Béla Fleck, Thana Alexa, Brad Mehldau, Norah Jones, John Pizzarelli, Angélique Kidjo, Ocelot, Christopher Hoffman and more: Videos

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Last March, the jazz capital of the world became a ghost town. The Checkout attempts to bring some joy as we look back on a certifiably frightening year.

Our beloved jazz scene was crushed by COVID-19 in more ways to remember. But we tried to infuse some bright moments during these dark times. We spotlighted musicians quick to adapt with astonishing innovation: pianist Dan Tepfer beaming-in others with his telematic performances. Singer Thana Alexa immediately pivoted to present the livestream series Live From Our Living Rooms.

We also sent a healing message from pianist Nduduzo Makahtini, who is also known as a Sangoma, a traditional healer in South Africa. The pianist Brad Mehldau persevered by writing a gorgeous suite mostly inspired by being at home with his family.

I suppose that was one silver lining for many of us: we had a chance to reconnect deeply with our closest family, a detail lovingly portrayed in Alone Together Duets, a series co-produced with my wife, Sarah Geledi, from Jazz Night in America. We bring you two recent heartwarming additions by Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn from Nashville and Mike and Leni Stern from Manhattan.

WBGO’s Special Projects Producer Trevor Smith and I pause to reflect on these strange yet beautiful occurrences, which will hopefully bring a smile to your face too. We kick it off with a radiant single which just dropped: “Get Sun” by Hiatus Kiayote featuring Authur Verocai.

Get excited everyone. A country is healing. Summer is coming. And, this incredible band is dropping a new recording Mood Valiant in June.

Norah Jones, “It Was You (Live)”

Can it really be the case that Norah Jones has never released a live album? In the two decades since her breakthrough, there have been concert films, including the platinum-selling Live in New Orleans, and live bonus tracks, like those on a special edition of Day Breaks. But ‘Til We Meet Again will be Jones’ first full live release in album form.

Due out on Blue Note on April 16, it’s a compilation of choice performances spanning three continents, from 2017-2019. The album’s lead single, “It Was You,” was captured at the Ohana Festival in Dana Point, Calif. in 2018. (The song originally appeared on Jones’ album Begin Again that same year.) Jones is as soulful and surefooted as ever, singing as usual at the piano; her band, with Pete Remm on organ, Christopher Thomas on bass, and Brian Blade on drums, holds down a deep-in-the-pocket groove.

Angélique Kidjo, “Dignity (feat. Yemi Alade)”

“Respect is reciprocal,” goes the refrain in “Dignity, a radiant new single from the Afropop queen Angélique Kidjo, featuring Yemi Alade. The track draws inspiration from widespread youth protests against police brutality in Alade’s home country of Nigeria.

The video for the song juxtaposes images from an industrial shipyard and an African village, with dance as an affirmative and unifying thread. Alade, who featured Kidjo on a single of her own last year, brings an assertive, youthful brio to the performance. But it’s Kidjo who delivers the most encouraging message in the song:

A glimpse of hope in humanity
The last frontier of our own sanity
Spread your love to all equally
And plant the seeds of radical beauty

Christopher Hoffman, “Discretionary”

Best known as a longtime associate of NEA Jazz Master and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Henry Threadgill, cellist Christopher Hoffman hardly needs to prove his bona fides as an agile improviser and ensemble player. But with Asp Nimbus, his new album on Out of Your Head Records, Hoffman distinguishes himself further as a bandleader.

The album features his compositions for a quartet with Bryan Carrott on vibraphone, Rashaan Carter on bass and Craig Weinrib on drums. (One track features a cameo by pianist David Virelles.) Hoffman’s reference points include Bobby Hutcherson’s Oblique as well as Threadgill’s Everybody’s Mouth’s a Book (which featured Carrott). This is a strong statement in that tradition, and a long stride forward in Hoffman’s solo career.

Ocelot, “Iterations I (Live at Scholes St)”

An ocelot, for the zoologically challenged, is a spotted wildcat native to Latin America and the Southwestern United States. Ocelot is also a Brooklyn-based trio composed of saxophonist and clarinetist Yuma Uesaka, pianist Cat Toren and drummer Colin Hinton.

On its self-titled debut album, Ocelot embraces an exploratory ethos that often finds a place for rhythmic or tonal abstraction; it can occasionally call to mind another trio with this instrumentation, Paradoxical Frog. But because each member of the group has their own style, the sum total of their sounds is distinct. And as you can see in this recent footage from Scholes Street Studio — where they’ll play an album-release show tonight at 8 p.m. ET — their interplay suggests a life of its own.

John Pizzarelli, “James”

As a guitarist and a singer, John Pizzarelli has built a distinguished career more or less synonymous with songbook standards: his last two albums were tributes to Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra with Antonio Carlos Jobim. So his next release is in some ways a departure, with a mission stated in the title: Better Days Ahead: Solo Guitar Takes on Pat Metheny. The cover image, which depicts Pizzarelli in a surgical mask, underscores that this is a pandemic album, the byproduct of stillness and reflection.

Pizzarelli, who lost his father to COVID-19, turned to Metheny’s music as both a comfort and a challenge. And “James,” a piece that first appeared on the Pat Metheny Group album Offramp in 1982, was his gateway.

“When I was playing in bars in New Jersey, I taught my groups to play that song as best we could,” Pizzarelli recalls in a recent video posted to social media. “I never really got through the bridge so well in my 20s.” By now, of course, he’s cracked the code, with beautiful results.

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