Kevin Whitehead, veteran jazz reporter on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air (NPR), observes Thelonious Monk’s centennial with some fascinating perceptions about his pianistic technique and his prowess as a composer, particularly in his unique approach to writing bridges for his tunes.
Dutch pianist, composer, and leader of the ICP Orchestra Misha Mengelberg died in Amsterdam on March 3, at 81. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead spent four years in Amsterdam in the 1990s, writing about Mengelberg and his circle of his musicians, and hearing him whenever he could.
“In the ’70s Mengelberg’s wife Amy had a parrot who loved her and hated him as a romantic rival—this is Misha’s version. His work as composer involved singing and whistling to himself, and the parrot started heckling him by imitation—interfering with his process. Not to waste this avian hostility, the pianist recorded a duet with the bird, making it an unwitting collaborator. Years later, Louis Andriessen taught a graduate composition workshop at Yale. To introduce his students to Dutch musical culture, he played them Misha and the parrot. Misha Mengelberg was the best kind of contrarian: a smart playful trickster unafraid to poke fun at himself.”
Today is the 100th birthday of jazz and pop singer Ella Fitzgerald, who’d started out winning Harlem talent shows as a teenager. She had her first hits with Chick Webb’s big band before going out on her own in the 1940s. The composer songbooks she recorded for Verve starting in the mid-50s are definitive recordings of vocal standards. Fitzgerald toured the world for decades, and died in 1996. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Fitzgerald at her best is as good as it gets. Listen.
Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews Magic 201, the last album from jazz flutist and saxophonistFrank Wess before he passed away last year:
“Nowadays we have ample evidence that playing jazz keeps the mind and body nimble, given all the musicians in their ‘80s and up who still sound good. But we are running out of saxophonists whose styles were formed before John Coltrane’s harder sound took over. There is something tender and specific about the ways elders like Frank Wess shaped their notes that’s hard for younger musicians to evoke without anachronisms creeping in. That’s one reason music lovers love their records: even after the masters are gone, their sound is right here with us.”
In November, 1966, eight months before he died of cancer, John Coltrane played a concert at Temple University in Philadelphia. It was not a financial success—only 700 people showed up—and the band’s high-energy music proved too much for some listeners. That concert recording is now officially out for the first time. It got our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead thinking about what Coltrane was up to:
“John Coltrane’s 1966 Philadelphia concert wasn’t quite as legendary as folks now claim, judging by the scant attention his biographers give it. But the double-CD “Offering: Live at Temple University” spotlights an aspect of Coltrane’s late period more heard about than heard—how his generosity of spirit led him to share his stage with lesser-known players. Drop-ins here include a gaggle of local percussionists he’d been jamming with.
Coltrane’s vocal outbursts in Philly lend credence to the idea his saxophone was an extension of his voice, just as soprano sax extended the range of his tenor. But Coltrane was fascinated by the saxophone itself, and ways to animate the mechanism. His breath liberated the saxophone’s life force. He was concerned with getting the instrument to sound, to feel as well as hear the dance of a vibrating air column inside the metal tube. Some fans had given up on Coltrane by 1966, but in a way his priorities hadn’t changed. Playing standards in the ’50s, he had that same love of setting the horn vibrating with a busy line.”
Trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah was born in New Orleans’s Upper Ninth Ward, and grew up involved with Mardi Gras Indian culture, a family tradition. Early on he toured with his cousin, saxophonist and Indian chief Donald Harrison. Scott aTunde Adjuah also melds jazz and hip-hop beats. Critic Kevin Whitehead says, his new EP, Ruler Rebel, ties all those threads together.
“Ruler Rebel is inflected with the looping rhythms and drum samples of contemporary hip-hop. But where some danceable bands get so deep in the groove they neglect the solos, Scott serves up a lot of trumpet. He has what you want in a soloist: a commanding personal voice, and a sense of direction. He can play a line to pull you along.”
Since 2006, Laurie Pepper, the widow of jazz saxophonist Art Pepper, has been releasing live recordings her husband made during the last years of his life. A new batch of these recordings from 1981 is out. Fresh Air jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says that Art Pepper played like he was making up for lost time.
1964 was a great year for cutting-edge jazz records like Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure. But none sounds as far ahead of its time as Eric Dolphy’s masterpiece Out to Lunch, recorded for Blue Note on Feb. 25, 1964. Half a century later it still sounds crazy in a good way. The organized mayhem starts with Dolphy’s tunes, often featuring wide, wide leaps in the melody and ratchet-gear rhythms. His composition “Straight Up and Down” was inspired by the careful walk of a drunk striving to stay upright. He improvised with that same kind of angular energy, and an excitable tone like a goosed goose.
Two new trio albums by tenor saxophonists who won the Thelonious Monk jazz competition share a conspicuous influence — vintage Sonny Rollins. Fresh Air critic Kevin Whitehead reviewsMelissa Aldana & Crash Trio by last year’s winner, 25-year old Chile-born New Yorker Melissa Aldana, and Trios Live by Joshua Redman, who took the prize in 1991.
It can be tricky, paying tribute to a grand master; you don’t want to invite a direct comparison. Melissa Aldana heads that off by not trying to sound too much like her hero. Her tone has body, but it’s a bit lighter and smoother than vintage Sonny Rollins, more alto-like in the upper register. Aldana was mentored by saxophonists Greg Osby and George Coleman, and you can also hear traces of Osby’s floating sense of time and Coleman’s smeary blues abstractions. That’s one way to transcend your key influences—mix ’em together, along with what you’ve figured out for yourself.
In Nigeria in 1964, when future Afrobeat star Fela Kuti heard and hired his influential drummer Tony Allen, they were both working as jazz musicians. The following year they revamped the band into something more pop oriented. Now Tony Allen revisits his jazz roots, in a salute to his early drumming hero Art Blakey. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.
Horace Tapscott led a big band in 1969, but his debut was for a quintet drawn from its ranks. Fresh Air jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a reissue of The Giant is Awakened:
“The Giant Is Awakened” refers to a newly mobilized African American public. It was recorded in 1969, when that decade’s upheavals were much on Tapscott’s mind. Back then his dashiki-clad Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra was a South Los Angeles institution, playing concerts in the park and from the back of a truck. Even his quintet music could reflect community empowerment: the ascending intensifying riff on “The Dark Tree” sounds like forces gathering and gaining strength.
Count Basie’s band from Kansas City reached New York in December of 1936. Musicians took to them immediately, but the general public took a bit longer. Basie’s big break came in July 1938, when the band started broadcasting from the 52nd Street club the Famous Door. Music from those broadcasts makes up half of a new sampler of live Basie from the period. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it’s choice:
“Basie specialized in the brand of blues that laughs at trouble. The music’s exceptional buoyancy stemmed from a four-piece rhythm section, with Basie on piano. Folks often say rhythm guitarist Freddie Green was more felt than heard. But sometimes his chomping beat came through loud and clear.”