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Listening Post: Kenny Barron’s ‘Book of Intuition’, jazz pianists Hiromi and Steve Kuhn and Bruckner’s Ninth


Kenny Barron Trio, “Book of Intuition” (Impulse). Hallelujah. You’d think one of the most fluent and engaging of all veteran jazz pianists would have had more of a chance over the years to record with his working trio. But, somewhat remarkably, Kenny Barron has been playing with his bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa for 20 years and drummer Jonathan Blake for 10 years without the three of them recording together before this. So it’s an odd kind of first. At the age of 72, Kenny Barron has absolutely nothing left to prove. His years with Stan Getz made him one of Getz’s all-time greatest piano partners, right up there with Chick Corea, Jimmy Rowles and Bill Evans. It is no accident that Barron was so genial for Getz. What few remember now is that Barron’s older brother Bill (by 16 years) was a terrific jazz tenor player too before becoming a respected jazz academic (at Wesleyan University, for instance.) So accompanying tenor players was all in the family for Kenny Barron. What’s as much in the family now is how, in the 21st century, Barron is as great and natural a bebop pianist as you’ll find anywhere. Listen to this version of his tribute to Bud Powell “Bud-Like,” an elegant serving of Powell’s up-tempo percussive fury. Barron loves playing fast and he does it with rare grace. Just as brilliant is Barron’s playing of compositions by Thelonious Monk, which he did for so long as a member of the Monk-tribute band Sphere (named after Monk’s middle name.) Two lesser-known but great Monk tunes are inspiringly played here – “Shuffle Boil” and “Light Blue,” (the latter solo). The fun of hearing Barron play Monk is how much of a master he is at alluding to Monk’s own playing without ever making the cardinal error of actually trying to replicate it (Monk loved ripping into stride piano versions of his own tunes; Barron nods to stride piano all through his version of “Light Blue.”) A terrific disc by a great jazz piano master whose mastery, by now, is completely effortless. It’s as natural to him as breathing. Three and a half stars. (Jeff Simon)

Hiromi and The Trio Project “Spark” (Telarc); Steve Kuhn with Steve Swallow and Joey Baron, “At this Time” (Sunnyside). It’s one of the major ironies of Steve Kuhn’s career as a jazz pianist that his obituary, when fate compels that it must be written, is almost certain to begin with the job he was never hired for. John Coltrane originally had thoughts of making Kuhn the pianist in what turned out to be his “classic” quartet but ultimately decided to go with McCoy Tyner instead. As Coltrane always explained (with maximum diplomacy), Kuhn’s linear concerns were too much like his own and didn’t permit, as Tyner’s carpet-like drones did, Coltrane to ride so magically over the top. The fact is that as angular versions of Bill Evans go from the era, Kuhn is the pianist who has had the least interesting career. He is not only the same age as pianist Denny Zeitlin but their 1938 birthdays are only 17 days apart. And, from the beginning, Zeitlin has been an infinitely more evocative pianist – in part, I suspect, because he has, for all his professional musical life, also functioned fully as a practicing psychiatrist. Zeitlin is still capable of making great records, especially solo, but even friends and cohorts as ideal as Steve Swallow and Joey Baron on “At This Time” can’t elicit from Kuhn that sort of fire or poetry. Even when his repertoire is interesting – Quincy Jones’ theme from “The Pawnbroker” – what Kuhn makes of it isn’t. A more fiery and unpredictable trio in every way is Hiromi’s Trio Project with bassist Anthony Jackson and rock drummer Simon Phillips. Hiromi is an omni-style fusion virtuoso who seems able to do everything possible at the keyboard and to prove it before her records are over. She can be a keyboard-gobbling virtuoso and then, a few bars later, a master of musical space like one of her best “discoverers” and early mentors, Ahmad Jamal. “Spark” is abundant with exactly what its title promises, even when her compositions go so far into rock that they become rhythmically simplistic. She is still a fascinating player – always. Ratings: Two stars for Kuhn, three and a half for Hiromi. (Jeff Simon)


Bruckner, Symphony no. 9 performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons (RCO Live) It was Igor Stravinsky who supposedly quipped “Vivaldi didn’t write 500 concertos, he wrote the same concerto 500 times.” Whether said before or after that, it is an article of faith among some critics that “Bruckner didn’t write nine symphonies he wrote the same symphony nine times.” And had trouble attracting positive critical unanimity every time. The great Brahmsian critic Eduard Hanslick, for instance, called Bruckner’s eighth symphony “interesting in detail but strange as a whole and even repugnant.” He was, in Hanslick style, just getting warmed up. Characteristic of it, he wrote, was “the immediate juxtaposition of dry schoolroom counterpoint and unbounded exaltation. Thus, tossed about between intoxication and desolotion, one arrives at no definite impression and no artistic pleasure.” Let’s not even talk about what Hanslick had to say about Bruckner’s “dismal long-windedness.” Over the decades, many have been in Hanslick’s camp. Two who significantly weren’t were Adolf Hitler and Gustave Mahler (about as opposite a pair of admirers as a man could have.) This is Bruckner’s final symphony performed in live concert by an orchestra with enormous Bruckner experience (especially with terrific performances conducted by Haitink.) There are so many versions of this music that very large indeed is the number of better recodings of it, from the second movement with its Brucknerian “dancing mountains” to the sublime adagio that completes it because it was left unfinished and whose devastation was so influential on others (especially Schoenberg.) Whether fate left Bruckner’s Ninth all the more haunting to history because, like Schubert’s, it couldn’t be finished, this is a solid version of Bruckner’s religious purity and dramatic gigantism. Three stars. (Jeff Simon)

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