Get to know the game-changing artists reimagining the music genre du jour
Words Joel Dinerstein
Illustration James Boast
Right now, jazz is in a state of rhythmic re-enchantment around the world as musicians, DJs, and sound artists sync it up with house, funk, soul, and electronica to create innovative soundscapes for the twenty-first century. UK jazz is enjoying a resurgence, the music remains vital in Chicago and New Orleans, and it continues to draw in European, Asian, and Latin American musicians – as represented here by Linda Oh (Australian and China), Paolo Fresu (Italy), and Dayme Oracena (Cuba).
Jazz has become a site for the routes and roots of the African diaspora, starting here with London’s Sons of Kemet (“My Queen is Ada Eastman”), going across the Atlantic to pick up the Cuban and Haitian gods (“Eleggua,” “Calling the Loas”) then continuing west to New Orleans for the “Connection to Congo Square” at the site where African elements first converged and were preserved. The blues still sings in the music’s foundation – listen here to Cecile McLorin Savant’s homage to blueswoman Ida Cox’s “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” – but so now do visions of Afrofuturism, whether Kamasi Washington’s sonic meditation on “Agents of the Multiverse” or the grooving “Funky Booda.”
If half these tracks work as well for dancers as audiophiles, then the other half shimmer with the music’s underrated capacity for melody – the moody tropical noir of “Snare, Girl,” Ashley Henry’s tense reimagining of the punk classic “Pressure,” Esperanza Spalding’s grooving electric blues in “Change Us.” Jazz was the first global music, available to any musician willing to create a distinctive personal sound, yet it still also remains true to the roots of its earliest outreach.
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TRACK BY TRACK
Bemsha Swing, Thelonious Sphere Monk (Alpha Pup, 2018)
MAST is Tim Conley, an American multi-instrumentalist and drum programmer, whose recent tribute to Thelonious Monk produced this up-tempo recharged “Bemsha Swing.” Raised in Philadelphia, Conley comes out of the Low End Theory scene in Los Angeles, an iconic club that produced this kind of distinctive melding of jazz, hiphop, and electronica.
2. Sons of Kemet
My Queen is Ada Eastman, Your Queen is a Reptile (Impulse!, 2018)
Over a club-ready tuba riff that floats under the band’s two-drummer groove, London’s Sons of Kemet kick off an album celebrating queens of African descent with a tribute to saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings’ Barbadian great-grandmother and poet Joshua Idahen’s call of survival, “Still here / still unruly.”
3. Tenderlonious and Dennis Ayler
Funky Booda, 8R1CK C17Y (22a, 2017)
UK jazz is in a state of rhythmic re-enchantment as young South Londoners sync it up with house, funk, soul, and electronica. Synthesist Tenderlonious and sound artist Ayler repurpose synth-heavy ’70s licks here to build some new musical bricks and their pun on booda/booty suggests a convergence of mind, body and spirit.
4 . Esperanza Spalding
Change Us, Emily’s D+ Evolution (Concord, 2016)
Vocalist, bandleader, and virtuoso bassist, Spalding is the exemplary jazz artist of her generation. Equally at home in bebop, chamber music, Brazilian music and R&B, she composes in the tradition of Wayne Shorter, suiting groove and melody to each song’s needs. Here guitar-and-bass lock into a chill, soulful groove but slowly she generates some real heat as the song unfolds.
5. Daymé Oracena
Eleggua, Cubafonía (Brownswood, 2017)
Oracena is a Cuban vocalist and choir director whose sonic clash of jazz, rumba, and guaguancó rhythms create a thunderous opening groove to call upon the Santeria deity of the crossroads, Eleggua. Born and raised in Havana, Oracena’s classical and folkloric training easily mesh with the deep cultural mix of Cuban street and church traditions.
6. Nicholas Payton
Intro to Kimathi, Afro-Caribbean Mixtape (Paytone, 2017)
Payton started out as a trumpeter in New Orleans brass bands at the age of 10 then made albums with the likes of Elvin Jones, organist Jimmy Smith, and Marcus Roberts while in his early 20s. Now an outspoken political activist on behalf of jazz and Black music more broadly, Payton’s searing trumpet sparks a sonic Afro-Caribbean soundscape.
7. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah
Ashes of Our Forever, Empancipation Procrastination (Ropeadope, 2017)
Adjuah mixes jazz, electronica, soul and some drum’n’bass into moody, densely textured ballads reminiscent of Miles Davis’s late work. Born and raised in New Orleans, Adjuah first played live in clubs at 15 under the tutelage of his famous uncle, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, and has since mixed his lyricism with activism.
8. Nels Cline
Snare, Girl, Lovers (Blue Note, 2016)
Cline is an American jazz guitarist and composer whose acclaimed concept album, Lovers, unfolds like the soundtrack of a long, tragic relationship. Here, Cline carries a spare melody into lush textures of a dense emotional jungle. Best known now as Wilco’s lead guitarist, Cline plays in a jazz guitar duo with Julian Lage and leads The Nels Cline 4.
9. Cécile McLorin Savant
Wild Women Don’t Have The Blues, Dreams and Daggers (Mack Avenue, 2017)
Savant is a Haitian-American vocalist who sings about a woman’s everyday experience with a rare combination of intimacy, humor, and emotional honesty. Classically-trained in voice in French and English, Savant moves easily from a whisper to a shout, drawing on blues, gospel, and soul. She won top prize in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2010.
10. Gerald Clayton
A Light, Tributary Tales (Motema, 2017)
Gerald Clayton is an innovative pianist and composer carrying on the jazz tradition as he learned it under the mentorship of Kenny Barron and Charles Lloyd. “A Light” is a propulsive composition kept buoyant by the high-level interplay of the piano trio. Clayton serves as the Musical Director of the Monterey Jazz Festival.
11. Herlin Riley
Connection to Congo Square, New Direction (Mack Avenue, 2017)
Riley is the embodiment of the New Orleans jazz tradition, born and raised in one of the city’s musical families and serving as drummer for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra under Wynton Marsalis. This track honors the ancestors at the birthplace of jazz, Congo Square, where African rhythms and dances were preserved on Sundays in the 19th century.
12. Bassist Linda Oh
Mantis, Walk Against Wind (Biophilia, 2017)
Linda Oh is an Australian bassist of Chinese heritage whose turn on the recent all-star Joe Lovano – Dave Douglas quintet album (Scandal) crowned her arrival into the first rank of jazz musicians. Classically-trained on piano and, as well, in classical Indian rhythms, Oh holds together eclectic melodic lines and rhythmic textures in this track’s complex bass-and-saxophone interplay.
13. Heiroglyphic Being
Calling the Loas, A.R.E. Project (Technicolour, 2017)
DJ and sound artist Hieroglyphic Being (aka Jamal Moss) draws here on both Chicago’s acid house club music and Sun Ra’s afrofuturism. Having first transmuted the experiences of his rough South Side past into raw industrial grooves, Moss now composes soundscapes to transform the listener’s headspace — as with this call to the Vodou gods known as loas.
14. Kamasi Washington
Agents of the Multiverse, The Choice (Young Turks, 2018)
The American saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington is the first jazz break-out star in a decade Along with sometime partner Kendrick Lamar, Washington came out of a rich Los Angeles musical scene that includes cult jazz figures such as Madlib and Flying Lotus. On this track, he takes the listener on a Coltranesque spiritual journey.
15. Ashley Henry and the RE Ensemble
Pressure, Easter EP (Sony/Silvertone, 2018)
The RE Ensemble’s transformation of the punk classic “Pressure” into an off-kilter soul ballad simply makes musical sense for pianist Ashley Henry. At first in thrall to the musical world of South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, Henry added abstract elements and electronic effects to create his own distinctive sound. He has also been Guest Musical Director at Ronnie Scott’s.
16. Paolo Fresu
Blue Silence, Mare Nostrum II (ACT Music, 2016)
Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu’s meditation on Astor Piazzolla’s nuevo tango sound provides a film noir-ish cinematic fade-out. Fresu’s lyricism has been in demand ever since composer Carla Bley shaped a suite around him, The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu (2007), and he has since recorded in duos with guitarist Ralph Towner and keyboardist Uri Caine.