NEA Jazz Masters Concert Honors Titans


Pat Metheny (left), Joanne Brackeen, Todd Barkan, bassist Christian McBride, singer Angelique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves and guitarist Nir Felder at the 2018 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert on April 16 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Shannon Finney, courtesy of National Endowment for the Arts)

“We’re all partners in time. And this music makes time our friend, not an implacable foe,” said Grammy-winning record producer, impresario and former club owner Todd Barkan during his rousing acceptance speech for the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy at the 36th annual NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center on April 16. “Our music makes time an endowment, not a stress-inducing limitation.”

Barkan’s opening remarks alluded to both the resilience of the NEA Jazz Masters awards, which began in 1982 and which last year survived the Trump administration budget proposal that called for the elimination of the entire National Endowment for the Arts.

The other 2018 Jazz Masters fellows are guitarist Pat Metheny, pianist Joanne Brackeen and vocalist Dianne Reeves. Each artist delivered passionate, thoughtful and eloquent statements that touched upon personal revelations, endurance and gratitude.

The NEA Jazz Masters fellowship is the highest honor in the United States given to individuals who have dedicated their lives to the art form. Each winner receives a one-time fellowship of $25,000. The NEA now has bestowed the “Master” award to 149 individuals.

Metheny was pointed in his comments about jazz’s survival in today’s political climate. After expressing gratitude for receiving an honor that previously had been given to some of his most important collaborators and mentors—such as Gary Burton, Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette and Roy Haynes—Metheny said, “As musicians, we find ourselves trading in a currency that has way more actual value than people at the top might realize. Sometimes it takes years, decades even, for the true impact of what this community offers to be felt. Politicians come and go. Great music has a way of lasting and remaining influential for a really, really, really, really long time.”

Brackeen echoed Metheny in mentioning how many of the earlier Jazz Masters that she knew personally. She then spoke eloquently about the enduring sense of wonder and intuitive revelations in her creative process: “The music that I play appears to originate in silence. The silence forms vibrations and colors that come into my body. It’s like a very energetic feeling but it doesn’t yet have sound. And I go to the piano and find the sound.”

In her acceptance speech, Reeves emphasized the importance of having a supportive family during her formative years in Denver. Like other inductees, she stressed the value of continued commitment to the art and how it will eventually reward you in return. “This music has always nourished my soul; it gave me a connection to endless possibilities,” she said. “When music first called to me, and I said ‘yes,’ the most incredible things started to happen. And the most incredible people started to show up.”

A cadre of top-notch musicians treated each honoree with a gripping performance tailored specifically to his or her individual aesthetic, with a medley of some of their compositions or some of their signature tunes.

Except for a performance by veteran pianist Eddie Palmieri—who opened the evening by leading a sextet through a sizzling rendition of his piece “Noble Cruise,” which was originally dedicated to Thelonious Monk and his brother Charlie Palmieri—the concert showcased an intergenerational sensibility, with younger musicians tipping their hats to their elders.

On this night, Palmieri offered “Noble Cruise” as a tribute to Barkan, who has shown a deep involvement with Latin jazz, both as a pianist at his now-historic Keystone Korner jazz club in San Francisco and as a record producer for such luminaries as Chico O’Farrill, Arturo O’Farrill, Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band and Bebo Valdés.

Two of Metheny’s key collaborators—bassist Christian McBride and drummer Antonio Sanchez—steered the guitarists Nir Felder, Camila Meza, Gilad Hekselman, Pasquale Grosso and Dan Wilson through an absorbing medley of Metheny’s “What Do You Want,” “Bright Size Life,” “James” and “Minuano (Six Eight).” The performance showcased each guitarist’s improvisational and interpretative skills in a round-robin manner.

Pianist James Francies, a former Brackeen student, joined forces with McBride and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington on a fetching mashup of “Fi-Fi Goes to Heaven” and “Crystal Palace BPC,” two rhythmically elastic Brackeen originals on which Francies embroidered lattice-like passages.

Jason Moran, the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz, delivered a poignant solo piano requiem, “In Memoriam,” to salute departed NEA Jazz Masters, including singer Jon Hendricks, pianists Muhal Richard Abrams and Cecil Taylor, and producer George Avakian.

Powerhouse vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant and her pianist companion Sullivan Fortner joined Carrington and McBride for a spellbinding rendition of “Obsession,” a Sarah Vaughan-associated tune that Reeves recorded on her 2001 disc, The Calling.

After Reeves praised Salvant for her inventive interpretation and accepted her Jazz Masters award, the evening concluded with one of Reeves’ friends, singer Angelique Kidjo, joining Sanchez, McBride, Carrington, pianist Helen Sung and conguero Little Johnny Rivero in an romping rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”

The NEA has posted an archival webcast of the April 16 concert. DB

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