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Kenny Barron and Mulgrew Miller at Jazz at the Bistro, St Louis, September 23, 2010

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Kenny Barron/Mulgrew Miller
Jazz at the Bistro/Season Opener
St Louis MO
September 23, 2010

St Louis' prime jazz venue opened its current season with Kenny Barron and Mulgrew Miller, two legendary pianists whose inaugural appearance kicked off the first Jazz at the Bistro season fifteen years ago. "Love For Sale" set the pace for the hard swingin' bluesy exchange which was to be the hallmark of the show. The styles of these giants have so much in common that distinguishing the soloist from the "comper" was not easy. The nine-foot Steinway grand pianos consumed the stage area, and were placed lengthwise obscuring the hands of the players from view for most of the audience. Determining which piano made which sound was impossible. Not to worry, the duo was so in touch that each would finish the lines of the other. It mattered not who started an idea or who completed it, or from whose piano it came. It was like conversation, among best friends.

The toe tapping continued with Benny Carter's "When Lights Are Low" followed by "Gettin' Sentimental Over You." The audience felt like eavesdroppers in an intimate exchange between compatriots, who seemed excited and stimulated when the partner picked up an idea or motif and expanded it, then gave it back, like a tennis volley. Miller's homage to Oscar Peterson could not be hidden. Frilly right hand bursts in the ivory upper register were common for Miller. Throughout the evening, both players put forth unending quotes from other jazz standards in their inventive melodic lines. A melody was always singing on top, without any competition for who might render it. The third player, Miller's involuntary left foot, provided the four on the floor pulse as though it was needed. Barron typically established an early rhythmic pattern, from which the impromptu arrangement grew. No one missed the bass and drums. Unselfish give and take ruled.

Barron invited Miller to play a solo piece, saying he would try to "steal all he could." Miller seemed shy and reluctant at first, but then moved into a reharmonized version of "Body and Soul" which journeyed into "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" and back. A listener might conclude that the pair approached the evening without a set list, as though they needed one. Typically, Barron would hint at the tune's melody in the intro and then set up a steady rhythmic foundation to get each tune rolling. Never did either falter, even when liberties were taken with the form of the tune, or key changes, or irregular out of time endings. It was a master class in listening. Each yielded control of his playing, allowing the other to "drive." Both players seemed pleasantly surprised at the results, as if they too were spectators, somewhat in disbelief. Their exchanging glances said it all—affirmation. The first set concluded with a standing ovation for the pair on their version of "Surrey..." The Bistro faithful experienced toe-tapping, head-bobbing, and finger-drumming, the likes of which are rare in today's live jazz. Reprise indeed.

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