Jazz Review : Martin and Friends Display First-Class Skills at Bakery


Mel Martin did one thing absolutely right Friday night. He hired a first-class rhythm section, featuring Kenny Barron on piano, Tootie Heath on drums and John Heard on bass, for a two-night gig at the Jazz Bakery.

To his credit, Martin--a tenor saxophonist best known for his work with the group Bebop and Beyond--was well aware that the presence of the estimable Barron on stage might easily eclipse his own playing. And, to a large extent, it did. But Martin is a solid, workmanlike improviser with a facile technique, a firm rhythmic feel and a vivid harmonic vision. If he was not the most fascinating artist in the ensemble, there was no faulting the sheer enthusiasm he brought to his soloing, notably so during an intensely interactive duet with Barron on Benny Carter’s “People Time.”

Still, the musical focus of the set clearly rested on Barron, who has evolved in the last few years from a ubiquitous rhythm-section player to one of the most imaginative pianists in contemporary jazz. Each solo he played--from Martin’s racehorse up-tempo originals to more lyrical ballads--became an extraordinary set piece in and of itself.


Immensely abetted by Heath’s attentive support, Barron approached his instrument with the visual acumen of a painter. Quick and virtuosic though he may be, his remarkably fast fingers never dwelt on mechanics alone, producing instead surging flashes of bright, musical color. His touch on slower tunes was exquisite, rich and dense with suggestive textures, very much in a class with such superb harmonic pianists as Hank Jones and Bill Evans. And his rhythmic presentation, always swinging, added a structural unity to everything--the kind of instant, improvisational composition so typical of Art Tatum.

Heath’s percussive examination of a Dizzy Gillespie line, “Diddly, Wah Diddy,” matched Barron’s adventurous pursuit of sound. Using hands, sticks, African drums and every part of his regular kit, he proved, as he so often does, that drummers don’t have to be bashers.

Martin seemed to enjoy every minute of playing by his sterling back-up group. Generous with his limited performing time, he found a way to showcase their skills without minimizing his own considerable abilities.

* Barron also appears at Ambassador Auditorium on Wednesday at 8 p.m. in a concert with four other gifted pianists. Ambassador Auditorium, 300 W. Green St. Pasadena. (800) 266-2378. Tickets: $22.50 - $25.50.