Kenny Barron + Dave Holland – The Art of Conversation (2014)

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This is an interesting combination of celebrated and overlooked, as Dave Holland and Kenny Barron pair off for an album that often masks its formidable technique with an quietly inviting sense of rapport.

Holland is his generation’s best British bassist. Barron, meanwhile, has been on so many albums that he’s become somehow forgotten. Still, they never crossed paths in the studio until 1985’s Barron-led Scratch, and have never before recorded as a duo. You wouldn’t know it from The Art of the Conversation, out this week on the revived Impulse label.

In part, this is because they are simply so very good. In part, this is because both are so very well versed in the artistry of small-group recordings, having done this literally countless times. Barron’s Stan Getz album marked a visceral late-period hurrah for an old master. Holland has similarly worked in a duo situation with Chick Corea, Betty Carter, Jack DeJohnette and others. But perhaps the most instructive one to look back upon is Barron’s earlier trio intersections with Ron Carter, since Holland often seems like a canny combination of Carter and Scott LaFaro.

Not that Holland could ever be so easily pigeon-holed, as he certainly brings in elements of Oscar Pettiford, outsider and classical music, as well as shadings so uniquely his own. Still, it’s a jumping off point for an album that grew out of a series of duo dates in 2012. They clearly learned to listen to one another intently, as the aptly titled Art of Conversation often unfolds like two players finishing one another sentences — despite small but important differences in dialect.

Barron, who contributes three originals, is the portrait of post-bop refinement, while Holland — he adds four songs of his own — will smartly embellish outside of that tradition, occasionally adding deft whispers of the avant garde (notably on the stubburn underpinning of “The Oracle”). Perhaps best of all is when they downshift into a contemplative hush, as on Barron’s “Rain” or Holland’s “In Your Arms.” You can almost hear the wheels of their collective imagination turning, and then the next burst of ear-opening brilliance is upon you.

With all of the praise (deserved though it may be) that’s been showered on Dave Holland over the years, Kenny Barron may well be the biggest surprise on The Art of the Conversation, especially on something like their update of Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud.” Barron previously worked with some of Monk’s collaborators in Sphere, of course, so it would have been easy enough to simply mimic the old master’s sense of paused ecstacy. Instead, Barron takes the piece in a decidedly personal direction, having actually sounded far more Monk-ish during his own “The Only One.”

Charlie Parker’s “Segment” is given an appropriately muscular reading, even as Holland takes time to remember trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, one of his early collaborators, on the gorgeous “Waltz for K.W.” They conclude with a expertly measured take on the Strayhorn/Ellington masterpiece “Day Dream,” returning once again to the sense of twilit expectancy that makes The Art of Conversation so consistently stimulating.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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