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Jazz Master Kenny Barron Dazzles As A Soloist 'At The Piano'


This is FRESH AIR. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead describes Kenny Barron as one of the great all-around jazz pianists. An official NEA Jazz Master - Barron played in the co-op quartet Sphere - has led many groups of his own and has backed Dizzy Gillespie, Yusef Lateef, Stan Getz and many others. A 1981 Kenny Barron solo album has been reissued. Here's Kevin's review.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Kenny Barron on his tune "Calypso," laying down a rolling baseline with his left hand as his right goes about its business. Barron usually works in small combinations where a too active left hand will crowd the bass player. So it's odd he's made very few solo records where he gets the whole field to himself, especially considering how the first one turned out. That would be the newly reissued gem "Kenny Barron At The Piano," recorded for Xanadu in 1981. On his tune "Bud-Like" for the very quick pianist Bud Powell, Barron picks a fast tempo and plays blazing licks over that without a stumble


WHITEHEAD: You can tell he likes playing on that 9-foot Steinle. Kenney Barron's improvising there owes something to the great Cuban pianist who would make the instrument shout like a voice or a drum. His fast articulation's dazzling, but playing solo isn't all about crowding the plate. Going alone also lets you open things out in your own good time. A year after this session, Barron recorded an album of Thelonious Monk compositions with the quartet Sphere. He warms up for that, playing a couple of Monk tunes solo. On the spare "Mysterioso" he gets back to blues roots.


WHITEHEAD: Kenny Barron must like that arrangement of "Mysterioso." He did a similar version with violinist Regina Carter two decades later. Barron has a beautiful touch at the keyboard. He can whisper as well as shout, using the pedals to make the sounds swell or evaporate. He brings out all the harmonic subtleties piano allows. This is Billy Strayhorn's "The Star-Crossed Lovers."


WHITEHEAD: It isn't just technique that makes Kenny Barron a great pianist. It's also about the feeling he brings to everything he plays, reinforced here by the rosy glow of soft focus recording. That feeling, that engagement with the material, makes "Kenny Barron At The Piano" beguiling no matter how fast or slow or loud or quiet he gets. It's the mind behind the fingers that pushes life into it all.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point Of Departure and TONEAudio and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed the new reissue "At The Piano" by Kenny Barron.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, in the wake of the attack on the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, we talk about how threats and violence follow many abortion providers into their homes. My guests will be David Cohen and Krysten Connon, authors of the new book "Living In The Crosshairs: The Untold Stories Of Anti-abortion Terrorism." I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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