Some melodies linger. Gerald Clayton’s “Two Heads, One Pillow” features the California native playfully working the tensions of a romantic relationship on 88 keys. Pounding hearts and raised voices distilled into something hummable but shapeshifting. Saxophonist Tia Fuller’s Katrina’s Prayer mourns all that was lost in the gulf Labor Day Weekend 2005, celebrates all that remains, and foresees what can be, in an insidious string of warm tones and long notes. The Herbie Hancock anointed vocalist Gretchen Parlato took a melodic staple of her youth (and most of ours), SWV’s “Weak,” and uncalcified the classic. With aid from her peer pianist Robert Glasper who rearranged the nineties hit, she knocks listeners out of their complacency. It’s tiptoe listening, pleasing, and it compels one’s complete presence to the music. It’s also jazz.
The aforementioned Robert Glasper, a brilliant Blue Note recording artist whose work with Q-Tip and Mos Def has raised his profile, summed up the jazz landscape to me in a 2006 interview. “You know, Jazz with the young audience these days is lost.” The past four years have seen no appreciable difference. Rumors of Jazz’ death have been greatly exaggerated, certainly, it’s just that many of us aren’t listening. I know I wasn’t, until I heard jazz great Mark Murphy sing something I couldn’t shake. I was in my college dorm, fresh from the club, spent but not at all sleepy, and in lieu of counting sheep I turned the radio to the jazz station. Jazz for me then was something like a sedative with a few exceptions. Murphy was in the midst of what a few years of researching would reveal to be “You’re My Alter Ego,” a James Williams composition for which Murphy devised lyrics. It was everything, yet obscure, and piqued my interest as to what other sounds I was missing. Years of poking into New York City jazz clubs—often with the Jazz listening group I founded for those interested in a curated, low budget, snob free jazz experience—have introduced me to some musicians that brighten my iPod existence as much as any soul siren, singer/songwriter, or hip hop star. My tastes, like that of many Black women, have never been narrow and extend beyond Badu, Beyoncé and Mary Mary, although most media refuses to acknowledge this fact. So I present to you seven contemporary musicians who live outside of the concentrated wattage of the media machine but are certain to give you life: a crib sheet for artists that everyone should give a listen.
“Coin Coin,” a work chronicling Roberts family history, is a current project. Roberts career has celebrated music’s storytelling possibilities. I first heard her alongside Broadway musical Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk veterans poet Reg E. Gaines, and hoofer Savion Glover channeling John Coltrane in a piece called “If Trane Wuz Here.” The Chicago bred saxophonist and composer has called New York home for the better part of a decade and Bad Brains, TI, & Meshell Ndegeocello all find homes in her favored playlists. In an email interview, she told me, “My jazz is now a patois of creative energy that I am no longer the leader of,” a hat tip to its place in her music and the places the muse leads her.
Download: “For Razi,” The Chicago Project, Matana Roberts (2005)
Iyer just released Solo, the latest in a deep and diverse catalogue. Iyer’s got a penchant for political engagement as In What Language, his 2004 meditation on air travel while brown post September 11th with poet Mike Ladd, demonstrates. Last year’s Historicity enamored the jazz community, in part, regarding the strength of his interpretation of fellow South Asian performer M.I.A.’s “Galang,” which absolutely floors, knocking you off your feet ,and compelling you to move them as furiously as the Arulpragasam original.
Download: “Galang,” Historicity, Vijay Iyer Trio (2009)
The media darling of the bunch, Spalding’s skill on the upright bass has won her favor with the President (and First Lady) who invited her to take the stage after his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, and during the inaugural White House Poetry Jam. She sings powerfully and is a lively performer, but her bass playing is exquisite and it’s worth digging back to her debut, Junjo, to hear a younger Spalding putting in work.
Download: “The Peacocks,” Junjo, Esperanza Spalding (2005)
If her cover of “Weak” doesn’t sell you on her extraordinary talent, her Bobby McFerrin- esque percussive imagining of the Michael Jackson hit “I Can’t Help It” will. Parlato sings the globe from Benin, homeland to her frequent collaborator Lionel Loueke, to Brazil, with a voice that never fails and a skill that always awes.
Download: “Ela É Carioca,” Gretchen Parlato, Gretchen Parlato (2007)
A veteran of soul singer Bilal’s horn section, trumpeter Leron Thomas has distinguished himself as a wry, under the radar, singer/songwriter on four independent releases, beginning with the Dirty Draws volumes. Tiombe Lockhart has extolled his songwriting brilliance, and Lockhart and Bilal are featured on Volume 1’s searing “Strange As it May Seem.”
Download: “All You’ll Be,”Grown Folks Music, The Saint (2004)
Fuller, a Colorado native and Spelman College alumna, is a member of Beyoncé’s all-woman band, alongside a number of extraordinary musicians—many with roots in jazz. Fuller’s own band features a well-cohered group of women instrumentalists, including her sister, thoughtfully working through a range of feelings. Healing reigned supreme on her 2007 debut, and her recent release, Decisive Steps, has much of that same reconciled energy in a whirlwind of spirited playing.
Download: “Clear Mind,” Decisive Steps, Tia Fuller
Clayton’s did time in Roy Hargrove’s band and his music recalls the sense of humor and contemporary feel the dapper jazz trumpeter and composer evokes, while being equally attendant to jazz music’s history. His “Boogablues” from debut Two-Shade is a stunning example. Clayton’s father and uncle are jazz musicians and he learned at the feet of the best—but his original vision is what hooks about his playing.
Download: “Two Heads, One Pillow”, Two-Shade, Gerald Clayton (2009)
All of these artists’ music is available on iTunes and Amazon Mp3 Store
Do you listen to Jazz? Who are some of your favorite contemporary jazz musicians? What song introduced you to jazz? What has turned you off about Jazz? Share your thoughts in the comments section.