Kevin Toney: Jazz Legacy

Former Blackbyrds pianist shows the breadth of his style in vivid live performances of material ranging from Shearing to Strayhorn


Pianist Kevin Toney packs so much music into his latest album that it’s almost a case of a gig delivering more than it promised. That it promised much of interest was down to the pianist’s belief in the ability of just three other musicians – including singer-daughter Dominique – to make a success of it.

Toney was leader of The Blackbyrds, a group of Howard University students in Washington DC assembled by its then head of jazz studies, Donald Byrd, as a fusion band. It released several much-liked albums. Then as now, Toney was a pivotal force.

This live album, all but one of its tracks recorded in 2017, opens with a whirlwind solo performance of Billy Strrayhorn’s Lush Life on which Toney almost drowns the theme in embellishments but manages to convey the idea that it’s the calm centre of all going on around it and that the decoration – a lengthy florid intro incorporates a “free” and witty episode – is not detraction but homage.

The pianist’s orchestral presence is there on a grandstand version of Lullaby Of Birdland with Dominique. It’s not so much a duet, with the piano deferring to the singer, as a tripartite duo of equal partners, with thunderous chords in the piano-only central section and the whole topped by inventive wordplay in the third, based on George Weiss’s lyrics.

Dominique introduces the dad-and-daughter number I Can’t Take That, which features a rolling boogie figure in the piano’s bowels, another immense Toney presence above it and some choice scatting by Dom. Toney himself introduces the ballad Love Is On My Side, which Dominique co-wrote with Bobby Wilkerson, as well as the suave and sensitive soprano sax of his old school pal Kamau Kenyatta, a long-time collaborator of Gregory Porter. There are three more joyful, often tempestuous, piano solos.

Azar Lawrence, with his deliciously throaty tenor sax, is the other Toney accomplice and welcome respite on In A Sentimental Mood, where Toney’s swirling and Tatum-esque skedaddling gets a bit out of hand. But if ever a pianist could be forgiven for over-indulgence, Toney is he. It’s a close recording in which even the piano-pedalling can be heard. Somehow, it adds to a thumping occasion.

(1) Lush Life; Rejoice; Happy Dance; (2) Lullaby Of Birdland; (3) Love Is On My Side; (4) I Can’t Take That; (5) In A Sentimental Mood; (6) Squeeze Me (60.15)
(1) Kevin Toney (p). California, 2017 – 2019. (2) as (1) but add Dominique Toney (v). (3) as (2) but add Kamau Kenyatta (ss). (4) as (3) but Kenyatta out. (5) as (4) but D Toney out, Azar Lawrence (ts) in. (6) as (5) but Azar Lawrence out.
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