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A Take Five Tribute to the 2022 NEA Jazz Masters

What better way to celebrate our latest class of NEA Jazz Masters — Billy Hart, Stanley Clarke, Cassandra Wilson and Donald Harrison, Jr. — than with their music?

Cassandra Wilson, "Last Song (For Lester)"

Cassandra Wilson - "Last Song (For Lester)"

Poignancy and longing have always been powerful expressive tools for Cassandra Wilson. A singer with a deep-earth connection to American music, she invokes the jazz tradition in perpetual dialogue with Southern folkways, Delta blues, and Afro-Caribbean Yoruba ritual. Those tangled root systems inform Wilson's music at every turn, and especially when she engages in musical tribute, as on "Last Song (For Lester)," which closes her 2015 album Coming Forth by Day. Inspired by the deep bond between Billie Holiday and Lester Young, it assumes Lady Day's voice, in mourning. Wilson explains the premise at the top of this video, which Jazz Night in America filmed in concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Joined by sympathetic musicians like violinist Charlie Burnham and pianist Jon Cowherd, Wilson notes that Holiday didn't have her chance to bid Young a proper farewell: "We wrote this song for her to sing for him now."

Billy Hart, "Oceans of Time"

Oceans of Time

Few musicians active on the scene are as roundly deserving of the title "Jazz Master" as drummer-composer-bandleader Billy Hart. His career spans more than 60 years, stretching back to early sideman work with Shirley Horn and Jimmy Smith, up through historic stints with Mwandishi and Quest, and into his stature as an elder statesman. "Oceans of Time" is the title track of an album he recorded in 1996, with an ensemble that included John Stubblefield and Chris Potter on saxophones, Mark Feldman on violin, and David Fiuzynski on electric guitar. It's an ethereal yet durable composition that brings out the best in everyone — not just on the original recording, but also on a more recent version by The Cookers, a supergroup that appears again below.

Stanley Clarke, "Vulcan Princess (Live at at Electric Lady Studios, June 1976)"

Vulcan Princess (Live at at Electric Lady Studios, New York City, NY - June 1976)

Stanley Clarke is rightly known for a range of achievements, including his fruitful partnership with George Duke, his prolific film scoring career, and his charter role in Return to Forever. There's no single track to sum all of that up, so we'll go instead with a powder-keg version of "Vulcan Princess" that Clarke recorded at Electric Lady Studios in 1976, with James Tinsley and Al Harrison on trumpet, Raymond Gomez on guitar, David Sancious on keyboards, and Gerry Brown on drums. A foundational text of jazz-rock (also known as fusion), this piece has vaulting harmony, an upwelling crescendo, and a taste of Clarke's dazzling slap bass technique.

Donald Harrison, "Nouveau Swing"

Nouveau Swing

Donald Harrison, Jr., recipient of the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy, has long been a fearless advocate for the music, in word and deed. He's known to many as Big Chief of the Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group, like his father before him; that identity is inseparable from his work as a jazz musician. And it informs the hybrid Harrison calls "nouveau swing" — a synthesis we discussed in 2019, when he released an instrumental take on the viral hit "Old Town Road." As you may recall, Harrison rolled out the phrase with an album by that name, in 1997. Here's the title cut, which supports a catchy melody with a streetwise but swinging beat furnished by bassist Christian McBride and drummer Carl Allen. (Anthony Wonsey is on piano.) When else has a manifesto also been such a bop?

The Cookers, "Cat's Out of the Bag"

The Cookers - Cat's Out The Bag

Finally, an acknowledgment: just how often is it that two members of the same NEA Jazz Masters class are band mates? I'm referring of course to Billy Hart and Donald Harrison, Jr., who are both in the active roster of The Cookers, the aforementioned all-star group. Last year the band released Look Out!— an album recorded at Van Gelder Studios, and another object lesson in the soulful verities of hard-bop. Harrison takes the first solo on "Cat's Out of the Bag," a composition by bassist and band member Cecil McBee. The second solo is by trumpeter Eddie Henderson, Hart's old comrade in Mwandishi. And speaking of Hart: he may not step into the spotlight on this track, but his energy flows through every measure, as always.

The NEA Jazz Masters tribute concert takes place on Thursday at 10:30 p.m. ET. Listen at WBGO 88.3FM, or here at wbgo.org.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.