The cello may be more associated with classical music, but a select group of jazz cellists over the years have proven that the instrument is much more than a niche or novelty in the world of jazz, as we’ll see in this article.
Whilst there may not be the treasure trove of artists you’d expect when it comes to saxophone players, trumpeters or even jazz violinists, we’ve rounded up nine cello players who (we believe) make up some essential jazz listening based on their contribution to the style.
Some are bassists that have doubled on cello, while others have devoted themselves solely to the instrument and sought ways to bring the rich and varied sonic palette of the cello to jazz vocabulary.
Primarily renowned for his exceptional abilities as a bass player, Oscar Pettiford also adopted the cello as secondary instrument as is widely regarded as an innovator in the use of the cello as a solo instrument in jazz.
He first used the instrument as a practical joke on stage when playing with Woody Herman in the late forties, but found the instrument a blessing when he broke his arm in an accident in 1949.
Unable to play bass while recuperating Pettiford started playing a cello borrowed from a friend. He discovered that by tuning it in fourths like a double bass but sounding an octave higher he was able to play even with his arm in a sling.
From this point on, Pettiford would regularly play cello, helping expand its role in the music. His last recording prior to his early death in September 1960, My Little Cello, featured his playing on the smaller instrument with his bebop influenced compositions and phrasing.
Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1919, Katz was classically trained cellist, and performed as a symphonic cellist with the National Symphony Orchestra among others.
Unlike many cellists that also played jazz, Katz preferred not to tune his instrument in fourths (E-A-D-G to match a double bass) and continued with the traditional cello tuning in fifth intervals (C-G-D-A).
From a jazz perspective, he’s best known for his work with the Chico Hamilton Quintet in the mid 1950’s and featuring on some the drummer’s most influential albums recorded between 1955 and 1960.
Katz also released his debut album as leader in 1956, Zen: The Music Of Fred Katz, on the West Coast label Pacific Jazz.
He recorded further jazz albums under his own name, often with Hamilton as his drummer of choice. With releases on both the Decca and Warner label imprints until the end of the 50s, he firmly established the cello as an improvising instrument.
In fact, CODA magazine has even described him as “the first real jazz cellist”.
As a child David Darling learned to play piano, cello and double bass, but finally settled on the cello as his instrument of choice.
He subsequently focused all his energies on the traditional four string acoustic cello and his eight string electric cello.
Using these musical instruments, he would bring his unique talents as a composer and improviser to showcase a new and wonderful sound-world for the jazz cello, exploiting the natural timbre and nuances from the acoustic instrument and seeking new sounds and techniques from his electric cello.
With an extensive discography throughout his long and productive career, it is his albums for ECM Records that are perhaps known among jazz enthusiasts.
These recordings made for the Munich based imprint, while they may not swing in the conventional sense, have a charm and lyricism along with a dynamic pull that is captivating.
Erik Friedlander is based in New York and is in-demand as a composer for films.
Most importantly he is a jazz cellist who has chosen to specialise on the instrument.
He is a sought-after bandleader and records on a regular basis as leader and sideman.
His approach to the cello is unique as, while he acknowledges the instrument’s natural range, he disregards the role it has primarily been assigned in jazz as sitting comfortable in the same register as the tenor saxophone.
Eschewing early attempts to play saxophone-like lines on the cello, Friedlander looked to find his own vocabulary and has successfully done utilising the full range of the cello with both pizzicato and arco techniques.
The range of his music takes in chamber jazz along with more freely improvised works. As well as being highly acclaimed for his own recordings, he has also collaborated with iconic alto saxophonist, composer and producer, John Zorn
Another major voice on the instrument, Hank Roberts emerged onto the downtown New York scenes in the 1980’s, quickly establishing a reputation as an exciting new voice on jazz cello.
He has performed in a variety of settings from rock, jazz, and improvised music.
Roberts has recorded extensively as leader but is perhaps most widely known for his association with guitarist Bill Frisell.
The cellist appeared as regular member of Frisell’s various groups throughout the 1980s, and has more recently been featured with the guitarist’s new project, Harmony.
New recordings from Hank Roberts have included the Science of Love recording which was released in 2021 featuring his new Sextet with Brian Drye on trombone, violinist Dana Lyn, Mike McGinnis on clarinet and soprano saxophone, pianist Jacob Sacks, and Vinnie Sperrazza at the drums.
Shirley Smart is one of the most interesting, resourceful and dynamic improvisers on the UK jazz scene, and achieves all of the above with her innovative cello playing.
In doing so, she should by rights earn herself a place as one of the most important jazz cellists of her, or any other, generation.
Like many other jazz cello players, she is classically trained and performed with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Her formal education has taken her from London, Paris to Jerusalem where an initial 12-month trip resulted in a 10-year stay as she became more involved in musical projects that encompassed, and enhanced her studies, in jazz, Arabic, Oriental and North African music.
Upon her return to the UK, Smart has combined her passion for jazz and the music of the Middle East.
She runs multiple projects concurrently, from duo to sextet, and produces music that is engaging and stimulating.
Recent releases include Long Story Short with the Shirley Smart Trio, her improvising duo with saxophonist James Arben on Entanglement, and Zeitgeist2 with pianist Robert Mithell, all of which show a different aspect of Shirley Smart’s musical vision.
Perhaps the wild card here, thrown in for your consideration…
Anja Lechner is primarily a classical cellist, although as with many of her generation (she was born in Kassel, Germany in 1961), she refuses to be bound by such strict classifications.
Her music blurs boundaries, as well as crossing continents and genres. This, coupled with her abilities as an improviser, further defy definition as the line between the composed and improvised become indistinguishable.
With an extensive discography for icon jazz record label ECM, she has forged musical relationships with other likeminded musicians which have been long-lasting and produced highly original and exquisite music.
Lechner’s most recent projects include the classical partnership with the guitarist Pablo Márquez playing the music of J.S. Bach, and the intimate musical relationship with Argentinian bandoneon player Dino Saluzzi.
Her recent recording with pianist François Couturier, Lontano, has garnered high praise for the musical empathy between the two musicians that extends far beyond the written scores to encompass duet improvisations that are perfectly shaped and architecturally perfect.
With Couturier, Lechner has also toured and recorded with the Tarkovsky Quartet featuring the accordian of Jean-Louis Matinier and Jean-Marc Larché’s soprano saxophone.
Drawing inspiration from the films of director Andrei Tarkovsky, the music of the Quartet once again transcends any notion of genre making timeless music. Lechner’s role is central to the music, and as in any setting she finds herself, the cello playing is a delight.
Known also as a classical cellist, Wadud is best known for is performances as an improvising cellist at the cutting edge of contemporary jazz.
He first came to prominence on Julius Hemphill’s 1972 album, Dogon A.D., and further evidence of his relationship with Hemphill and his keen musical relationship with the saxophone (Wadud also recorded with Arthur Blythe) can be heard at close quarters on the exceptional Live In New York (recorded in May 1976).
This affinity with the saxophone becomes readily apparent when one remembers that Wadud studied and played it in high school. He is, however, on record as saying that he fell in love with the cello because of its versatility and tonal range, describing it as being the closest string instrument to the human voice.
Prolific as a sideman recording the music of others, Wadud was often reluctant to step out as a leader and record his own music. This makes the excellent 1977 solo album, By Myself, even more worth seeking out.
Born in 1977, jazz cellist Tomeka Reid is well known in the experimental music scene, having worked with groups including the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton and Mike Reed’s Loose Assembly.
She was awarded the Macarthur Genius Grant in 2022, for which she received $800,000 in recognition of her “exceptional creativity”.
It was her move to Chicago in 2009 which turbo-charged an enthusaism for jazz and her output as a bandleader since includes Hairy Who & the Chicago Imagists (2014), Tomeka Reid Quartet (2015) and Old New (Cuneiform Records, 2019).
Named Chicagoan of the Year in Jazz in 2015, the recent Macarthur Fellow award suggests there is plenty more excitement to come from an artist described by Bandcamp as “fresh and transformative”.
Thanks for reading!
Looking for more niche jazz instruments? Check out our pick of the best jazz violinists, or the jazz flute players who made their mark on the genre…