By Joel Francis
Continuing The Daily Record’s look at the state of jazz today, here is the first of three installments shedding light on 15 jazz greats to emerge in the last 20 years. Note that these musicians are not necessarily the 15 greatest jazz artists to arrive since 1990. A brief listen to any of them, though, should more than persuade the most ardent purist that jazz is alive and well.
Over the past 20 years, Roy Hargrove’s trumpet has proven to be one of the most versatile instruments ever. He’s equally at home conjuring Cuba on his own or summoning the spirit of African rebellion with rapper Common. Although Hargrove has yet found a way to reconcile his split personalities, he has built a strong catalog. In the Roy Hargrove Quintet, Hargrove works the more traditional mold forged by Freddie Hubbard and Clifford Brown. The RH Factor is the less-focused urban playground where Hargrove’s funky side comes out. Albums to start with: Habana, Earfood.
Pianist Brad Mehldau cut his teeth working with saxophonists Joshua Redman and Wayne Shorter before striking out on his own. His lengthy concert arrangements often leave no stone unturned. Although his classical approach to playing is influenced by Bill Evans, Mehldau has no problem converting songs by Radiohead, the Beatles and Nick Drake into extended jazz workouts and placing them on footing equal to George Gershwin and Cole Porter standards. Mehldau made albums with opera singer Renee Fleming, guitarist Pat Metheny and pop producer Jon Brion without pandering on any project. Albums to start with: Back at the Vanguard, Day is Done.
Singer Madeleine Peyroux’s voice sounds more than a little like Billie Holiday, but her style is closer to Joni Mitchell’s. Born in the South, raised in New York and California and seasoned in Paris, Peyroux splits the distance between jazz, folk and pop. Her interpretations of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Hank Williams numbers made her a star on Lilith Fair stages a decade ago and earned her acclaim as the “Best International Jazz Artist” by the BBC in 2007. Albums to start with: Dreamland, Half the Perfect World.
Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenon recalls the tasteful, silky tone of Paul Desmond. In little more than five years, he’s released four albums, worked as a founding member of the SF Jazz Collective, won the Best New Artist award from JazzTimes in 2006 and named Rising Star-Alto Saxophone for three consecutive years in the Down Beat Critic’s Poll. While Zenon’s horn rests easily on the ears, his arrangements capture the spirit of his native island through insistent originals and unlikely hymns like “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” Albums to start with: Jibaro, Awake.
Maria Schneider’s compositions for her jazz orchestra have been some of the most ambitious works in the jazz canon since the heyday of the Duke Ellington Orchestra or Dave Brubeck’s late-’60s expositions. At once sweeping and evocative, Schnieder’s near-classical pieces reveal the deep influence of Gil Evans. The cinematic expanse of her work takes the listener on a journey where everyone from George Gershwin to Gustav Mahler is likely to appear. Albums to start with: Evanescence, Sky Blue.
Keep Reading: 15 Jazz Greats to Emerge in the Last 20 Years