What Is Modern Jazz? 8 Must-Hear Contemporary Jazz Artists Today

For the final instalment of our series looking at the different types of jazz in history, we jump into possibly the most hard-to-define style out there: modern jazz.

This music can be interpreted in lots of ways, so we’ve picked a handful of key contemporary jazz musicians to use as a springboard to discover more great music!  

  • Esperanza Spalding
  • Brad Mehdlau
  • Vijay Iyer
  • Kurt Rosenwinkel
  • Jason Moran
  • Ambrose Akinmusire
  • Marius Neset
  • Kamasi Washington

So what is modern jazz?

The word ‘modern’ (according to the dictionary definition) refers to something “relating to the present or recent times as opposed to the remote past”.

Therefore, it stands to reason that the term “modern jazz” has referred to various different sounds and styles over time: what sounds modern to our 21st Century ears is, of course, quite different to what would have sounded modern in 1945, for example.

This concept is exaggerated by the fact that jazz has developed so quickly as an art form, at least relatively speaking.

It took around 200 years to get from J.S. Bach’s Baroque stylings to the modernism of Stravinsky, with the Baroque period lasting a century and a half on its own.

Meanwhile, only a little over 40 years separate the very first jazz recording and Ornette Coleman’s free jazz revolution, with swing, bebop, cool jazz and the first stirrings of modal jazz all having occurred in the meantime.

In the 1940s bebop emerged.

This was proudly intellectual music meant for serious listening, whereas the swing and big band music that had dominated American music since the 1930s generally accompanied dancing and was sometimes more populist and less challenging in scope.

This new music was often referred to as modern jazz, to distinguish it from the swing music that preceded it, and the Dixieland or New Orleans style that came before that.

The debut album of Thelonious Monk – pianist, composer and the “high priest of bebop” – was entitled Genius of Modern Music.

Early jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong was famously disparaging about this new style, while Tommy Dorsey, a swing era bandleader, claimed that “bebop has set music back 20 years”.

Cool jazz – often characterised by a softer, less fiery sound than bebop – developed in the late 1940s and also came under the modern jazz umbrella.

The Modern Jazz Quartet (also known as the MJQ), fronted by pianist John Lewis and vibraphonist Milt Jackson, found huge popularity in the 1950s by combining the influence of classical music with slickly-arranged bebop and blues.

Modern Jazz & Contemporary Jazz Today

Nowadays, the word “modern” is often used interchangeably with “contemporary” to describe a jazz sound.

It’s a rather vague term that covers a range of sub-genres, but generally refers to music that is more current than styles like swing, bebop and modal jazz.

As ever, though, lines can be blurred and it may incorporate elements of all these styles.

From a musical perspective, modern jazz today can be highly demanding to play, often utilising non-functional harmony, intricate melodies and odd time signatures.

It might take influence from other genres, such as 20th Century classical music or sounds from non-western cultures.

And while it can sometimes have a reputation for being rather challenging for the listener, a number of modern jazz artists have managed to create accessible and highly melodic material from relatively complex source materials.

We’ll now take a look at some of the most well-known modern jazz musicians, with a recommended recording for each one.

All have come to prominence since the 1990s, and all have taken influence from the American jazz tradition to come up with a forward-looking style that is all their own!

Modern Jazz Artists: Recommend Listening

Esperanza Spalding

Esperanza Spalding has exploded onto the scene in the last decade or so, as her unique mixture of double bass-playing and singing (often at the same time) has captivated audiences.

She was born in 1986 in Portland, Oregon, before studying (like so many contemporary jazz musicians) at Boston’s famous Berklee College of Music.

She was hired as a double bass teacher at the school almost as soon as she graduated, making her one of the youngest professors in Berklee history.

She also toured with jazz luminaries including Joe Lovano and Patti Austin around this time.

As her solo career took off she composed her own material and began to sing more prominently.

She’s certainly no purist, with a repertoire that takes influence from jazz, pop and R&B singers like Stevie Wonder and Prince, as well as Brazilian music, to create a colourful and highly accessible package.

In addition to her obvious talent and technical mastery, Spalding has also cultivated something of a mystical aura.

Her website refers to “sound-energies” and a “prismatic” musical aesthetic.

There is no direct mention of jazz, but she refers to her musical style simply as “what it is”.

Recommended Esperanza Spalding album: Chamber Music Society

From 2010, her third album was something of a breakthrough, making her the first jazz artist to win the Grammy Award for Best New Artist.

Brad Mehdlau

Brad Mehldau started making waves on the New York jazz scene in the early 1990s, having studied at the New School with classmates including guitarist Peter Bernstein and pianist (and now jazz club owner) Spike Wilner.

As a pianist, Mehdlau’s jazz pedigree is indisputable – his early work in particular displays deep study of straight ahead keyboard luminaries like Red Garland and Wynton Kelly, and whilst still a student he played in Jimmy Cobb’s band (Cobb being the drummer on Miles Davis’ classic Kind of Blue).

But there has also always been a considerable dose of progressivism in Mehdlau’s approach.

He has spoken of his love of classical music, the German Romantic tradition in particular, while his long-standing trio – with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard (formerly Jorge Rossy) – has interpreted post-1960s rock and pop songs alongside original compositions and jazz standards.

The 2010 album Highway Rider placed him in a large ensemble setting, while Mehliana is an adventurous duo project with drummer Mark Guiliana.

Recommended Brad Mehldau album: Art of the Trio 4: Back at the Vanguard

Mehdlau’s trio is on fire on this live date!

The repertoire includes jazz standards (including a 7/4 arrangement of ‘All The Things You Are’) as well as a version of Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)”

Vijay Iyer

Vijay Iyer is a true polymath: to refer to him merely as a jazz pianist really doesn’t do him justice.

In addition to recording a number of albums with his piano trio, which features Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore on bass and drums respectively, the American has also composed orchestral concert music, published various writings and collaborated with musicians from a whole host of genres and cultures.

One of Iyer’s early sideman gigs was with M-Base saxophonist Steve Coleman, who clearly informed his bold and experimental approach to rhythm.

He also enjoyed a lengthy collaboration with alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, which explored music influenced by their mutual Indian heritage.

Iyer was awarded a 2013 MacArthur “Genius Grant” and also holds a high profile professorship at Harvard University.

Recommended Vijay Iyer album: Break Stuff

Alongside his tricky original material, Iyer also presents Thelonious Monk’s “Work” and a moving interpretation of Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count” on this critically acclaimed 2015 album for ECM.

Kurt Rosenwinkel

Kurt Rosenwinkel has gone from being a ‘musicians musician’, who was largely lauded by jazz students and aficionados, to something of a bonafide guitar hero, who has collaborated with Eric Clapton.

He made early appearances in the bands of jazz elder statesman – Gary Burton, Joe Henderson and Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band – before forming a popular quartet of his own.

His band with Mark Turner (tenor saxophone), Ben Street (double bass) and Jeff Ballard (drums) had a popular residency at Smalls, a Greenwich Village jazz club, and this ultimately led to him signing with Verve Records.

Following a string of critically acclaimed albums for Verve and other labels, he formed Heartcore Records, an independent label of his own, in 2016, as he told us in this interview.

As a collaborator his resume reads like a who’s-who of modern jazz, including Seamus Blake, Rebecca Martin, Chris Cheek and Danilo Perez, as well as non-jazz artists such as Clapton and rapper Q-Tip.

Rosenwinkel achieves an ethereal sound by singing along with his guitar and amplifying and blending his voice.

Yet despite his rather futuristic aesthetic, he is equally at home in more traditional jazz settings, having recorded a number of standards-focused albums.

Recommended Kurt Rosenwinkel album: The Next Step

Released in 2000, The Next Step features the quartet that held the residency at Smalls, and opens with the modern jazz anthem “Zhivago”

Jason Moran

As an indication of Moran’s impact upon modern jazz, the 2010 Jazz Critics’ Poll for the best albums of the year featured four albums on which he had played.

His own record Ten topped the poll, while albums by Bunky Green and Rudresh Mhanthappa, Charles Lloyed and Paul Motian, on all of which he had appeared as a sidemen, also appeared in the top ten entries.

The pianist grew up in Houston, Texas, where he attended Kinder Houston High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, the alumni of which includes fellow jazz musicians Robert Glasper, Eric Harland, Kendrick Scott and Walter Smith, as well as Beyoncé Knowles.

Whilst still a student at the Manhattan School of Music he began playing with contemporary jazz saxophonist Greg Osby, recording the fiery live album Banned in New York amongst others.

As a result of this association, Moran signed his own deal with Blue Note Records and began recording as a leader.

His trio The Bandwagon, with Tarus Mateen on electric bass and Nasheet Waits on drums, has been hailed as one of the most thrilling ensembles in contemporary jazz.

He has also worked with visual and film, and recently composed the score for a reading of Ta-Nahisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

Recommended Jason Moran album: The Bandwagon

From 2002, this set from the Village Vanguard live album is futuristic, groovy and exciting.

The incredibly varied source material includes a somewhat surprising interpretation of a Brahms Intermezzo.

Ambrose Akinmusire

Like Vijay Iyer and a number of other modern jazz luminaries, Akinmusire was mentored by Steve Coleman, playing with the saxophonist’s Five Elements band on a European tour after Coleman heard the young trumpeter playing with the Berkley High School Jazz Ensemble.

Akinmusire, who has often collaborated with saxophonist and fellow California native Walter Smith III, has developed an intensely personal and expressive sound.

His more recent albums, generally featuring band members Sam Harris (piano), Harish Raghavan (double bass) and Justin Brown (drums), have appeared on Blue Note records and have explored contemporary political issues such as police brutality, structural racism and gentrification.

2018’s Origami Harvest took on a more expansive outlook, featuring a string quartet as well as rapper/poet Victor Vasquez.

Recommended Ambrose Akinmusire album: A Rift in Decorum

This 2017 album was recorded live in New York and sees the trumpeter’s regular quartet playing two discs-worth of all original material.

Marius Neset

While the modern jazz landscape can often feel rather New York-dominated, there are strong contemporary jazz scenes in major cities across the world, and around Europe in particular.

There is a long history of northern European musicians fusing traditional jazz techniques with a more pastoral aesthetic – the distinctive music produced by German label ECM providing perhaps the archetypal example of this – and Marius Neset continues this tradition.

The young tenor & soprano saxophonist incorporates the influence of folk music from his native Norway into his rhythmically dextrous contemporary jazz, and is currently one of the most popular modern jazz musicians on the continent.

Releasing on the Munich-based record label ACT Music, he has also written ambitious music for large ensembles.

“He abolishes the border between jazz and symphonic music and elevates thus both genres to unprecedented heights” – NRK Jazz

Recommended Marius Neset album: Pinball

On his debut for ACT the saxophonist’s quartet is augmented by strings, with Neset’s sister Ingrid making an appearance on flute as well.

Kamasi Washington

Saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s The Epic was the surprise breakout hit in 2015, attracting the attention of mainstream music journalists and listeners and thrusting him into the limelight.

His intense brand of contemporary spiritual jazz carries shades of Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders and seems to work particularly well in big festivals and venues.

Along with a number of other Los Angeles jazz musicians, Kamasi contributed to Kendrick Lamar’s multi Grammy-winning rap album To Pimp A Butterfly.

Whilst Washington’s playing has had its detractors inside the jazz community, its wider appeal is perhaps explained by its communal feel, with arguably less of a focus on the individual soloist.

Recommended Kamasi Washington album: The Epic

Released on the experimental electronic music label Brainfeeder, The Epic is an unbelievable three hours long with a 13-piece band including bassist Thundercat.

Thanks for reading our take on modern jazz

Of course, with such a hard-to-define ‘label’ everyone can have a different point of view, but hopefully it at least got you to check out some new and killer contemporary jazz! 

You can find the rest of the articles in our types of jazz series via our Jazz music homepage.

6 thoughts on “What Is Modern Jazz? 8 Must-Hear Contemporary Jazz Artists Today”

  1. Very interesting article. Do you think that contemporary jazz in this period can be described also as a music that incluedes genres like R&B, soul, funk and hip-hop?
    For example I’m thinking about Robert Glasper.
    In your opinion, this kind of music can be described as contemporary jazz?

    Sorry for my english:)

    • Hi Jean Pierre,

      I would certainly describe Robert Glasper as contemporary jazz. I guess, more than ever, the definition is personal to each individual listener but I hear lots of contemporary jazz which incorporates styles like modern jazz and hip hop. I guess (for me) the thing that makes it ‘modern jazz’ is that it maintains some advanced rhythmic and/or harmonic qualities. That’s certainly true for a lot of Robert Glasper and even those artists which, on the surface, may sound more commercial (like Esperanza Spalding) there’s a lot of sophisticated layers going on.

  2. Hi Matt, it’s always a courageous journalist who feels able to define the leaders in a field, whether it be modern jazz or anything else. Others will always have different opinions but at least the article gets a discussion stated. My first point would be that while the USA is undeniably the world leader in jazz there is so much else out there which your list mostly ignores. Just taking Downbeat’s latest “25 for the future” provides a wealth of fantastic “Modern Jazz” musicians that you have not mentioned. From the UK there is Shabaka Hutchins, Nubya Garcia, Yazz Ahmed (born in Bahrain) and Yussef Dayes. There is so much great European jazz such as Phronesis and its offshoots as well as Marius Nesset (which you did mention) and then of course Jan Garbarek whose spiritual jazz (whether you like it or not) has outsold all but about a dozen of the top selling jazz albums ever. Then of course most of the American musicians on “25 for the future” you didn’t mention either – Jazmeia Horn, Christian Sands, Theo Croker, Lakecia Benjamin etc. But thanks for the article, the people you mention are all very good as well.

    • Hi Howard,

      Thanks for the input! As you mentioned, the main goal with these articles is to give a few entry points to people who want to explore more. Over time, we plan to update and expand these to mention more and more artists, but there will always be some missing ones or ones that people disagree with. Happy to have people such as yourself adding those into the comments so readers can explore those too. Our philosophy is that it’s better to start highlighting some than waiting until we’ve got that elusive (and impossible) ‘complete guide’!



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