by Ian Mann
September 30, 2016
An unpretentious, swinging mainstream album that is lifted by both the quality of the arrangements and the assured excellence of the playing.
“What’s In Store…”
(RB Records RBR924)
Pianist Rob Barron graduated with a BA Hons degree in Jazz Studies from Leeds College of Music before moving on to further studies in London (The Guildhall ) and New York.
He is a highly versatile musician who has worked on both the jazz and session scenes in London accompanying visiting American jazz musicians such as saxophonists Phil Woods and Benny Golson and vocalists Al Jarreau and Marlena Shaw. He has also worked with top UK based performers including saxophonists Jean Toussaint and Dave O’Higgins and singers Claire Martin and Jacqui Dankworth. As a session musician Barron has toured and recorded with Paloma Faith and has arranged and recorded music for the Baz Luhrmann film “The Great Gatsby”. Barron was a founder member of saxophonist Adam Waldmann’s acclaimed Kairos 4tet and has also worked with larger ensembles such as the Gareth Lockrane Big Band and the BBC Big Band. His playing has earned the approval of fellow pianists Benny Green and his illustrious namesake Kenny Barron
“What’s In Store…” sees the prolific sideman stepping out of the shadows to launch his leadership début. In his liner notes Barron speaks of the inspiration gained from his frequent visits to New York and his studies with the NY musicians David Hazeltine and Mike Le Donne. He also cites the trio recordings of pianists Wynton Kelly, Cedar Walton, Phineas Newborn and Hank Jones as key influences on this début recording, particularly their emphasis on soulfulness and swing.
Nevertheless “What’s In Store…” is actually a quartet session with Barron, bassist Jeremy Brown and drummer Josh Morrison joined by a frequent Barron collaborator, bebop style guitarist Colin Oxley. The programme features Barron’s arrangements of a largely familiar selection of jazz and bebop standards plus one original composition, Barron’s own “Blues In The Moment”.
The album commences with a brief salvo from Morrison’s drums which launches the quartet into a fiercely swinging take on the standard “Too Close For Comfort” with Barron leading off the solos in mercurial fashion supported by Morrison’s crisp drum grooves and Brown’s splendidly propulsive bass lines. Oxley’s solo is one of cool, fluent bebop inspired excellence and there’s also a feature for the consistently impressive Brown. It all makes for an invigorating, attention grabbing opener.
A cool, loping swing distinguishes “Grooveyard” which includes a sparkling opening solo from Barron and also features Oxley at his best with his effortlessly melodic single note lines and sophisticated jazz chording. Brown also features again with a melodic but deeply resonant solo.
Subtle blues inflections inform a gently swinging “We’ll Be Together Again” which contains characteristically inventive and absorbing solos from Barron and Oxley allied to typically empathic support from the rhythm section. There’s also some engaging interplay between piano and guitar, a relatively unusual instrumental combination in this kind of straightahead/mainstream context.
Cole Porter’s “Dream Dancing” is given a breezy Latin-esque treatment with Oxley taking the first solo, his tone pure, warm and conversational. He then hands over to the leader who continues to sparkle with a solo rich in fluency and invention.
Brown and Morrison generate a seriously propulsive groove on Barron’s arrangement of George Gershwin’s “Who Cares”, this providing the platform for dazzling, fleet fingered solos from both Barron and Oxley. There’s also an effervescent series of drum breaks from Morrison as he trades fours with the two front liners.
Billy Strayhorn’s enduringly popular and beautiful ballad “Lush Life” represents the opportunity for the core trio to demonstrate their abilities. Barron is at his most lyrical on a thoughtful opening solo piano passage. Later he’s sympathetically supported by Morrison’s brushed drums as the music gradually develops a gentle but engaging sense of swing and the pianist allows himself the opportunity to stretch out. Brown also features with a solo that combines the twin virtues of swing and melody.
Oxley returns for the lively, boppish arrangement of “Angel Eyes”, combining effectively with Barron as well as sharing the solos as both musicians sparkle with a vivacious fluency, their bright inventions buoyed by the scalding swing generated by the combination of Morrison and Brown. Morrison is a particularly impressive presence as his drums weave their way in and out of the arrangement. Thrilling stuff and certain to be an audience favourite whenever the quartet play this music live.
The temperature cools a little with an unusual Barron arrangement of “These Foolish Things”. As the leader remarks in his liner notes: “Often I hear a song that inspires me to write a new arrangement. It might be a re-harmonisation, or a different feel, that I know I can use to mould it into a distinctly personal take on the original”. This piece, in particular, seems to epitomise this process.
Barron follows this with his own “Blues In The Moment”, a piece written just before the quartet went into the studio. It’s an authentic jazz blues and sounds like something that wouldn’t feel out of place on a vintage Blue Note record. Oxley, guitarist of choice for singer Stacey Kent, fulfils the Grant Green role as he trades solos with the swinging and inventive Barron over a commendably tight bass and drum groove.
The album concludes on a gentler note with an exquisite arrangement and performance of the ballad “Moonlight in Vermont” with Barron’s limpid piano combining with Oxley’s mellow toned guitar before they share lyrical solos above a backdrop of languorous bass and delicately brushed drums. There’s also an enjoyable cameo from Brown with a brief but typically melodic bass solo.
“What’s In Store…” isn’t an album that’s going to pull up any trees but then that isn’t its intention. It’s an unpretentious, swinging mainstream album but one that is lifted by both the quality of the arrangements and the assured excellence of the playing. This is a particularly well balanced quartet with two highly eloquent and inventive front line soloists plus a hugely capable, sympathetic and well integrated rhythm section. The qualities that the musicians bring to these excellent performances are well served by the engineering/production team of Marco Pasquariello, Ben McLusky and Derek Nash who combine to produce a pinpoint mix in which every nuance of the playing can be clearly heard.
But ultimately this is music that is probably best enjoyed in a live, jazz club environment and London audiences will get the chance to do exactly that on the evening of Sunday 2nd October 2016 when Barron and his colleagues launch this album at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Dean Street, Soho. For details and tickets please visit http://www.pizzaexpresslive.com
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