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Remembering four jazz notables who died in 2023


This is FRESH AIR. At this time each year, our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead remembers the jazz musicians we lost during the year. He paid tribute to Wayne Shorter and Ahmad Jamal earlier, at the time of their deaths. Now he remembers four more who passed, starting with bassist Richard Davis.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Richard Davis bowing the bass behind Eric Dolphy on "Come Sunday" by Duke Ellington. Davis' classical technique made him a valued new music interpreter. His imagination made him one of the great and most versatile bass improvisers. In the 1960s in particular, he played straight ahead and exploratory jazz, and is famously all over Van Morrison's album "Astral Weeks." Richard Davis was also in one of the era's great rhythm trios, with pianist Jaki Byard and drummer Alan Dawson, usually heard backing horn players. Amazing how much bass Richard Davis played within an ensemble.


WHITEHEAD: On the buzzing downtown New York improv scene of the 1980s and '90s, the late trombonist Curtis Fowlkes was an essential presence. He played with John Lurie's Lounge Lizards, with John Zorn, Henry Threadgill, Bill Frisell, Don Byron and many more. Fowlkes was also a smooth vocalist, but really sang on trombone with a beautiful tone and popping high notes. Here's Curtis Fowlkes with the long-running downtown band he co-founded, The Jazz Passengers.


WHITEHEAD: Trombonist Curtis Fowlkes. Another downtown New York mainstay who passed this year was the dramatic free jazz saxophonist Charles Gayle, who liked to squeal out high notes on tenor as if speaking in tongues. He gave his pieces religious titles and might sermonize in concert. He valued deep feeling over displays of technique. But in the right mood, Charles Gayle had a playful way, with twisty little phrases and voice-like bent notes.


WHITEHEAD: Besides Charles Gayle, other fiery tenors who died in 2023 include New Orleans' Kidd Jordan, Chicago's Mars Williams and an imposing giant of European improvised music for six decades, Germany's Peter Brotzmann. Here's the start of his classic 1967 octet recording "Machine Gun."


WHITEHEAD: That wall of sound mostly comes from triple tenors Brotzmann, Willem Breuker and Evan Parker. Peter Brotzmann's maximalism epitomized German-style '60s free music - play loud and long, preferably after lots of alcohol, an indulgence he later gave up with little loss of intensity. Few saxophonists were louder. There's a story about him trying out horns in an isolation booth at the Selmer saxophone factory and being heard all over the building. Peter Brotzmann also liked his squealing high notes.


WHITEHEAD: But he ends that improvisation, quietly slipping into Thelonious Monk's ballad "Crepuscule With Nellie," played straight. The pioneers of European improvised music all revered the American jazz giants.


WHITEHEAD: The many jazz notables who died in 2023 include singers Carol Sloane, Astrud Gilberto and Tony Bennett, saxophonists Tony Coe and Carlos Garnett, bassists Bill Lee and Harrison Bankhead, drummers Butch Miles, Ralph Humphrey and Redd Holt, pianist Karl Berger and ragtimer Max Morath, cellist Tristan Honsinger and arranger Don Sebesky. Also a major composer, Carla Bley, who died in October. She deserves and gets a longer tribute next time. As a teaser, let's go out with Bley's Christmas brass arrangement of her early tune "Jesus Maria."


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the books "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide to Jazz Stories On Film," "Why Jazz?" and "New Dutch Swing." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, it's a David Byrne Christmas. Byrne co-founded and fronted the band Talking Heads. He put together a playlist of his favorite Christmas songs for us and will be with us to play and talk about them. If you get depressed around Christmas, there are some songs on his list for you. And we'll hear a great Christmas song written and performed by David Byrne. I hope you'll join us.

To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLA BLEY'S "JESUS MARIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.