kevin whitehead

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews Magic 201, the last album from jazz flutist and saxophonist Frank 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.”

Guaraldi was fascinated by boogie-woogie when he was young, and that rumbling left-hand bass part is boogie modernized and streamlined. He wasn’t a super-virtuoso, but he was a great piano stylist who favored a pared-down, singing line, and loved to swing. His fingers were short, but they’d sprint up the keys. Guaraldi would also slip up to the good notes from below, like another great midcentury piano stylist, Nashville’s Floyd Cramer.

- Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead: Vince Guaraldi Didn’t Just Play For ‘Peanuts’

Fresh Air’s jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews two albums from Ronald Shannon Jackson & The Decoding Society that are now available for download, having been out of print for ages: 

Ronald Shannon Jackson like other ’80s composers abstracted looping structures from West Africa’s intersecting rhythm cycles. His tune “Iola” is built in layers: the basses play different lines, one twice as long as the other, as a horn melody moves in slow motion over the top. Vernon Reid plays banjo, African American instrument rarely heard in creative music, because of uncool associations with minstrelsy and dixieland. But its thin percussive snap cuts through and helps keep the texture transparent. 

Listen to the full review

image via Jazz Forum 

Fresh Air critic Kevin Whitehead celebrates drummer Kenny Clarke’s incredible contribution to jazz:

January 9th marks the 100th birthday of drummer Kenny Clarke. One of the founders of bebop, Clarke is less well-known than allies like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, but his influence is just as deep.

That thing that jazz drummers do — that ching-chinga-ching beat on the ride cymbal, like sleigh bells? It gives the music a light, airy, driving pulse. Clarke came up with that, and that springy shimmer came to epitomize swinging itself.

Before him, jazz drummers kept time lightly on the bass drum. Kenny Clarke used bass drum sparingly, often tethered to his snare, for dramatic accents in odd places — what jazz folk call “dropping bombs.” He drew on his playing for stage shows, where drummers punctuate the action with split-second timing. Clarke kicked a band along.

image via drumlessons

Fresh Air jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews Booker Ervin’s album “The Book Cooks” :

Tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin came to New York in 1958. Pianist Horace Parlan heard him and invited Ervin to sit in one night with a band he worked in. That’s how Ervin got hired by bassist Charles Mingus, who featured him on albums like Blues and Roots and Mingus Ah Um. Before long, Ervin was making his own records, like The Book Cooks, which has just been reissued on the re-revived Bethlehem label.

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Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album from drummer Barry Altschul:

The 3dom Factor is the sort of comeback album that reminds you how much good music the artist made the first time around. Half the tunes are catchy Altschul oldies. The drummer had already bonded with his telepathically simpatico bassist Joe Fonda in a co-op trio with the late violinist Billy Bang. Fonda is as perfect for Altschul now as bassist Dave Holland was in the ‘70s, which is saying a lot.

Image courtesy of TUM Records

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews Joe Lovano’s new album Bird Songs: Bird Songs makes the implicit point that everyone in modern jazz draws on Charlie Parker some kind of way…. Joe Lovano pours it all into his own touching, sweetly melancholy sound. Retooling Parker tunes, he confirms the way to honor an innovator is not by being a copycat, but by finding your own voice.

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

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

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.”

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.”

‘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.”

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.”

Composer Henry Threadgill has (just) won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Music, for last year’s album In for a Penny, In For a Pound. It was played by the quintet Zooid, with the composer on alto saxophone and flutes. Henry Threadgill doesn’t play on his new suite for eight musicians, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs. But jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it’s a perfect introduction to Threadgill’s voice as composer—almost a crash course in his music.

Hear the review.

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.

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.

Critic Kevin Whitehead says alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, nicknamed Bird, was one of the single most influential jazz musicians. It wasn’t just other horn players who started phrasing like him, starting in the 1940s—pianists, drummers and everyone else did too. Now a batch of previously unknown Parker performances from 1949 to ’52 is out. Whitehead says

“This new batch of Parker scraps and alternate takes has kicked up a spirited debate among jazz watchers: do they reveal anything new about a great musician who’s already so extensively documented? For other fans, the reaction is less complicated: you mean, 60 years after he died, now we have more Charlie Parker?

Despite one famously disastrous recording date, and his self-medication with alcohol and heroin, Bird could be amazingly consistent on record. He sounds so poised and polished you could miss his brilliance; he makes improvising on the highest level seem too easy, even at crazy tempos. It’s hard to think that fast every second, and Parker had pet licks he’d insert into a solo, giving him time to plot his next move. But every improvisation was freshly conceived.”

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.