The 25 essential New York City jazz icons
Swing through the city with these crucial artists.
Mon Apr 8 2013
Photograph: Claudio Casanova
Tony Malaby 2011
20. Tony Malaby
Even if you think you've never seen this protean saxophonist, composer and bandleader, you almost certainly have: From the moment Tony Malaby blew into town from Arizona in 1995, he seems to have been on one stage or another almost constantly. A versatile sideman and a compelling soloist who moves from inside to outside and back with ease, Malaby has enlivened projects led by Paul Motian, Kenny Werner, Tim Berne and Fred Hersch, to name only a few. Meanwhile, Malaby juggles multiple bands of his own, from the explosive trio he shares with his wife, pianist Angelica Sanchez, and drummer Tom Rainey, to Novela, the oversize group he's lately co-led with upstart pianist Kris Davis.
19. Matana Roberts
There are musicians who play jazz and there are those who truly create it. Matana Roberts is definitely among the latter. The saxophonist's Coin Coin series—the first volume of which has just been released on an outstanding CD, Gens De Couleur Libres—uses generations' worth of her family history as fodder for epic multimedia presentations. The result is jazz as polemical happening, works that stand alongside John Carter's Roots and Folklore and the programmatic presentations of Mingus, Ellington and Max Roach as half-celebratory, half-harrowing meditations on the African-American experience. Roberts's admirably refined yet straight-from-the-gut saxophone statements add another layer to her formidable arsenal.
18. Gretchen Parlato
New York has never lacked for prominent jazz singers, though vocalists have rarely enjoyed the serious cachet their instrumental counterparts take for granted—Cassandra Wilson, an exception, packed her bags some time ago. But Gretchen Parlato is emblematic of a bright new generation of singers now working in New York, who've applied consummate technical polish and respect for tradition with a burning need to refresh the canon and make it speak to younger audiences. First-prize winner in the 2004 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition, Parlato made leading figures like Wayne Shorter, Terence Blanchard and Kenny Barron into enthusiastic fans. Along with peers like Rebecca Martin, Becca Stevens and Jo Lawry, Parlato has overturned clichs to make jazz singing cool again.
17. Jon Irabagon
Even though what is often known as avant-garde jazz is a half-century old, the barrier between "inside" and "outside" jazz still persists. If the wall ever topples, we will have to thank Jon Irabagon, living proof that an improviser shouldn't have to take sides. In 2008, the Filipino-American won the Thelonious Monk International Sax Competition, a prestigious honor associated with the jazz mainstream, and he's excelled in that sphere onstage and on disc. At the same time, he's issued statements like 2009's I Don't Hear Nothin' but the Blues, a mercilessly extreme feat of sustained intensity, and worked with esteemed absurdist-bop quartet Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Foxy, from 2010, united all these facets of Irabagon's art in a refreshing, enigmatic whole, effectively signaling the death of jazz factionalism.
16. Fred Hersch
The facts of pianist Fred Hersch's life story—an openly gay artist in a world still steeped in cutting-contest machismo, and an HIV-positive man whose condition resulted in perilous illness and a two-month coma—can't overshadow his status as one of the most compelling performers and composers currently working in this city. Best known as a nonpareil trio player who favors drummers that prod and cajole him (among them Tom Rainey, Nasheet Waits and Paul Motian), Hersch is also a solo player so persuasive that he became the first pianist ever honored with a week of unaccompanied sets at the Village Vanguard. Increasingly, Hersch has also tackled projects of larger scale, including Leaves of Grass, a life-affirming Walt Whitman cantata, and My Coma Dreams, a new multimedia work inspired by Hersch's brush with delirium and mortality.