The themes of intergenerational support and the power of community rang loud and clear throughout the celebration of the 2018 class of NEA Jazz Masters, held at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on April 16. The recipients—pianist Joanne Brackeen, guitarist Pat Metheny, vocalist Dianne Reeves and impresario Todd Barkan—basked in the glow of a series of stirring tribute performances, most of which featured emerging artists rather than the usual roundup of all-stars and fellow jazz masters so common at gala events.
To salute each honoree, the event’s producers curated a segment featuring a brief introduction from a person of influence in the performing-arts world; a short video profile; a composition or medley of material associated with the honoree, performed by a select group; and a short acceptance speech. The videos, which can be seen along with the entire show on the NEA website, were all first-person interviews that effectively and engagingly captured the honorees’ background and essence. Hearing Barkan explain how he literally stumbled into owning the Bay Area jazz club Keystone Korner, or Brackeen tell how she impulsively sat in with Art Blakey’s band at Slugs’, allowed the audience to marvel at the fortuitous, almost magical aspects of these lives in jazz.
Naturally, the performances saluting the quartet formed the evening’s backbone. Longtime promoter and producer Barkan—recipient of the A.B. Spellman Award for Jazz Advocacy—was saluted by Eddie Palmieri, the only previous NEA Jazz Master on the program. Palmieri was also the only performer to speak at length, though inexplicably he talked not about Barkan but about himself. Then again, his age and stature give him leeway, and his group’s energetic performance of his Monk-inspired “Noble Cruise” showed how the piano great has memorably merged the genres of jazz and Afro-Cuban music.
Barkan’s beautifully written and delivered acceptance speech focused on the unique ability of the music to inspire and even heal us. “No matter what generation we are blessed to be born into,” he said, “we all stand on the shoulders of our teachers, our parents, our heroes and all those elders who have lit the path for us.” He thanked many artists, including perhaps his most important mentor and longtime friend, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, as well as Freddie Hubbard, Dexter Gordon and Miles Davis, mentioning specific gifts received from each.
The next honoree, Pat Metheny, was no less eloquent. In the only reference of the night to contemporary social issues, he compared the ageless influence of music on society with the overhyped world of politics. “Politicians come and go,” he said. “Great music has a way of lasting and remaining influential for a really, really, really, really long time. Anyone seeking long-term political influence should probably pay attention to that.” He predicted that jazz’s influence is likely to be much greater than what we’re aware of now, and that the largest audience for his music may not even be born yet. Metheny isn’t known for speaking a lot to audiences, but when given the opportunity, he’s always thoughtful and articulate.
The performance saluting Metheny was the most creative both in concept and execution, employing five young guitarists—Pasquale Grosso, Nir Felder, Gilad Hekselman, Camila Meza and Dan Wilson—to play a medley of his best-known songs, backed by Metheny’s Day Trip rhythm section of bassist Christian McBride and drummer Antonio Sanchez. The group rolled through “What Do You Want?,” featuring Grosso; a remarkably faithful version of “Bright Size Life,” featuring Felder and Hekselman; the irresistible “James,” featuring Wilson; and the soaring “Minuano (Six Eight),” featuring Meza doubling the theme on voice and guitar. The set, a demonstration of how the music moves across generations, had Metheny beaming with pride.
Joanne Brackeen added a dash of sartorial insouciance by wearing an NEA baseball cap sideways, hip-hop style, with her otherwise semi-formal attire. The garb reflected her own playful way of creating music, combining a mastery of fundamentals with an open acceptance of spontaneous invention. In her heartfelt speech, she discussed how she has been inspired both by her audiences and by silence. “When I play music, I play from the vibration of the people in the place that I’m playing,” she said. “It makes me feel at home on the earth.”
The young pianist James Francies performed a medley of two of Brackeen’s tunes, “Fi-Fi Goes to Heaven” and “Crystal Palace BPC,” backed by McBride and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. Now recording for Blue Note Records, Francies captured the driving virtuosity and improvisational flights of fancy that are hallmarks of Brackeen’s style.
Before the tribute to Reeves, pianist Jason Moran, the Kennedy Center’s Artistic Director for Jazz, improvised music for an “In Memoriam” segment that paid homage to such recently departed NEA Jazz Masters as Jon Hendricks, George Avakian, Muhal Richard Abrams and Cecil Taylor. Moran even evoked Taylor’s distinctive percussive approach while the avant-jazz pioneer’s image was up on the screen.
The final honoree was fêted, appropriately enough, by one of the music’s most impressive young vocalists, Cécile McLorin Salvant. She was accompanied by pianist Sullivan Fortner and a rhythm section of McBride and Carrington, both of whom are likely future NEA Jazz Masters. Carrington in particular has had a long and close relationship with Reeves, not only as a bandmate and musical director but also as a producer. Salvant performed “Obsession,” a tune that Reeves recorded for her 2001 album, The Calling, a celebration of one of her own vocal heroes, Sarah Vaughan. As Reeves said after the performance, Salvant took the song and did something with it that Reeves would never do or even think to do—and such risk-taking is exactly what makes jazz continue to evolve and grow.
Reeves seemed to be the only honoree who spoke extemporaneously, or at least from minimal notes. With warm and humorous anecdotes, she spoke about the early breaks and deep inspiration given to her by mentors like Sérgio Mendes, Clark Terry and her cousin George Duke. It was through Terry, she said, that she learned “my instrument was one thing, but my voice was my soul.” She also thanked her aunt, who nurtured in the singer a love for all kinds of music, including more earthy types, such as a few ribald blues tunes with double-entendre lyrics that a young Reeves didn’t understand until much later.
The evening was capped off by a performance of a totally different kind. The dynamic Afropop singer Angélique Kidjo performed a rousing version of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” backed by many of the musicians from the night, including Felder, McBride, Carrington and Sanchez, plus Helen Sung on piano and keyboards. The honorees came up onstage for the last part of the song, some dancing, one (Reeves) singing, but all smiling. Kudos to the NEA and the Kennedy Center for so perfectly blending a respect for the past with a look to the future.