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.

Jazz has always drawn on the syncopated rhythms of Cuban music, and occasionally draws on other new world strains, like Brazilian bossa nova in the 1960s. But that interaction between North and South is ongoing.

Julius Hemphill's "Dogon A.D." — the 15-minute piece, and the album that's named for it — was one of the startling jazz recordings of the 1970s, a rethinking of possibilities open to the avant-garde. In the 1960s, free jazz was mostly loud and bashing, until some Chicagoans began playing a more open, quieter improvised music. That inspired St. Louis players like Hemphill, who also had ties to heartland rhythm-and-blues scenes. Hemphill's genius was to combine the Chicagoans' dramatically spare sound with a heavy backbeat. His new urban music smacked of old country blues.

It bugs Tyshawn Sorey that drummers don't get enough credit as composers, as if rhythm was the only thing they understood about music. That helps explain why Sorey's first two albums cut against expectations. They're studies in the slowly changing colors of long tones and sustained harmonies, a music of quietude and sudden disruptions. But his new album, Oblique — I, is mostly the kind of rollicking band album you'd expect from a powerhouse drummer.

Nowadays, Gigi Gryce is not as well remembered as he might be, given his crafty composing and tart playing. He's one of a few alto saxophonists who came up with their own styles after absorbing Charlie Parker's fleet swing, unvarnished tone and knack for quoting other tunes while improvising. Gryce had plenty of ideas as a player and a writer, and he'd pack a lot of them into a short solo.

Deep Blue Organ Trio is a Chicago institution; it's been together since the early 1990s, and for the last eight years, it's held forth at Uptown's Green Mill Tavern most every Tuesday night. The trio's new album Wonderful! is devoted to Stevie Wonder tunes.

Saxophonist Branford Marsalis and pianist Joey Calderazzo's Songs of Mirth and Melancholy is longer on the latter, taking cues from the brooding romantic music of 19th-century Europe. They play one Brahms song straight, with soprano sax taking the vocal line.

Gary Burton has always counted on collaborators to pull him in various directions — not because the vibraphonist doesn't have his own preferences, but for the variety. Burton also likes a tight-knit working band, and he's got one in his new quartet, which is touring this summer and fall. Drummer Antonio Sanchez works hand in glove with bassist Scott Colley; they'd already teamed up in the drummer's band.