Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Best Jazz of 2005: #2

Kenny Barron
Live at Bradley's II: The Perfect Set

Kenny Barron is possibly the most underrated pianist in jazz. He's sort of like Jaki Byard or Dave McKenna: Everybody knows his name, but too few listeners pay him serious attention. His reputation among musicians is ironclad, but he's one of those guys whose talent doesn't seem to resonate with the masses. I don't get it — because he's absolutely, positively, off-the-chart brilliant.

This is my favorite record of the year. I rated one above it, as I'll explain tomorrow; but strictly in terms of enjoyment, this one's my favorite. Piano trios are a dime a dozen, and ditto for live recordings; but not only is this an absolutely stellar performance by a piano trio, it represents a complete and uninterrupted program of music recorded in a single set. That's almost unheard of in recorded jazz — and it's a pleasure to find.

The previous volume of Barron's trio at Bradley's was released in 2002, featuring tracks culled from several nights. It's a great album worth a listen; but this set packs a singularity, a consistent vibe that you don't often capture on tape. It makes me wonder why this album wasn't issued first.

Barron is best known for his work with Sphere, a band dedicated to exploring the music of Thelonious Monk. He's certainly a fan (the last two tracks here are Monk tunes), but too many critics lean on the comparison as a crutch. If you listen to his phrasing, Barron actually owes as much, if not more, to Bill Evans. The point isn't anchoring him to one or the other; but whereas I've seen many writers almost dismiss him as a Monk acolyte, Barron is a considerable artist in his own right. He's a first-call pianist for the best names in the business, and that doesn't happen unless you bring something heavy to the table.

I haven't heard a Kenny Barron album that I wouldn't recommend. If you'd asked me last year, I'd have pointed you toward his duo recording with bassist Charlie Haden (another live album compiled from several nights); but The Perfect Set now takes the top slot. I couldn't have picked a better title myself; and although I don't understand why this wasn't issued several years ago, I'm thankful for its escape from the vault.

The Perfect Set: You Don't Know What Love Is; The Only One; Twilight Song; Shuffle Boil; Well You Needn't.
Personnel: Kenny Barron, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Ben Riley, drums.


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