This Isn’t Your Dad’s Jazz Collection… Here are 30 Jazz Giants Reinventing the Genre

Jazz hasn’t been a popular genre in the United States since its heyday in the ’50s and ’60s. After that generation of stylists moved past their respective peaks, it was a long time before a new crop of players filled their shoes. In the early years of the 2010s, though, a new underground began to percolate. It was nearly ready to explode into the mainstream.

Cities like Chicago, LA, New York, and London have had rich, exciting jazz scenes for decades, but they’ve mostly functioned on indie circuits, far away from mainstream venues and hyped Spotify playlists. Once Kamasi Washington and his band, the West Coast Get Down, emerged in 2015, though, it seemed like all eyes were on jazz once again. But this isn’t your parents’ jazz. Sure, it’d be impossible to pick up a saxophone and not be indebted to John Coltrane, but you wouldn’t say a band was inspired by The Beatles just because they like “Hey Jude.” In much the same way, artists like Kamasi Washington, Makaya McCraven, and Shabaka Hutchings are in conversation with, but in no way beholden to, the genre’s forebears. Each brings a thrilling new perspective, and as such, jazz is as exciting now as it’s ever been.

Makaya McCraven

Makaya McCraven fancies himself a beat scientest. The drummer and producer was raised in Chicago, Illinois, where he immersed himself in the city's jazz scene. He took the concepts he learned in various bands and applied them to his own records, recording various players before chopping up the parts on his own in post-production. The results? Immersive mixtapes that land squarely between hip-hop and jazz.

Shabaka & The Ancestors

Shabaka Hutchings is a luminary in London's eclectic jazz scene, and while Hutchings has a number of projects under his belt, his work with the Ancestors is celebrated for its innovation in the genre. The band touches on cosmic stylings, landing somewhere between the melodic strength of Kamasi Washington with the wonder and experimentation of an artist like Sun Ra.

Kamaal Williams

Kamaal Williams was born in South London and rose in the ranks of the jazz scene for his work with drummer Yussef Dayes. Together, Yussef Williams made smooth, neo-jazz that was as reliant on texture as melody. Though the duo broke up shortly after their rise, Williams has remained a force in the scene thanks to his work as a bandleader.

Yussef Dayes

The aforementioned Dayes is one of the most sought after drummers in the jazz landscape. Within the UK, he's a huge part of the scene, and his work with pop guitarist Tom Misch has brought the drummer a new level of success. Dayes is an underground jazz pioneer, bringing breakbeat and dance-inspired drum patterns to jazz grooves and psychedelic compositions.

The Comet is Coming

Speaking of Shabaka Hutchings' side projects, The Comet is Coming is another stellar project from the bandleader. Alongside keyboardist Dan Leavers and drummer Max Hallett, The Comet is Coming took the jazz world by storm thanks to their blend of prog, rock, and more traditional jazz styles. Like everything Hutchings does, The Comet is Coming is innovative and inspired.

Kamasi Washington

Kamasi Washington is rightly the face of jazz's resurgence. When he released The Epic in 2015, he displayed a new vision for jazz, in which swelling operatic choirs co-mingled with swaggering saxophone solos and massive drum breaks. With contributions from players like Thundercat, Kamasi bridged the gap between LA's beat scene and its jazz underground, re-shaping both genres in his image.

Junius Paul

Junius Paul is an integral member of the International Anthem scene, a thrilling Chicago label that has put jazz on the map as much as any other entity. Paul's jazz music, especially on the album Ism, is sprawling and expansive, landing somewhere between free jazz and cosmic wonderment. Paul's bass playing is otherworldly, and he performs his maximalist ideas without ever stealing the show from his bandmates.

Jeff Parker

Jeff Parker has been an integral part of Chicago's experimental scene for a few decades. Though he's now based in LA, the guitarist built his foundation playing in the Windy City, most notably with post-rock band Tortoise. Parker's solo music, though, lands somewhere between funk and jazz, using the two templates to examine Blackness in America and the way our society functions.

Joe Armon-Jones

Keyboardist and producer Joe Armon-Jones is a new school jazz player in every sense of the phrase. His compositions have no genre boundaries, playing with dub, dance, and electronic music while retaining a decidely groovy core. It's post-jazz, and on albums like Turn to Clear View, he blends the genre with funky breakdowns and stellar vocal performances from collaborators like Georgia Anne Muldrow. 

Nubya Garcia

Nubya Garcia is a British saxophone player with an eye on the future. Her compositions blend jazz ideals with cosmic bewilderment, creating a world that's equal parts indebted to jazz's past and enamored with its future. She's a frequent collaborator of Makaya McCraven and Shabaka Hutchings, and her solo albums have garnered her acclaim from critics in the UK and the USA alike. 

Brandee Younger

Brandee Younger is the latest star in a long line of jazz harpists. Alongside her heroes like Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane, Younger blends the inherent classicism of the instrument with jazz, funk, and soul music. She's a consistent collaborator of Moses Sumney and Makaya McCraven, and she's one of the most in-demand session musicians when she's not working on her excellent solo albums, like 2019's breathtaking Soul Awakening.

Jaimie Branch

If there's such a thing as a punk rock jazz player, it's Jaimie Branch.  An integral member of International Anthem's jazz community, she approaches her trumpet in a way few others do. Her 2017 album, Fly or Die, is a staple in the Chicago jazz landscape. Her work is rough around the edges, but within the cacophonous landscapes lie gorgeous melodies and pristine improvisations.

Jeremy Cunningham

Jeremy Cunningham is a Cincinnati-born, Chicago-based drummer who is as impressive as a composer as he is behind the kit. Cunningham is signed to the great Northern Spy Records, and his 2020 album, The Weather Up There, is a touching tribute to his late brother. Cunningham is a frequent collaborator of Jeff Parker, who co-produced The Weather Up There. Despite growing his reputation as a drummer, Cunningham is widely celebrated for his cerebral, sensitive compositions.

Ryan Porter

When he isn't playing with the West Coast Get Down or Snoop Dogg, Kanye West, or Rihanna, Ryan Porter works on his trombone-centered jazz compositions. Though the instrument isn't a jazz staple like the saxophone or trumpet, Porter approaches the trombone like a lead horn, creating a world of psychedelic and melodic jazz reminiscent of his friend and West Coast Get Down bandmate, Kamasi Washington.

Josh Johnson

Josh Johnson is a saxophonist, keyboardist, multi-instrumentalist, and composer. He is a frequent collaborator of other artists on this list like Jeff Parker and Makaya McCraven, in addition to luminaries like Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Leon Bridges, and Marquis Hill. But Johnson's compositions as a jazz leader are equally impressive, blending an innate sense for melody with an unending desire to experiment.

Joel Ross

Blue Note isn't the jazz giant it used to be, but the label still carries serious weight in the genre. Their star is Joel Ross, an outstanding vibraphone player with an unrelenting vision for jazz's future who topped the DownBeat Critics Poll Rising Star category. Though New York's jazz scene has been overshadowed by the ascent of players in LA, Chicago, and London, Ross is here to make sure that the Big Apple still has a seat at the table.

Sam Gendel

Sam Gendel is a restless experimenter. Recently signed to Nonesuch Records, he's used the opportunity to expand his scope, taking on jazz standards from an electronic perspective and creating experimental music built on the tenets of jazz. Gendel is a former member of Moses Sumney's touring band and a crucial player in Los Angeles' underground jazz scene

Sam Wilkes

Sam Wilkes is a frequent collaborator of Sam Gendel, and the bass player is one of LA's most exciting musicians. His solo music veers towards jazz, relying on looping, gauzy instrumentals and haunting melodies. He's a sought after session musician as well, but his most exciting work comes when he recruits friends like Gendel and Louis Cole to build out his hypnotic takes of jazz.

Josef Leimberg

Josef Leimberg is signed to World Galaxy Records, an imprint of independent LA label Alpha Pup that focuses almost entirely on jazz music. Leimberg is a trumpet player most well known for his contributions to Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, though his solo work is impressive in its own right. He often performs with LA staple Terrace Martin, and his project with Martin, LoveDragon, is a sought after group in the industry. 

Ben LaMar Gay

Another International Anthem staple, Ben LaMar Gay is a truly unique voice in jazz. A composer and cornetist, Gay focuses on electro-acoustic collages that interrogate the meaning and ownership of Americana. Splitting his time between Brazil and Chicago, Gay often blends South American rhythms with melodies inherent to Chicago's jazz scene.

Angel Bat Dawid

Angel Bat Dawid is a composer, clarinetist, singer, and spiritualist. She's an integral member of Chicago's ever expanding jazz world, and though she's a relative newcomer to the city's music scene, her impact has already reverberated throughout the community. When she's not performing her solo music, she's a frequent collaborator of artists like Ben LaMar Gay, Damon Locks, and Jaimie Branch.

Alabaster dePlume

Alabaster dePlume is one of the most progressive voices in jazz. He's an integral part of the UK scene although his music, and willingness to experiment, exists outside of any neat distinctions. dePlume is an unrelenting pioneer and composer, always pushing his ideas to further and wackier places in the hopes of revealing a grand truth about his work and life.

Damon Locks

Damon Locks is the leader of the Black Monument Ensemble, an ever-expanding group signed to International Anthem. Locks began the project in a solo capacity, in which he pulled samples from Civil Rights era speeches and recordings. The group has expanded to include 15 full-time members, including Angel Bat Dawid, a group of singers, and a collection of dancers.

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