Review: Kenny Barron & Dave Holland

Fred Grand finds the art of conversation alive and well in a set of standards and originals from the renowned pianist and bassist at the EFG London Jazz Festival

After the astonishing pyrotechnics of John McLaughlin's 4th Dimension yesterday evening, my next appointment at the 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival was with another celebrated Miles alumnus and British expat, Dave Holland. Surely one of the greatest bass virtuosos that the music has ever produced and a noted composer and bandleader to boot, Holland had flown in with pianist Kenny Barron for the last leg of a short European tour timed to promote their new album on the recently re-launched Impulse! label.

Before the main event it was the turn of a man who had flown even further than Holland and Barron to be in London. I have to admit that I knew very little of pianist Jeremy Monteiro before this show. Otherwise known as "Singapore’s King of Swing", he played a mixed bag of standards and originals. His trio included homegrown Calum Gourlay on bass and was augmented by singer Melissa Tham for three numbers. In truth the music was pretty average mainstream fare, providing a crashing come down after the highs of McLaughlin the previous evening.

Kenny Barron and Dave Holland by contrast surely need no introductions. They were born three years apart, with Holland at 68 the junior of the pair. Between them they’ve clocked up countless classic recording sessions, though for the most part they’ve moved in very different musical circles. Holland has for much of his career positioned himself a good deal further left of centre than Barron, though he did appear on Scratch (Enja), one of the pianist’s most enjoyable sets from the 80s. Their new album, The Art Of Conversation, has the same relaxed and swinging feel as Barron’s encounter with Charlie Haden (Night And The City, 1996), but I confess that I’d arrived at the QEH rather hoping that there’d be a few more more fireworks.

Opening with Barron’s Spiral, one of several pieces played during the course of the evening which doesn't feature on the album, the strong creative compatibility which has blossomed since the pair hooked up in 2012 was immediately apparent. Charlie Parker’s Segment really lit the blue touch-paper, with chorus after chorus of joyful invention released as the intrepid duo coaxed and cajoled each other to dig deep into their vast reserves. Even the announcement of Waltz For Wheeler, a dedication to the bassist’s long-time friend and collaborator the late Kenny Wheeler, drew a huge ovation. Ken’s music and comradeship clearly meant a lot to Holland, and the tribute was unmistakably heartfelt. Holland’s elegant and wistfully melancholic theme could easily become a staple fixture in his sets for many years to come, and as he spoke of Wheeler’s impact I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d have gone on to become quite the same skilful composer and arranger had their paths not crossed in the late 60s.

Barron introduced his composition Calypso, recounting a formative moment in his own career when he arrived in Brooklyn from Philadelphia and began his professional life as a musician working with a group from the West Indies. It was a colourful and vibrant vehicle for improvisation, Holland taking significant licence with the changes and really pushing the boundaries. Another Barron composition, the pensive and impressionistic Rain, struck an appropriate chord on a damp London evening. But the best was saved for last as Holland dusted off his grooving dedication to Ed Blackwell, Pass It On. Beginning with a free-ranging solo that could have come from almost any point in his career, this was spontaneous creation at its most exhilarating. The ever soulful Barron dug deeply into the blues, nailing Holland's tricky theme with perfectly placed accents, and as the crowd rose to their feet it was clear that the duo wouldn’t be leaving without at least one encore.

Given Barron’s lifelong fascination with Monk it was more than a little surprising that they’d managed to steer clear of the music of "the only one" for so long. This rather conspicuous imbalance was redressed with a thrilling romp through In Walked Bud, and like all of the best conversations there was a rapid fire exchange of view and lots of active listening as they traded lines. It had been a real privilege to hear a rarely heard side of Holland in such a relaxed and exposed setting. His virtuosic playing inevitably drew the loudest applause of the evening, and on numerous occasions his cues and interjections shaped the direction and flow of the music. Yet Barron’s understated class and unerring taste should never be taken for granted, and in their capable hands the increasingly rare art of conversation was most certainly alive and well.

Photography: John Watson

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