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Kenny Barron & Dave Holland at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Ian Patterson By

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Kenny Barron & Dave Holland/The Jeremy Monteiro Trio
Queen Elizabeth Hall
EFG London Jazz Festival
21 November, 2014

The prospect of Kenny Barron and Dave Holland performing as a duo was a mouthwatering one. Both are well versed in the format. In 1971 Holland combined with Derek Bailey and then with Barre Phillips on ECM; Barron recorded in duet with Ted Dunbar in 1975. Since then Barron has conversed one on one with Regina Carter, Charlie Haden, Joe Locke, Buster Williams and Mino Cinelu, while Holland has got up close and personal with Sam Rivers and, in perhaps his most challenging collaboration, with Steve Coleman. This was the last night of an extensive European tour to promote their album The Art of Conversation (Impulse Records, 2014) and the Queen Elizabeth Hall was packed to the rafters.

Prior to the main event of the evening Jeremy Monteiro gave his own exhibition in the art of the trio. Following his appearance the previous evening at Ronnie Scott's with the Asian Jazz All-Stars Power Quartet, Singapore's King of Swing took to a major London stage for the first time in a near forty-year career, with drummer Hong Chanutr Techatananan, bassist Callum Gourlay and singer Melissa Tham.

The opener, Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way" soon established Monteiro's credentials as an elegant, inventive two-handed player. His touch in turn light then robust, Monteiro worked the entire length of the keyboard in a scintillating opening salvo that drew generous applause. Gourlay's spare, lyrical intervention and Hong's more animated dance around his kit provided contrasting dynamics before Monteiro took up the melodic thread once more in a delicate Ahmad Jamal-esque closure.

Monteiro's evocative "Asiana" moved between feather-light intimacy and expansive trio interplay, with Gourlay impressing as accompanist and soloist. Tham lent her suave voice and scatting chops to the gently swinging standard "My Romance"—spiced by Monteiro's flowing cadenzas and punchy chords—and "Falling in Love Again," a graceful Monteiro original with lyrics by Tham that fitted like a glove with the standards tradition. The Singaporean singer caressed the romantic ballad "Let's Keep Christmas in our Hearts" from Monteiro's Christmas in Our Hearts (Universal Music Group, 2014) before departing the stage to warm applause.

A short but impressive straight-ahead set concluded with "Lion City," a Monteiro original commissioned by the EFG London Jazz Festival as part of an ongoing commissions program that began last year. The jaunty rhythms and lilting melodies were appropriately celebratory given that the tune was written with Singapore's 50th anniversary in 2015 in mind. Hong, who was at the heart of everything, took a lively solo that crowned the song. The musicians took their bows and left the stage with the applause still ringing in their wake.

Introducing Kenny Barron and Dave Holland, the emcee said that "we will be eavesdropping on the extraordinary music collocation between two masters of their art." She was spot on, as so intimate was the language the two veterans shared that they seemed to be playing for each other as opposed to playing for the crowd. "Spiral" saw first Barron and then Holland warm up with extended solos. Holland's comping, negoatiating the contours of Barron's flow, was hypnotic, though the pianist sat out when Holland ventured forth solo.

Fast unison playing announced Charlie Parker's "Segment," with meaty bebop solos and a delightful back and forth exchange raising cheers before the two reunited on the head a dozen minutes later. The tempo slowed on "Wheeler's Waltz," Holland's poignant and aptly lyrical tribute to the late Kenny Wheeler. Holland first played with Wheeler in the latter half of the 1960s and it was impossible not to imagine the melodic peel of Wheeler's trumpet during Holland's extended improvisation. Barron acknowledged his own roots on the dancing "Calypso," recalling how on moving from Philadelphia to New York his first gig was with a West Indian band; Holland's Caribean-flavored solo—all three and a half glorious minutes—was a set highlight.

There are obvious dynamic limitations in any duo format but Barron and Holland's material undulated beautifully between walking bass and looser rhythms, between fiery straight-ahead and slower numbers, making for a constantly engaging performance. Nary a cough disturbed the aching, blue-toned Barron ballad "Rain" though the applause that greeted the heartfelt playing sounded like a torrential downpour. By contrast, "Passing On"—dedicated to New Orleans drummer Ed Blackwell—was a grooving, chops-centric, seventeen-minute marathon.

The encore, Thelonious Monk's tribute to Bud Powell "In Walked Bud" was an enjoyable farewell romp. Barron and Holland ended their master class with the crowd on its feet and still hungry for more. Sometimes, though, you can have too much of a good thing and the house lights seemed to agree.

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