Jazz Festival. "I had never heard Kim play,” he later recalled, “but when I asked Ben Riley for a recommendation, the first person he suggested was Kim. We didn't have time to rehearse, but her performance blew me away." Since that time the two have performed together often, though to some readers Kim’s most impressive credit would be that she’s pop-diva Beyonce’s drummer.

Thompson’s energy and taste were in evidence throughout the evening, though on the opening number, a rousing rendition of “Softly as a Morning Sunrise,” she all but overpowered the rest of the band. From that point on, the group settled down, moving through a pleasant but somewhat rusty samba, a tender piece Barron had written for a film score called “Theme #1,” and “Body and Soul,” which seems to bring out the best in any soloist.

David Sanchez played a robust, straight-ahead tenor throughout the evening, building his solos carefully, hanging close to the changes and not really cutting lose until the groundwork had been laid. Exactly the kind of music I go to the Dakota to hear. Near the end of the final piece of the set, “Bud Like,” another Barron original dedicated to Bud Powell (one of his idols), Sanchez put together a remarkable cadenza, and to judge from the attentiveness of Barron and his other cohorts in the band, it wasn’t something he played every night.

The entire set was engaging, and the elderly couple hacking away at their steaks down the way, directly in our line of sight, were only mildly distracting.

I sometimes get the feeling that live jazz is sustained by people who don’t really like jazz much, but if that’s what it takes, so be it. The food at the Dakota looks and smells so good that it becomes part of the show, whether you order it yourself or not.

Barron came out for a brief encore, a solo rendition of Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You.” And Sanchez, dripping with sweat and wearing a boyish grin, held the door for us as we left the club. (Perhaps he’d stepped outside for a smoke.)

“Great set,” was all I could think of to say. But it was true.

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