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A Look Back At 4 Jazz Luminaries Who Died In 2017


This is FRESH AIR. Our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, is going to remember a few of the jazz musicians who passed away in 2017 - alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, pianist Geri Allen, guitarist John Abercrombie and singer Jon Hendricks.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Saxophonist Arthur Blythe in 1980 on one of his best-known tunes, "Miss Nancy," named for his mother. In 2017, a few musicians died who helped shape jazz after the upheavals of the 1960s. When Blythe came to New York from Los Angeles in the '70s, he attracted major attention for his sizzling alto sound and piercing high notes and his terrific beat, often pumped out by Bob Stewart on tuba. Blythe wrote a few very catchy tunes he played a lot with feeling. They were launchpads for his scalding solos.


WHITEHEAD: Arthur Blythe recorded dozens of sessions with his own funky or straight-ahead bands and with diverse leaders including Horace Tapscott, Chico Hamilton, Jack DeJohnette and Joey Baron. Blythe had a sound that could cut through steel and is just as durable.

In 2017 we also lost a pianist who'd helped shape jazz in the '80s and beyond, Geri Allen. She was a free thinker who knew her history, and a role model for many other pianists and modern jazz women.


WHITEHEAD: Geri Allen was part of a wave of university-educated, African-American progressives who energized the New York jazz scene in the 1980s. She made her own records and recorded with peers like saxophonist Steve Coleman. Allen was a changeling at the piano, juggling thick and thin textures and shifting among myriad strategies. Her playing could be airy, but most everything had strong momentum.


WHITEHEAD: Besides writing her own music and playing in various trios, Geri Allen studied swing star Mary Lou Williams' music and portrayed her as a working pianist in Robert Altman's film, "Kansas City." Also in the '90s, Allen got hired by the normally piano-shy saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who recognized her as a kindred spirit. She could pick up a solo exactly where he left off.


WHITEHEAD: 2017 saw the deaths of wizardly guitarists who helped fuse jazz and rock - Larry Coryell, Allan Holdsworth and John Abercrombie, a member of one of the first jazz rock bands, Dreams, in the late '60s. Later he became one of the signature guitar voices of Germany's ECM Records, for 40 years, often appearing in trios or quartets. Abercrombie could play dreamy ballads and muted jazz guitar, but he really shone on upbeat stuff where he'd wail a little, sculpting graceful lines in the air. Here he is in 2000 on his tune, "Convolution."


WHITEHEAD: Guitarist John Abercrombie. Luminaries who died in 2017 also include singer Jon Hendricks, ringleader of the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, who wrote a bundle of lyrics to classic jazz melodies and improvisations. His words often lionized the musicians involved. And if those lyrics weren't always deep, they gave singers an excuse to sing those immortal lines, which was the point. Jon Hendricks radiated joy whenever he sang, a literally inspirational figure. Let's go out with him joining Thelonious Monk on "In Walked Bud" in 1968. On drums is another great we lost this year, Ben Riley. These musicians we're remembering have this in common. Hundreds of players demonstrate every day what they learn from them - their music doesn't just live on on record.


JON HENDRICKS: (Singing) Every hip stud really dug Bud soon's he hit town. Takin' that note nobody wrote, puttin' it down. O.P., he was screamin' next to Dizzy, who was beamin'. Monk was thumpin'. Suddenly in walked Bud, and then they got into somethin'.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point Of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Christopher Quest Rainey, whose story is told in the new documentary, "Quest." The film follows him and his wife for nearly a decade in their home in North Philadelphia. Quest runs a hip-hop studio in their basement where neighborhood kids can come and record. A turning point in the film is when their daughter gets shot in the eye. We'll also be joined by the filmmaker Jonathan Olshefski. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.
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