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Kenny Barron’s music calls for words like “brilliant,” but the light it throws is more glow than glare. It shines not from flashy embellishment, designed to conceal mediocre artistry, but from the sparkling effect of subtle musicality. Though Barron is neither an innovative stylist nor a bold conceptualist, his technique and the clarity of his musical expression mean he epitomizes what a great mainstream jazz pianist should sound like.
Barron’s refusal to hang his music on stock licks or signature concepts, however, makes him hard to pin down. He’s a fool for thick harmonies and nimble melodies, but he never pads out his music with block chords (like McCoy Tyner) or razzle-dazzles it with blistering trills and dense clusters (like Cecil Taylor).
Nor does Barron like to lock himself down with one stylistic mode or instrumental setting. In the ’90s, he recorded a series of critically acclaimed CDs with various collaborators: bracing duet excursions that paired his piano with Stan Getz’s tenor sax, Charlie Haden’s bass, Mino Cinelu’s percussion, and Regina Carter’s violin, and larger ensemble dates featuring jazz luminaries such as drummer Roy Haynes, guitarist John Scofield, and trumpeter Eddie Henderson. Throughout all of them, Barron’s improvisations were precise and cogent, his rapport with his collaborators consistently inspired. Even when he was merely accompanying a soloist, he always brought to bear an alert imagination that buoyed the player without distraction.
Indeed, listening to Barron play is like watching a great baller rule the court, using all of his facilities—speed, agility, strength, and keen knowledge of the game—for the greater good of the team. It makes some sense, then, that not many of Barron’s many albums stand as definitive statements. They’re all excellent, but they’re mostly interchangeable. Canta Brasil, however, Barron’s splendid new CD featuring New York-based Brazilian expats Trio da Paz, may very well be the one that breaks from the pack.
The supple rhythms, lilting melodies, and otherworldly harmonies associated with Brazilian music are hardly new to North American jazz musicians. And Canta Brasil is not Barron’s first foray into the country’s rich tradition. But his 1993 CD Sambao, featuring Barron leading an ensemble comprising Brazilians Toninho Horta and Nico Assumpcao on guitar and bass, Martiniquais percussionist Cinelu, and U.S. drummer Victor Lewis, lacked oomph. Barron approached the material with the utmost sensitivity, and the other musicians supported him lovingly, but the overall results felt tentative.
Canta Brasil, by contrast, grabs your attention instantly. It’s not so much Barron’s broad harmonic palette, nor even the pulsating rhythms of Trio da Paz—guitarist Romero Lubambo, bassist Nilson Matta, and drummer Duduka Da Fonseca—as it is the music’s emotional immediacy. The playing is superb and heartfelt, and, even more important, Barron avoids the obvious. There’s nothing of Antonio Carlos Jobim here, no compositions from the likes of Milton Nascimento, Caetano Veloso, Joao Gilberto, or Gilberto Gil. Instead, Barron composes songs written to the strengths of his collaborators.
And in Trio da Paz, Barron has found the perfect rhythmic and harmonic foil for his musical sensibilities. When the tempo is brisk, Barron’s playing has always felt danceable—and with Trio da Paz’s infectious polyrhythms surging behind him, his improvisations positively bounce with glee. Each of the threesome’s members is a talent on his own, but together they’re a dream team: Matta’s brawny bass lines and Da Fonseca’s propulsive drumming complement Lubambo’s elaborate guitar webs. Flutist Anne Drummond and percussionist Valtinho round out the ensemble for Canta Brasil, providing additional rhythmic textures and harmonic colors.
Matta and Lubambo, especially, are melodically astute players, able to unravel extended improvisations brimming with lyricism. On their own recordings, the trio’s sentimental side sometimes gets the better of them, mostly on the introspective ballads, but here, Barron leaves no room for gushy laments. He knows how to tug heart strings, sure, but he distills just the delicate sweetness, discarding the saccharine. In less skilled hands, the misty “Clouds,” with its longing melody and pensive tempo, could have dissolved into a weeper, but Barron underpins Lubambo’s and Drummond’s delicate solos with just the right amount of controlled caress. And when Barron solos, his rhythmic ebullience doesn’t prevent him from conjuring an aura of romance.
Unbridled joy characterizes most of the eight originals on Canta Brasil. Matta and Da Fonseca drive “Zumbi” with an insistent samba groove while Barron and Drummond play a festive, singsong melody. When Barron improvises over Da Fonseca and Valtinho’s turbulent polyrhythms and Matta’s funky bass grooves on “This One,” his crisp notes crisscross through elaborate patterns with the grace and athleticism of Pele on the soccer field. Even on such comparatively laid-back compositions as “Bachiao,” Barron’s impeccable timing and phrasing make every note burst like a miniature sunshine bomb.
Each player on the disc gets meaty material, music calculated to let him reveal his personality in conversation with the others. Even Valtinho is given the opportunity to create imaginative textures that elevate his role beyond auxiliary percussionist. But, perhaps inevitably, it’s Barron who shines brightest in this constellation. He doesn’t engage his cohorts in some virtuoso competition, however. He simply asserts himself in the leading role, displaying great empathy and shimmering musicality. CP