Sax Ed: The NPR Music Saxophone Quiz

In November 1814, Col. Andrew Jackson marched on Pensacola, taking the Florida city away from Britain and Spain, while the Congress of Vienna was busy drawing new boundaries after the Napoleonic Wars. And 200 years ago today, in a little 10th-century town south of Brussels, Adolphe Sax was born.

Sax learned instrument-building from his father and soon was inventing new instruments of his own, including the one that bears his name. He patented the saxophone in 1846.

Originally intended for use in military bands, the saxophone caught fire after World War I as the Jazz Age blossomed. Since then, the sax, in its variety of sizes, has found its way into music of many stripes, from rock and jazz to classical and South Indian traditional music.

To celebrate the bicentennial of this ingenious Belgian, we challenge you to identify the sax solos in these songs. Score high and feel the spirit of John Coltrane descend upon you. Blow it and beads of sweat will signal defeat.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit

Heavy Rotation: Dennis Rollins Velocity Trio, ‘The 11th Gate’

With Supreme blogger Patrick Jarenwattananon on vacation, we asked jazz music directors from around public radio to highlight songs that have been in heavy rotation at their stations. Today’s pick comes from Matt Fleeger of KMHD and Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland.

Dennis Rollins is a British trombone player who’s worked with Maceo Parker, Marcus Miller and Roy Ayers. On his newest release, the 11th Gate (named after the date 11/11/11, which Rollins believes will usher in a new age of ‘Global Awareness’) he brings forth his new “Velocity Trio” which is comprised of Trombone, Organ, and Drums.

This is not a groove-oriented release, though there are grooves to be found on the 11th Gate. Instead, the trio takes a more subdued, nuanced approach in creating textures and spiritualized cerebral fields for the listener to explore.

Rollin’s trombone playing is unique, he has a sort of “cool” sensibility on the instrument and a strong tone that’s identifiable. On tunes like “The Other Side” his playing matches well with the Hammond Organ of Ross Stanley, who’s notes and playing are reminiscent of cosmic raindrops falling from some far part of the galaxy. Drummer and latin percussionist Pedro Segundo holds the session together with sharp flourishes and mellow conga pats thoughout the recording. Even though it’s been done to death, the trio finds some new territory to forge inside a rollicking version of Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance” which shifts tempo and time-signatures without losing the groove (or the listener).

While the 11th Gate may not be a full-fledged concept album, it does take the listener on a trip through the intellect of this great composer and player. Best of all, it’s a solid listen the whole way through, worthy of a place in your collection.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit

The Different Beat Of The Same Drummer

The drummer Henry Cole plays brilliantly in the quartet of saxophonist and fellow Puerto Rican Miguel Zenón, a band responsible for my favorite jazz album of 2011 (Alma Adentro) and one of my favorites of 2009 (Esta Plena). This year, Cole released his debut album as a bandleader, an Afrobeat record called Roots Before Branches. As opposed to Zenón’s new-school jazz swimming in Caribbean folkloric music, Roots is a Fela-Kuti-inspired dance party. It’s the same drummer, but a different sonic setting, with a different sort of energy.

Or is it really? Here’s what Cole told JazzTimes contributor Fernando Gonzalez:

“There are some musicians today who consider themselves jazz musicians and would never go play a dance gig,” says Cole. “Or, if you take a musician who plays dance music, he would never go to hear a jazz show because he’d find it very boring. Something I find important in this project is that it brings those worlds together. The music goes along and then there is an incredible solo with a section in 9/8 or whatever, but it goes right back to the danceable rhythm and the singing.”

That sounds about right for Roots Before Branches, which features some of New York’s best jazz and salsa improvisers. Except Cole wasn’t talking about his own album — he was talking about his work with Zenón. Cole’s new record comes out sounding unlike his compatriot’s, but it comes from the same deep well of where Afro-Caribbean music and mainland jazz intersect. Continue reading

Modern Jazz Hasn’t Forgotten To Dance

It’s often pointed out that long ago, jazz was once dance music. It’s usually a way of lamenting its current reputation as a cerebral art for seated contemplation. But nothing says music can’t be for both hips and head.

Here are two music videos which, in their own ways, visually convey the dance roots found in even modern jazz. Neither are choreographed dance routines in the way of Michael Jackson or Beyonce, but I think both represent a strong movement imperative. Incidentally, NPR Music and WBGO will carry a live video webcast of both bands tonight at 8 p.m. ET, if you can join us.

The first video, above, is from the band Now vs. Now — a trio from the keyboardist Jason Lindner, with drummer Mark Guiliana and vocalizing bassist Panagiotis Andreou. On “Big Pump,” the dancing, cinematography and video editing reflects the energy of the song’s arc. When the soloing and the beat are at their most intense, the bodily movement and lighting are too. It’s a representation of the song’s peaks and valleys, like an iTunes visualizer — except in the form of humans gyrating.

The lack of a coherent narrative to it all is worth noting. Instrumental music like this can’t quite tell a story in the same way words do. But if it grooves like this, it can still provoke a bodily reaction, and an emotional resonance. The underground nightclub vibe of this video, disjunct as it is, conveys both the dance and the abstraction. Continue reading

The Jazz Cover And The Vijay Iyer Trio

There are six covers on the forthcoming Vijay Iyer Trio album, Accelerando. You can hear them now; the album is currently streaming on our site in full via NPR Music’s First Listen series. (It will be released next Tuesday, March 13.) As a bit of a prelude, above lies the music video for “MmmHmm” by Flying Lotus, a song re-interpreted on Accelerando.

It feels odd to call these recordings “covers.” The jazz cover is so often an act of re-imagination, of annexing a song as a vehicle for personal statement. That’s different from the mimicry of Lynyrd Skynyrd night at the roadhouse with a local rock band. Indeed, on the liner notes for his previous trio album, Historicity, Iyer uses the term “versioning” (as in “doing a version of”) as a more suggestive descriptor. And, because creative adaptation is the idea, even the mere choice to cover a particular song can say a lot about how an improvising musician thinks.

There are also six covers on the previous Vijay Iyer Trio album, Historicity. It shows that Iyer is invested in the dances with ancestors and dance music of contemporaries that form so much of the African-American musical tradition. Upon closer examination, it might also say something about what he prioritizes within that tradition.

I’ve lined up his choices from one album to the next in loose analogues in an effort to identify some consistencies of thought. Here’s a track-by-track comparison, with links to YouTube samples where available: Continue reading

Time Is On Their Side: Ageless Jazz Drumming

"Killer" Ray Appleton, a veteran drummer with the wisdom of experience and ageless swing.

“Killer” Ray Appleton, a veteran drummer with the wisdom of experience and ageless swing.

Jimmy Katz/Courtesy of the artist

I’ve been listening to two very good new albums led by drummers. After learning that both men are in their early 70s, I can’t help but wonder how I process that fact in what I hear.

“Killer” Ray Appleton (b. 1941) and Barry Altschul (b. 1943) practice different styles. But they both came of musical age in the hard-bop era, spent many years living in Europe and eventually returned to New York. In other words, they’ve each got a lot of experience.

The new album from Appleton, Naptown Legacy, which is old-school in almost all good ways. It’s unselfconscious, head-solo-head hard bop for three tightly-arranged horns and rhythm section. (Tenor saxophonist Todd Herbert even affects a lot of Blue Train-era Coltrane mannerisms, a bit disconcerting for my taste.) It’s a program of standards and tunes by Appleton’s fellow Indianapolis natives Wes Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard and J.J. Johnson. It wouldn’t be out of place on Blue Note or Riverside c. 1961, and that’s apparently the intended effect: Even the cover art, track listing, slim bi-fold packaging and liner notes are formatted to evoke the LPs of the era.

You get the sense that this is Appleton’s bread and butter, and highly present in the mix, he struts all over this record. His fills aren’t virtuosic in a jaw-dropping way; on tunes like “Backlash” and “Fatback” he’s happy to take a good beat and play it essentially the entire song. (Does anyone do that any more in jazz?) Simplicity can be deceptive, though, and attention to detail is where Appleton shines. His splaying ride cymbal, his ease with accents and commentary, his hookup with conguero Little Johnny Rivero — these sorts of things set this music apart from its imitations. Could this be attributed to finely-honed touch and timing cultivated over decades, a sense of swing deeply embedded from a young age? Whatever it is, it reminds me how infectious the heralded recordings of a half century ago remain today.

Altschul is often thought of as belonging to a different era and community. His early recordings were with musicians like Paul Bley, Sam Rivers, Anthony Braxton and the band Circle (with Braxton, Chick Corea and Dave Holland). Altschul’s known for his avant-garde or free jazz playing — specifically, for melding a driving bebop pattern with further out improvisations, an idea known as freebop. On his new trio recording, bassist Joe Fonda and tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon are game, and they straddle the lines between uptempo bebop and free improvisation with authority.

The 3dom Factor is ultimately Altschul’s showcase,which he uses to demonstrate a wide range of styles. His funk groove (“Papa’s Funkish Dance”) and old-time shuffle (“Natal Chart”), his literal bells and whistles, his sense for loosening or unwinding a beat. It’s his music, too: The band reinterprets original compositions from throughout his discography (and Carla Bley’s “Ictus”). They’re tuneful and worth paying attention to, although he still doesn’t really consider himself much of a composer:

Cover art to Barry Altschul's new album, The 3dom Factor.

Cover art to Barry Altschul’s new album, The 3dom Factor.

TUM Records

I’m a drummer, man. All I want to do is play. So any music I write, or that I thought about writing, or that I contribute to a band, was to stimulate a playing attitude, someplace to have fun in, to maybe be interesting, to be challenging, but I do not try to make a mark as a composer.

That’s from an extensive recent interview with fellow percussionist Harris Eisenstadt. Like Appleton, Altschul is quite happy playing others’ music, and doesn’t prioritize leading a band, so much so that he hadn’t recorded as a leader since 1985.

In my mind, these two albums are overdue returns, career-portrait recitals from veteran masters. Their experience isn’t the only lens we have into these artists, but it seems like an important one here. Do you have any favorite albums by elder statesmen and women in jazz? Let us know on facebook. Just search for kjemjazz.

What Is Jazz Night In America?

Along with NPR Music’s partners at WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center, we’re proud to announce a new public media initiative: Jazz Night In America. You can check it out on your local public radio station, as well as online at

Jazz Night In America is many things. It’s a weekly radio show from three groups that have all made nationally syndicated jazz radio for many years, with an internationally renowned musician as our guide. It’s a weekly concert video webcast from venues across the country. It’s a hub for video features, multi-platform journalism and on-demand access. All together, it’s a portrait of jazz music today, as seen through many of its exceptional live performances and performers.

Here’s how to experience it.

On The Radio: Every week, starting today, we’re offering a one-hour program centered on great concerts and the stories behind them. Christian McBride, whom you may know as a phenomenal bass player and bandleader, hosts the show. Currently, more than 100 public radio stations have signed on to broadcast Jazz Night In America, so check your local listings for when it’ll be on.

On Demand: On our new online hub, we’ll feature all sorts of content on demand. Our new Jazz Videos channel will gather highlights from our webcasts, documentary features and more series from NPR Music, such as Tiny Desk Concerts and Field Recordings. We’ll also spotlight audio and written journalism from NPR’s news shows or A Blog Supreme. And we’ll archive the radio shows and audio from the concert webcasts if you want to peruse them on your own time. Again, that’s all at

We’ve joined together as partners because we want to reach as many people in and around the jazz community as we can. We know, from decades of experience, that there’s immense power in music and conversation on air — that it reaches people like nothing else can. We know, from being fans, that this music demands to be seen live, so we’ve captured visually stunning concert recordings to simulate the experience as beautifully as possible. We know that today, people expect to consume media on their own time and schedules, so we wanted to enable you to do that. We hope to reach the people who live for this music, and we hope to make it easy for the curious to get hooked.

We’ve planned what we think is a great lineup — check out the webcast schedule on the homepage — and we’re certainly still planning. We’re confident that this music speaks strongly: of lived experience, of great labor and intelligence, of life-affirming artistic creativity. With Jazz Night In America, we intend to convey that in all the ways we can.

Copyright 2014 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit .