Kevin Whitehead

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

Whitehead's articles on jazz and improvised music have appeared in such publications as Point of Departure, the Chicago Sun-Times, Village Voice, Down Beat, and the Dutch daily de Volkskrant.

He is the author of Why Jazz: A Concise Guide (2010), New Dutch Swing (1998), and (with photographer Ton Mijs) Instant Composers Pool Orchestra: You Have to See It (2011).

His essays have appeared in numerous anthologies including Da Capo Best Music Writing 2006, Discover Jazz and Traveling the Spaceways: Sun Ra, the Astro-Black and Other Solar Myths.

Whitehead has taught at Towson University, the University of Kansas and Goucher College. He lives near Baltimore.

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Music Reviews
9:41 am
Mon September 16, 2013

The Masters At His Fingertips, Art Hodes Pays Tribute To Bessie Smith

Art Hodes performs at the Ole South in New York City circa 1946.
William Gottlieb Library of Congress via Flickr

Originally published on Mon September 16, 2013 11:38 am

Jazz pianist Art Hodes, born in Russia in 1904, grew up near Chicago. His recording career really took off in the 1940s in New York, where he also hosted a radio show and wrote for the magazine The Jazz Record. Later, he moved back to Chicago and the atmosphere that nurtured him.

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Music Reviews
10:20 am
Mon September 9, 2013

When Duke Flirted With The Queen

Duke Ellington, looking dapper in 1958.
Evening Standard Getty Images

Originally published on Tue September 10, 2013 7:35 am

In 1958, at an arts festival in Yorkshire, Duke Ellington was presented to Queen Elizabeth II. They tied up the reception line for a few minutes, exchanging royal pleasantries; our Duke politely flirted with Her Majesty. Soon afterward, maybe that very night, Ellington outlined the movements of The Queen's Suite. He recorded it with his orchestra the following year, sent it to Her Majesty, and declined to release it to the public in his lifetime. It's not clear whether Queen Elizabeth has listened to it.

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Music Reviews
9:19 am
Wed August 21, 2013

'Beauty' On Orrin Evans' Block

Orrin Evans.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed August 21, 2013 10:10 am

On Philadelphia pianist Orrin Evans' trio version of Ornette Coleman's "Blues Connotation," drummer Donald Edwards and bassist Eric Revis set a New Orleans second-line groove tinged with vintage hip-hop. A beat like that is catnip to Evans, who gets right down and rolls in it.

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Music Reviews
11:56 am
Tue August 20, 2013

'Looking For The Next One' Reveals An Underappreciated Sax Trio

John Surman, Mike Osborne and Alan Skidmore were all saxophonists and teamed up in 1973 to form the short-lived trio S.O.S.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue August 20, 2013 6:46 pm

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Music Reviews
10:48 am
Tue July 30, 2013

'The Edenfred Files': Darryl Harper's Blues-Infused Jazz

Clarinetist Darryl Harper discovered jazz as a teenager in Philadelphia.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue July 30, 2013 1:41 pm

In jazz, the clarinet went into eclipse for awhile, drowned out by louder trumpets and saxes. The instrument has long since made a comeback, and the modern clarinet thrives in settings where it doesn't have to shout to be heard.

Take "Spindleshanks," a little out-of-sync boogie-woogie for Darryl Harper's clarinet and Kevin Harris' piano. It's from Harper's The Edenfred Files. In his long-running Onus Trio, the spare unit Darryl Harper features on most of his new album, he can sing softly as an owl in the night.

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Music Reviews
12:11 pm
Tue July 9, 2013

Two New Jazz Albums Recall The Wide Open Spaces of The West

Rich Halley and his quartet play with Bobby Bradford at the Penofin Jazz Festival.
Bob Pyle Rich Halley

Portland, Ore. tenor saxophonist Rich Halley's quartet album Crossing the Passes on his Pine Eagle label commemorates a week-long trek over the Wallowa mountain range in Northeast Oregon, where Halley's been climbing since he was a boy. We could talk about his dual obsessions with music and nature as cultivating a love of wide-open improvisational spaces; he's got one band that only plays outdoors. But all that climbing also has practical benefits: It builds lung-power.

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Music Reviews
11:12 am
Wed June 26, 2013

'My Ellington': A Pianist Gives Duke Her Personal Touch

Duke Ellington (1899-1974) at the piano at the Fairfield Hall, Croydon, during a British tour on Feb. 10, 1963.
John Pratt Getty Images

Originally published on Wed June 26, 2013 2:50 pm

At the keys, Duke Ellington abstracted from stride piano, which modernized ragtime. Ellington's own spare percussive style then refracted through Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor, as well as a generation of freewheeling pianists active in Europe, like Aki Takase. Her new solo piano album is My Ellington, on which she plays some stride bass herself, as in "In a Mellow Tone."

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Music Reviews
11:43 am
Tue June 18, 2013

Cécile McLorin Salvant: Making Old Songs New Again

Miami-born Cécile McLorin Salvant learned about improvisation and sang with her first band after moving to France in 2007.
J.R. Photography Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue June 18, 2013 1:46 pm

Singer Cécile McLorin Salvant was born in Miami to French and Haitian parents, and started singing jazz while living in Paris. Back in the U.S., she won the Thelonious Monk vocal competition in 2010. The 23-year-old's first album, WomanChild, is now out — and few jazz debuts by singers or instrumentalists make this big a splash.

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NPR Story
11:17 am
Mon May 20, 2013

Sarah Vaughan: A New Box Set Revels In Glorious Imperfections

Sarah Vaughan performs during the International Jazz Festival of Nice in southeast France in July 1984.
Raph Gatti AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Mon May 20, 2013 3:43 pm

Singer Sarah Vaughan came up in the 1940s alongside bebop lions Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, starting out in Earl Hines' big band. Hines had hired her as his singer and deputy pianist, while Gillespie praised her fine ear for chords as she grasped the arcane refinements of bebop harmony.

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Music Reviews
10:48 am
Thu May 16, 2013

100 Years Of Woody Herman: The Early Bloomer Who Kept Blooming

American jazz musician Woody Herman rehearses in London during a tour of England.
Keystone Getty Images

Originally published on Thu May 16, 2013 12:04 pm

Woody Herman, who would have turned 100 on Thursday, bloomed early and late — and then later still. He turned pro by age 9, singing and dancing in movie theaters on summer vacation. He'd perform one song deemed too risqué for radio when he recorded it decades later: "My Gee Gee From the Fiji Isles."

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Music Reviews
10:20 am
Mon May 13, 2013

Bing Crosby: From The Vaults, Surprising Breadth

A batch of reissues and archival releases from Bing Crosby's own vaults is getting a high-profile relaunch. Above, Crosby circa 1956.
Courtesy of Universal Music

Originally published on Mon May 13, 2013 1:27 pm

Bing Crosby was the biggest thing in pop singing in the 1930s, a star on radio and in the movies. He remained a top star in the '40s, when Frank Sinatra began giving him competition.

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Music Reviews
11:33 am
Thu April 11, 2013

Earl Hines: Big Bands And Beyond On A New Box Set

Earl "Fatha" Hines' band featured the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
Express Getty Images

Originally published on Thu April 11, 2013 1:28 pm

By 1928, Earl Hines was jazz's most revolutionary pianist, for two good reasons. His right hand played lines in bright, clear octaves that could cut through a band. His left hand had a mind of its own. Hines could play fast stride and boogie bass patterns, but then his southpaw would go rogue — it'd seem to step out of the picture altogether, only to slide back just in time.

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Music Reviews
11:36 am
Wed March 20, 2013

Barry Altschul: The Jazz Drummer Makes A Comeback

Drummer Barry Altschul writes tunes that play complex games with rhythm.
Dmitry Mandel Courtesy of TUM Records

The release last year of a 2007 reunion by the late Sam Rivers' trio confirmed what a creative drummer Altschul is. He has been one for decades. Altschul was a key player on the 1970s jazz scene, when the avant-garde got its groove on. Now, as then, he's great at mixing opposites: funky drive with a spray of dainty coloristic percussion, abstract melodic concepts with parade beats, open improvising and percolating swing. He's a busy player, but never too loud — he's also busy listening.

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Music Reviews
10:41 am
Thu February 28, 2013

Ben Goldberg's Variations: Two New Albums From A San Francisco Jazz Staple

Jazz clarinetist Ben Goldberg has released two new albums for different quintets.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Thu February 28, 2013 11:00 am

Ben Goldberg has been a staple of San Francisco's improvisational-music scene ever since he helped put together the New Klezmer Trio two decades ago. More recently, as a member of the quartet Tin Hat, he's set e.e. cummings poems to music. In between, he's recorded in a wide variety of settings, sometimes including other prominent Bay Area players — as on two new albums for different quintets.

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Music Reviews
10:14 am
Wed February 13, 2013

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Bicultural Jazz, Ever Shifting

Rudresh Mahanthappa.
Jimmy Katz Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed February 13, 2013 2:47 pm

Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa's quartet can sound like it's cross-pollinating Indian classical music and vintage Captain Beefheart. That befits a bicultural saxophonist who grew up in Boulder, where his Hindu family had a Christmas tree. For a long time, Mahanthappa resisted combining jazz and Indian music — it was almost too obvious a trajectory. But then he got serious about it.

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Music Reviews
11:13 am
Thu January 31, 2013

A 'Special Edition' Box Set Of Jack DeJohnette And Band

Jack DeJohnette.
Chris Griffith Courtesy of the artist

On a new box set collecting the first four albums of Jack DeJohnette and his band Special Edition, two discs are gems and the other two have their moments. DeJohnette's quartet-slash-quintet was fronted by smoking saxophonists on the way up, set loose on catchy riffs and melodies. The springy rhythm section could tweak the tempos like no one this side of '60s goddess Laura Nyro.

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Music Reviews
10:46 am
Fri January 11, 2013

Grant Green: The 'Holy Barbarian' Of St. Louis Jazz

Grant Green.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Mon January 14, 2013 6:14 am

Grant Green, The Holy Barbarian, St. Louis, 1959 could be the name of a fine stage play, perhaps based on the actual circumstances of the recording. One musician on the way up, another past his moment in the limelight and one more who had his chance but never quite made it all convene on Christmas night, part of their week-long stand at the Holy Barbarian, a beatnik hangout replete with chess players and a local artist painting portraits.

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Remembrances
10:14 am
Fri December 21, 2012

Remembering Von Freeman, Lol Coxhill And Sean Bergin

Originally published on Fri December 21, 2012 12:00 pm

Jazz lost many great saxophonists in 2012, including David S. Ware, John Tchicai, Byard Lancaster, Faruq Z. Bey, Hal McKusick and Red Holloway.

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Music Reviews
10:47 am
Tue December 11, 2012

Bass Note: Mingus And The Jazz Workshop Concerts

Jazz great Charles Mingus performs at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September 1964.
Ray Avery CTS Images

Originally published on Tue December 11, 2012 5:28 pm

On a new box set from mail-order house Mosaic Records, Charles Mingus, The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-65, the jazz legend's bands usually number between five and eight players. The bassist often made those bands sound bigger. He'd been using midsize ensembles since the '50s, but his new ones were more flexible than ever, light on their feet but able to fill in backgrounds like a large group.

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Music Reviews
11:28 am
Fri December 7, 2012

Forgotten Gems From The Dave Brubeck Quartet

The Dave Brubeck Quartet.
Hulton Archive Getty Images

This review was originally broadcast on March 12, 2012. Brubeck died Wednesday at age 91.

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Music Reviews
10:32 am
Mon November 26, 2012

Jason Kao Hwang: From The Blues To China And Back

Burning Bridge personnel, left to right: Jason Kao Hwang (violin), Wang Guowei (erhu), Sun Li (pipa), Ken Filiano (string bass), Andrew Drury (drum set), Joseph Daley (tuba), Steve Swell (trombone), Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet/flugelhorn).
Scott Friedlander Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed August 21, 2013 12:20 pm

Jazz reflects who we are as a people — democracy in action and all that. But a jazz tune or solo is also a portrait of the musician who makes it; the music reflects the particular background and training that influences how composers compose and improvisers improvise. Jason Kao Hwang makes that autobiographical component explicit throughout his extended composition for eight pieces, Burning Bridge. His parents made the move from China around the end of WWII, and he grew up attending Presbyterian services in suburban Chicago.

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Music Reviews
11:26 am
Wed November 21, 2012

The Mythic Power Of Bessie Smith

circa 1935: American singer Bessie Smith (circa 1894 - 1937), known as the Empress of the Blues. (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)
Three Lions Getty Images

Originally published on Mon November 26, 2012 9:39 am

Vocalist Bessie Smith's musical career, spanning 1923-33, has been collected in a new 10-CD box set, Bessie Smith: The Complete Columbia Recordings.

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Music
2:43 pm
Tue October 30, 2012

After 26 Years, The Sam Rivers Trio Resurfaces

Sam Rivers' trio with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul (not pictured) recently released its 2007 reunion show on CD.
Ken Weiss Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Mon November 5, 2012 8:00 am

This review was originally broadcast on Sept. 26, 2012.

Jazz multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers, who died at 88 in December 2011, recorded with many trios in the 1970s. But his most celebrated trio was barely recorded at all. In 2007, it played a reunion concert — its first in 26 years.

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Music Reviews
12:43 pm
Fri October 26, 2012

George Cables: A Heartfelt Tribute To His 'Muse'

Saxophonist Art Pepper called George Cables his favorite pianist.
Courtesy of the artist

In the 1970s and '80s, George Cables was the pianist of choice for saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper; Pepper called him his favorite pianist.

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Music Reviews
11:04 am
Thu October 11, 2012

Ron Miles Finds Wide-Open Spaces On 'Quiver'

For Ron Miles, the better he knows how a tune works, the less he has to play to put it across.
John Spiral

Originally published on Thu October 11, 2012 1:19 pm

Teaching jazz history got trumpeter Ron Miles deep into the pleasures of early jazz, with its clarity of form and emphasis on melodic improvising that doesn't wander far from the tune.

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Music Reviews
10:59 am
Wed September 26, 2012

After 26 Years, The Sam Rivers Trio Resurfaces

Sam Rivers' trio with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul (not pictured) recently released its 2007 reunion show on CD.
Ken Weiss Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed September 26, 2012 12:12 pm

Jazz multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers, who died at 88 in December 2011, recorded with many trios in the 1970s. But his most celebrated trio was barely recorded at all. In 2007, it played a reunion concert — its first in 26 years.

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Music Reviews
7:48 am
Fri September 21, 2012

Vince Guaraldi Didn't Just Play For 'Peanuts'

Vince Guaraldi had range, as well as an instrumental hit right when jazz was vanishing from AM radio.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Fri September 21, 2012 10:57 am

There must have been times in 1963, when Vince Guaraldi was riding high on his surprise hit "Cast Your Fate to the Wind," when he thought, "This is what I'll be remembered for." Not that he minded. He said taking requests for the tune was like signing the back of a check. The song's got a great hook tied to a poppy, uplifting chord sequence.

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Music Reviews
11:00 am
Tue September 18, 2012

Brad Mehldau: (Unlikely) Songs By Other People

Brad Mehldau's latest covers project, Where Do You Start, came out Tuesday.
Michael Wilson Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue September 18, 2012 5:23 pm

At this point, there's nothing special about jazz musicians playing post-Beatles pop: It's just the new normal. But one of the trendsetters on that score was pianist Brad Mehldau and his versions of Radiohead and Nick Drake tunes. Now, Mehldau's trio has a new covers album out.

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Music Reviews
10:03 am
Mon September 3, 2012

Miguel Zenon And Laurent Coq Play 'Hopscotch'

Miguel Zenon.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Mon September 3, 2012 12:57 pm

The new quartet album by alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón and pianist Laurent Coq is called Rayuela, which means "hopscotch." It's named for Julio Cortázar's novel, the fragmented tale of a wandering bohemian and his social circles in Parisian exile, as well as back home in Buenos Aires.

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