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Remembering cello player Abdul Wadud, and other jazz greats who died in 2022

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. More jazz musicians died in 2022 than we have time to acknowledge. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead remembers a few jazz musicians who passed this year, starting with cello player Abdul Wadud.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDUL WADUD COMPOSITION)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Coming up in the 1970s, Abdul Wadud wasn't the first jazz cellist by a long shot. But Wadud, more than anyone, made cello sound like a big blues guitar. Conceptual coup that influenced dozens of later jazz cellists. He funkified it. Wadud's resourcefulness, forceful articulation and classical chops with a bow made him a key ally of composer improvisers Julius Hemphill, Arthur Blythe and Anthony Davis.

This year, we also lost a titan of the 1960s avant-garde - saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. This is from "The Creator Has A Master Plan," 1969.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHAROAH SANDERS SONG, "THE CREATOR HAS A MASTER PLAN")

WHITEHEAD: Pharoah Sanders quoting the old song "I Want To Be Happy" at the end there. Sanders drew audible inspiration from mentor and booster John Coltrane, whose spiritual music currently inspires a new jazz generation who might learn from Pharaoh's example. He showed how to personalize that style with funkier rhythms and the trademark shrieky high notes other free jazz saxophonists admired.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHAROAH SANDERS SONG, "AFRICA")

WHITEHEAD: Philadelphia jazz organist Joey DeFrancesco, who died at 51 in 2022, was one of those folks music just poured out of from childhood. He learned to play a few instrument families and sang a bit as well. On record, he backed singers Joe Pesci and Van Morrison. But Joey DeFrancesco will be best remembered for his monster keyboard technique. At the electric organ, he demonstrated his shrieky high notes and precisely sliced rhythms.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY DEFRANCESCO'S "IN THE KEY OF THE UNIVERSE")

WHITEHEAD: On a few Blue Note records of the early 1960s, trombonist Grachan Moncur III and colleagues like Jackie McLean mixed swinging hard bop with new developments, like modal jazz and looser timing. The music sounds startlingly in-between-ish, mixing old and new. The ground seems to slide out from under Grachan's singing trombone in 1964's "The Twins."

(SOUNDBITE OF GRACHAN MONCUR III'S "THE TWINS")

WHITEHEAD: Trombonist Grachan Moncur III, whose music resisted easy categorizing to the end.

One shocking loss this year was trumpeter Jaimie Branch at 39, just a few years after she'd begun making her mark. Branch had a punky, street kid persona reinforced by her occasional rude vocals. But she knew her jazz history and many ways to make trumpets sing. Branch led the jumping quartet Fly or Die, here with Lester St. Louis on cello, carrying on that Abdul Wadud tradition. You can hear the history and the joy when Jaimie Branch plays "Simple Silver Surfer."

(SOUNDBITE OF JAIMIE BRANCH'S "SIMPLE SILVER SURFER")

WHITEHEAD: Earlier in the year, we remember trumpeter Ron Miles and pianist Ramsey Lewis. More fine musicians died in 2022 than we have time to feature. Among them, pianists Warren Bernhardt, Fred Van Hove and Paul Plimley, guitarists Joe Diorio, Mick Goodrick and Monnette Sudler, bassists Michael Henderson and Charnett Moffett, singer Ernie Andrews, arranger Sy Johnson, vibist Khan Jamal, trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez, clarinetist Rolf Kuhn, and one more to take us out - gravelly baritone saxophone growler Ronnie Cuber. They all made our ears richer.

(SOUNDBITE OF RONNIE CUBER COMPOSITION)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." And he writes for Point of Departure and the Audio Beat.

If you'd like to catch up on our series of some of our favorite interviews of the year, like our interviews with Steven Spielberg, comic and actor Jerrod Carmichael and Sterlin Harjo, co-creator of the series "Reservation Dogs," check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And why not subscribe to our newsletter - for free, of course - in time for the New Year? You can subscribe through our website, freshair.npr.org. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF RONNIE CUBER COMPOSITION) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.
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