Kenny Barron is the kind of jazz pianist who aficionados have always dug. Born in 1943 in Philadelphia, Barron hit the ground running as the pianist for Dizzy Gillespie in the mid-60s. Because he was too young to be part of the hey-day of Blue Note, a scene in which his elegant but driving post-bop style would have flourished, Barron had to find an audience in the jazz-weak 1970s and beyond. Against the odds, he did.
The Traveler actually measures as the kind of collection a musician might have made back then. Accessible, diverse and consistently lyrical, it features three vocal tracks with three different singers, some lovely Brazilian playing and a dose of world music. But make no mistake: It’s no purist record, even though it comes from a straight-ahead player. Barron seems to be saying, “I have been down all these roads. Come along and relax.”
The core of the recording features Barron’s new trio: bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Francisco Mela, a fleet rhythm section, to say the least. At the start of “Speed Trap”, they take off light and fast, swinging with joy. Steve Wilson joins the trio on soprano sax, and both he and Barron play chord-less solos like puppies playing across a sunny field. The propulsion of Kitagawa and Mela keeps the whole thing light as air. The release contains only one straight-up trio track, “The First Year”, a half-bossa that nimbly traipses over a set of pretty chords—like an unreleased and focused Vince Guaraldi track with more coherent improvising.
Mostly, though, the trio hosts a lovely party with interesting guests, and the features for Wilson classify as seamless. The keening ballad “Illusion” could make you fall in love with the soprano sax again, after too many years of hating what the Smoovies have done with the instrument. Barron’s touch on his solo is commanding and sensual at once—he caresses the keys but plays with authority rather than gauziness. The title track evokes a memorable theme with a subtle Latin urge, the kind of composition that brings to mind Chick Corea and recalls the great work Barron did with the late Stan Getz almost 20 years ago at the end of the great saxophonist’s life.
The vocal tracks stand out as the most variable and, perhaps, intriguing. On “Un Beijo” it’s good to hear Grady Tate at the microphone again, a place where the veteran drummer has always been smooth without being smarmy. Another bossa, this melody asks Tate to bring some urban hip to the performance. Ann Hampton Callaway sings on “Clouds” and provides a quirky performance—theatrical and hammy in parts. Callaway, a veteran singer and songwriter, offers an old-fashioned sound: a little Sarah Vaughan, a little Carmen McRae and a dose of Broadway vibrato. The results prove successful, as the trio meshes with her perfectly. “Phantoms” features Gretchen Parlato and the hot-on-the-scene guitarist Lionel Loueke, and both add vocals. Parlato, who won the Monk competition in 2004, has an utterly fascinating tone, ethereal and yet forceful. Here, she initially moves like mist through the band’s long out-of-tempo introduction and later owns the super-slow bossa groove of the song. A great performance, it appears like a hip out-take from Wayne Shorter’s Native Dancer album.
Loueke plays beautifully in the disc’s only duet, where piano and acoustic guitar tangle in a lyrical-free space, and thoughts cross with great speed. It’s a kind of relief to hear something a bit tougher and less conventional on a record mostly calculated for pleasure. “Calypso” is just that, with Mela really showing his syncopated stuff.
The album concludes with a solo piano treatment of the Eubie Blake tune, “Memories of You”, an elegiac take on a wonderful, old tune. It ambles first in free tempo, then switches to a gentle, modern stride. Here, it serves as a fitting reminder that Kenny Barron is not a young turk anymore. Considering the fluidity of Barron’s ideas, it also serves as a reminder of the elegance of this part of the jazz tradition. Barron moves freely from tradition to Brazilian to hard bop to out playing, always keeping a sense of his identity on this sweet, late-career Whitman’s sampler.