WBGO Blog
  • As 2016 Winds Down, Remembering The Jazz Giants We Lost

    December 2, 2016

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    Toots Thielemans onstage at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands in 2005. (Image Credit: Rick Nederstigt/AFP/Getty Images)

    2016 has been a time of great loss for music: Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Sharon Jones all passed away this year, just to name a few. The jazz world was no exception. Christian McBride, host of Jazz Night In America, joined NPR's Audie Cornish to discuss the lives and legacies of three jazz giants who we lost in 2016 — Toots Thielemans, Victor Bailey and Bobby Hutcherson.

    All three musicians were known for unusual decisions that paid off. Thielemans was a jazz harmonica player who became known for crossover moments like his feature on the Billy Joel song "Have a Tender Moment Alone." Bailey, a jazz fusion pioneer, worked with pop artists like Sting, Madonna and Lady Gaga. And Hutcherson carved out a place in jazz history on an unexpected instrument — the vibraphone.

    McBride recalls how Bailey made an immediate mark when he replaced the virtuosic Jaco Pastorius as bassist in the fusion band Weather Report. "Not only did he fill those big shoes, but he carved those shoes out to fit his own feet," McBride says. "Victor ... said, 'Hey, I'm here. This is my gig now, and you are going to love me.'"

    As for Thielemens and Hutcherson, McBride praises their ability to break into the jazz mainstream on relatively unpopular instruments. "They were dedicated to melodies and beautiful chords and telling the story," he says. "And when you can do that, it doesn't matter what instrument you play."

    McBride shared these and other stories about the late icons. Hear the full conversation at the audio link.

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

  • George Coleman Jr. Chats with Rhonda Hamilton

    December 2, 2016. Posted by Corey Goldberg.

    Drummer George Coleman Jr. stops by to talk about the musical legacy of his parents, saxophonist George Coleman and bassist-organist Gloria Coleman.

  • Riza and Marcus Printup on Salon Sessions with Sheila Anderson

    December 2, 2016. Posted by Corey Goldberg.

    How did Marcus Printup start playing the trumpet? What made Riza Printup realize that the harp can swing? And just how did they end up kindling a romance that resulted in marriage and a musical children's book? They tell these tales and more to Sheila Anderson on this Salon Session.

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  • Why Mary Halvorson Sounds Like No Other Guitarist

    November 27, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

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    Mary Halvorson's latest album, Away With You, is a collection of octets. (Image Credit: Peter Gannushkin/Courtesy of the artist)

    When you see Mary Halvorson on stage, she doesn't look like much of a trailblazer. She plays sitting down. She's small, and mostly hidden behind her hollow-body guitar and glasses. But then she starts to play. And the sounds coming out of her amp are anything but conventional.

    "I do like things that are unexpected," Halvorson says. "I often don't like music that's predictable, so you know what's coming next. I like to throw in things that maybe are a little less predictable."

    Over the past decade, the 36-year-old guitarist and composer has found increasing attention and acclaim, leading her own groups in the man's world of jazz and wielding her instrument so distinctively, one music journalist described her approach as "anti-guitar." She insists that is not intentional.

    "I'm not really thinking about being weird, if that makes sense?" she says. "I'm just trying to play some music I like. And it often comes out weird."

    Halvorson discovered the electric guitar when she was 11, growing up in Brookline, Massachusetts. But she went to college at Wesleyan University in Connecticut planning to be a biologist. Then she walked into a music class taught by Anthony Braxton, the MacArthur "genius" grant-winning composer and saxophonist.

    "And I was just so bowled over by him and his music that I ended up dropping all the science classes within the first semester," she says. "Within my first year, I thought, 'I can't not do this.'"

    Halvorson says Braxton encouraged her to find her own voice on the guitar. "He's so excited about everything, and encouraging people to explore," she says. "It made you feel like there were unlimited possibilities." (She still performs in Braxton's band.)

    After graduation, Halvorson moved to New York. At first, she worked in an office by day and played at night, but music has been her full-time job for nearly 10 years. And she works a lot, both as a leader and in bands led by other people — including the Young Philadelphians, with veteran guitarist Marc Ribot.

    "Mary kicks ass, you know? Let there be no doubt about it," Ribot says. "She can play atonally. She can play poly-tonally. She can find the melodies that are inherent in the piece, and develop them, and work with them, and play them upside down and backwards and inside out."

    Halvorson's latest album is a collection of octets called Away With You, with featured collaborators including pedal steel player Susan Alcorn, cellist Tomeka Reid and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock. Halvorson says she sees more and more women on the bandstand all the time.

    "Which is amazing," she says. "I mean, it's not uncommon now for me to play in bands where women outnumber men. I think there's a real momentum, and things are starting to shift."

    But it's still not all that common to see a young woman leading a jazz band. Halvorson says her philosophy as a leader is to give musicians the freedom to make their own choice, in much the same way that she found her own voice on the guitar.

    "For me it's more a matter of just trusting my instincts, even if you have a really simple idea — just, 'OK, I like this, I'm gonna play' — and not worrying too much about what it is, what it sounds like, or doesn't sound like," she says. So I try as much as I can to play what I like, and trust what I like."

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

  • For Thanksgiving, A Chain Of Musical Gratitude

    November 24, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

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    Clockwise from left: Corey King, Esperanza Spalding, Laura Mvula, Michaela Anne. (Image Credit: Courtesy of the artists)

    For the second year in a row, the annual All Things Considered Thanksgiving music chat is a multi-part conversation. Host Ari Shapiro welcomes four musicians, each of whom was named by one of his or her fellow guests as an artist to be thankful for.

    The chain begins with Shapiro's pick: British soul singer-songwriter Laura Mvula. Hear all four interviews at the audio link on this page, and read excerpts below.

    Laura Mvula

    On the song "Phenomenal Woman": "I was listening to a YouTube clip of Maya Angelou reciting her poem 'Phenomenal Woman,' and even though I had heard the poem many times before, this was the first time that ... I breathed the words in and took them very much to heart and mind. And then this was my response. It's an anthem for women, and I feel like I get to celebrate my grandmother. I get to celebrate my mom, my sister and my own womanhood in that song."

    On performing "Cinnamon Tree" with Esperanza Spalding: "I had the pleasure of dueting this song in concert with her in London one time. ... This is off of her record which was a couple of years old, and so I think she said to me, 'Girl, I've forgotten how to play this tune.' ... And then she picked up the bass and just played it like she played it yesterday. I was like, 'Whatever.'"

    Esperanza Spalding

    On the song "Cinnamon Tree": "I wrote that song for a friend of mine ... We used to hang out a lot, but we would see each other really rarely. And we started to develop these kind of shorthand check-ins, since we had so little time with each other. And one of them became 'Cinnamon Tree.' It was just a phrase to mean, 'I miss you' or 'There you are' or 'I'm happy to see you.' ... We had never described what that term actually meant, so I decided I was going to write a song to describe what we were actually saying. So it's actually a song about gratitude and friendship."

    On Corey King: "I first met Corey King when he was known as a trombonist and a part-time arranger, and at that time, Corey was a very, very shy person, but I always felt this twinkle in his eye. He seemed like somebody who's figured out a secret that you're still working on, but he's generous enough that he's not going to reveal it, you know? And I just felt this magnetism to his intellect and his creativity ... His music doesn't sound like anything that I am familiar with."

    Corey King

    On the song "Midnight Chris": "That song is about my brother, and him kind of struggling with drug abuse in the past. And the ambient sounds of that was my way of soundtracking his experience with those things. ... We grew up on the southeast side of Houston actually, and we weren't really an athletic family — we were more artistic. ... So I think he was just kind of dealing with being himself in the South. And he just kind of succumbed to drugs back in the day and went through a lot."

    On Michaela Anne: "Coming from high school and going to college and everything, I was just really, really inside of myself. And Michaela was one of the people who was so loving and generous, and we really became good friends during that time. And we didn't really make much music in college, but when she started making records and when I started hearing her sing, I was really blown away by her poetry and just her presence."

    Michaela Anne

    On her chosen style of music: "I sang jazz in school, and I love that art form so much, but it never felt true for me delivering it. So I think in my writing, as well as my actual singing voice, that it just lent itself to — although it's a blurry genre these days — to country, Americana, whatever you want to call it."

    On the artist she's thankful for: "I don't sing soul music in the way that we think of soul music as the genre, but Otis Redding's singing and music has been, from a young age, a really strong influence and inspiration to me ... I think he has one of the greatest voices we've ever had the pleasure of hearing on this earth, and it conveys so much emotion and love and pain and joy. And as a singer and a songwriter, my goal in life is to be able to convey even a fraction of what I think he does and what I feel when I listen to him."

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