Though at different stages of their respective careers, these two are on something of a roll right now. In the very grown up world of jazz Regina Carter is still a “rising star” while Kenny Barron, after being himself “rising” for a number of decades, is now an “elder statesman”. Carter is making serious waves, thereby giving the violin its highest profile for some time. Barron is churning out albums with increasing regularity, having abandoned his position as most favoured sideman for the greater kudos that solo performance and group leadership afford. This pairing takes place then at a time when self-confidence should be high. It certainly seems so for this is an assured and elegant set.
I may be wrong but violin and piano duets are, I think, in pretty short supply on the jazz scene. There is something intrinsically classical in the concept. Composers like Poulenc come to mind and not Wayne Shorter, Benny Carter or Thelonious Monk. Yet those are some of the names whose work is tackled here and while this album is unlikely to initiate a new sub-genre it deserves a listen even from the most sceptical ears. It contains some of Carter’s most lyrical playing plus Barron’s typically poised piano work but, better than that, has a purity and a spontaneity that is always engaging and at times totally captivating. I was expecting excellence technically, these two are musicians of genuine class, I was not expecting quite the emotional richness that Freefall delivers in such abundance.
The violin is traditionally among the most romantic of instruments—usually in a very clichéd form. Carter works that tradition but edits out the clichés. Barron has recently offered the opinion that Detroit has produced a disproportionate number of jazz pianists whose strong melodic sense has earned them the tag “romantic”. He acknowledges his debt—citing the likes of Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan as favourites. Carter, of course, is also from Detroit. Coincidence or not, these common strands may account for a compatibility you will travel a long way to see bettered.
As for the music, Romberg-Hammerstein’s venerable “Softly As a Morning Sunrise” is the risky opening choice. The gamble pays off handsomely. Given a Latin (Argentinean) flavour with plenty of swing, it kicks along jauntily and allows both players to amuse themselves with little runs and trills. One for the jazz station playlists, its only drawback is that it might lead to expectations of a rather more upbeat set than is the case. With the exception of a bubbly version of “Squatty Roo” the other tracks favour a wistful, reflective mood, not always indicating a slow tempo but certainly never hectic.
The first of these is Sting’s “Fragile” which is handled with delicacy and more care than some would say the piece merited. Although Barron has recorded this before it is Carter who shines, making the most of the melodic patterns and using repeated phrases with great style. The movement from an almost Beatles-George Martin arrangement to some genuine jazz interplay is a lesson in getting the most out of a tune.
After this nod to popular music from two very different eras things get deeper. Monk’s “Mysterioso” gets a strange chamber quartet-blues treatment which has its moments. The next track, Barron’s own “Phantoms”, personifies the album’s central preoccupations which are mixing a modern classical sensibility with some inspired modernist improvisation of the jazz variety. A full eleven minutes is taken up with exploring a variety of tones and textures while retaining a mood of melancholy throughout. It is easy on the ear at the level of playing but emotionally quite demanding. It’s appeal is a little austere perhaps but there is a grandeur about the exchanges that makes you return to it.
The other songs are variants within that jazz-classical framework—some are more abstract (Barron’s “What If”), some more impressionistic (Carter’s “Shades of Grey”). Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” is a mixture of the two—complex but never losing a sense of human warmth. What is surprising is how rarely you remember that there are only two instruments at work so balanced and full of ideas is the relationship built up between the two soloists. If Carter’s seems the more striving and sometimes dominant voice, listen again and you realise how much Barron is putting into the equation.
Ten songs are a lot to take of such rarefied stuff. That it is possible is because of the downright loveliness of Carter’s violin and the economy and clarity of Barron’s keyboard work. There is no gratuitous showing-off despite the dexterity required for such an exercise. The session was done quickly, some pieces in one take. Apart from making the mind boggle at the level of competence that required it does explain why the obvious seriousness of much of the music still manages to sound fresh and lively. Even numbers like “Freefall” and “What If”, which are “difficult”, have a sense of adventure to them which stops proceedings becoming too solemn.
Although this record is hardly likely to start any dance crazes I see no reason why its appeal should be limited to jazz buffs of the more beard-stroking variety. Anyone with an interest in classical music will feel at home here and lovers of the violin will be swept away by Carter. Even those who like a bass and drumkit with their music (like me) will if they listen with unprejudiced ears find much to soothe, challenge and charm. If it is a little self-reflective and introverted for our times then that is the fault of the times not this evident labour of love.