Fame has taken a long time to attach itself to Kenny Barron. It's only in the past decade or so that this 62-year-old American has been recognised as the impeccable pianist that he is, and it's been 15 years since he last played at Ronnie Scott's. But during his apprenticeships as a sideman to the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz, Barron was honing a style that makes him one of the foremost exponents of the modern mainstream.
He was supported at Ronnie's by a group led by trumpeter Gerard Presencer, who runs the Royal Academy's jazz course. I hope Presencer's students came, for Barron gave a masterclass in how to tackle standards such as "Surrey With the Fringe On Top" and "The Very Thought of You". Any jazz musician can play these tunes; they're the alphabet. Making "A B C D E F G" sound interesting is the trick.
Barron's way was often to start with a solo rubato passage, then bring the bass player and drummer in on a light, but extremely tight, arrangement of the head. This would often involve the bass keeping a two feel, while the four-time that the band would later swing into during the solos was suggested by Barron's longtime bandmate Ben Riley on the drums. Barron himself sometimes alters the chords a little with mannerisms, which smarten up a standard as cufflinks do a shirt. And when Barron uses them, it's as though he wrote the textbook on how to dress properly.
Through most of his set his playing was supremely understated: a little riff here, a stream of notes in the right hand there. But the content of his phrases was always intelligent - a conversation with the audience that flattered their knowledge.
He brought the dynamics down to pianissimo, and the spell he cast kept Ronnie's, whose customers cannot always be relied on to be quiet, absolutely silent. From that awesome hush, he occasionally raised the volume just a notch, and showed how a trio can swing like billy-o while still playing very softly.
Barron ended the first set with one of his own numbers, which he wrote for his granddaughter. The touch of melancholy so often to be found in his compositions was present but there's nothing sentimental in Barron's playing, as there is in the attempts of thousands of cocktail pianists who try to copy the form of which he is the master. But that's style for you; and when it comes to dressing up a standard, Barron is Savile Row all the way.Reuse content