The 25 essential New York City jazz icons

Swing through the city with these crucial artists.

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  • Lee Konitz/Dan Tepfer

    Lee Konitz

  • Fieldwork (Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman, Tyshawn Sorey)

    Fieldwork

  • Jason Moran 2011

    Jason Moran

  • Randy Weston 2011

    Randy Weston

  • matthewshippWEB

    Matthew Shipp

Lee Konitz/Dan Tepfer

Lee Konitz

15. Lee Konitz
Already a scenemaker in the NYC of the '40s, Lee Konitz worked closely with bebop visionaries such as Lennie Tristano and Miles Davis, lending his patented plush, darting lines to the latter's essential Birth of the Cool. The altoist still hangs with heavyweights of his own generation—check out the newly released Live at Birdland, featuring Konitz contemporary Paul Motian—but what earns him a spot on this list is his generous attitude toward younger players. Whether working alongside saxist-arranger Ohad Talmor in a colorful nonet or improvising freely with daring pianist Dan Tepfer, the 83-year-old never coasts, consistently backing up his reputation among fellow musicians as a true guru of improvisation.

14. Fieldwork
A performance by Fieldwork might aptly be described as the revenge of the nerds. Saxist Steve Lehman (a former student of arch avant-jazz conceptualist Anthony Braxton), pianist Vijay Iyer (a math and physics whiz who holds a B.S. from Yale) and drummer Tyshawn Sorey (an astoundingly proficient player who reportedly boasts a photographic memory for scores) blaze through labyrinthine compositions with a high-wire flair that would make the snobbiest prog-rock fan swoon—not to mention a real sense of moment-to-moment risk. On their own, each of these musicians is a poll-topping star bandleader, but together their gifts are compounded, Voltron-style. If you want to know what state-of-the-art NYC jazz sounds like in 2011, this is the band to see.

13. Jason Moran
A Houston piano prodigy who hit town to study with piano iconoclasts Jaki Byard, Andrew Hill and Muhal Richard Abrams, Jason Moran first raised eyebrows in bands led by saxophonist Greg Osby (one of the modern era's ablest talent scouts). Now a revered leader and conceptualist with a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant to show for it, Moran has shown an individualistic approach like those for which his mentors are cherished: a deep knowledge of history and repertoire combined with an irreverent streak that prompts him to push, prod and interrogate everything he knows. And the Bandwagon, Moran's longstanding combo with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, has broken every mold of trio interplay.

12. Randy Weston
Randy Weston's trademark is his championing of African-inflected jazz, a mission he's been on since he witnessed a lecture by musicologist Marshall Stearns while working as a dishwasher at a Berkshires resort in the '50s. Catch one of the lifelong Brooklynite's African Rhythms projects and you'll be treated to a musical discourse on the hidden roots of a great American art form. But you don't need to be a scholar to appreciate Weston's keyboard mastery, which, like that of his slightly older peer and friend Thelonious Monk, embodies a perfect marriage of idiosyncrasy and warmth. Even when he flirts with abstraction, the 85-year-old always sounds emotionally engaged and fully committed to a style that isn't African, or bop, or blues, or free—it's just Weston.

11. Matthew Shipp
You may have heard about Matthew Shipp's notorious orneriness (he'll dis respected jazz icons to any interviewer who polls him) or his penchant for genre-bending experiments (check out the new Knives from Heaven, featuring rhymes from Antipop Consortium). But what really earns the local fixture a spot on this list is his stormily gorgeous pianism—the perfect marriage of impressionist reverie and free-jazz passion—and unimpeachable improvisational instincts. For a representative taste, consult Shipp's handsome recent double-disc set, Art of the Improviser.

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