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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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