WCSU

Nate Chinen

The Branford Marsalis Quartet had been rampaging at the Village Vanguard for over an hour — in full burnout mode, practically rattling the pictures on the walls — when its leader swerved unexpectedly into a softer mode. Channeling his best Ben Webster warble on the tenor saxophone, Branford closed the set with a songbook ballad, "Sweet Lorraine." For those in the room who recognized its gladsome melody, the implicit dedication rang clear.

Harold Mabern has never had any hang-ups about not being the center of attention. "I get joy out of being an accompanist," the pianist affirms, likening himself to an offensive lineman on a football team. "When you can do something to make the soloist happy and proud," he says plainly, "you've done your job."

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.


There's a tension in Joshua Redman's new album, Still Dreaming, and it may not be the one that you expect.

It isn't typically news when a jazz group makes a change in personnel. But The Bad Plus isn't a typical jazz group, and its announcement, this time last year, landed like a bombshell. In short: Ethan Iverson, the band's pianist, would be leaving to pursue his own projects. Orrin Evans, an esteemed peer, would be stepping in. For a group that has always stood for musical collectivism — and never accepted any substitutions — this was a shakeup of existential proportions.

The following text was originally published alongside the live web stream of the 2018 NEA Jazz Masters, which took place on April 16. A recording of the event can now be viewed by clicking on the video above.

Milford Graves and Jason Moran were listening hard at the Big Ears Festival on Friday evening, and in this they were far from alone. Their spontaneous musical dialogue, onstage at the elegant Bijou Theater in Knoxville, Tenn., suggested a merging of the ancient and the ultramodern, aglow with an ephemeral sort of grace. At one point, Moran's deep, mournful sonorities at the piano led Graves toward a murmuring hush at the drums, as if anything else would break the spell.

Terence Blanchard has always been drawn to a form of lyricism that runs burnished and bittersweet. You can track this mood throughout his career as a post-bop trumpeter, and no less in his dozens of film scores, in and beyond a long affiliation with Spike Lee.

No jazz musician has ever been heard more on public radio than the late Marian McPartland, the host of NPR's Piano Jazz for more than 40 years. But for all her ubiquity, how well did we really know her?

Wayne Shorter didn't release any new music in 2017. But that's not to say the eminent saxophonist, composer and NEA Jazz Master had anything less than a banner year. In the spring he returned to Newark, for the first time in ages, as the honored guest of a festival at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

Every year around this time, the jazz community takes the measure of its highlights and bright moments — along with a tally of its losses. And while it's true that important jazz artists leave us every year, 2017 was tougher than most.

This was an excellent year for jazz on record, across every possible iteration of style. (If you're seeking evidence for the claim, consult the 2017 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll.) But it's always worth pointing out that albums only tell part of the story, which often assumes different dimensions at street level, where the music pulses in real time.

Robert Glasper's music is a study in convergences. A pianist, bandleader and composer with a strong foothold in modern jazz, he belongs no less to the terrain of contemporary gospel, alternative hip-hop — and R&B, the category under which he won his first two Grammy awards (of three). Glasper has carved a signature out of this cross-genre dialogue; consult his recent explainer for Jazz Night in America, about the jazz roots of some famous hip-hop samples.

One way or another, you've heard Grover Washington Jr.'s saxophone. Perhaps on "Mister Magic" or another of his instrumental hits, like "Winelight." Or on "Just the Two of Us," the smash hit featuring Bill Withers.

José James, the eclectic, groove-minded jazz singer, has made no secret of his fondness for Bill Withers. There's a medley that James has been singing in concert for years, linking Withers' despondent anthem "Ain't No Sunshine" with an upturning grace note, "Grandma's Hands."

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