Suraya Mohamed

This is not a drill: Heat Check is back! After a short hiatus and some stellar, late-breaking 2019 releases, Heat Check has returned to recap you on the world of experimental R&B, hip-hop and everything in between.

Here's a first: Steelpans at the Tiny Desk. It's true. Nearly a thousand performances into the series and the instrument has never been featured, until now. While the two bowls look shiny and new in this Jonathan Scales Fourchestra set, they were once authentic oil barrels, pounded, finished and tuned for bandleader, Jonathan Scales. But instrumentation and singularity aside, Scales' virtuosity, energy and connection to his bandmates wowed the NPR crowd, many of whom had never heard this music before.



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Leslie Odom Jr. walked through the door with unassuming confidence and a big smile that brightened the room. Later, during his Tiny Desk performance, he recalled advice he'd received from a friend: "You have to get used to it — you are part of a cultural phenomenon in New York City," Odom said, before quipping, "I feel so blessed to be a part of Law & Order: SVU for three magnificent seasons."

Most people who don't know jazz can probably recognize the name of one of the genre's best singers: Ella Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is one of the eight women at the center of this season of NPR Music's Turning the Tables, and she's arguably one of the most important vocalists not just in jazz but in the entire history of American music. With an exceptional vocal style, supreme technical capabilities and a spirited energy, she was "The First Lady of Song."

He should have been exhausted, but instead played the Tiny Desk with incredible stamina, holding a single trumpet note that lasted longer than most people can hold their breath. In the days just before this performance, Nicholas Payton played at the Joy of Jazz Festival in Johannesburg, South Africa, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, then Santiago, Chile and, finally, New York City. A member of his team drove them the four hours from NYC so he could nap in the car and be ready to play.

Standing behind the Tiny Desk with only pianist Sullivan Fortner by her side, jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant remarked that she hadn't been this nervous in a while. But it was hard to tell: She embraced the discomfort with ease, taking command of the space with a calm demeanor and spiritual presence that felt both humble and persuasive.

Last month, the National Endowment for the Arts crowned four new NEA Jazz Masters, including Todd Barkan, a jazz advocate whose early interest in Latin jazz piano turned into a successful five-decade career as a prominent impresario, club owner and record producer. Guitarist Pat Metheny continues to redefine the parameters of his instrument through innovative technique and signature sound. Pianist Joanne Brackeen's unique style commands attention, and Dianne Reeves has become one of the world's preeminent jazz vocalists, whose genius in retrospect seems ceaseless.

Logan Richardson's latest project, Blues People, is a condition, a state of being. The album was derived from the early slave calls that inspired the earliest American jazz and blues musical traditions. Here at the Tiny Desk, the saxophonist revisits that history with four remarkable songs from the album, all performed with a hope that our country's future will be less painful than its past.

Rhythm is the foundation for many a musical experience. Its driving pulse yields a power that quite often demands movement - a toe to tap, a body to sway. But drummer Nate Smith provides more than just a beat. He intentionally weaves nuanced rhythmic counterpoint in and out of his catchy melodies and dulcet harmonies.

Just try to discern the multiple time signatures in the first tune, "Skip Step" Syncopated yet steady, its rhythmic motifs bolster Jon Cowherd's keyboard riff and the song's melodic statement, played in unison by saxophonist Jaleel Shaw and guitarist Jeremy Most.

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