The Brazilian sound is music to pianist’s ears

Boston Globe, December 22, 2006

Pianist Kenny Barron is a jazz listener’s dream: He records and tours constantly, yet no two dates are ever the same. His range of projects makes him not just one of the finest players of the day, but also a jazz activist with insatiable curiosity. Among memorable recent ventures are a project with violinist Regina Carter, and the Classical Jazz Quartet, a supergroup including Stefon Harris, Ron Carter, and Lewis Nash that has taken on Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.

Next week, Barron hits Regattabar, one of his regular stops, for three nights with the New York-based Brazilian outfit Trio da Paz, with whom he has forged an ongoing encounter between jazz and Brazilian music that, like its authors, refuses to take the easy way out.

Barron’s interest in Brazil dates back to a visit to Rio with Sphere, the quartet that he led in the 1980s. “We went out to clubs, and everywhere people were playing fantastic music,” he recalls on the phone from his home in New York.

In 1993, he put out a now hard-to-find, Brazil-influenced record, “Sambao,” but moved on to other interests. Working with Trio da Paz has meant a reinvestment and deepening of his interest, in association with some of the living masters of Brazilian music.

“The three of them are very important,” Barron says of the trio. “They’ve worked with all the great musicians, from Antonio Carlos Jobim to whomever you can think of. In New York, they’re the first call in terms of Brazilian music. They’re also very good jazz musicians.”

To hear Barron tell it, he came across the trio by serendipity, one Saturday afternoon after shopping for vegetables at a New York City farmers’ market.

“My wife and I were shopping at the Greenmarket in Union Square, and we stopped in at a place called Coffeeshop, and they were playing there,” Barron says, professing surprise to have found such a stellar combo working a random daytime gig. “We started going every Saturday. We got to meet them, and I said, `I would like to play with you guys.”’

Nilson Matta, the trio’s bass player, chuckles at Barron’s account.

“That’s the story he’s selling,” Matta says. “The real story is that he was looking for something different. We had been playing there for six or seven years, every Saturday when we were in town. It was a very good sound. A bunch of people played with us: Herbie Mann, Nana Vasconcelos, lots of people.”

Planned or not, the meeting was an instant lovefest. “He told us he loved how we played,” Matta says. “And we said `We love you, man! We love the way you play!”’

The results were a series of New York club gigs together, followed by a European tour and an album, “Canta Brasil,” which came out in 2002 to critical acclaim. The disc, still Barron’s sole recording with the trio, also features the flutist Anne Drummond.

“Canta Brasil” has nothing to do with the somewhat flaccid bossa nova rehashes that are the path of least resistance for jazz-meets-Brazil projects. The compositions are originals, and Barron’s attack on the first track, “Zumbi,” possesses the flash and angles of pure jazz improvisation.

The Brazilianness, so to speak, surfaces gradually, in the solos by Matta, guitarist Romero Lubambo, and percussionist Duduka da Fonseca, and in the underpinning the rhythm section provides to Barron’s surges and contemplations.

Playing with Brazilians, Barron offers, “is a chance to see what it really feels like. It’s different from jazz music.”

He explains: “They have this sense of harmony. The way they move chords, it’s unique. It’s particular to Brazilian music, the way the harmony moves. It’s very sensuous and lush. It really is! For me, it’s the harmony.”

Bassist Matta attributes the sophistication of the trio’s work with Barron to the fact that each trio member cultivates his own career as a jazz musician in addition to their work as a group. Living in New York, as opposed to Brazil, has kept their game sharp and their opportunities varied.

“Each of us has his career,” says Matta, who himself released an album as a leader this year. “We have some pretentions in terms of playing individually. Other musicians see us individually as well.”

Though they haven’t recorded together since “Canta Brasil,” Barron and the trio have continued to intersect regularly. Barron frequently turns up and sits in when one of the trio members headlines a New York gig. And they were able to tour in Brazil and Argentina together, an experience Matta describes as “fantastic.”

Now, say both Barron and Matta, the full-fledged collaboration has rekindled. At Regattabar, they will offer material from “Canta Brasil” as well as some brand new compositions. The vibe at Regattabar next week, Matta says, will suit the festive season.

“We’re very good friends,” Matta says of Barron. “It’s great to get together with Kenny. And it’s very fun to play together at the end of the year.”