The small, narrow listening room Mezzrow, with its strangely perfect acoustics, is an unlikely success in a city full of good jazz clubs, mainly because it is one of the best places in New York to hear jazz piano—usually in a duo with a bassist, guitarist or vocalist. In that, it is a worthy heir to Bradley’s, the late, lamented club that inspired it.
Since Mezzrow opened in 2014, many fine pianists have played its Steinway (currently a new Model “A”), but certainly none with more swinging authority than Bruce Barth, who appeared before a packed house on May 7, in a duo with Vicente Archer, a partner of similarly formidable skill. (Barth also performed the previous night in a duo with vibraphonist Steve Nelson.)
At 57, Barth may be playing the best piano of his career, which is saying a lot. He has often been referred to as a “pianist’s pianist,” while somehow eluding wider recognition, despite more than a dozen albums under his own name and long associations with top-tier instrumentalists including trumpeter Terence Blanchard and alto saxophonist/flutist Steve Wilson and singers like and Tony Bennett, Karrin Allyson and Luciana Souza.
A mainstream but modern piano master, his playing is distinguished by a combination of beautiful tone, ceaseless imagination and, especially, unshakable swing.
Barth and Archer came roaring out of the gate. From the first few notes of “Almost Blues,” a Barth original, one could sense an almost audible sigh of relaxed contentment from the audience, as if they were being massaged by these four hands. There was a palpable sense that the rhythm, so strongly established, would never falter.
“Almost Blues” was an apt description for this infectious, altered blues, with dissonances informed by the pianist’s love of Thelonious Monk. It became a showcase for Barth’s killer combination: on the one hand, a refined, gentle touch; on the other, a granite-hard swing.
Barth and Archer, who have worked together for years, seemed to breathe as one, creating an intensely locked-in sense of time. They embodied the fundamental principle that the rhythm is ever-present, like a subliminal river—sometimes fast-moving, sometimes leisurely—into which they dip in and out at will.
In this number and others, Archer, who regularly plays with Robert Glasper and Nicholas Payton, offered a textbook example of how to walk with authority on the bass, his quarter notes squarely on the fat part of the beat; his solos were bluesy, harmonically eloquent and perfectly articulated.
The duo played Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” in a jazz arrangement so natural it seemed as if the song had been written that way, Barth alternating lyrical passages with exuberant blues and gospel-flecked improvisation. His effortless mastery of tone and dynamics permitted him to do what is usually considered so difficult with the piano: He made it “sing” the melody.
On Wilson’s “Joyful Noise,” Barth produced gorgeous tonal clusters and ecstatic runs reminiscent of Bill Evans. His own gentle, melodic songs included the wistful “Softly In A Garden Path,” the Japanese-influenced “Yama” and the bucolic “At The Ranch,” a jazz evocation of the American West. Barth and Archer soared on a truly rhapsodic “I Hear A Rhapsody” and also on the set closer, a brisk “Rhythm-A-Ning” that played like Monk on steroids.
Barth’s performances tend to attract other pianists who marvel at his gifts. One such admirer on Saturday night, the estimable jazz pianist Leslie Pintchik, commented after the first set—with deep irony: “Now if he could only improvise and swing, he’d really be something,” she said.