Kevin Whitehead

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

Whitehead's articles on jazz and improvised music have appeared in such publications as Point of Departure, the Chicago Sun-Times, Village Voice, Down Beat, and the Dutch daily de Volkskrant.

He is the author of Why Jazz: A Concise Guide (2010), New Dutch Swing (1998), and (with photographer Ton Mijs) Instant Composers Pool Orchestra: You Have to See It (2011).

His essays have appeared in numerous anthologies including Da Capo Best Music Writing 2006, Discover Jazz and Traveling the Spaceways: Sun Ra, the Astro-Black and Other Solar Myths.

Whitehead has taught at Towson University, the University of Kansas and Goucher College. He lives near Baltimore.

Jazz reflects who we are as a people — democracy in action and all that. But a jazz tune or solo is also a portrait of the musician who makes it; the music reflects the particular background and training that influences how composers compose and improvisers improvise. Jason Kao Hwang makes that autobiographical component explicit throughout his extended composition for eight pieces, Burning Bridge. His parents made the move from China around the end of WWII, and he grew up attending Presbyterian services in suburban Chicago.

Vocalist Bessie Smith's musical career, spanning 1923-33, has been collected in a new 10-CD box set, Bessie Smith: The Complete Columbia Recordings.

This review was originally broadcast on Sept. 26, 2012.

Jazz multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers, who died at 88 in December 2011, recorded with many trios in the 1970s. But his most celebrated trio was barely recorded at all. In 2007, it played a reunion concert — its first in 26 years.

In the 1970s and '80s, George Cables was the pianist of choice for saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper; Pepper called him his favorite pianist.

Teaching jazz history got trumpeter Ron Miles deep into the pleasures of early jazz, with its clarity of form and emphasis on melodic improvising that doesn't wander far from the tune.

Jazz multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers, who died at 88 in December 2011, recorded with many trios in the 1970s. But his most celebrated trio was barely recorded at all. In 2007, it played a reunion concert — its first in 26 years.

There must have been times in 1963, when Vince Guaraldi was riding high on his surprise hit "Cast Your Fate to the Wind," when he thought, "This is what I'll be remembered for." Not that he minded. He said taking requests for the tune was like signing the back of a check. The song's got a great hook tied to a poppy, uplifting chord sequence.

At this point, there's nothing special about jazz musicians playing post-Beatles pop: It's just the new normal. But one of the trendsetters on that score was pianist Brad Mehldau and his versions of Radiohead and Nick Drake tunes. Now, Mehldau's trio has a new covers album out.

The new quartet album by alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón and pianist Laurent Coq is called Rayuela, which means "hopscotch." It's named for Julio Cortázar's novel, the fragmented tale of a wandering bohemian and his social circles in Parisian exile, as well as back home in Buenos Aires.

Saxophonist Jan Garbarek was a teenage protege of American composer George Russell in Norway in the 1960s and later played in Keith Jarrett's Scandinavian quartet. More recently, he has collaborated with the vocal quartet the Hilliard Ensemble, improvising as they sing medieval music.

Gil Evans, born a century ago this year, was a leading jazz arranger and composer starting in the 1940s, when he wrote for big bands. He helped organize Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool sessions, then arranged Davis' celebrated orchestra albums like Sketches of Spain. Evans, who had his own big bands that went electric in the 1970s and '80s, died in 1991, but some of his rare music has been newly recorded.

Many jazz musicians, the kind who wear jackets and ties on stage, are often carelessly referred to as playing bebop. In reality most of them are post-boppers, who build on that dynamic style that burst forth after World War II, without bringing it back in pure form. It's the rare modernist who gets an authentic bebop sound on alto saxophone, who catches some of the raw explosiveness and rapid-fire grace of jazz god Charlie Parker. And then there's Jesse Davis.

The jazz musician Ravi Coltrane, 47, didn't make his burden any lighter by choosing to play tenor and soprano saxophones — the same instruments his father, John Coltrane, indelibly stamped with his influence.

Ravi knew early he needed his own voice. On tenor, he has his own ways of bending and inflecting a note, applying flexible vibrato. Even when his noble sound bears witness to his heritage, Ravi Coltrane can draw on his father's language and make it his own.

In a good jazz rhythm section, the players function independently and as one. Their parts and accents crisscross and reinforce each other, interlocking like West African drummers. Beyond that, the bass is a band's ground floor. When it changes up, the earth shifts under all the players' feet. From moment to moment, Linda Oh's bass prowls or gallops, takes giant downward leaps, or stands its ground.

Ray Anderson's Pocket Brass Band is about watch-pocket size: With three horns and drums, it couldn't get much smaller. On its new Sweet Chicago Suite, Anderson makes what the group does sound easy. Just write some catchy, bluesy tunes and then have the band blast them out.

The Colombian harpist Edmar Castañeda was born in Bogotá, and began playing at 13. A few years later, in the mid-1990s, he moved to New York, where he studied jazz trumpet. Then he returned to the harp with a new perspective and set of skills.

Drummer Mike Reed put together his quartet People, Places and Things to play music by their 1950s forebears. But it makes sense that, after a few years together, they'd also play later pieces, tracking the evolution of Chicago jazz on a new album titled Clean on the Corner. One dividend of their repertory work is that it inspires Reed to write his own tunes in the same spirit, like "The Lady Has a Bomb."

The death of a great musician ripples through the jazz community. It's a special loss to those improvisers we might call immediate survivors: working partners who'll miss that special interaction with a singular musician.

Violinist Jenny Scheinman's band and new album are both called Mischief and Mayhem. The record was made just after her quartet played a week at the Village Vanguard, but despite the jazz cred of regular Vanguard appearances, their stylistically fluid music draws on a lot of traditions.

Writing about Clark Terry in the past, I've grumbled that this great and distinctive trumpeter had long been stereotyped as a pixie-ish jazz jester. There's more range and deep blues feeling to his sound than that. It wasn't all sweetness when he was growing up poor in St. Louis, touring in the Deep South before WWII or breaking the color line with TV orchestras in 1960.

After Dave Brubeck signed with Columbia Records in the mid-1950s, his quartet made a few albums a year, and now that material has been collected in a 19-disc box set called The Dave Brubeck Quartet: The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection.

Brooklyn drummer Matt Wilson keeps busy with many bands and projects — other people's and his own. Two new Wilson albums find him as part of a co-op all-star trio, and at the helm of one of his own quartets. Part of Wilson's appeal is that he keeps things light, in a good way.

In 1974, trumpeter Jimmy Owens helped prepare and played on a Carnegie Hall concert of Thelonious Monk's music. On the night in question, the orchestra featured a surprise soloist: Monk himself. It was one of the pianist's last public performances.

It's been more than a decade since clarinetist François Houle and pianist Benoît Delbecq's previous recording, but Because She Hoped proves that they can a strike a mood together quickly. That quiet, misterioso air is one specialty, conjuring a dream state: a slow-motion sleepwalk.

There's a nice contrast among the three quintets heard on Dave Douglas' Three Views, sketching out some of his interests. There's no overlapping repertoire or personnel. The Orange Afternoons session features the elastic rhythm trio of pianist Vijay Iyer, Linda Oh on bass and drummer Marcus Gilmore.

Jazz has long been a staple of European television programming. American musicians on tour frequently turn up on the tube, caught live or in a studio. That's partly because such shows are relatively cheap to produce, and because jazz makes for good cultural programming.

Most of the material from Live in Europe 1967 has surfaced before — the set is subtitled The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1 — but the Belgian concert that performance comes from makes its debut here. This Miles Davis quintet was consistently amazing, not least on its last big tour, when Davis' trumpet chops were in good shape.

Jazz has always drawn on the syncopated rhythms of Cuban music, and occasionally draws on other new world strains, like Brazilian bossa nova in the 1960s. But that interaction between North and South is ongoing.

Julius Hemphill's "Dogon A.D." — the 15-minute piece, and the album that's named for it — was one of the startling jazz recordings of the 1970s, a rethinking of possibilities open to the avant-garde. In the 1960s, free jazz was mostly loud and bashing, until some Chicagoans began playing a more open, quieter improvised music. That inspired St. Louis players like Hemphill, who also had ties to heartland rhythm-and-blues scenes. Hemphill's genius was to combine the Chicagoans' dramatically spare sound with a heavy backbeat. His new urban music smacked of old country blues.

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