Sambao is Kenny Barron's tribute to Brazilian music done his way. These original compositions by the peerless pianist combine jazz and samba in a modernistic way, with no copying of tunes from the master Antonio Carlos Jobim, and no hint of the populist Stan Getz approach due to the lack of a lead instrument, save Barron's attractive and inventive piano. He's accompanied by heavyweights of the Rio-cum-New York City scene, including guitarist Toninho Horta, bassist Nico Assumpção, and French-born percussionist Mino Cinelu. Barron's (and most people's) favorite jazz drummer Victor Lewis is included, reinforcing the rhythms expertly as usual. Though not a working or touring group on any level, the ensemble sounds extremely tight and exactly in tune with what Barron's wants to portray. The tune "Bacchanal" is one Barron's fans might remember in his early days when recording for the Muse label, also included on the Sonny Fortune LP Serengeti Minstrel, and it is happily revised in full, bright regalia. Cinelu's composition "Yalele" is also joyous, as shouted vocals and a group chorus of the title soar over a deeper piano sound from Barron. The lengthy "Encounter" and "Gardenia" stretch out, allowing all the players to fully interact and especially improvise, the former in a mysterious mood mixing up meters but settling in 4/4, the latter nicely sweet, patient, and more collaborative as Barron's genius musings turn into occasional flourishes à la Oscar Peterson. Modal jazz meets the rain forest during "On the Other Side" as a pure singsong melody is adopted, quite similar to the Barry Harris tribute "Nascimento." "Ritual" is a fast, faded-in-samba jam that might have been an accidental afterthought turned into a welcome inclusion, while the most airy and breezy tune is "Belem," in the straightest Brazilian style. Horta is always excellent, but is more restrained save "Gardenia," and Lewis keeps thing rolling along without allowing them to burst out. Anyone who has appreciated the genius of Kenny Barron over the many fruitful years of his career can easily enjoy this sidebar project, with the hope that someday, he'll do it again.
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AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos