Kenny Barron summarized his musical philosophy during a pre-concert interview at Folly Theater on Friday.
"When you play music it's not about how fast you can play or if you can dazzle people," he said. "It's about if you can reach them and touch them."
An audience of more than 300 was treated to Barron's understated and emotionally evocative approach. The accomplished pianist has been a mainstay of the jazz scene for over 50 years. Barron is such a steady presence that he's too often taken for granted. Better known as a sideman than as a leader, Barron has worked with many of the greatest figures in jazz.
He opened the concert with a composition by his former employer Dizzy Gillespie. Barron, 70, was a teenager when he replaced Lalo Schifrin in Gillespie's band. Barron interpreted the hard bop selection with the assurance of a distinguished classical pianist.
Barron was a member of the celebrated Thelonious Monk repertory collective Sphere in the 1980s. He polished the jagged edges off two barbed Monk compositions on Friday. Rather than mimic Monk's peculiar attack, Barron played eloquently symphonic variations of "Shuffle Boil"'s melody and revealed new layers of beauty embedded in the ballad "Ask Me Now."
Barron isn't an acclaimed composer but many members of the audience may be humming at least two of his memorable melodies for weeks. Barron repeatedly elicited the ingratiating chorus of "Calypso" with only his index finger, a ploy that strikingly contrasted with his otherwise lush playing. The frolicsome "Cook's Bay" was imbued with a sense of expectant joy.
Bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Pete Van Nostrand provided sympathetic accompaniment. Like Barron, Kitagawa plays as if he doesn't have anything to prove. He consistently displayed remarkably fertile ideas during his compelling solos. Van Nostrand's assertive style prevented Barron from becoming excessively reflective. He also provided his own curious special effect. During a rapid-fire solo on "Calypso," Van Nostrand managed to look as if he was trapped in a video set on fast-forward mode.
Barron explained that "Song For Abdullah," the piece he performed as an encore, was inspired by his experience attending pianist Abdullah Ibrahim's weekly appearances at New York City jazz club Sweet Basil.
"It was like being in church it was so beautiful," Barron said.
Barron's heavenly performance at the Folly allowed the audience to know precisely what he meant.