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Bach in Brazil

Listening to pianist Kenny Barron’s Classical Jazz Quarter Thursday night at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall, I wondered if he wanted the quartet to resemble the Modern Jazz Quartet, or if the resemblance was mere happenstance. The veteran pianist played a double bill. The first set with the CJQ, and the second with Canta Brasil.

The CJQ embodied the characteristics of the Modern Jazz Quartet during their heyday. For example, Barron’s quartet which included Lewis Nash on drums, Rufus Reid on bass, and Stefon Harris on vibes were meticulous and decisive in their execution of the classical material, which comprised the bulk of the first set.

During the hour-long set, the CJQ stayed on course avoiding any protracted flights of improvisation. Barron mixed the set with classical compositions by Sebastian Bach and some original works by his band mates. At first, the performance looked as if it was going to be dull. But, by the third number, an original by Reid titled Ode to Ray, the CJQ had found its footing. The reworking of Bach’s material made the first set worthwhile.

The CJQ turned the classical material into the kind of swinging jazz that you can witness at any jam session that worth its salt. I have heard Bach’s Invention No. 4, for instance, numerous times, but this was my first time hearing it performed by jazz musicians. Just for a moment try to image Bach sitting in with a contingent of go-for-the-jocular jazz musicians. If you can conjure this then you have a sense of the magic the CJQ created-classical compositions that swung.

Of the members, drummer Lewis Nash was the most colorful. He displayed some amazing cymbal work, which was evocative of Louis Hayes. Stefon Harris soloing was akin to the late Milt Jackson. Harris had been likened to Bobby Hutcherson, but Harris has a closer kinship to Jackson.

During intermission the gentlemen sitting in front of me told his friend that although he liked Harris’ performance he felt that Milt Jackson was a better player. I always thought Jackson was a rather conservative vibe player in keeping with the mandate of the MJQ, and that Harris is just as good if not better. Harris is definitely a more physical player. Proof of this can be heard on his Blue Note release Black Action Figure. However, on this night, Harris had his mallets moving so fast that the tips of them resembled red laser beams.

The CJQ performed Epilog an original that Harris dedicated to Jackson. I am not sure what Harris was trying to accomplish with this number. It was too specious, and hindered the momentum the band had established.

Throughout the set Barron had the same stately demeanor as the late pianist John Lewis. Like Lewis Barron’s single line were clear as spring water. Barron is an economical player who avoids redundancy.

The second half of the concert Barron performed with his Brazilian configuration Canta Brasil ensemble. Here the theme was the same as his CJQ presentation. Barron selected material from famous Brazilian composers who were influenced in part by classical music. The CJQ’s set was more engaging than the second one.

Flutist Anne Drummond, a former student of Barron’s looked and sounded uncomfortable on stage with the other musicians. It was difficult to listen to the Brazilian drummer Patinho after witnessing Lewis Nash’s exceptional playing earlier. Patinho playing was generic. Barron introduced John Patitucci as one of the best bass players in the country, but he didn’t let Patitucci loose. It was like a secret that Barron was only privy to.

Barron played freely with this unit. Barron’s playing and guitarist Adam Rogers were the bright spots of the set.

Most of the audience stuck around for both sets. Unlike the mass exodus after the first set of bassist Dave Holland’s concert a month ago. Most of the subscribers to this jazz series are jazz conservatives, and Barron music is more suited to their taste. Holland, on the other hand, is more liberal and daring.

But no one would have blamed the audience for fleeing after the first set. The Classical Jazz Quartet performance was satisfying enough.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Kenny Barron
  • Concert Date: 3/18/2004
  • Subtitle: Kenny Barron plays double-header for the Standard Federal Jazz Series
  • Venue: Orchestra Hall
  • City State Country: Detroit, MI
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