kevin whitehead

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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.”  

Music from this appreciation: 

  • Eric Dolphy: Hypochristmutreefuzz (1964), Last Date (various issues) 
  • ICP Orchestra: Kwela P’kwana (1990), Bospaadje Konijnehol II (ICP 029)
  • ICP Orchestra: Happy-Go-Lucky Local (2009), !ICP!50 (ICP 050, LP) 
  • ICP Orchestra: Rollo 5 (1991), Bospaadje Konijnehol II 
  • ICP Orchestra: Kehang (1990), Bospaadje Konijnehol II 
  • Misha Mengelberg: Koekoek (1999), Solo (Buzz 75033)
  • Misha & Eeko the parrot: Instant Composition 5-VI-’72 (1972), [untitled] (ICP 015, LP)

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.

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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.”

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.”

Listen: One Final Offering From John Coltrane

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.

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead on Eric Dolphy’s album Out to Lunch

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.

Horace Tapscott’s Giant Re-Awakened In A Reissue

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.”

Duke Ellington’s ‘Plank Session’ Offers Snapshots Of A Jazz Master At Work

When bandleader Duke Ellington was on tour, he’d often book studio time to record new music—it was one of the perks of keeping an expensive band together. In Cologne in July 1970, Ellington recorded two tunes engineered by Conny Plank, a few years before Plank became known for recording rock musicians like Brian Eno. That session is now on CD; jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it’s a window onto Ellington’s working method.

‘Musical Monsters’ Revisits A 1980 Concert By Cornet Player Don Cherry

Don Cherry joined with four internationally known jazz improvisers for a playful session at a Swiss festival in 1980. Critic Kevin Whitehead says the music they made still sounds fresh 36 years later:

“It’s a great example of how well such one-time meetings can go, given the right players. In truth Don Cherry’s trumpet chops are pretty shaky, as they often were in later years. But his bugling tone could still rally the troops, and his influence is all over the music; he loved rolling rhythms, fanfare-like tunes, and long improvisations broken up by catchy themes.”

Fifty years ago in a Washington, DC nightclub, the Ramsey Lewis Trio recorded “The In Crowd,” a rare jazz single that landed on the pop charts. Critic Kevin Whitehead says the fans were half the show:

“I am not big on audience participation, but the house really makes this record. Sitting at home by the hi-fi, you felt like a member of the in crowd, just grooving along with that hip audience, of jazz fans who dug pop or vice versa. There’s more than a little gospel music in the interplay between preaching piano and the amen corner, and you can trace the blurring of roles between arts maker and consumer back to West African ring dances. Ramsey Lewis’s “The ‘In’ Crowd” was a potent cultural signifier in the summer of the Watts riots and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Back at the Bohemian Caverns, the trio ended the tune like they already knew they had a hit.”

Electric guitarist Charlie Christian was born 100 years ago, on July 29, 1916, in Bonham, Texas, though he grew up in Oklahoma City. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Christian was one of the most influential musicians of the last century. He has an appreciation.

“Charlie Christian’s timing was impeccable. His heavy front-loaded attack underlined his aggressive beat, and inspired untold jazz, blues and rock guitar players. Benny Goodman loved him but begged him to turn his amplifier down. Christian once explained, “I like to hear myself.” Like other great lead players, he was an adept rhythm guitarist, strumming like mad, riffing with precision, or cutting against the grain.”

Bassist Gary Peacock has been playing in pianist Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio for 30 years. Peacock also leads a trio of his own, which has a new album out called Now This. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says the tunes are good but the playing is even better:

“Jazz does love its rich past, but this quiet piano trio doesn’t sound much like vintage Bill Evans or vintage anyone else. This collective improvising is more airy, the swinging more elastic—everything’s more open. It’s not about nostalgia for back in the day. But one key reason things have changed is the way Gary Peacock exploded the bass’s role all those years ago.”

Fresh Air Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says, in New York around 1920, the three pianists who terrorized the competition were Willie the Lion Smith, Fats Waller, and James P. Johnson. Johnson was considered the greatest of the three. He was a formidable piano soloist, supportive accompanist, and writer of hit songs. Kevin says a new box set shows off James P. Johnson’s technique, drive and versatility.

In June 1970, Miles Davis played four nights at New York’s rock palace Fillmore East–following earlier appearances that year, there and at San Francisco’s Fillmore West. Four sets of that June music are now out in full for the first time. Jazz Critic Kevin Whitehead says, the jazz trumpeter had gone to the Fillmore in search of a new audience: 

It messed jazz people up, the music Miles Davis made in 1970, like the four sets recorded that June now issued complete on “Miles at the Fillmore.” Two years earlier he’d been leading one of the most beloved jazz bands ever—the one with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. Then he went electric. Instead of playing jazz clubs, now he was playing tokids who came out to hear the rock bands he split bills with. As one of those rock kids who saw Miles at the Fillmore in 1970, I gotta admit, the music was too weird for me. But later I could not stop thinking about it.

Professor Jaki Byard’s Pre-Postmodern Piano

by Kevin Whitehead 

When Jaki Byard was with Charles Mingus in the 1960s, audiences would laugh when, mid-solo, Byard would burst into 1920s-style stride piano — the revved-up ragtime offshoot where the left hand bounds back and forth over the lower half of the keyboard. Its archaic quality struck listeners as comic — in that avant-garde age, stride was for antiquarians.

Nowadays every hip outside or inside pianist will drop a little stride science once in awhile — like Fred Hersch or Jason Moran or Eric Lewis, all of whom studied with Byard. But in the ’60s you might have mistaken his style for mere pastiche: some Willie “The Lion” Smith stride, a bit of Erroll Garner‘s quasi-guitar-strum left hand, a few Cecil Taylor thunderbolts (the last on “Trendsition Zildjian“).

By the 1980s and ’90s, jazz had gone postmodern — musicians dipped into the past to honor the masters, or in search of useful solutions that had fallen by the wayside. Byard, with his throwback tendencies, suddenly looked like an early jazz postmodernist — a style-hopping collagist before his time. In the ’80s, Byard was leading a shaggy, slightly retro big band, the Apollo Stompers. He still made solo and trio records — but his boom period as pianist was the ’60s.

Jaki Byard (1922-1999) had come up in Boston, and belatedly broke through nationally via a spate of 1960 recordings, with Maynard Ferguson‘s big band, reedist Eric Dolphy (the excellent Outward Bound and Far Cry) and trumpeterDon Ellis (How Time Passes).

In December 1960 he cut his debut Blues for Smoke, but the Candid label went belly-up before its release. (It didn’t come out in the U.S. till the ’80s.) It showed just how seriously he took older styles — the music’s laced with stride bass, two-beat rhythms, venerable New York and Kansas City blues licks, and other early-20th century influences: parts of “Spanish Tinge” No. 1″ sound indebted to Darius Milhaud‘s exquisite Brazilian-tinged pieces.

Byard really did hark back to 1920s piano professors who showed off their education, expressive range, playful confidence, and sturdy attack and timing every time they sat on the bench. Just ’cause you’re serious doesn’t mean you can’t have fun proving it. On “Blues for Smoke,” Jaki plays right-hand tremolo chords against a melody pounded out in bass octaves; on the last chorus, the old profs ‘smashed clusters of notes sound as modern as Thelonious Monk. A fresh breeze blows through it all: no cobwebs on these blues.

The 1961 follow-up Here’s Jaki is an oddly overlooked treasure. Bassist Ron Carter and drummer Roy Haynes are peerless in support, with deep grooves that don’t crowd the pianist. Their parts interlock. On the 5/4 “Cinco y Quatro,” Jaki plays five even beats with one hand and improvises colloquially with the other, while Carter plays a Cuban-bump bass lick and Haynes a more mechanical syncopation: a beautiful clockwork. Carter and Haynes are forceful and stealthy on a medium blues, “Mellow Septet,” where Byard stacks up against cerulean contemporaries like Red Garland and Wynton Kelly.

“Garnerin ‘a Bit” is a fond homage to Erroll Garner — the left-hand strumming, the “hammer-ons” and cross-rhythms — but Byard never forgets he’s playing a role; he’ll let the mask slip, to let his own considerable blues cunning out. He plays Coltrane’s harmonically roving “Giant Steps” and makes it sound easy — but didn’t the old profs change key all the time to show off?

Byard didn’t make any bad records in the ’60s, but those twin debuts were hard to beat. He played a bunch of instruments — guitar, saxes, vibes, drums — and liked to trot them out on records like Freedom Together!, but none of them could keep up with his piano. (That said, his Charlie Parker impression on alto sax on a 1966 “Second Balcony Jump” is pretty funny.) He also made some excellent records with tenorist Booker Ervin I’ve written about elsewhere.

One of the pianist’s best, from 1968, The Jaki Byard Experience, featured another adventurous musician with a broad historical view, fire-breathing saxophonistRahsaan Roland Kirk (along with two of Byard’s prime rhythm partners, bassistRichard Davis and Boston drummer Alan Dawson). On a frenzied reading of Bud Powell‘s “Parisian Thoroughfare” you don’t what will come hurtling at you next, or where from. Kirk plays a forceful version of a Monk tune with tricky timing even for Monk, “Evidence” — all the trickier with Jaki behind him playing “Just You, Just Me,” the tune’s it based on. (Such superimpositions are an old Mingus stunt.) They saunter through Eubie Blake‘s 1930 “Memories of You.” It’s all as boisterous as a beer bash.

In the ’70s, Byard toured with Mingus again, and taught at the New England Conservatory (a professor for real now), and first teamed up with a modern Boston saxophonist with a big old furry sound and swagger, Ricky Ford. Later Ford put Jaki into another notable rhythm section, with bassist Milt Hinton and Monk’s old drummer Ben Riley. Hinton’s old school slap bass was right up Byard’s alley. I’m partial to the quartet’s live in 1990 Ebony Rhapsody, for the swinging-Liszt title track, quality blues, and Jaki playing “Blue Monk” behind Ford’s “Rocks-in-My-Bed”-like “Red, Crack and Blue.” Of Byard’s later piano showcases, a standout is 1991′s Live at Maybeck, where his Monk medley acknowledges a pianistic fellow traveler By now younger pianists like Marcus Roberts were striving to master the stride idiom. Byard’s mastery of the old stride and rumba and blues patterns was undiminished. His playing might be less manic, but hardly sedate. You might argue there’s a sense of a summing up in the rippling rumbling tour de force “European Episode” which breaks into stride, stomp, waltz or mazurka dance rhythms — if it wasn’t a tune he’d recorded 30 years earlier on Blues for Smoke. No new tricks for this old professor. He knew ‘em all before he turned 40.