Heaven's rock band got a lot better in 2016

Story highlights

  • Gene Seymour: 2016 saw a slew of departed music stars entering the astral plane
  • He says: from Natalie Cole to Bowie, to Prince, to Maurice White, George Martin and many more, a mighty chorus has arrived in the hereafter

Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)This year's edition of the never-ending, always-expanding Astral Plane Pop & Jazz Festival was, as you can guess, very special in its range and (you'll pardon the expression) dimension. There seemed to be a LOT more additional newly deceased music immortals joining the ensemble in 2016, and we may end up leaving some big names out.

The surprises this year came in furious waves.
Soon after Natalie Cole's jolting New Year's Eve departure from our earthly plane, she was joined by jazz pianist Paul Bley (Jan. 3), playing solo renditions of such knotty, quirky and hauntingly beautiful compositions as "Ida Lupino."
Riveting as Bley was (and composer-conductor Pierre Boulez, who arrived on Jan. 6, waited to see if he could find an orchestral arrangement or two), he was the warm-up act for the first surge of new acts.
First came David Bowie on Jan. 10, just two days after he turned 69. Though he'd been ill with cancer for months, Bowie's arrival even surprised the angels. Having just released a jazz-inflected album, Bowie was intrigued by what Bley was playing. But the audience knew what it wanted and what did he give them first? "Changes," of course. An old friend from Mott the Hoople, drummer Dale "Buffin" Griffin (Jan. 17), arrived just in time to provide backup.
Seconds later, the Eagles' Glenn Frey (Jan. 17) materialized on the big stage and Bowie, unfailingly generous, cued the choirs to lead Frey into "Desperado." Paul Kantner (Jan. 28), from Jefferson Airplane, traded fours with Frey on the guitar break and then Bowie, Frey and Kantner leaned into "Somebody To Love" as if they'd played it all their lives.
The musical gears shifted Feb. 4 when Maurice White, founder and guiding spirit of Earth, Wind & Fire, came on stage and Griffin offered him his seat on the trap set. White appreciated the love, but he'd brought his thumb piano and that would do for now.
Vanity (Feb, 16), the artist formerly known as Denise Matthews wandered into the audience. Somebody asked her about Prince. All she did was hold a secret behind a sad smile.
But revelations would have to wait because Phife Dawg (March 23), from A Tribe Called Quest, had just swaggered onto the stage. White said he HAD to take the drums now.
Merle Haggard (April 6) sauntered to the spotlight after a short break. "Mama Cried" was what he'd wanted to play at that moment and he'd decided to leave it there. The silence that followed was long enough to make everybody wonder if something big was coming.
Yes. And with one fiery guitar riff piercing the deep, dark silence, Vanity's melancholy secret was out.
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Prince (April 21) seemed energized by the crowd and played the nitro-powered set they'd been expecting. In the middle of "Little Red Corvette," Phife ran back on with a new arrival with his own guitar: Beastie Boys co-founder John Berry (May 19). Not known for sharing the stage easily on Earth, Prince shrugged and let Berry jam with him.
Three encores later, Prince and his crew were joined by another wave, this one comprising mostly jazz musicians: pianists Sit Charles Thompson (June 16), Claude Williamson (July 16) and Don Friedman (June 30), flutist Jeremy Steig (April 13), baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley (May 11). Because the Astral Plane recognizes no musical dividing lines, the rockers jammed with the jazz folk and vice-versa.
Frank Sinatra Jr. (May 16) brought his dad along to watch and even he was OK with the combinations. Dad was especially tickled to see Mose Allison (Nov. 15) drawling and vocalizing on "Your Molecular Structure."
Somebody had to record all this stuff and this year's crack engineering staff was joined by the formidable Sir George Martin (March 8), who could be heard in the booth discussing possible string arrangements with Sir Neville Marriner (Oct. 2). "Promising," was how Marriner assessed the available talent.
Martin was about to deliver an outline of what, with characteristic wit, he termed a "killer" climax, when once again the stage went dark and blank. A low growl could be heard and as soon as those growls coalesced into "Suzanne" everybody knew Leonard Cohen (Nov. 7) had arrived. Steig was brought back to accompany him on a nakedly emotional "Hallelujah."
Which should, by all rights, have been enough for a climax. It wasn't.
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Somehow, Sharon Jones (Nov. 18) was supposed to follow Cohen and it turned out to be a snap for one of the most galvanic soul vocalists formerly on Earth. And the surprises weren't over. Kay Starr (Nov. 3) joined the Dap Kings lead singer on-stage and asked her if there was anything they could do together. It takes a lot to surprise the Astral Plane, especially this year. But Starr and Jones made even George Martin's eyes grow big with a killer version of "This Land is Your Land."
Martin was floored, though not hard enough to make him forget his plan for a big finish. He waved all the rockers, jazzers and pop stars back on the stage. There was one more song to sing and he wanted to make sure everybody got to do a chorus.
More big stories from 2016 ...

... including the year's best pictures, in-depth reporting and a look at the year ahead, go to CNN.com/2016.

Which song? And that's when they turned to a figure with long hair and an even longer beard, both white as snow. Leon Russell (Nov, 13) sat at a piano in center stage and took the first chorus of -- what else? -- "A Song For You."
On second thought, Martin commanded, forget taking choruses. Everybody sing or play the song in his or her own way.
Which, of course, they all did. It went on for days and days, but time doesn't matter much in the Astral Plane.
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What else could they do? Especially after a year like this one.