The NEA Jazz Masters program, now in its 35th year, has been an engine of prestige in our culture: It's still the nation's highest honor reserved for living jazz musicians. In advance of this year's ceremony and concert, which will be live-streamed from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., we're devoting this edition of Take Five to the incoming class of NEA Jazz Masters, who represent a healthy range of styles.
Dr. Lonnie Smith, "Play It Back"
"Dr. Lonnie Smith is the last man standing," declares Bob Porter, the author of Soul Jazz. Dr. Smith, the Hammond B-3 organ maestro, is a griot with stories left to tell, and still evolving. Music first got a hold on him when he heard "Cryin' In The Chapel" in the family church in Buffalo, New York. He'll tell you stories of backing Motown groups, simmering new sounds with George Benson, and getting alligators to boogaloo with Lou Donaldson. And you could tell Dr. Lonnie Smith knew every room where the walls would sweat. This is a new take on his tune "Play It Back," from Evolution, released on Blue Note last year. Listen to how the Doctor spurs his players — including pianist Robert Glasper, saxophonist John Ellis and trumpeter Keyon Harrold — into a high gear, making them eager to prove they're as hip as the master drivin' this whip. It's what a Jazz Master does. — Gary Walker
Dee Dee Bridgewater with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, "The Great One"
Delving into her roots seems to be a recent theme for Dee Dee Bridgewater. Her 2007 album Red Earth explored her African and Malian ancestry, while her latest, Dee Dee's Feathers, touches on her Southern origins. But in 1975, Bridgewater was discovering who she was at that moment: A mother, a Broadway star about to win a Tony Award, a girl singer with a band. And her most important journey was through her instrument. In the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis album Suite for Pops, she solos on "The Great One," transforming her voice into every seat in the band. It's got soul, it's got range, it swings — the perfect illustration of who she would become. — Amy Niles
Ira Gitler: John Coltrane, "Russian Lullaby"
Ira Gitler, the veteran critic who holds this year's A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy, has had a world of experience covering the music — on the radio as well as on the page, and in the liner notes for literally hundreds of albums.
It was in his liner essay for Soultrane, the 1958 John Coltrane album on Prestige, that Gitler famously coined the term "sheets of sound," in reference to the fast flurry of notes that Coltrane would unfurl as he raced through a chord progression. This track, a breakneck version of Irving Berlin's "Russian Lullaby," closes that album with a letter-perfect illustration of the term. (It's also offered here as a nod to Gitler's longtime support of the Russian jazz scene.) — Nate Chinen
Dave Holland Quartet, "Conference of the Birds"
“Dave Holland always sounds like he’s been practicing,” a friend once told me. The bassist has been puncturing sonic textures thick and thin since he was scouted by Miles Davis in the late 1960s. Throughout his career, Holland has been keen on marimba or vibraphone in place of a piano, which gives his music an air of patience. Consider his first album as a leader, Conference of the Birds, released in 1972 on ECM. He’d just come off from working with Chick Corea’s Circle project, a band that introduced the bassist to drummer Barry Altschul and an experimental saxophonist named Sam Rivers. Adding another adventurous reedsman, Anthony Braxton, Holland made the album an avant-garde opus. It met with critical acclaim, and its title track foreshadowed decades of imaginative work. — Alex Ariff
Dick Hyman, "Maple Leaf Rag"
Dick Hyman, who recently turned 90, is celebrated as a piano virtuoso with a sweeping grasp of the art form. He's also a natural and convivial historian of the music, a role he refined over his 20 years with Jazz in July at the 92nd Street Y. Those two identities have often converged in his career — never more clearly than in this performance of Scott Joplin's canonical "Maple Leaf Rag." Recorded in 1975, when Hyman was at the helm of the New York Jazz Repertory Company, it breathes fresh life into the old tune, with crisp rhythmic brio. It's no accident that this is the track that opens Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology, issued in 2011. — N.C.