WBGO Blog
  • Gary Burton: Retiring The Mallets

    June 9, 2017

    For a long stretch of his early performing career, vibraphonist Gary Burton was always the youngest man on the bandstand. A child prodigy from Indiana, and then an onrushing force on the scene, he apprenticed with the great Nashville guitarist Hank Garland before going on tour with pianist George Shearing, followed by tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. He was all of 18 when he released his debut album, New Vibe Man In Town, on the RCA label.

    In short order, he would change the technical vocabulary of mallet instruments — perhaps you've heard of the Burton grip — and create one of the early prototypes for fusion. He would become an important pioneer in jazz education. He'd win an armload of Grammy Awards, and come out as gay at a time when few jazz artists of his stature had done so. He'd also become a mentor, to more than a few young phenoms like his former self.

    This spring Burton became something else altogether: a retiree. With little warning and a bare minimum of fuss, he announced his intention to step away from music. And at 74, still in possession of his quicksilver fluidity and deep intuition, he went on a farewell tour, bringing one of his old protégés and duet partners, the pianist Makoto Ozone. They played in a small handful of cities that mean something to Burton, playing material that fit the same criteria.

    Jazz Night In America caught up with the tour at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C.; at Birdland in New York City; and at the Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis, the final stop on the tour. Backstage, Burton opened up about the factors that led to his decision, acknowledging that retirement is an exceedingly rare outcome in his field. "We've seen so many elder statesmen of jazz go on way past the point of really being able to play even halfway decently," he says, "and no one will tell them."

    In the radio episode of Jazz Night, you'll hear much more from Burton about the pressure he always imposed on himself and the encroaching pall of diminishing prowess. You'll hear from Pat Metheny and Julian Lage, two brilliant guitarists who know him not only as a musical hero but also as a former bandleader and a friend. And you'll hear some of the actual music from Burton's farewell tour, along with some from earlier in his career.

    Jazz Night's video short takes you into the clubs with Burton, where fans poured in to pay their respects. Hang long enough and you'll even catch a glimpse of Burton's post-retirement life thus far — at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with nary a mallet in sight.

    Backstage at Birdland, I asked how he felt about rounding the home stretch of the tour, one last time. "Well, part of it will be a sense of relief that I've done it," he replied, with trademark Midwestern stoicism. "I've completed my mission."

    Copyright 2017 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.

  • Buster Williams: The Low End Maestro

    May 18, 2017

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    Buster Williams performs at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola. (Image Credit: Lawrence Sumulong /Courtesy of Jazz At Lincoln Center)

    The low end has always been terra firma for Buster Williams, one of the all-time great bassists in modern jazz. A sideman with experience all over the map — supporting singers like Nancy Wilson and Sarah Vaughan, and anchoring bands like the Jazz Crusaders and Sphere — he's probably best known for his tenure with Mwandishi, the groundbreaking, unclassifiable early-1970s group led by pianist Herbie Hancock. But Williams also has a long track record as a bandleader, notably with a nimble post-bop ensemble he calls Something More.

    Jazz Night in America caught a recent set by Buster Williams and Something More at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, the in-house nightclub at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Featuring Steve Wilson on alto saxophone, George Colligan on piano and Lenny White on drums, the group struck a decisive balance between grounded and exploratory, holding fast to a deeply swinging pulse. In this program, you'll hear some highlights of the set, including a modal bruiser called "Where Giants Dwell" and a lyrical ballad, "Christina." (The tunes, all originals, also serve as a reminder of Williams' strong footing as a composer.)

    But there's also a wealth of personal insight in this episode, which features a conversation between Williams and one of his younger bass brethren, Jazz Night host Christian McBride. (Williams tells McBride about how he got his first gig, at 17, with saxophonists Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt.)

    We'll also check in with filmmaker Adam Kahn, who's in the process of making a documentary about Williams and has discovered no shortage of colorful material in the process. Kahn shares some of his material with us, including perspective on Williams' early life in Camden, N.J., where his first bass teacher was his father. The documentary also provides us with some duo interplay between Williams and a few close musical partners: saxophonist Benny Golson, singer Carmen Lundy and pianist Larry Willis.

    "The greatest thing that a musician can do is surprise him- or herself," Williams says. "'Where did that come from?' You don't know how it came about, but you hope it comes again. You keep exploring, and through this exploration you find new answers, create new problems, you find that your whole perception of yourself changes — and the world broadens. You define yourself not by limitations but by possibilities."

    Copyright 2017 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.

  • Watch Sarathy Korwar Play A Nighttime Meditation On Tablas And Computer

    May 12, 2017

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    Sarathy Korwar performs for NPR's "Night Owl" series. (Image Credit: NPR)

    Editor's note: You can hear Sarathy Korwar and other leading players in London's jazz scene in this week's Jazz Night In America radio episode.

    Sarathy Korwar, a percussionist and electronic producer born in the United States but raised in India and now working in London, released a knockout album last year, Day To Day. Working with his own field recordings of the Sidi Troupe of Ratanpur, which consists of five drummers who also vocalize, Korwar sought to illuminate patterns of human migration and drift, and the small-scale but profound ways in which cultures can meld.

    During the 2017 South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, Jazz Night In America asked Korwar to perform a track from Day To Day for NPR's "Night Owl" series. He played "Indefinite Leave To Remain," a song whose themes bear direct relevance to the issue of cultural exchange in an era of high geopolitical tension. On the street below, revelers and traffic made a distant racket — but Korwar, sitting on an open-air hotel balcony, created a zone of quiet focus and meditative intent.

    CREDITS:

    Director: Nickolai Hammar; Producer: Josie Holtzman; Animation: CJ Riculan; Video: Nickolai Hammar; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Series Producer: Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey; Series Creator/Supervising Producer: Mito Habe-Evans; Executive Producer: Anya Grundmann

    Copyright 2017 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.

  • Get To Know London's Thriving Jazz Scene (By Way Of Austin, Texas)

    May 12, 2017

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    Nathaniel Cross on trombone, Binker Golding on tenor saxophone, Moses Boyd on drums and Theon Cross on tuba perform at SXSW in March 2017. (Image Credit: Nicole Fara Silver/Courtesy of Jazz Standard)

    Moses Boyd Exodus ended its performance at the 2017 South by Southwest music festival with a rampaging take on its trademark tune, "Rye Lane Shuffle." Drummer Moses Boyd, the band's young founder and namesake, rumbled freely on his toms, joined by a fervent-sounding Binker Golding on tenor saxophone. The groove that emerged was Nigerian Afrobeat by way of a modern jazz metropolis — one with every resource at hand.

    This all went down in mid-March, at a club just off bustling East Sixth Street in Austin, Texas. Jazz Night In America was there — because for that evening, strange as it sounds, there were no better coordinates in the world for an up-to-the-minute dispatch from the vibrant new jazz scene of London.

    Boyd is an anchor of that scene, and in some ways a shining embodiment of it: Born and raised in Southeast London, to parents of Jamaican and Dominican stock, he grew up around a cacophony of West Indian and African music, as well as jazz, garage, dubstep and grime. He brings those elements together in his music, with the no-nonsense flair of someone accustomed to a high standard for cosmopolitan exchange.

    Shabaka Hutchings, the lanky, soft-spoken tenor saxophonist and clarinetist who leads Shabaka and the Ancestors, subscribes to a similar ideal. Born in London, he moved to Barbados at age 6 and stayed there for the next decade. As a returning Londoner, he gigged with a wide range of groups, forming one of them — Sons of Kemet, inspired by folkloric African and Caribbean sources — with colleagues including tuba player Theon Cross. Hutchings received global acclaim for his most recent album, Wisdom Of Elders, featuring musicians from South Africa.

    Sarathy Korwar, a percussionist and electronic producer born in the United States but raised in India and now working in London, also released a knockout album last year, Day To Day. Working with his own field recordings of the Sidi Troupe of Ratanpur, which consists of five drummers who also vocalize, Korwar sought to illuminate patterns of human migration and drift, and the small-scale but profound ways in which cultures can meld.

    This year, SXSW faced criticism for a series of missteps related to immigration policies under a new presidential administration. This had an impact on the London jazz contingent, which was originally due to feature the bands United Vibrations and Yussef Kamaal. When drummer Yussef Dayes, who plays in both groups, had his visa denied at the last minute, the story became part of an international outcry. (Dayes' two brothers, Ahmed and Kareem, core members of United Vibrations, were also denied.)

    The injustice of the exclusion became a subtext in the British jazz showcase at SXSW, which was presented by the London curation engine and record label Jazz Re:freshed. The show ended with a solidarity jam, featuring Boyd, Hutchings and Korwar, along with their bandmates.

    Copyright 2017 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.

  • Dee Dee Bridgewater: Fearless And Free

    April 27, 2017

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    Dee Dee Bridgewater performs at Jazz At Lincoln Center. (Image Credit: Frank Stewart/Jazz At Lincoln Center)

    When Dee Dee Bridgewater learned that she would become a 2017 NEA Jazz Master, a succession of thoughts and feelings flooded her mind. The news came as a total shock, as she tells it: "It was so far out of my orbit and just my whole sphere of thinking," she said in a conversation at NPR this spring, hours before she formally received her award.

    She's 66 — far from retirement age in jazz, and on the extreme forward edge of the NEA Jazz Masters demographic. So she was aware of her relative youth in the field. She also recognized that there haven't been many women in the ranks of NEA Jazz Masters: fewer than 20, out of 145. That idea led her to reflect on her predecessors: legendary singers like Betty Carter, who was inducted back in 1992, and Abbey Lincoln, who received the nod in 2003.

    Bridgewater sought inspiration and counsel from both Carter and Lincoln, as she recalls in this episode of Jazz Night, which features music recorded during the season opener for Jazz at Lincoln Center. On a program called "Songs of Freedom," organized by drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr., Bridgewater sang material associated with Lincoln as well as Nina Simone: furious anthems of the civil rights movement, like "Driva Man" and "Mississippi Goddam," both potent and relevant today.

    A separate concert, "Songs We Love," found Bridgewater singing less politically charged (but still gripping) fare like "St. James Infirmary," which appears on her most recent album, Dee Dee's Feathers. She worked with a different group of musicians on that evening, but still leaned on younger talent — a reminder of the role that she herself has embraced, as a mentor in the music.

    In words as well as music, this episode reveals how seriously Bridgewater takes that responsibility, seeing as how it connects to her own experience in the jazz lineage. But maybe "seriously" isn't the right word when it comes to Dee Dee, whose effervescence shines through even in a reflective mood. Join her here for a while; she's excellent company, no more or less so now that mastery is officially a part of her résumé.

    Copyright 2017 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.