Jazz & COVID-19: Artist-to-Artist Tributes

Key tracks selected and annotated by current jazz greats.

Ellis Marsalis performs during the 2017 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Credit: Douglas Mason/WireImage.

Covid-19 has taken all kinds of irreplaceable artists from us, but the pandemic’s toll on jazz, with its concentration of elderly yet still thriving players, has been especially devastating. For this International Jazz Day, we asked great musicians to pay tribute to these departed heroes by choosing a recording and annotating it. In these tracks and albums, you’ll hear the technical and emotional brilliance that made these musicians so renowned — and has made their deaths so deeply felt. Beyond those covered here, additional jazz titans have died due to Covid-19 — among them Bootsie Barnes, Giuseppi Logan and Mike Longo — and you can read about their lives and work in our ongoing Covid-19 feature– Ed.

Wallace Roney
By Antoine Roney

My brother had a very special way of playing ballads. It came from Miles Davis’ interpretation of songs, and it allowed him to stretch or even stop time in certain places in a song, if the rhythm section understood how to create the space for time to stop; the song would feel like it was slower than it actually was. In stretching the time, you can harmonically change the colors that linger into the next chord, helping to create the illusion of no time and form, and guiding the listener to follow the solo and not the song. My brother was a master at this — among many other things!

Wallace (left) and Antoine Roney perform in Italy in 2005. Credit: Ernesto Ruscio/FilmMagic.Wallace (left) and Antoine Roney perform in Italy in 2005. Credit: Ernesto Ruscio/FilmMagic.

Henry Grimes
By Darius Jones

Henry Grimes’ 1965 album The Call is extraordinary art. My favorite track is “Fish Story.” The energetically focused intro showcases Henry’s virtuosic control over bowed bass. Transitioning into a rubato melody with Henry and clarinetist Perry Robinson, drummer Tom Price continues the intro’s sonic texture. A break in the sound occurs for about a minute, followed by spellbinding group improvisation where Henry switches to pizzicato on the bass, and that switch changes the color and texture of the overall piece. My favorite moment, though, comes at the very end. Listen for it — it made me scream with joy the first time I heard it.

Bucky Pizzarelli
By John Pizzarelli

I chose “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” from April Kisses as an example of Bucky Pizzarelli’s determination to “conquer” a song. I was on a gig with him in Bern, Switzerland, in 1986, where the leader called the tune and there was a bit of a struggle on it, but we got through it. For the rest of the tour, my father was practicing that song every morning, determined not to let the struggle happen again. So here, 13 years later, is a fully realized arrangement: the melody stated in E-flat, a modulation to C for an improvised full-chorus chord solo, then back to the bridge in the original key, with a half-step up to E for the finale. A beautiful piece of work from a man dedicated to the guitar. It all sounds so easy, but as Sondheim said, “What’s natural comes hard.” I saw all the work that made it look so easy on the bandstand.

Bucky (right) and John Pizzarelli in 1997. Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images.Bucky (right) and John Pizzarelli in 1997. Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images.

Manu Dibango
By Ken Field, Revolutionary Snake Ensemble

With only two chords and a small handful of short repeated melodies, the late Cameroonian saxophonist, composer and bandleader Manu Dibango’s international hit “Soul Makossa” is surprisingly deep. There’s a lot of meat on those somewhat spare bones. Of course it’s the groove that gets the body moving, but this composition works well with any of a number of funky grooves supporting it — I know because I’ve tried! Starting with the well-known (and sometimes borrowed) vocal chant, the infectious initial sax line that follows kicks it up a notch. Then there’s the lush harmony of the legato choral ostinato, with Dibango’s rap-style vocal interjections. When the fanfare-style horn chorus hits, again with vocal and horn interjections, there is no turning back, and Dibango’s perfectly placed short solos seal the deal.

Lee Konitz
By Dan Tepfer

I love this track from our last duo record, Decade, for a number of reasons. First, it’s a rare opportunity to hear Lee play soprano sax. Second, we’re free improvising here, with no pre-planning of any aspect of the music whatsoever, and you can hear Lee’s deep comfort with this throughout. Hear him react to the textures I lay down with a seemingly effortless string of strong and meaningful melodies, even under the most challenging of circumstances. Hear him, at 3:40, after the skies part in my playing, find the opposite emotion — a darker, more doubtful one — to maintain dramatic balance. As the track comes to an end, hear him be in no rush to fill the increasing amounts of space I offer, producing statements with infinite patience. And at the end, hear him — out of the blue — start to sing, right before rattling the keys of his saxophone to sound the final bell. His mastery and fearlessness shine throughout.

Lee Konitz (left) and Dan Tepfer. Credit: Josh Goleman.
Lee Konitz (left) and Dan Tepfer. Credit: Josh Goleman.

Ellis Marsalis Jr.
By Delfeayo Marsalis

My dad was extraordinary for a number of reasons. He never complained, always sought the most effective solution and wasn’t a fan of superfluous shenanigans — and his playing mirrored the man, honest and pure. He was the inspiration for the title of our recording The Last Southern Gentlemen, because his playing possessed a certain quality that has somehow eluded the generations of musicians after him. Never overbearing on the bandstand, his primary concern as an accompanist was to put the leader in the best possible position to achieve success. “The Secret Love Affair” is an original composition that could be considered outside of his comfort zone, yet he used his tremendous sense of musicianship to play exactly what was required. During rehearsals he would always ask, “Is that what you’re hearing?”

One of his greatest assets as a teacher was the respect he had for all of his students … including his sons. My dad was a believer in and a fan of scholarship. He led by example. To see him in the classroom was akin to watching a chess master expertly playing five matches at once. His assignment of homework was specific to the needs of each student, varying by his or her level of proficiency. In preparing for The Last Southern Gentlemen — an album of mostly American standard compositions — he suggested, “You might want to learn the lyrics to these songs.” Such was his brilliant personal philosophy and teaching methodology. My references in preparing “I Cover the Waterfront” included Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Lester Young, all masters of expressing the melody. In the end, however, it’s his soulfully relaxed stride piano that closes the album — expertly displaying his personal style and its many influences, from Jelly Roll Morton and Art Tatum to the many masters of modern musings.

[More of Marsalis’ tribute can be found here.]

Hal Willner
By Steven Bernstein

Weird Nightmare was the last of the five tribute records Hal Willner produced between 1981 and 1992, paying homage to Nino Rota, Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill, Disney and Charles Mingus. Like all of Hal’s records, it’s meant to be experienced from beginning to end, like a movie. Weird Nightmare is 19 songs clocking in at 74:15, and it features an amazing house band, with guests including Henry Threadgill, Keith Richards, Leonard Cohen and Elvis Costello, and a room full of Harry Partch’s handmade instruments.

“Freedom” is the final song, the final scene in the movie. There is a reprise following it, but think of that as the end credits. It represents everything Hal to me … a beautiful arrangement by Michael Blair, with Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) reciting Mingus’ poem over the first theme with bass marimba and Gary Lucas’ resonator guitar. When the “song” comes in, Bill Frisell’s dreamlike, atmospheric guitar reimagines the role of the wailing brass answers on the original. Mac’s soulful vocals make the song sound like an outtake from Gris-Gris, and after it builds slowly it devolves into Frisell’s guitar delays and the dreamworld of Partch instruments. Anyone else would have given you this masterpiece near the beginning of the CD … so listen from the beginning.

As Hal said in the liner notes, “WE’LL SELL DOZENS! … I’ll be seeing you.”


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