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Kenny Barron Residency at SFJAZZ Center

Kenny Barron Residency at SFJAZZ Center

Courtesy Rick Swig


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Kenny Barron Residency
San Francisco
February 1-4, 2024

Popularly dubbed an "elder statesman" of jazz, pianist Kenny Barron, needs no introduction to aficionados of contemporary American music. At 80, he is still actively playing, composing, mentoring, teaching, and releasing music (including two duets with Dave Holland). Barron joined his first orchestra at 15 and was hired by Dizzy Gillespie at 19. He went on to record numerous albums, co-founded the Thelonious Monk tribute band Sphere, won awards, and has taught at Rutgers University as well as at Juilliard. This was far from being Barron's first appearance at the SFJAZZ Center—he has presented an evening of Thelonious Monk tunes, as well as with a previous four-night residency in 2018.

For his second residency, Barron enchanted audiences for three consecutive evenings and one Sunday matinee, presenting four different ensembles at SFJAZZ Center. The first night featured his longtime trio (Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums) performing 90 minutes of traditional jazz. Barron opened up with the dynamic "New York Attitude," which featured a deftly fingered, lovely bass solo from Kitagawa and a drum solo from Blake.

"For Heaven's Sake," a tune Barron penned with the great departed (and greatly missed) bassist Charlie Haden. was next. Introduced by a piano solo, this romantic, somewhat wistful ballad, featured Blake on brushes. The tune offered plenty of room for the musicians to stretch out.

"Magic Dance" offered a richly toned piano solo, and the band moved on to the Haden composition "Nightfall," which had Blake using his brushes again. Barron then told us about his attempt to see Bud Powell in concert before heading into "Bud Like," a tribute to Powell which featured Blake going heavy on the sticks.

Barron then explained how he had heard and loved "Aquele Frevo Axé," a tune by Caetano Veloso and Cezar Medes, and how "I finally learned to play it." The delicately fingered piano was augmented by Blake's drumming. He kept time holding a stick in his left hand and a brush on the right. Barron then called the band; they exited, only to return with "Cook's Bay," a composition whose piano introduction was invocatory in spirit. Its inspiration came to Barron when, during a Windsong cruise to French Polynesia, he had stood on the deck early morning and focused his gaze on the shore as the Moorean port came into view.

The second evening featured the addition of Mike Rodriguez's blazing trumpet and Dayna Stephens' dynamic tenor saxophone to the mix, thus recreating the same ensemble as featured on Concentric Circles (Blue Note, 2017) and expanding the robust sound of the ensemble.

The Lenny White-composed "L's Bop" (from Concentric Circles) began with a buoyant trumpet solo, with backing from bass, piano and drums, before Stephens let loose on his tenor. Rodriguez came back in before Stephens also entered to end.

Before commencing the moody and melancholy "In the Dark," Barron reminisced about how it was written for a movie starring Ernest Borgnine. It was his first foray into writing music for film. Barron said: "I was well paid, but it went straight to video. And when I watched it, it had been cut." Barron's lyrical piano was buttressed by bass and brushwork, and Stephens offered a meditative solo.

"Pocono's Delight," a tune by Kitagawa "dedicated to his terrier," followed and featured vibrant sax and trumpet solos followed by bass. The up-tempo bop of "DPW," a tribute to Barron's Brooklyn neighborhood of Ditmas Park West (and also a tune from Concentric Circles) was up next, featuring trumpet and sax solos. A rambunctious drum solo by Blake was met with wild applause.

The beautiful Barron composition "Baile" was followed by the lovely "There Will Never Be Another You," which featured a Barron solo along with a lovely Rodriguez solo on flugelhorn and Stephens on tenor who embarked on a tuneful tandem as it concluded. A propulsive "Blue Waters" ended the set. The band returned for a version of Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't," featuring solo piano from Barron, wild trumpet from Rodriguez, and an extended drum solo from Blake.

Saturday saw "Brazilian Explorations," a mellow mix of Brazilian tunes fronted by the wonderful flutist Anne Drummond. Barron's granddaughter Nikara Warren's vibraphone added lush ornamentation to the mix. John Patitucci and Rafael Barata, who are on Barron's recording Kenny Barron & the Brazilian Knights (Sunnyside, 2013), commanded the bottom on electric bass and drums respectively, while Valtinho Anastacio, who played on Barron's Canta Brasil (Sunnyside, 2022), added percussion.

The set included the Barron-penned "Sonia Braga," "Clouds" and "Phantoms," as well as a tune by Brazilian jazz guitarist Romero Lumbambo dedicated to Lumbambo's father.

The finale on Sunday afternoon saw a completely new crew of musicians on stage. The exception was bassist Patitucci, who switched to acoustic bass for the occasion. Billed as a session of improvised music, Barron aphorized "whatever happens happens" and "it is what it is" before the ensemble set sail into uncharted territories.

Steering the ship with her vocals, ornate hand gestures, and mastery of the qin (an ancient Chinese string instrument similar to a Japanese koto) was Jen Shyu. Shyu, voted "Rising Star Female Vocalist" by the 2017 Downbeat Critics Poll, was born and raised in Peoria, Illinois to Taiwanese and East Timorese immigrant parents. Shyu's duet with Tyshawn Sorey made the list for The New York Times' Best Live Jazz Performances of 2017, and she has also received many other honors and recognition, She has produced eight recordings on her own label, Autumn Geese Recording, and her bio relates that "she speaks 10 languages and has studied traditional music and dance in Cuba, Taiwan, Brazil, China, South Korea, East Timor and Indonesia." Doubtlessly many of these influences have worked their way into her hand gestures, choice of instruments, and her extraordinary, sometimes otherworldly vocals.

Her bare feet arched with her qin on her lap, Shyu plunged in, as drummer Lesley Mok joined on brushes. Shyu palmed her qin, conjuring up a sustained groove which was then followed by an aural pastiche. More than 40 minutes in, Patitucci took an elegant solo before the group downsized to trio (piano, bass, and drums) format, creating a different groove. An hour in, Barron took a solo before Shyu's vocals, Patitucci's bass and Mok's drums joined the mix, as did trombonist Kalia Vandever, before the improvised musical brew ended after 90 minutes. Then fans' impatient wait for the next Barron residency commenced.



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