There's no question that Williams is an acquired taste -- at one point she squawks, "Chores, chores, chores!" on the meandering "Grandpa in the Cornpatch." But any one of her songs left in the hands of a less abrasive vocalist -- her Lilith friend Jewel, let's say -- would come off as a soggy Sister Nature act. Musings of a Creek Dipper is Williams at her most impractically alluring -- like nature itself, she pisses you off sometimes, but she's rewardingly impossible to ignore.

Victoria Williams & the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers play Wednesday, April 8, at 8 p.m. at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell (at Polk). Chris Stills opens. Tickets are $17; call 885-5075.

-- Andi Zeisler

Kenny Barron and Charlie Haden
Night and the City

A professional since he was 15, when he started playing first rhythm-and-blues and then what has become known as hard bop, the 54-year-old jazz pianist Kenny Barron has been taken for granted for years: The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz describes him as "a reliable mainstream pianist." Barron shouldn't be damned with such faint praise. He's reliable, but, recently, he has turned into one of the most appealingly lyrical pianists. He demonstrates his professionalism, as well as his taste and personality, in his carefully shaped and elegantly varied ballads and in the swaying waltzes on Night and the City.

He's joined on this live recording, made in Manhattan's Iridium, by the celebrated bassist Charlie Haden, who came by his lyricism through a different path. Although Haden became recognized through his work in the early '60s with Ornette Coleman, the bassist's first performances were with his family's country band. Haden was the anchor of the Coleman quartet, his deep tone and melodic acuity offering a counterweight to Coleman's astringent bluesiness. Coleman acknowledged his down-home feel with "Ramblin'," a tune for Haden that might be called avant-country. Haden has a booming, warm tone, and he eschews the guitarlike runs of contemporary bassists. His drama is of a different kind: Using his tense, large tone, and placing notes exquisitely, Haden can make a walk up a chromatic scale seem like a major event.

In middle age, both Barron and Haden have become gentler, and more lyrical, musicians, unashamedly interested in melody and more likely to substitute warmth for fire. Haden has been recording new versions of '30s standards while acknowledging -- to the shock of some of the fans of his avant-garde playing -- his debt to pop singers such as Jo Stafford. Barron has been taking a similar path. Night and the City is a masterful collaboration. They play well-known ballads ("You Don't Know What Love Is") and a couple of originals, including Haden's "Waltz for Ruth." Barron's unaccompanied first chorus to "You Don't Know What Love Is" has bravura scale passages of the kind we associate with Art Tatum. But this disc isn't about fireworks: Barron relaxes into the end of the chorus and yields to Haden, whose deep tone, precise placement of sustained notes, and warmly lyrical sense make the melody glow.

They often sound serenely innocent. "For Heaven's Sake," with its unchallenging chord sequences, is introduced nonchalantly by Barron, who interjects several Tatum-esque runs into a theme statement that soon settles into a sweetly bouncing groove. For all his credentials with the avant-garde, Haden plays it straight here. He doesn't push the rhythm: Some fans might complain that this disc doesn't swing enough. His note choices are basic, if not completely predictable, and with puckish good humor he repeatedly imitates the rhythm of the written melody. Barron's long solo gradually increases in intensity. The climactic two choruses include long runs across the bar lines, phrases that end in suave trills. Then he pulls back and gently introduces Haden. With their clear and distinct ideas, Haden's solos create their own world: He seems to see his solos virtually as separate statements. He tends first to restate the melody, as if redefining his material and signaling a new start at the same time. Then with as little flash and thunder as possible, he creates his own lovely, perfectly shaped melodies. They end with an extended diminuendo that only a couple of consummately skilled professionals could make so interesting and natural.

Night and the City is a real collaboration. Barron begins "Body and Soul" with quiet drama, alternating thickly textured chords and finely tuned runs, but then turns the stage over to Haden. In the last chorus, Barron strums the chords like a guitarist, but punctuates the romance with Monk-like repeated notes in the right hand and then a staccato countermelody as if to suggest the bittersweet complications of the standard and of love. I can't think of a recent performance that sounds fresher, or deeper, than this 10-minute rediscovery and reinvention of an often-played standard. It's worth getting Night and the City just to see what still can be done with "Body and Soul."

The Kenny Barron and Charlie Haden Duo perform Wednesday through Sunday, April 8-12, at several different times at Yoshi's, 510 W. Embarcadero (at Washington), Oakland. Tickets are $5-20; call (510) 238-9200.

-- Michael Ullman

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