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Defeating The Jazz Zombies: America’s Music Is Alive & Well — These 7 Artists Are Proof

Jazz has a zombie problem. Musicians who’ve been dead for decades continue to stalk the commercial landscape, grabbing listeners new to the genre before they can make a connection with the music as it exists in the present day. When the average person thinks about jazz, who are they likely to be thinking of? Miles Davis? Dead since 1991. Duke Ellington? Dead since 1974. Louis Armstrong? Dead since 1971. John Coltrane? Dead since 1967. Charlie Parker? Dead since 1955. These are the jazz musicians who sell the most records; these are the musicians young players record boring tributes to (what I call the “Young Guy Plays The Music Of Dead Guy” albums); they are the moldering, dusty face of jazz, and they’re the reason — along with awful slogan’s like “America’s Classical Music” — that jazz’s image is that of a museum exhibit.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Jazz is very much alive, and as creatively strong as it’s ever been. Musicians are stretching its boundaries in every direction, bringing it into an exciting conversation with the 21st Century. There’s jazz that sounds like dense, avant-garde chamber music; there’s jazz that aims to inspire rapture and spiritual catharsis; there’s jazz that wants to make you dance. Synthesizers and loud-as-fuck electric guitars are as common as trumpets and saxophones.

The artists below, and hundreds more like them, are making amazing, genuinely new music right now, mostly on independent labels driven by real passion. You can see them live, too, in surprisingly small venues. So support living jazz artists. Trust me, once you’ve explored the 21st Century jazz scene for a while, you can always come to a major record label for a history lesson, as they’ll be pumping out reissues and archival vault-scrapings (there’s a new set of Miles Davis studio outtakes, recorded between 1966 and 1968, coming in October) until the earth crashes into the sun.

INSTEAD OF: Miles Davis

LISTEN TO: Jeremy Pelt

Twenty-five years after his death, Miles Davis still rules jazz. His 1959 album Kind Of Blue is the best-selling jazz record of all time; later discs like Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way inspired a thousand imitators; and his versions of ’80s pop hits “Time After Time” and “Human Nature” can still be heard on smooth jazz radio. He’s the most oft-cited entry point into the music for newcomers, and in some ways his body of work overshadows virtually everyone who’s come along since. But there are living trumpet players making music every bit as compelling and innovative as Miles’, right now. Jeremy Pelt is one of them.

Pelt’s sound is much stronger and fuller than Davis’; he’s a high-powered, technically masterful trumpeter, more in the vein of guys like Freddie Hubbard or Woody Shaw. He had a terrific acoustic quintet for several years; they made four albums between 2008 and 2011. Since dissolving that group, he’s continued to release an album a year, each one different than its predecessor: 2013’s Water And Earth and 2014’s Face Forward, Jeremy incorporated electronics, vocals, and pop-ish rhythms, while 2015’s Tales, Musings And Other Reveries featured two drummers jackhammering away behind him. His latest, #Jiveculture (yes, the title is a hashtag), came out in January; it features pianist Danny Grissett, bassist Ron Carter (who played with Miles from 1964-68), and drummer Billy Drummond. The tunes are melodic and swinging, and with no other horns to divide up the labor, Pelt is forced to solo at length and show great invention at all times. He does. Pelt is also a member of the Black Art Jazz Collective, whose debut album was released in July. That group’s music recalls the adventurous, bluesy-but-almost-free explorations of mid-’60s Blue Note artists like Joe Henderson, Andrew Hill, and others (one track, “The Shadower,” is inspired by Henderson; others are inspired by W.E.B. DuBois, Barack Obama, and Sojourner Truth). Pelt consistently blends classicism with an exploratory mindset — while his music will instantly sound like jazz to any listener, it’s always thought out and never clichéd.


 
INSTEAD OF: John Coltrane

LISTEN TO: JD Allen

John Coltrane is the patron saint of the tenor (and soprano) saxophone. While he started out as a relatively straightforward hard bop player, by the time he signed with Atlantic Records in 1959, he was already stretching the boundaries of his instrument’s capabilities and rejecting the rules of jazz as they stood. His transformation of “My Favorite Things” (yes, from The Sound Of Music) changed the way jazz musicians approached the playing of show tunes — aka “standards” — but what made Coltrane Coltrane was that he continued to work on that tune until the end of his life, gradually stretching it into a one-hour odyssey. As his most famous album, A Love Supreme, proves to even the most casual listener, he was a deadly serious explorer of a musical and spiritual nature, constantly striving to express more. (He once told Miles Davis he had trouble figuring out how to end his solos, and Davis told him: “Try taking the horn out of your mouth.”)

JD Allen is the best saxophonist under 50 currently working. He’s been a member of some superb groups, including Jeremy Pelt’s quintet, mentioned above, and trumpeter David Weiss’ band Point Of Departure, but it’s when leading his own trio that he truly shines. He’s made six albums to date with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston, and this year’s Americana is not only their best work yet, but one of the best jazz records of 2016. An exploration of the blues without relying on explicit blues riffs, it’s a moody, frequently mournful album that just as often sets up grooves you can snap your fingers and even dance to. Allen’s playing has the same reverential, transporting feel as Coltrane’s did on albums like Crescent and even A Love Supreme, but he’s much more disciplined than Trane was. When Allen grabs hold of a phrase, he reworks it over and over, turning it this way and that like he’s holding a gemstone up to the light. And behind him, August and Royston set up impossibly deep grooves that snap and swing. They work like a single, three-headed, many-armed beast, and every album they make is essential.


 

INSTEAD OF: Thelonious Monk

LISTEN TO: Matthew Shipp

In the 1940s, pianist Thelonious Monk was known as the “High Priest Of Bebop.” His jagged melodies and deliberately lurching rhythms broke the rules of a style which had itself taken jazz in a speedy, technique-focused direction, turning the dance-oriented swing bands that had come to prominence during the 1930s into yesterday’s news. Monk’s music swung, but it avoided the showy virtuosity of bebop, instead taking the melodies apart and displaying the components to the listener. Until the end of the ’60s, when he effectively retired (he died in 1982), Monk was a man apart, making brilliant music that managed to entrance listeners and alienate them at the same time.

Matthew Shipp’s music has the same relationship to avant-garde jazz that Monk’s had to bebop. His earliest recordings, made at the dawn of the ’90s, were frequently explosive, establishing a language that earned him comparisons to the master of “avalanche piano,” Cecil Taylor. But the more records he released, the less appropriate that seemed. Shipp’s music has a slow-burning intensity, and he builds his ideas out of small, cell-like melodies that replicate and recombine over and over.

With scores of albums to his credit, both as a leader and in collaboration with saxophonists David S. Ware and, currently, Ivo Perelman, Shipp has built his own world of sound, in which he dwells like a bear in a cave. Whether he’s working with horns, strings, in a conventional trio or all alone, you can always hear a highly individual mind at work — he seems to be thinking out loud, through his fingers. In the early 2000s, he explored the combination of jazz piano and electronic production, with mixed results (2003’s Equilibrium and 2004’s Harmony And Abyss are the keepers), but in recent years, he’s returned to the traditional acoustic trio, as well as solo performance, putting his own powerful spin on both formats. His latest trio album, The Conduct Of Jazz, explicitly refers back to jazz history; the title track yanks a melodic hook from trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts,” while his playing on “Blue Abyss” may remind some of McCoy Tyner’s work with John Coltrane. This balance of old and new, of tradition and relentless forward movement, continues on his next album, Piano Song, due out in January.


 
INSTEAD OF: Duke Ellington

LISTEN TO: Darcy James Argue

Duke Ellington was a pianist, and there are small group recordings where his keyboard skills are spotlit, but he was primarily known as the leader of his own orchestra, and that orchestra was his true instrument. By finding talented players and showcasing them, blending instrumental voices (particularly saxophonists like Ben Webster and Paul Desmond) the way a painter blends colors, he created some of the most beautiful and ambitious music in jazz history, from short, highly danceable singles to elaborate suites.

Darcy James Argue, also a pianist, leads the Secret Society, an 18-piece band that performs his compositions. Their first two albums, 2009’s Infernal Machines and 2013’s Brooklyn Babylon, both earned Grammy nominations; their third album, Real Enemies, will be released 9/30. Since the beginning, the Secret Society has combined genres in fascinating ways — Argue likes to layer thick horn-section blare over drums that thunder as much as they swing, and seriously stinging electric guitar gets pride of place on a surprising number of tracks. But like Ellington, he uses his entire band as a set of compositional tools, writing to accentuate the various players’ strengths and allowing them to surge and recede, to make themselves heard and then retreat back into a supporting role. In so doing, he has created a big band that sounds like no other in the history of the music. At times on Real Enemies, they borrow Latin rhythms, funk grooves, and the fierce orchestral stabs of ’70s movie scores, while dropping in vocal samples that hint at the album’s overall theme of 20th Century political paranoia and conspiracy theories. This may be the Secret Society’s best album yet, so now is the perfect time to begin exploring their small but highly potent discography.


 
INSTEAD OF: Ornette Coleman

LISTEN TO: Matana Roberts

Alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman busted shit wide open in 1959. His first three albums for Atlantic Records — The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Change Of The Century, and This Is Our Music — posited entirely new ways to play, and hear, jazz. His melodies were infectious as hell, and they had a deep blues feel at their heart, but they jumped all over the place, and the bass and drums didn’t feel like they were in service of the horns; they could become lead instruments at any time, and frequently did. And while others would go further out than Ornette did, he was the one who actually called an album Free Jazz, giving an entire movement a name in the process. Later, he’d compose string quartets and symphonies, work with African musicians and Indian singers, form the herky-jerkiest funk band you ever heard, and do much more. He kept pushing forward, but always sounded uniquely like himself.

Matana Roberts is every bit as adventurous as Ornette Coleman was in his time. Her early recordings were in a free jazz vein, but her ongoing Coin Coin series (the first three of a planned 12 volumes have been released so far) incorporates small and large ensembles, solo playing, singing (by Roberts and others), tapes, readings from historical records, and more, all swirling together to tell a sprawling story of her family’s history, and the history of the black experience in America. The latest, Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee, is a solo suite on which Roberts solos mournfully and meditatively atop and inside a sound art tapestry that includes field recordings, loops, effects pedals modifying the sound, and both spoken and sung words. It’s impossible to take it all in on first listen, but you’ll want to keep coming back, anyway.


 
INSTEAD OF: Charles Mingus

LISTEN TO: William Parker

Charles Mingus was both an absolute monster of a bassist, and one of the most viscerally compelling composers in jazz history. His music encompassed Ellington-esque swing, passages of free improvisation, classical orchestrations, gospel-ish fervor, and the deepest blues, mostly arranged for medium-sized groups. He typically led a band of between six and 10 members, but could strip down to a quartet, as on 1960’s Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, or radically expand his sonic palette with a full orchestra, as he did on 1972’s Let My Children Hear Music. And while his voice, as a player and a bandleader, was utterly unique, he never lost touch with jazz as a tradition, at times performing marathon explorations of Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker tunes in concert.

William Parker is every bit Mingus’ equal and more as a bassist — he can play anything from impeccably swinging hard bop to totally unfettered free improvisation — and as a composer, he’s created a body of work that’s simply staggering. During the 1990s and early 2000s, he was a member (along with Matthew Shipp) of saxophonist David S. Ware’s quartet, but led his own groups at the same time. The most ambitious of these may be the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, a group of 16-18 members that performed pieces that might last up to 40 minutes, mixing dense orchestration and wildly intense solos. But he also leads a quartet (occasionally expanded to a quintet or sextet) that pumps out ferociously swinging, groove-based tunes that combine punchy horn melodies with trance-inducing rhythms. In recent years, he’s assembled large ensembles to tackle the music of Duke Ellington and Curtis Mayfield, and on the 2015 three-CD box For Those Who Are, Still, he recorded a nearly 50-minute piece with saxophonist Charles Gayle, drummer Mike Reed, and a full symphony orchestra and choir. Also worth noting: He’s one of the main organizers of the annual Vision Festival, a week-long showcase for adventurous jazz held every summer in the Village.


 
INSTEAD OF: Sun Ra

LISTEN TO: Rob Mazurek

Herman “Sonny” Blount, aka Sun Ra, has long been one of the jazz figures most beloved by indie rock fans. He claimed to be from Saturn, his band dressed in glittery robes and lived communally, and his/their message combined Afrocentric spirituality and Egyptology with a sci-fi mythology asserting that African-Americans could escape the bonds of Earth and travel the spaceways in freedom. Whether you saw this as inspirational or kitschy, it was an awesome display of showbiz acumen, catnip for journalists and musical tourists alike. Of course, the music — which ran the gamut from old-school big band charts to clattering free jazz to chanted mantras to wild synthesizer eruptions — stood on its own merits.

Rob Mazurek, a cornet player and composer from Chicago, shares some of Ra’s cosmological interests; tracks have titles like “We Are All One With The Moon And Planets,” “Free Agents Of Sound,” and “Into The Rising Sun,” and his pieces sprawl and clatter, and frequently incorporate spoken texts. He leads multiple groups, ranging from the sprawling Exploding Star Orchestra to the trio São Paulo Underground to the Chicago Underground Duo, and many of them share players, or recombine to form new iterations like the Exploding Star Electro-Acoustic Ensemble or Black Cube SP. Occasionally, he collaborates with avant-jazz legends; saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell (of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago) and the late trumpeter Bill Dixon both recorded with Exploding Star, and Mazurek combined the Chicago and São Paulo Underground(s) into one group for a pair of amazing live albums with saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. His playing is extremely abstract — more squiggles and squirting noises than conventional riffs or melodies — and he tends to sit in the middle of the music rather than lead, as zapping, staticky synths, other horns, electric and upright bass, and frantic drums and clattering percussion whirl around him like an asteroid field. The result is a collective sound that’s more like an environment you live in for a while than a bunch of people playing a tune. The effect is only strengthened when the shows incorporate projected video, as they often do. The latest Exploding Star Orchestra disc, Galactic Parables Vol. 1, captures two full concerts, and will likely take you far beyond the limits of what you previously considered “jazz.”