A Guide To Today’s Best Modern Jazz Artists
Jazz is back, with new faces and a fresh vibe. A new crop of modern jazz artists are pushing the envelope, developing styles of their own and taking jazz in exciting directions. Whether you’re a longtime jazz fan or new to the genre, here are nine artists you should check out in 2023.
Related Reads: An Introduction To Jazz Genres
After being an integral part of the Chicago underground movement for years, Harry James decided to self-produce his debut album as a fitting stepping stone. The result was Buy The Numbers, a raw soul-jazz record that’s at times warm, eerie and beautiful. Recorded in solitude during the pandemic, the album features James as a veritable one-man-band, playing drums, bass/chord piano, and solo piano. The album’s 14 minimalist arrangements are also incredibly complex, but don’t feel intimidating or inaccessible in any way. With one of the most intriguing sounds to emerge in recent years, Buy The Numbers was also one of the most exciting new jazz releases in recent memory. The result is some of the most exciting new jazz music in recent memory — think J Dilla meets Duke Ellington, a record that’s got something for jazz fans and hip-hop heads alike. James’ equally excellent follow-up album, Harried, was released on Potions Music NYC in 2022.
Harry James – Buy The Numbers Album Review
At the forefront of the UK avant-garde, Matthew Halsall has long been in demand as an arranger and collaborator with many well-known jazz musicians. A composer and bandleader of both originality and subtlety, his music draws deeply on the US jazz tradition while being as personal and unique as it is accessible. He’s a visionary musician who creates his own rich sound world that draws heavily on spiritual jazz. He’s also one of the UK’s most accomplished trumpeters, with a highly personal and unique sound that draws on diverse influences including Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Thelonious Monk. Halsall is not afraid of innovation. His ensemble’s latest project, Changing Earth, features hypnotic and beautiful arrangement that result in one of the most powerful musical experiences — and best new jazz releases — in recent memory.
Jazz has historically been a genre steeped in improvisation, with soloists taking turns extending the rhythmic and melodic language of the song. Emerging out of Chicago’s club scene, Makaya McCraven takes this practice to another level, pushing the boundaries between composer and instrumentalist to forge his own style of modern jazz. For McCraven, the creative process is both alchemy and science. He wields his drum kit like an experimental composer and sonic sculptor, deconstructing the language of jazz while playing it back with unexpected strength. McCraven’s explosive productions have charted the course for his own genre-bending cadence, a style that blends hip-hop sensibilities with the foundations of contemporary jazz. Those interested in hearing his unique style first hand should start with his stellar 2021 album, Deciphering The Message, and his 2022 record, In These Times, one of the best jazz releases of the year and an album which showcases some of the best new jazz music in recent memory.
Damon Locks & Black Monument Ensemble
Comprised of a core group of artists (ranging in age from 9 to 52) who are experienced in multiple artistic disciplines, Chicago’s Black Monument Ensemble is a collective of highly energized musical performers, all some of the most exciting modern jazz artists in their own right. An energetic and spirited Chicago collective of performers from a wide spectrum of the city’s arts community, Black Monument Ensemble joined together with a common goal in mind: to make joyful and contemplative music. The collectives latest album, NOW, does just that. Recorded in the final throes of summer 2020, the album is volatile and ebullient throughout, a reflection of the pandemic-induced fear and isolation along with the explosion of social unrest in the streets at the time. Set up safely in the garden behind Chicago’s Experimental Sound Studio, the album was recorded during just a few takes, imbuing it with a raw energy of immediacy that’s a joy to listen to.
Related Reads: Damon Locks & Black Monument Ensemble – NOW Album Review
Gorgeous harp music? Take a listen to acclaimed Welsh harpist Amanda Whiting and you’ll hear just that. But Whiting doesn’t want to calm or lull you with her music. Instead, she wants to swing you — on a cloud of heavenly strings — to the moon and back. Whiting mines her rich associations with jazz harpists Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby to create a sublime harp sound that is as deeply soothing as it is purely elegant. A renowned modern jazz artist in her own right, Whiting has also worked with a number of well-known DJs and jazz and pop artists including DJ Yoda, Jazzanova and Jamie Cullum, to name a few.
DOMi & JD BECK
DOMi & JD BECK may be a new band, but they’re aiming high. A testament to the power of collaboration, DOMi & JD BECK are a duo as well-versed in hip-hop and R&B as they are jazz. With an explosive sound all their own, this exciting duo burst on to modern jazz the scene with their highly lauded 2022 debut album, NOT TiGHT, a hyper-brained set aimed at bringing jazz fusion to a new generation of listeners. A free-form fusion of styles and genres, the album is an elegant distillation of all that’s best in modern jazz. Drawn to each other by their mutual desire to advance the sound of the modern jazz genre, DOMi Iouna (keyboard) and JD Beck (drums) craft a smooth but frenetic sound, driven by dense grooves and the duo’s frenzied improvisations. Perfectly constructed to both dumbfound and transfix you, DOMi & JD BECK are the real deal. And given the praise they’ve received thus far, they’re also poised to become one of the most important new jazz combos of the decade.
A modern jazz artist whose sound extends beyond conventional music boundaries, Greg Foat has been confounding expectations for a decade. With each outing, he’s set new standards for himself and redefined genres through a style that combines elements of library and soundtrack music, global folk traditions, psychedelia, hymnody, ambient music, and ’60s and ’70s pop, soul, and blues. One of the most original artists working in any genre, Foat’s “non-contemporary jazz” utilizes unconventional instruments and global folk traditions to create an entirely new sound that is both unconventional and timeless at once. Whether it’s his solo work or collaborations, Foat has created a singular sound that is wholly unique to him and yet immediately identifiable as its own thing. No matter what label you give him—jazz, classical, experimental electronic—his music simply sounds like an extension of the musical future that we’re all headed toward and is therefore more timeless than ever.
Drummer/composer Myele Manzanza is an emerging artist on London’s bustling jazz scene who’s built a steady reputation for fusing modern jazz with electronic beats. Well versed in modern jazz and early electronic music, Myele’s compositions are a new stylistic presence that takes two worlds we’ve heard before and makes them feel more connected than ever before. His music blends styles beautifully into intelligent melodies and inventive percussion loops imbued with distinguishable personality, resulting in an exciting new sound which speak to the modern jazz mind state. Myele has also performed alongside many prominent artists, including Hiatus Kaiyote, The Bad Plus, Alfa Mist, as well as collaborating with major names like Jordan Rakei, Theo Parrish, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Recloose and Amp Fiddler.
One of the hottest new jazz artists around, Lakecia Benjamin is a force of nature on stage. A singular and highly original saxophonist, Lakecia Benjamin’s energetic performances have earned her a reputation as one of the most talented and engaging forces in modern jazz. Over the last decade, she has established herself as one of jazz’s top saxophonists and has shared stages with some of the most formidable musicians in the business, including Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, and The Roots. With a charismatic energy that radiates through on her studio recordings as well, it’s no wonder that Benjamin’s electric presence and fiery sax work has earned her praise from fans and critics alike. Her music is a unique blend of jazz and hip hop, soul and rock groove — difficult to classify but easy to dance to. Case in point: Benjamin’s 2023 album Phoenix, which blazes a powerful and politically-minded groove across 12 stellar tracks.
For his solo debut, Magnolia, classically-trained jazz pianist Steve Okonski chose to go with a stripped back approach. The result is a soothing, meditative and beautiful album that showcases his talent in all it’s glory. Magnolia was recorded with fellow members of Durand Jones & The Indications (Okonski is that group’s pianist as well), including bassist Michael Isvara Montgomery, and Aaron Frazer, who many know as The Indications co-lead vocalist but who takes over on drums here. Together, the trio create magic, crafting an album that’s not just a collection of songs, it’s a beautifully composed whole. All three musicians are clearly listening to one another and the result is music that soars above mundane virtuosity. It’s extremely rare to find an album that you want to listen to every track right away but this is certainly one of them. If Magnolia is any indication, Okonski will be an artist worth following for years to come.
Kahil El’Zabar Quartet
In the last four decades, Kahil El’Zabar has been a leading force in Chicago’s avant-garde jazz scene and has performed and recorded with luminaries like Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Nina Simone, and Stevie Wonder. On A Time For Healing, El’Zabar links up with some of today’s most exciting jazz performers — trumpeter Corey Wilkes (one of the best modern jazz trumpet players alive today), saxophonist Isaiah Collier and keyboardist Justin Dillard — to craft one of the most stunning albums of the year. Standing apart from other modern jazz artists, El’Zabar uses African instruments, including the kalimba, as ground bass for a quartet that swings with artful restraint and open spaces, building slowly to modest peaks. The entire album is elegant, masterfully composed, and represents a beautiful collaboration of sound — and was easily one of the best new jazz releases of 2022. In particular, the title track is a dynamic song that exemplifies the kind of spiritual healing that music can bring peace to the listener.
Related Reads: Kahil El’Zabar Quartet – A Time For Healing Album Review
Saxophonist Sam Gendel is an enigma who manages to fuse elements of contemporary jazz, soul and hip-hop into a style that’s as unsettling and bewitching as it is provocative and catchy. Whatever critics choose to call it, Gendel’s growing fan base think he’s one of the most exciting new jazz performers on the scene and enjoy his music for what it is — a unique and beautiful form of modern jazz. In 2021, Gendel’s output swelled to its most staggering level yet; his nearly four-hour album Fresh Bread spanned 52 mostly instrumental pieces that were both meditative and casually paced at two- to six-minute lengths each. Jazz aficionados will appreciate Gendel’s album Satin Doll, with breathy interpretations of standards by Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Mongo Santamaria and other jazz greats.
Related Reads: Sam Gendel & Sam Wilkes – Music For Saxophone And Bass Guitar More Songs Album Review
Work Money Death
Work Money Death is a Leeds, UK-based contemporary jazz group that melds spiritual jazz with the kinetic energy of live improvisation. The band’s debut EP was heavily influenced by the works of Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. Led by saxophonist Tony Burkill and Bassist Neil Innes, their 2021 EP features a meditative sound that flows between spirituality and passion. Recorded in 2020 and originally envisioned as a mostly improvisational suite, the songs were adapted to fit the pandemic moment; instead of recording in one take as a group, each musician recorded their part separately in studio, each performance riffing and building upon the previous to create a cohesive whole. The result is sure to please fans of meandering, transportive spiritual jazz.
Related Reads: Work Money Death – The Space In Which The Uncontrollable Unknown Resides, Can Be The Place From Which Creation Arises Album Review
Dougie Stu is a multi-instrumentalist, producer and composer whose work orbits around the improvised and experimental, while also being informed by the works of cosmic jazz greats like Lonnie Liston Smith and Alice Coltrane. Stu got his start in jazz clubs and festivals as a teenager, jamming with big players like Jeff Parker and later collaborating with artists across a broad range of genres. His debut album, Familiar Future, is intended to bring jazz music from the past into the future, resulting in some of the freshest sounds in jazz today. Turning listeners’ perceptions of jazz on its head and taking the music in exciting directions, the album is a blissful soul-jazz journey that’s full of energy and stays consistent throughout its 10 tracks.
Related Reads: Dougie Stu – Familiar Future Album Review
As leader of the newly-formed Chicago band Resavoir, trumpeter Will Miller crafts contemporary jazz that is as melodic and rhythmic as it is agreeable. Miller has been featured as a studio musician to back some of the biggest names in hip-hop — Lil Wayne, Chance The Rapper and A$AP Rocky, to name a few — and Resavoir marks his first work as a band leader. One of today’s most exciting contemporary jazz groups, their self-titled debut album was crafted under a unique concept; after creating an overarching concept for each track, Miller then asked his fellow jazz performers to develop and expand upon some of the themes and motifs of that rough sketch. Instead of the typical one-band-member-writes-all-the-tracks scenario, this cooperative process resulted in nine different tracks composed by all members, each with a unique perspective.
Related Reads: Resavoir – Resavoir Album Review
Visionary jazz artist Chip Wickham has been bringing his spiritual jazz messages to music lovers worldwide for more than two decades. Emerging in the early 00’s UK jazz scene, he became involved in the flourishing trip-hop scene and later established himself as one of the most important contemporary jazz musicians with a series of poetic albums that blend jazz history with modernism and spirituality.
Chip is a prolific and much-travelled modern jazz artist whose distinctive style is informed by his extensive experience both as a performer and composer. As well as working with the likes of The Pharcyde, The New Mastersounds and Nightmares On Wax, he also played with Matthew Halsall’s Gondwana Orchestra. He is one of the most spiritually gifted musicians on the planet and yet remains deeply connected to his roots in UK jazz as well as a variety of ancient sacred music traditions from around the world that penetrate his music with incredible power and grace. His debut album for Gondwana Records, Cloud 10, is an excellent example of this synthesis: superbly crafted spiritual jazz tracks that are both modern and timeless at the same time. It’s a modern jazz album with a decidedly classic feel and one that will appeal to fans of Yusef Lateef and Sahih Shihab.
Related: Chip Whickham – Cloud 10 Album Review
Based in London, Alfa Mist was first introduced to jazz through hip-hop and gradually developed his unique blend of the two genres. He began making his own beats at a young age, then discovered jazz through sampling records that influenced him by producers like Hi-Tek, Madlib and J Dilla. Hearing classical piano music sparked his interest in learning the instrument, which he then began teaching himself by ear. A self-taught pianist, composer and producer, he has quickly become a leading figure in the world of jazz today. He creates a fusion of contemporary jazz elements and electronic/hip-hop beats to create music that is truly unique. Jazz is at the core of Alfa Mist’s musical style, but he also aims to evoke feelings of nostalgia with nods to classic hip-hop.
Originally from Panama City, Daniel Villareal’s thunderous beats have been a force on Chicago’s jazz scene since he moved there. In jazz today, he’s one of the most versatile and accomplished drummers on the Chicago scene. Villarreal’s knack for adapting to any situation or genre has made him a favorite among musicians in the city. He is also known for being an engaging frontman and vibrant personality. Landing somewhere between Latin Jazz fusion, progressive rock, psychedelic folk and funk psychedelia, his debut solo album, Panama 77, is one of the most exciting new jazz releases in years, filled with electrifying drumming call-and-response rhythms and spacey grooves.
Black Flower is a young band with a unique musical vision. Formed by saxophonist and flutist Nathan Daems, the Belgian five-piece fuses musical traditions from East and West Africa and the Middle East with Ethiopian-jazz at the base to create a hypnotic hybrid of psychedelic dub and traditional jazz sounds. Black Flower is a band with a mission: pushing boundaries between jazz and different musical traditions from around the globe, resulting in an extremely versatile sound. One of the leading contemporary jazz groups in today’s scene, incorporates many instruments into their live performances including saxophone, flute and conch shells which gives them the ability to produce a hypnotic groove that goads you into moving your body. The contemporary ensemble has also been praised for their ability to create captivating atmospheres that are as sophisticated as they are groovy.
Black Flower’s debut album Abyssinia Afterlife reached international acclaim and received support from Gilles Peterson and many other influential DJs. And their 2022 masterclass, Magma, was one of the best modern jazz releases of the year.
Leland Whitty is a Toronto-based saxophonist, composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist. Along with Leland’s responsibilities as member of BadBadNotGood and their offshoot Easy Feelings Unlimited, he has worked in touring and production capacities with Kendrick Lamar, Ghostface Killah, Earl Sweatshirt and Kaytranada. Known as an innovative and exciting artist, Leland Whitty has built a reputation as one of the most sought-after multi-instrumentalists working today. Leland Whitty’s debut album, Anyhow, showcases the innovation, inventiveness and imagination of this young musician. With a confident sense of musicality, he fuses tones and chords into abstract shapes that are both mindful and soulful. The result is something that firmly sits between jazz tradition and contemporary experimentation.
Related: Leland Whitty – Anyhow Album Review
Jasmine Myra’s music is a joyful and uplifting tapestry of melodic, soulful and lush landscapes. Her compositions reflect both her talent as a musician and her fine ear for writing music that fits the times we live in; creating a sound that is elegant, soaring and soothing. With her bold, uplifting music she draws on her love of artists like Moses Sumney, Bonobo, Kenny Wheeler and Ólafur Arnalds. The beauty and euphoria of her instrumental music should not be underestimated—this is a young talent who jumps out of your speakers. Her debut album Horizons was released to critical acclaim in 2022 by Gondwana Records.
Move 78 is a modern jazz band with a unique sound, Berlin-based group whose music combines the energy and noise of contemporary technology with the improvisational traditions of jazz to create a unique, otherworldly sound. Their music is created from hours of improvisations in the studio that are then manipulated electronically, combined with live instruments, creating a balance between free flowing jazz and programmed hip-hop. The results are like a simultaneous movement in different tempos – relaxed but never dull, calm but always alive. Showcasing this unique production style, Move 78’s debut album, The Algorithm Smiles Upon You, was released in 2021, with a follow up in 2022 — Automated Improvisation — which further explored what it means for music to be both created and consumed in the modern age.