Five Minutes That Will Make You Love 21st-Century Jazz
Over the past few months, The New York Times has asked jazz musicians, critics and scholars to answer the question, What would you play a friend to make them fall in love with Duke Ellington? Or Alice Coltrane? We’ve also covered bebop, vocal jazz and the catalogs of Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra.
That’s a lot of listening back. So this month, we decided to explore what’s happening now. Where is jazz today? It’s a good time to be asking. Just a dozen years ago, the music seemed to be having a crisis of self-worth. Where was its center? Could anything guarantee its relevance?
But over the past five or 10 years, you could say that jazz has gone through a kind of ego death, and then a rebirth: Today there’s no particular sound or style that young players all want to preserve, but jazz as a general practice — a commitment to taking on musical adventures together, live and in real time; to treating musical instruments as the writing utensils for a narrative — hasn’t been this alive in decades. As a result, all across the jazz spectrum, artists are in comfortable contact with hip-hop, contemporary poetry, the Black Lives Matter movement and visual art.
Below, we asked writers and jazz musicians of various generations to recommend their favorite recordings from the new millennium. Enjoy reading their commentary and listening to the excerpts, and find a playlist at the bottom of the article with full tracks. As always, be sure to leave your own favorites in the comments.
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Terri Lyne Carrington, drummer
During the swing era, jazz was a leader in the trends of pop culture and even perceived as dance music, but then there was a seismic shift toward sitting down and listening. I’m encouraged by the emergence of artists today who have pursued “groove” in their jazz without compromising creativity, reminding us that this can be music that makes you want to move. Kassa Overall is such an artist. I love his song “Who’s on the Playlist” because it invites the question, “Is this jazz or is this hip-hop?” Kassa is a pre-eminent style bender and blender, successfully juxtaposing genres through his production expertise and use of melodic and harmonic forms that deftly integrate the new with the old. This track is authentic and unpretentious, blending acoustic instruments with electronic sounds, catchy hooks with improvisation and diverse musical sections, and jazz chords with polyrhythmic raps that express personal stories in hip-hop vernacular. It powerfully exhibits the consistent innovation in the continuum of Black music and encourages us not to draw lines in the sand.
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Sonny Rollins, saxophonist
J.D. Allen’s got a nice, full sound: It really fills up the room when he’s playing. When I was living in Chicago many, many years ago, there used to be a player called Alec Johnson. Alec had one of these strong sounds that would really captivate you: “Wow, listen to that — to the music, to the volume!” So when I hear J.D., he reminds me of Alec in that way. He’s got a nice, big, fat sound, and he’s got a lot of ideas. He doesn’t sound like he’s ever wanting to find something to play. So I really am struck by that, and I really liked him when I heard him perform live. There’s so much music out here today, I’m glad that he’s keeping the flame.
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Marcus J. Moore, jazz writer
I’ve long admired Luke Stewart’s artistic versatility: You can see him plucking the upright bass as a member of the free jazz quintet Irreversible Entanglements, playing the electric as one-half of the psych-rock-leaning Blacks’ Myths, or engaging in traditional and free-form hybrids at the helm of his Silt Trio. While it’s tough to single out one Stewart song as my favorite, I always find myself coming back to “Awakening the Masters,” the propulsive opener of his 2020 “Exposure Quintet” album. The bass loop captivates, enticing the reedists Ken Vandermark and Edward Wilkerson Jr., the pianist Jim Baker and the drummer Avreeayl Ra to build upon it with ascendant saxophone wails, escalating cymbals and billowing piano chords suspended gently in the mix. Even as the harmony develops and mutates, Stewart saunters along, his bass keeping the song in a steady rhythmic pocket. I think that’s why I like it so much: It’s a microcosm of Stewart’s centered presence across the spectrum of experimental music. No matter the subgenre, he’s an immovable force guiding the music forward.
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Theo Croker, trumpeter
I was thinking about what would honestly bring people to this music, and it’s hearing something young. Because young people have always been the pioneers of this music. People become great masters as they age, but it’s something that they did when they were young that everybody caught onto and connected with. With Domi & JD Beck, they don’t sound jaded by jazz school; they sound like they’re doing their thing. They respect everything else that’s come before and they’re pushing forward with their own thing. It has a lot of integrity, but it’s also playful; it’s very technical, but it’s also fun. And with this track, they gave us a gem: another Herbie Hancock vocoder song! There were always those two classics — “I Thought It Was You” and “Come Running to Me” — but now we’ve got another.
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Billy Hart, drummer
Immanuel Wilkins is clearly spending a lot of time on the instrument, just like John Coltrane did. He’s obviously putting the horn in his mouth a lot. There are some other guys that have talent but their desire is to be popular. But Immanuel Wilkins’s music has really got some depth, and it’s going to influence the future, at least the way I see it. That first album of his, “Omega,” really broke some ground. It’s substantial. And it has to do with the tradition.
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Giovanni Russonello, Times jazz critic
When you really tune into a piece of music, what are you usually paying attention to? The words? The beat? A line you can go off humming? Nicole Mitchell’s music with the Black Earth Ensemble rewards listening of about any kind, but it’s best received with a sense of surrender. Limit your expectations of what might be coming next. Put your body under the influence. On “Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds,” a 2017 LP influenced by Octavia Butler’s writings, the poet and vocalist Avery R. Young lends Pentecostal flair to lines of earnest recognition — “I want to pick up my blade/But then again there’s gotta be another way,” he hollers — while Mitchell’s flute whips and shivers around him, a well-contained force of nature. Playing a mix of Asian, European and Afro-diasporic instruments, the eight-piece ensemble raises the high-water mark gradually, in splashes, until you’re swept up. Mitchell is calling up the spirit-memories of this music, which are so often grounded in a particular place: Ornette Coleman at Prince Street, Fred Anderson on the South Side, Alice Coltrane in California, Archie Shepp in Algeria. But she’s also reaching toward somewhere unimaginably better — what Saidiya Hartman calls “the nowhere of utopia,” if you like.
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Melanie Charles, vocalist and flutist
I remember graduating La Guardia High School, hearing this song and feeling liberated and excited about the possibilities of how my generation could interact with improvised music. Renée Neufville’s voice fits perfectly with Roy Hargrove’s playing and singing. Compositionally, the tune appears to be very simple. However, if you try to sing along, you find it may require a bit more out of you. And that’s the fun of it. The song evokes feelings of house parties and underground shows, and you feel like you are in the studio with the band. It’s a very honest and no-frills, in-and-out track that you can’t help but want to play on repeat.
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Ayana Contreras, critic
Translated as “Tribute to the Old Guard,” this cut is a slinky reimagining of Idris Muhammad’s 1974 jazz-funk classic “Loran’s Dance,” a record that was part of my own initiation as a jazz fan. The combo of Karriem Riggins and Madlib is behind this unit, two multihyphenate producers who’ve unwaveringly bridged the narrow trench between jazz and hip-hop in increasingly electrifying ways. With just the right mix of distortion and dusty synths, crisp boom-bap drum licks and sunshine, the record feels like what Raphael Saadiq classifies as “instant vintage,” and yet fresh as sun on bare shoulders on the first warm day of spring.
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David Renard, Times senior editor
Five minutes, five hours, five days — once this album-length composition by Natural Information Society sucks you in, it feels like it could flow forever. Joshua Abrams, the group’s leader, was in an early version of the Roots before he moved to Chicago and became part of that city’s indie and jazz scene; he now plays the guimbri, a three-stringed African bass lute that is the most constant element anchoring the ever-shifting “descension (Out of Our Constrictions).” The guimbri’s interplay with Lisa Alvarado’s (vibrating, psychedelic) harmonium, Jason Stein’s bass clarinet and Mikel Patrick Avery’s drumming creates a bed of sound, like a woven pattern, that leaves space for the free-blowing saxophone of Evan Parker, a 20th-century improv veteran still going strong in the 21st, to soar over the top. When Natural Information (minus Parker) performed this piece live at the Woodsist Festival in upstate New York in 2021, slotted between sets by Angel Bat Dawid and Kurt Vile, it felt even more like a loose game of Minimalist musical Ping-Pong — a round robin with no winners, just each player hitting the right spot and falling back as the next stepped up to join the entrancing cascade.
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Joshua Redman, saxophonist
Out of an infinite sea of compelling options, stretching all across jazz’s stylistic map, I ended up selecting a track that some might call “straight ahead” (even though I’m not particularly fond of that term), just to try to help make the case that this particular mode of communal expression is still flourishing and forward-moving. It is no small thing to take a chestnut such as “Body and Soul” — one of the most-played standards in the history of recorded music — and make it feel fresh, relevant, interesting and beautiful. The pianist Gerald Clayton, the bassist Joe Sanders and the drummer Marcus Gilmore are, without question, three of the greats of their generation and some of the most active and emulated musicians on the scene today. They have thoroughly absorbed and internalized the evolved vocabularies and common practices of their art and made them wholly and unmistakably their own. Their connectedness — with each other, with their audience, and with this shared musical language — is nuanced, empathic, generous and unforced. They are not trying to prove anything. They are in it for the ride, and what a ride it is: dance music.
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Kris Davis, pianist
If you ever have a chance to see Craig Taborn play solo, go without delay, and you will be transfixed. On this track, “Gift Horse/Over the Water,” you can hear influences of electronic music, Minimalism, contemporary classical music and jazz, specifically from the pianists Geri Allen and Keith Jarrett. Craig has made significant contributions to jazz and solo piano in the 21st century through his unique touch on the piano and seamless synthesis of disparate influences. You can hear his influence among many improvising pianists over the last 20 years, including Vijay Iyer, Marta Sanchez, Matt Mitchell, Micah Thomas and myself.
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Wadada Leo Smith, trumpeter
I’ve always been under the impression that discovery is the best value of humankind, and when one is fortunate enough to discover something it’s never lost, because it becomes part of them. Whenever I’ve played onstage with Sylvie Courvoisier, I’ve never felt handicapped or abandoned or like I had to look for a way to continue. It’s always been a journey that has been mutual and creative. She’s got courage, and you can see it when she’s at the piano: When she is inspired to go toward something, she doesn’t just go near it, she advances as if she’s going there to save creation. That’s the kind of courage that she has. And she finds every way to express music with that attitude. This is the music of our times that is hidden, like a crown jewel — and only the ones that are really curious and have great fantasies and imagination will find it. Because in darkness everything is dark except the ones that’s got light.
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Tomeka Reid, cellist
This whole record, “Like-Coping,” from 2003, is beautiful: from the opening notes of “Miriam” to the last track. This is Parker’s first solo release on Delmark, a label based in our shared hometown, Chicago, with Chad Taylor on drums and Chris Lopes on bass. I can’t believe it is 20 years old this year! It still sounds so fresh. Each member contributes extremely well-crafted earworms that will get stuck in your head, in the best way. Even the way the record is sequenced is brilliant. “Pinecone,” written by Lopes, is the composition that most makes me want to dance.