Kenny Barron's opening set Wednesday at the Jazz Bakery was a convincing display of why he has been one of the prime jazz piano accompanists for more than two decades. Name an attribute a jazz singer or instrumentalist hopes to hear from a pianist in the rhythm section, and Barron's got it covered: articulate technique, rich harmonic vocabulary, urgent sense of swing, sensitive touch.
Playing material reaching from standards ("How Deep Is the Ocean?") to jazz classics (Thelonious Monk's "Ask Me Now"), he ran the gamut of his skills in adapting far-ranging stylistic material to the subtleties of jazz expressiveness. The central force driving his improvisations was a seemingly nonstop flow of inventive melody. Concentrating his ideas in rapid, virtuosic phrases from his right hand, he occasionally tossed in unexpected bursts of note clusters for contrast and coloration.
Bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Johnathan Blake were utterly empathetic partners. Kitagawa was sturdy and supportive in his accompaniment, busily fast-fingered on his solos. Blake, playing a low-slung kit, was as musical as he was swinging, avoiding the too-common tendency to fill the air with cymbal crashes in favor of well-crafted layers of percussive texture.
If all that sounds like a first-rate combination, that's exactly what it was. But there were problems as well. For all of Barron's extraordinary skills, his soloing often seemed lacking in air and space, verbose rather than informative. Repeatedly, spontaneous melodic phrases that cried for further development were tossed aside in favor of other new ideas. Barron's past performances have balanced sounds and silences, themes and variations, in superb fashion. For this set, urgency too often took the place of insight.
Nor did it help that every tune seemed to call for solos from each member of the trio. Granted Barron's generosity in sharing the spotlight, the format itself tended to become formulaic. Kitagawa and Blake are first-rate players, but both the music and the set would have benefited from more expanded examples of their creative collaboration with Barron.
Kenny Barron Trio
Where: Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 and 9:30 tonight through Sunday
Price: $30 tonight and Sunday; $35 Saturday
Contact: (310) 271-9039