WBGO Blog
  • Throwback Thursday: Five Great Jazz Tiny Desk Concerts

    April 28, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

    This Saturday, April 30, marks the fifth anniversary of International Jazz Day, a celebration organized by UNESCO to celebrate jazz across the globe. To do our part, we're highlighting some of our favorite jazz musicians to play behind Bob Boilen's desk. Rising stars, young virtuosos, NEA Jazz Masters and veteran ensembles alike have played in NPR's D.C. offices. Here are five standout jazz performances at the Tiny Desk.

    Preservation Hall Jazz Band

    What better place to start this list than with the birthplace of jazz? New Orleans' Preservation Hall Jazz Band plays in the traditional style of its city, a gumbo of gospel, street marching, blaring brass and so much more.

    Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah

    Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah was born in New Orleans and grew up playing with his uncle, saxophonist and Mardi Gras Indian Donald Harrison, Jr. His aesthetic vision, which he calls "Stretch Music," borrows across musical styles and blurs the elements into a unified whole. His music is also dedicated to protest, as in the ferocious number "K.K.P.D." You can hear the intensity of his purpose in every note he blows.

    Sun Ra Arkestra

    One of the greatest holidays in recent memory came after inviting the jazz astronauts of the Sun Ra Arkestra to play the Tiny Desk on Halloween 2014. Led by then-91 year old alto sax player Marshall Allen, the costumed cosmic explorers played a set that pushed the boundaries of tone and color. It's pretty out of this world.

    Edmar Castañeda

    When you think of jazz, the last instrument you might think of is the harp. But Colombian harpist Edmar Castañeda finds seamless ways of blending jazz melodies with Colombian folk rhythms.

    Gary Burton & Julian Lage

    Gary Burton is one of those undisputed masters on his instrument. He popularized the four mallet technique and brought an unheard harmonic approach to the vibraphone. He played with a tiny desk alumnus, guitar prodigy Julian Lage. The two spin tunes of pure beauty and dedicated an impromptu blues for Bob's Tiny Desk.

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

  • First Listen: Gregory Porter, 'Take Me To The Alley'

    April 28, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

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    Gregory Porter's new album, Take Me To The Alley, comes out May 6. (Image Credit: Shawn Peters/Courtesy of the artist)

    Last summer, the massively popular British electronic duo Disclosure released a new album, and chose a song called "Holding On" as its lead single. It performed well on the U.S. and U.K. dance charts and spawned no fewer than five official remixes. It also featured the vocals of Gregory Porter, which means it brought someone theretofore known as a jazz singer onto, for instance, the beaches of Ibiza.

    Full Disclosure: You won't get it here on Porter's new album. You will get a slower, acoustic, reharmonized version of "Holding On," arranged in the way Porter usually makes records. Other than a few supplemental musicians, Take Me To The Alley is driven by his working band of many years and the producer (Kamau Kenyatta) with whom he's worked since the 1990s. This is good, for that crew has developed a winning and popular formula, a pleasing summation of groove traditions where Porter's voice can overpower, manhandle, envelop and soothe, all at once.

    You'd have to mention Porter's songwriting in that equation, and that's featured a bit more than usual here. He's got a clever way with parable and metaphor, often to incite some kind of social comment, as with the compassion of the visiting dignitary in the title track or the pan-African call in "French African Queen." There's a song for Porter's young son ("Don't Lose Your Steam") and one about his young son ("Day Dream"). Porter has roots in the black church — his mother (the inspiration for "More Than A Woman") was a minister of the COGIC denomination — and "In Heaven" is a song his family sings to departed kin. Naturally, those gospel roots often transmutate into songs about various romances, and there's more than a handful of those songs here, too.

    Sonically, the band concocts a variety of pockets, both barnstorming and languid; there's little concern about fashion or complexity, just execution. And, of course, there's Porter's voice, which — what's left to say when the brawn/warmth dualism is so self-evident? Take Me To The Alley doesn't break new frontiers for Porter, nor for the genre delimiter he's said to represent, but those aren't the aesthetic ideals it seeks to reach. If forced, you'd call it pop-jazz, except it's the rare kind, with a simplicity unblemished by artistic compromise. Or maybe it's just that the now-familiar sound of his own design has become genuinely popular, even before Disclosure entered the picture, and it's a pleasure to see that sort of talent find its own way.

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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  • Beyond 'Mrs. Jones': Billy Paul's Music You Might Not Have Heard

    April 25, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

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    Billy Paul, the singer of "Me and Mrs. Jones" and other soul ballads, has died. He's seen here in 2006. (Image Credit: John M. Heller/Getty Images)

    Billy Paul, the soul singer whose smooth voice and impeccable phrasing made "Me and Mrs. Jones" into a classic, has died at age 80. A Philadelphia native whose name at birth was Paul Williams, the singer had reportedly suffered from cancer.

    Paul's manager, Beverly Gay, tells NBC10 in Philadelphia that the singer died Sunday morning. He had recently been diagnosed with cancer and was hospitalized last week, Gay says. She says Paul died at his home in Blackwood, N.J., southeast of Philadelphia.

    A message on Paul's website confirmed his death:

    "We would like to extend our most sincere condolences to his wife Blanche and family for their loss, as they and the world grieves the loss of another musical icon that helped pioneered today's R&B music. Billy will be truly missed."

    In 1972, Paul won a Grammy Award and topped the charts with "Me and Mrs. Jones," a plaintive ballad about an affair. Thanks in large part to his vocal range and silky delivery, the confessional song became a hit for the ages.

    Two things help explain Paul's unique vocal style: his early dreams of playing saxophone ("I took my uniqueness and treated it like a horn," he once said), and his emulation of female jazz singers such as Billie Holiday.

    "I think the reason behind that is because of my high range," he said on his website. "The male singers who had the same range I did, when I was growing up, didn't do much for me. But put on Nina Simone, Carmen McRae or Nancy Wilson, and I'd be in seventh heaven. Female vocalists just did more with their voices, and that's why I paid more attention to them."

    While he's most famous for singing about love, Paul made music that focused on many topics and drew on wide influences. Fellow Philadelphia native Questlove of The Roots has called Paul "one of the criminally unmentioned proprietors of socially conscious post-revolution '60s civil rights music."

    That quote comes from Paul's website, which posted a video clip in which Questlove compares Paul to Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

    "Nothing against those brothers," the drummer says, "but Billy Paul, in every aspect of his presentation, is really the first person to bring reality."

    Paul recorded more than a dozen albums; a list of highlight songs from those records could start with "Am I Black Enough For You" from 1972, when he sang:

    "We're gonna move on up
    Six by six; I gotta use my mind
    Instead of my fists"

    In 1976, Paul created a kind of mashup version of Paul McCartney's "Let Em In" that recast the song as a civil rights anthem, complete with samples from speeches by Malcolm X and other leaders.

    As part of the Philadelphia International All Stars, Paul sang alongside other soul legends — Lou Rawls and the O'Jays, among them — to record "Let's Clean Up the Ghetto."

    In 1979, he styled a plea for social harmony and stability into an upbeat disco number, with "Bring The Family Back."

    As a young talent, Paul studied at the West Philadelphia Music School and the Granoff School of Music. He was just 16 when he shared a bill with jazz legend Charlie Parker at a club in Philadelphia.

    "He died later that year," Paul said on his website. "I was there with him for a week and I learned what it would normally take two years to pick up. Bird told me if I kept struggling I'd go a long way, and I've never forgotten his words."

    In the 1950s, while serving in the Army in post-World War II Germany, Paul shared a post with Elvis Presley. But he said Presley wasn't interested in joining the jazz band he formed with Gary Crosby (Bing's son).

    "We were in Germany and we said we're going to start a band, so we didn't have to do any hard work in the service," he said on his website. "We tried to get Elvis to join but he wanted to be a jeep driver."

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

  • The Legacy Of The Benny Goodman Quartet

    April 21, 2016

    In the late 1930s, a bespectacled white man who played the clarinet was a teen idol. That was Benny Goodman, and he got to be that way from leading a quartet with Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa — one of jazz's first racially integrated bands. In a special stage show written by Geoffrey Ward and narrated by Wendell Pierce, a young band (Christian Sands, piano; Joel Ross, vibraphone; Sammy Miller, drums) with a rotating cast of clarinetists (Will Anderson, Peter Anderson, Patrick Bartley and Janelle Reichman) tells the whole story at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

    Jazz Night In America learns about the history of the Benny Goodman Quartet onstage from The Appel Room.

    Copyright 2016 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.

  • Prince, Musician And Iconoclast, Has Died At Age 57

    April 21, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

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    Prince performs at the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, Calif., in 1985. (Image Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

    Prince — the Purple One, who reeled off pop hits in four different decades — has died at age 57. The shocking news was confirmed by Prince's publicist after reports emerged that police were investigating a death at his Paisley Park estate outside of Minneapolis.

    Reporting from Paisley Park Thursday, Andrea Swensson tells Minnesota Public Radio that she was among a few dozen people who had gathered at Prince's estate after hearing of a death there — and that "even the journalists are hugging each other" after hearing that Prince has died.

    She added that no word has yet emerged about a possible cause of death.

    Swensson, who had met Prince and spent time with him as a part of a retrospective about his film Purple Rain, described his as being "shy, sensitive – and flirtatious."

    News of Prince's death emerged after police said they were investigating a death at his estate in Chanhassen, with the Carver County Sheriffs' Department saying that deputies were on the scene.

    Citing the musician's recent health problems, TMZ reports:

    "The singer — full name Prince Rogers Nelson — had a medical emergency on April 15th that forced his private jet to make an emergency landing in Illinois. But he appeared at a concert the next day to assure his fans he was okay. His people told TMZ he was battling the flu."

    Prince was just 19 years old when he released his first album, putting out For You in 1978. In the decades that followed, he went on to develop a unique sound and style that endeared him to generations of audiences – all while exploring new ground as an artist.

    His fifth album, 1999, exploded onto America's music scene. Released in 1983, it included hits like "Little Red Corvette" and "1999." It also set the stage for Purple Rain, the 1984 soundtrack album packed with songs such as "When Doves Cry" and "Let's Go Crazy" that became fixtures on the radio and established Prince as a pop culture icon.

    As Swensson wrote for MPR about Purple Rain for the film's 30th anniversary in 2014, "it grossed $7.7 million in its opening weekend, beating out Ghostbusters — and racked up comparisons to movies like the Beatles's Hard Day's Night and Citizen Kane in glowing reviews from major media outlets."

    Prince also won two Grammys and an Oscar (for Original Song Score) for Purple Rain. In 2007, he won a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song, for "The Song of the Heart" from Happy Feet.

    From 1985 to 2007, Prince won seven Grammy awards — most recently for "Future Baby Mama."

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.