Review: Kenny Barron and Dave Holland, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Though pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Dave Holland have worked with pretty much everyone else over the course of their distinguished careers, it’s only in the last few years that they’ve begun performing together regularly as a duo. Their debut album, The Art Of Conversation, was released in September and it was musical conversation that provided the theme for their pre-concert talk on the intimacy of duo playing.

After an accomplished opening set from Jeremy Monteiro, “Singapore’s King of Swing”, and his trio, which managed two EFG London Jazz Festival firsts – the premiere of “Lion City”, Monteiro’s chirpy contribution to the festival’s 21 Commissions Programme and the first ever performance of a Christmas song, a sugary little number called called “Christmas in Our Hearts” – it was time for the duo to put their words into action.

Before the off, both players stressed the importance of keeping time without overcompensating for the absence of a drummer, with Holland praising his partner’s ability to imply a pulse without stating it explicitly. But in the opener, an introspective composition by Barron called “Spiral”, the time felt a little too abstract for comfort. Fortunately, as the pair slipped into a rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Segment”, playing the slinky bebop head in unison, everything seemed to settle down and from there they never looked back.

“Waltz For Wheeler”, Holland’s tender tribute to the great trumpeter and composer who sadly passed away this year, had an air of beautiful strangeness, an enigmatic quality that suited its subject to a tee. Barron’s “Calypso” was the antithesis, a sauntering, sunshiny romp that provoked a melodic, but technically astonishing, solo from Holland and a laugh from the audience when he looped nonchalantly back into the groove, belying the virtuosity of what he had just played.

“Pass It On”, a Holland composition with a swampy blues-rock feel, saw the duo at their interactive best. The bassist smiled and offered whoops of encouragement as Barron chimed in with carefully chosen chords and understated countermelodies. From there, they traded grooves and ideas before drawing things to a close. With the crowd on their feet, the swaggering melody of Monk’s “In Walked Bud” made for the perfect encore, but the highlight of the evening was Barron’s “Rain”, a ballad that shimmered with crystalline harmony and made the most of the lyrical warmth of Holland’s bass.

It brought the best out of the pianist too who revealed new layers to his playing as the set progressed, from gossamer melodies, to bluesy bends and even a few glimpses of Cuban Montuno. Unlike the garrulous Holland, Barron leaves acres of space and as the duo left the stage it felt as if there was so much more that he could say. But then good conversation is as much about holding back as it is letting fly and this was the very best of conversations.

– Thomas Rees

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