What does a world-class jazz musician do when his band can't show up for the gig?
Kenny Barron had the answer Tuesday night at Catalina Bar & Grill when the other two members of his trio--bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Ben Riley--were grounded by the East Coast blizzard of '96. He called up a couple of local musicians and, undeterred by the hastily assembled setting, proceeded to play one of the hottest opening sets heard at the club in years.
Keeping the repertoire basic, Barron began with "Green Dolphin Street," a tune so overworked that even the best players tend to avoid it. But Barron's opening solo chorus, a rumination across the song's harmonies, was a revelation. Far more than a new arrangement, it approached the work from an astonishingly insightful perspective, one that was precisely reflective of Barron's oft-stated desire to "play from the heart."
He followed with other pieces that were easy choices for an ad hoc ensemble--Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk" and Johnny Green's standard "Body and Soul" and closed with another classic, "I'm Confessin'."
With "Blue Monk" Barron's irrepressible drive came to the foreground, an insistent, urgent swing that almost visibly picked up the rhythm and propelled it forward. On "Body and Soul," Barron the composer took over, structuring a remarkable series of choruses that moved from lush, rhapsodic chording to soaring, double-time lines, before returning to the melody and a lovely, unexpected, but perfectly appropriate, improvised coda. And with "I'm Confessin'," he confirmed his connection with a historical lineage of piano soloing that reaches back through Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Fats Waller.
Barron's playing, regardless of his accompaniment, was brilliant, filled with energy, imagination and the sheer joy of creativity. That it was done in what was essentially a jam session rather than the more organized format of his regular trio, simply underscored his status as one of the world's finest jazz pianists.
To their credit, the substitute players offered dependable support. Barron has worked frequently with drummer Tootie Heath, a longtime associate from their Philadelphia years in the '60s. Bassist Nedra Wheeler, less familiar, seemed understandably awed to be performing in such exalted company on such short notice, but her playing was sturdy and reliable.
Drummond and Riley will be present for the balance of Barron's run, and the performances are likely to examine more complex material than was present on opening night. Barron, however, will be worth hearing, as he always is, under any circumstances.
* Kenny Barron Trio at Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday. 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., (213) 466-2210. $13 cover tonight and Sunday, $15 cover Friday and Saturday, with two-drink minimum. Barron performs two shows nightly, at 8:30 and 10:30.