When pianist Kenny Barron recorded this album with Ray Drummond on bass and Ben Riley on drums in April 1996, the term “underrated” was often used to describe him. Not any more. The recipient of a Jazz Master Award from the National Endowment of the Arts in 2010, he consistently wins jazz critics and readers polls in Downbeat, Jazz Times and Jazziz magazines and is a six-time recipient of the “Best Pianist” award from the Jazz Journalists Association.
Baron had been saxophonist Stan Getz’s accompanist of choice in his final years, and it is perhaps no coincidence that several of the albums they recorded together — most notably Voyage (1986), Serenity (1987), Anniversary (1987), Yours and Mine (1989) and People Time (1991) — are frequently cited as among Getz’s best work. Getz actually brought together what would become the Kenny Barron Trio with Ray Drummond and Ben Riley to form the Stan Getz Quartet on Yours and Mine, a group that would become Barron’s trio of the ages.
When Paul F. Berliner interviewed Kenny Barron for his monumental Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, the pianist advocated starting a solo simply, so “the solo has somewhere in which it can build,” suggesting that an appropriate moment to begin this was when “a tune became more interesting harmonically.” It may seem like a simple aesthetic, but on the opening number of the Bradley’s set, “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” we hear him putting his words into practice; one of jazz’s master storytellers, ideas and motifs — such as variations on the first four bars of the Benny Goodman/Peggy Lee 1942 hit “Why Don’t You Do Right?”, a minor key 12 bar blues — are developed and woven into a broader narrative that is full of intelligence, wit, passion and elegantly restrained virtuosity.
From 1982 to 1988, Barron was a member of Sphere, a Thelonious Monk tribute band with former Monk alumni Charlie Rouse and Ben Riley, plus Buster Williams. Here, Barron learned to probe the depths of Monk’s style yet not be claimed by his stylistic mannerisms that can easily swallow the identity of an unwary pianist, as countless fashionable “Monk Tribute” albums have demonstrated. On The Perfect Set, Barron elegantly pays tribute to Monk with an original composition of his own called “The Only One,” a solo performance of Monk’s “Shuffle Boil” and the album highspot, some 14 minutes of Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” that displays Barron’s great talent at its poetic best.
Barron was already a staple on the New York scene when he began performing with Drummond and Riley, so by the time they came to record this album, there was an understanding and empathy forged through countless encounters on the bandstand. A pianist in a lineage that includes such elegant pianists as Teddy Wilson, Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan, it’s hardly surprising that such a richly satisfying album should have been recorded at Bradley’s, located in Greenwich Village’s University Place. Not so much a jazz club, it was more a home-from-home for musicians who played for each other and serious fans who went to listen. Probably the most intimate jazz space ever — no stage, just a bar, 15 tables and 20 barstools — it’s easy to imagine how such relaxed surroundings contributed to making this, the second set on 6 April 1996, “The Perfect Set.” From bartender John Moore’s introduction to Barron’s closing words, this eloquent album is a fitting tribute to a much loved jazz venue that would close its doors forever just six months after this recording.