Since the beginning of jazz, drummers have been an integral part of moving the music forward.
In this article, we’ll have a look at 10 of the best modern jazz drummers on the scene; those who are not only the first choice for contemporary jazz artists, but pioneers unto themselves.
Drummers have always been at the forefront of stylistic change in jazz.
There was Baby Dodds bringing New Orleans drumming to Chicago in the 1920s. Two decades later, Kenny Clarke was transferring time-keeping duties from the hi-hat to the more legato ride cymbal. And, even later, Tony Williams provided the Miles Davis Second Quintet with its drama and gear-shifts.
In short, drummers have a direct influence not only over the rhythms of the ensemble, but also tempo changes, form, dynamics, texture and the idiosyncratic ‘sound’ of the band.
Today, a jazz drummer is expected to be as much an instrumentalist, composer and bandleader as the next musician, and as likely to have albums and projects under their own names as they are to be a prolific sideman.
The list below comprises not only of drummers of modern jazz, but also modern drummers stretching the instrument to its limit; they will be pushing ahead and inspiring us for many years to come.
We’ve picked a recommended album to listen to for each, too…
Brian Blade (b. 1970)
Brian Blade’s sideman resumé boasts trailblazers such as Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, while his own projects – as an Americana singer/songwriter (Mama Rosa, 2009) and with The Fellowship Band – have been met with critical acclaim.
Brian Blade is one of the most versatile musicians of our time, able to work with a variety of artists, from Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan to modern sax greats like Joshua Redman and Mark Turner.
Hear him on Wayne Shorter’s Without a Net (2013) for some explosive and multidirectional drumming. Blade as much contributes to the soundscape of the music as he provokes his fellow musicians into going further out.
Eric Harland (b. 1976)
Well known as a fierce technician and master of odd time-signatures, Eric Harland studied at the Manhattan School of Music at the recommendation of Wynton Marsalis.
His discography shows that his talent is endorsed not only by jazz legends such as Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland and McCoy Tyner, but also cutting-edge modernists like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Walter Smith III and Chris Potter.
As a leader, Harland has released three albums, the latest of which 13th Floor (2018) is well worth a listen. Incorporating irregular metres and fusion jazz grooves, the drumming here takes no prisoners.
Bill Stewart (b. 1966)
Growing up in Iowa in the 1970s, Bill Stewart began by playing in cover bands and was propelled to fame when working with John Scofield as well as funk legend Maceo Parker in the early ’90s.
He is a member of a powerhouse organ trio with Larry Goldings and Peter Bernstein, one of the longest running groups of today, and has proved himself as a multifaceted musician, composer and bandleader.
Stewart’s drumming style is lilting and dynamic, with a melodic focus. He tends to lend equal significance to all areas of the drum kit, layering polyrhythms to great effect.
The album Toy Tunes (2018) with Goldings and Bernstein showcases not only his unique playing but also his quirky compositional approach.
Justin Faulkner (b. 1991)
The youngest of this collection of modern jazz drummers, Justin Faulkner was a child prodigy who played his first professional engagement at 13.
Attending specialist music schools such as The Girard Academic Music Program in Philadelphia and Berklee College of Music in Boston, he studied extensively with Art Blakey protégé Ralph Peterson.
Faulkner went on to replace drumming titan Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts in Branford Marsalis’s quartet in 2009 – a ringing endorsement not to be understated – and, although his CV is not as broad as some others, his musicianship certainly is just as mature.
We have lots to look forward to with this drummer, but for now check him out on Marsalis’s latest album, The Secret Between The Shadow and The Soul (2019).
Marcus Gilmore (b. 1986)
Descended from jazz royalty, Marcus Gilmore is the grandson of the iconic ‘snap, crackle and pop’ Roy Haynes and nephew of Graham Haynes, co-founder of the influential 1980s M-Base Collective.
It therefore comes as no surprise that he has worked with musicians at the forefront of modern music such as Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman and Ambrose Akinmusire.
His technical prowess on the drums allows him to treat the instrument melodically (musically satisfying sequences of notes), harmonically (combinations of sounds in rhythmic unison) and polyphonically (the layering of two or more melodies).
Often using ‘matched grip’ (where the left hand holds the stick in the same way as the right), he has the freedom to play not only across the drums fluently but also adjust the tone of the drums by how long the stick is in contact with the head.
Listen to Walter Smith III & Matthew Stevens’s In Common (2018) and hear for yourself!
Nasheet Waits (b. 1971)
Son of Freddie Waits, member of and composer in Max Roach’s famous M’Boom percussion ensemble, Nasheet originally studied psychology and history in Atlanta before receiving a BA in Music from Long Island University.
He was Jason Moran’s chosen drummer for many of his seminal albums in the 2000s, and has been associated with other progressive musicians such as Fred Hersch, Tony Malaby, Dave Douglas and Mark Turner.
It is not just Waits’s association with modernists which marks him out as a top modern jazz drummer, however.
His ability to move seamlessly between ‘in’ the time, ‘against’ the time, and ‘over’ the time gives him the flexibility to phrase in a way which is profoundly up-to-date.
A good example of this can be found on Ethan Iverson’s album The Purity of The Turf (2016).
Tyshawn Sorey (b. 1980)
Tyshawn Sorey evades categorisation, incorporating elements of jazz, folk, drum & bass, free improvisation, and twentieth-century classical music into a style and approach unlike any other.
He has not only studied jazz performance formally, but also holds an MA and doctorate in composition, and in 2017 was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship (colloquially known as the ‘genius grant’).
Tyshawn Sorey regularly expands the traditional drum kit set-up to include orchestral and world-percussion instruments and has been known to conduct sections of his own compositions.
Having performed and recorded regularly with jazz visionaries such as Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman, Anthony Braxton, Evan Parker and John Zorn, Sorey is clearly a far-sighted artist whose concept of music spans many levels.
His sound world is weird and wonderful: his latest album with violinist Jennifer Curtis Invisible Ritual (2020) is largely freely improvised and is an example of both modern drumming and modern music.
Nate Smith (b. 1974)
A diverse portfolio is a key theme in this list of modern drummers, and Nate Smith is no exception.
He has been given the seal of approval from the jazz community for his work with luminaries such as Dave Holland and Chris Potter, but is also a member of funk band Vulfpeck and has even released a solo drum album.
He has written Grammy-nominated songs, composed soundtracks and appeared on American late-night talk shows with pop artists.
Listen to the latest from Nate Smith on his self-penned and self-produced EP Light and Shadows (2020).
Ari Hoenig (b. 1973)
Musicians in 2020 are not only expected to be great technicians, performers, composers, producers and self-publicists, but also educators.
Ari Hoenig ticks all these boxes, and has written several instructional books regarding drumming and music.
Widely regarded as an odd-time-signature specialist with a relentlessly clarified beat, Hoenig spent part of his education at The University of North Texas, playing in the prestigious One O’Clock Band.
One of Ari Hoenig’s many contributions to modern jazz is an interest in ‘metric modulation’, where the tempo of the music seems to change to a faster or slower rate; this gives the impression of gear shifts.
Another is playing melodies quite literally on the drums – this is better heard than described, as a listen to his album Inversations (2013) should demonstrate!
Mark Guiliana (b. 1980)
Mark Guiliana caught the jazz scene’s attention when Avishai Cohen employed him in his group, after graduating from William Paterson University in 2003.
Guiliana went on to perform and record with many of modern jazz’s leading lights, including Brad Mehldau, Dave Douglas and Lionel Loueke, and his interest in electronic music has led him to form his own project, Beat Music.
For Mark Guiliana, combining electronics and acoustic drums means both using drum loops and drum machine sounds (such as can be found on the famed Roland TR-808 drum machine), but also mimicking the sound and style borne out of the electronic music movements of the ’80s and ’90s.
In a jazz context, this means assimilating a rhythmic approach not found in traditional drumming, and in this Guiliana has discovered a niche.
He found a wider audience when asked to participate in David Bowie’s final album Blackstar (2016) by colleague Donny McCaslin, which is highly recommended.
However, if you want to hear his output as a composer, bandleader, producer as well as drummer, check out his latest release Beat Music! Beat Music! Beat Music! (2019)
Thanks for reading and hope you found some new top jazz drummers to check out from this roundup of modern greats.
If you’re looking to discover more about the ‘legends’ we made a list of the most famous jazz drummers in history for you, as well as this in-depth look at the life and albums of the legendary Tony Williams.