Toast the 2019 NEA Jazz Masters, in Take Five

Apr 8, 2019

The National Endowment for the Arts inducts its 2019 Jazz Masters on April 15.

In advance of the main event — a tribute concert at the Kennedy Center, which we’ll livestream here at WBGO — we’re celebrating the new class of honorees in Take Five.

Maria Schneider Orchestra, “Journey Home”

The youngest woman ever to be inducted as an NEA Jazz Master, at 58, Maria Schneider has unmistakably earned her honor. A trailblazing composer, arranger and conductor, she does most of her work at the helm of the Maria Schneider Orchestra, a big band of matchless nuance. This concert clip, filmed at Jazz à Vienne just over a decade ago, features her flamenco-esque piece “Journey Home,” from the widely acclaimed 2000 album Allégresse. (You can download the score from Schneider’s website, if you want to follow along.)

Charles Pillow plays the first solo in this performance, on alto saxophone; he’s followed by Ryan Keberle on trombone. Even during their improvisations, you’ll notice a great deal of swirling movement in the ensemble. Schneider just announced a new album project, Data Lords, through ArtistShare; she’ll be recording in late summer. Just before going into the studio, the orchestra will appear for two nights at Jazz Standard, July 30 and 31.

Abdullah Ibrahim, “Green Kalahari”

At 84, Abdullah Ibrahim is the greatest living musician from South Africa — a pianist and composer whose artistry can suggest the invisible pull of a deep current below the surface. In his youth, as Dollar Brand, he was a member of The Jazz Epistles, a groundbreaking band in Cape Town. His longstanding current ensemble is Ekaya, which has included collaborators like saxophonist Carlos Ward. This footage is from a 2014 solo performance at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

The song is “Green Kalahari,” from an album called Bombella, with the WDR Big Band. In this mesmerizing performance, as Ben Ratliff observed in his review for The New York Times, Ibrahim is “proceeding with so much detail between chords that it was difficult to recognize; locomotive, riff-based Ellington-isms; tremolo chords, rocking back and forth; blocks of decaying sound. Mr. Ibrahim moved gently and slowly through this music, with patience deep in the bones.”

Bob Dorough, “You’re the Dangerous Type”

When the incomparable songwriter, singer and pianist Bob Dorough died last April, WBGO’s Michael Bourne paid tribute by remembering his first exposure to the landmark 1956 release Devil May Care. The title track is the most famous Dorough original on that bop-besotted album, but it’s worth pausing here to celebrate the insouciant wit and wordplay of “You’re the Dangerous Type.” 

Just about everything we love about Bob Dorough is here in this cut — including a distinctive tone that combines worldly cool with wide-eyed enthusiasm. He’s backed by his longtime bassist Bill Takas, vibraphonist Jack Hitchcock, and drummer Jerry Segal; the trumpet solo is by Warren Fitzgerald. The NEA had already decided to induct Dorough when he died: though its announcement came posthumously, he was aware of the honor. (Had he lived, he would now be 96.)

Stanley Crouch on Charlie Rose, 1992

If you know Stanley Crouch at all, you probably know him as a prolific pontificator — not only on the page, but also onstage and onscreen. Here is some vintage tape of Crouch, this year’s recipient of the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy, on the PBS show Charlie Rose, with Wynton Marsalis and Marcus Roberts, two artists he has steadfastly championed.

As a critic and longtime consultant to Jazz at Lincoln Center, Crouch has often been asked to define the essence of jazz. Sometimes his answers have been combative or controversial, but here he offers a vivid enumeration of qualities (borrowing an idea or two from the writings of Ralph Ellison). “That an ensemble language, a collective language of music, is partially composed and partially improvised,” he says, “shows how powerfully people can be themselves and be a collective at the same time — and that’s where the real force of jazz comes from.”

David Murray & The Low Class Conspiracy, “Flowers For Albert”

Finally, a wildcard selection that acknowledges another side of Stanley Crouch. Before he rose to prominence as a writer, he was a drummer making the rounds on the so-called “loft scene.” One of his most productive associations was with the powerful tenor saxophonist David Murray. Here is a live recording of Murray and Crouch at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam in 1977. They’re playing the title track of Murray’s album Flowers For Albert,” a tribute to Albert Ayler, with a band that features Butch Morris on cornet, Fred Hopkins on bass and Don Pullen on piano.  

In addition to showcasing Crouch in what might seem a surprising light — as an avant-gardist rather than a preservationist, and a drummer rather than a critic — this track gives us an excuse to feature Murray, who has led a heroic career in jazz, in and out of public favor. The saxophonist has received his share of accolades, including the Jazzpar prize, a Grammy award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. But he hasn’t yet joined the ranks of NEA Jazz Masters. He’ll turn 65 in 2020 — and maybe, just maybe, that’ll be his year.