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NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron shines playing solo on 'The Source'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In his illustrious career, pianist and composer Kenny Barron has been awarded a Jazz Master Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. And he's played with Dizzy Gillespie, Yusef Lateef and Stan Getz. With the quartet sphere that specialized in playing Thelonious Monk tunes and with numerous duos, trios and small bands of his own. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says, though, that Kenny Barron really shines playing solo on his new album.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY BARRON'S “I’M CONFESSIN’”)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Kenny Barron on the 1930 pop song "I'm Confessin'" with some old-timey stride rhythm in the bass. Barron is no antiquarian, preserving old styles for their own sake. The techniques he's picked up feed his own voice on piano. On his tune "What If," the plink of adjacent keys bonked together nods to Thelonius Monk. But the composition has Kenny Barron's smoother moves and momentum.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY BARRON'S "WHAT IF")

WHITEHEAD: That's from Kenny Baron's lovely solo recital, "The Source," where he plays a few tunes of his own and two each by Thelonius Monk and Duke Ellington's writing partner, Billy Strayhorn. Monk's piano work could be playfully halting, economical, anti-virtuosic. When Kenny Barron plays Monk, he may go the other way. On "Well You Needn’t," he's a magician who keeps pulling more and more rabbits out of the same hat.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY BARRON'S "WELL YOU NEEDEN'T")

WHITEHEAD: Kenny Barron had previously recorded most tunes on his album "The Source," a few more than once. Musing on compositions he knows inside out, he gives them layers of meaning and an allusive texture with occasional hints at Afro Cuban rhythms and gestures. He takes Billy Strayhorn's elegantly slinky 1940 ballad "Daydream" and infuses it with the blues.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY BARRON'S “DAYDREAM”)

WHITEHEAD: In everything Kenny Barron plays, you can hear the clarity of his attack at the keys and of the thinking behind it. Playing solo also gives his left hand more room to roam than in his small groups with a bass player. Barron also writes pretty tunes, such as his widely recorded "Sunshower," with its catchy descending line. Lester Young used to say a solo should tell a little story. Kenny Barron is a storyteller, not least when he takes his time. We lean in to hear what happens next.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY BARRON'S “SUNSHOWER”)

WHITEHEAD: In the work of a master improviser, polish, technique and deep feeling go together. You need the one to fully express the other, and you also need ideas, something of substance to put that feeling into. Kenny Barron is so fully present and in his element on "The Source," you hear head, fingers and heart in true alignment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." And he writes for Point of Departure and the Audio Beat. He reviewed "The Source," the new solo album by pianist Kenny Barron. On tomorrow's show, we'll talk about the latest developments and strategies in the fight over abortion rights with Mary Ziegler, who's written several books on the law, history and politics of abortion. Her new book, "Roe: The History Of A National Obsession," is about how abortion has remained at the center of America's culture, wars and political battles. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.