Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Barron and Charlap: The Art of the Jazz Trio

In 1961, at 19 years of age, a young pianist named Kenny Barron broke into the heart of the jazz scene just as it was peaking in popularity and innovation. Barron (born in Philadelphia, the city of John Coltrane) moved to New York and free-lanced with the young lions Roy Haynes, Lee Morgan and James Moody, three different and yet distinct voices in American music. As the jazz form stretched out, he enriched his musical vocabulary and became a working sideman. Barron proved himself worthy of such stellar company by cutting his first record in 1962 with James Moody. Moody recommended the young piano-player to Dizzy Gillespie. Gillespie was infatuated with the Afro-Cuban sounds in those days and his influence on Barron was profound. Between 1962 and 1968, Barron had steady work with either Gillespie or Moody in a rich repertoire of standards, be-bop and Afro-Cuban music. By 1971 he joined the truly adventurous reed-player Yusef Lateef for six albums released on Atlantic Records. Barron’s talent lie in his ability to fuse all these musical styles (be-bop, Latin, Avant-Garde) while building his own voice, making him one of the most versatile pianists in jazz. As the decades followed, Barron quietly made his mark as a soloist and bandleader. Over the years, he’s cut some memorable records with Stan Getz and Charlie Haden. His splendid 2014 release with bassist Dave Holland, called The Art of Conversation (Impulse), was marvelous recording.

Kenny Barron’s new release is called Book of Intuition (Impulse) and it’s everything one would expect from this veteran musician: passion, joy and sensitivity. Kiyoshi Kitagawa, bass, and Johnathan Blake, drums, round out the trio on this occasion.

The album opens with “Magic Dance” a strong Bossa-flavored track typical of Barron's love for Latin rhythms. This tune sets us up for the powerful second track “Bud Like,” clearly inspired by be-bop giant Bud Powell whose influence on jazz still lingers, unspoken, in the zeitgeist. I particularly like the tune “Cook’s Bay” for its steady pulse and remarkable interplay between Barron and Blake. As Barron moves the soloing forward, Blake’s quick response to his every phrase really gels as the tune fades out. “Shuffle Boil” is a deep cut from the Thelonious Monk songbook and it’s rare for Barron not to include a tune from Monk on an album. This version is the funkiest rendition I’ve ever heard and I really appreciate Barron’s remarkable comfort with Monk’s quirky compositions. The trio makes a meal out of this one only to follow up with another Monk tune, “Light Blue,” in an equally spirited performance. My favourite cut is the hard-bopping “Lunacy” which really shows off the collective effort of the trio and Barron’s remarkable blend of the new and traditional schools of contemporary jazz that push boundaries. The album closes with beautiful version of the Charlie Haden composition, “Nightfall.”

At 73 years old, Barron still sounds fresh, creative and joyful on this record, in spite of a slightly out-of-tune piano. By surrounding himself with young musicians in the rhythm section, the master is a mentor as much as a student.

The consummate trio record of the year, however, goes to Bill Charlap.

Notes From New York (Impulse) is his new album featuring the dexterous Kenny Washington on drums and Peter Washington on bass. It’s the same group that backed Tony Bennett on his Grammy winning album from last year, The Silver Lining: the Songs of Jerome Kern (Columbia). Charlap was born in New York City and started playing piano at age 3. He put in time as a sideman like Barron, but didn’t release his first album until the age of twenty eight. The record that really brought him notoriety was Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein (Blue Note) released in 2004.

On his new album Charlap likes to mix styles on a number of familiar standards, such as “I'll Remember April” and “A Sleeping Bee.” These tracks swing like crazy. But the highlights for me are the obscure songs, “Too Late Now” and “Make Me Rainbows.” Give Charlap a simple piece of music and he works his magic; hand him something more challenging and the music takes off into another sphere altogether. For instance on “Make Me Rainbows” the trio makes it sway in the coolest way possible with waves of space between the notes and a rock-solid foundation by Peter Washington, that lends confidence to the music and legato groove. I’ve heard Charlap in performance a couple of times when I was lucky to get a ticket. (His shows always sell out.) In concert Charlap plays with so much spontaneity and surprise that it can take your breath away. Check out his upcoming performances here.

Notes From New York is a fine recording but the sound mix is perhaps a little too “upfront” for some people – nevertheless it’s still warm to the ear. I suspect that this album will be on many Top Ten lists come December.

I could easily make a case for this trio as the genuine successor to Oscar Peterson’s trios of the Sixties. Charlap’s band has the chops and the sensitivity necessary to make great jazz that is rich in complexity but emotionally available to anyone who loves good music.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. He’s just finished Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books) to be released in September.

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