One thing Kenny Barron does better than perhaps any living jazz pianist is play across and through the widest possible range of jazz musics with ease and authority. Take the Latin-flavored numbers—”The Traveler,” graced with the very attractive guest soprano sax of the great but underappreciated Steve Wilson, “Calypso,” with its Sonny disposition recalling the latter’s great “St. Thomas,” the subtly Brazilian-flavored “Um Beijo,” featuring the unmistakably voice of Grady Tate, or the gently sway of “The First Year”—though they wrap the listener in warm tropic breezes, there’s a lot more going on than neo-Bossa Nova or Caribbean carpetbaggery: Barron imbues each with such a strong jazz sensibility through sly chord voicings, single note runs and placements, and rhythmic touches that they come across with deep authority.
Yet he can just as easily tear through a bop burner like the cleverly titled “Speed Trap,” once again featuring Wilson on soprano sax as well as great ensemble playing by the rhythm team. But it’s the leader’s solo, coming in at around 2:10, that separates this cut from the typical bop rave-up: Besides its grand architecture, fleet-fingered playing, and rhythmic ingenuity, there’s the casual fluency of someone who knows this music backwards and forwards.
Then there are the ballads—the litmus test for this reviewer. The task here is to avoid schmaltz. What’s required is a real commitment to the melody line, played honestly and without sentimentality or undo adornment, so that the song’s heartfelt sentiments can shine through. “Clouds,” showcasing Ms. Calloway’s unique vocal, whose pianisms display equal parts shimmering transparency and misty wistfulness almost approaching languidness. Very evocative. “Illusion,” conjures something related by slightly different: melancholy arising, one supposes, from loss. Wilson’s poignant soprano nearly leaks salt tears with its lonesome lament. “Phantom” is the coup de grace. Beginning with the gently struck fuzz-chords and -runs of guest Lionel Loueké’s acoustic guitar backed by the leader’s dark musings and an almost disembodied Afro-Caribbean voice (uncredited), the song morphs into spectral vocalisms courtesy of Gretchen Parlato, then a spirited dialog between Barron and Loueké, and back to Parlato’s crepuscular musings. My, my. One scarcely knows what to say in the presence of such understated aural genius.
Displaying casual mastery of practically the whole jazz spectrum—there’s even a wooly free-sounding Barron-Loueké duet—The Traveler stands out as among the finer recordings from one of jazz’s most accomplished living artists.
TrackList: The Traveler, Clouds, Speed Trap, Um Beijo, The First Year, Illusion, Duet, Phantoms, Calypso, Memories of You
— Jan P. Dennis