The 25 essential New York City jazz icons

Swing through the city with these crucial artists.

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  • Photograph: Dani Gurgel

    Maria Schneider

    Maria Schneider

  • Photograph: Jimmy Katz

    Ornette Coleman

    Ornette Coleman

  • Photograph: Cameron Wittig

    badplusWEB

    The Bad Plus (Ethan Iverson, middle)

Photograph: Dani Gurgel

Maria Schneider

Maria Schneider

10. Maria Schneider
Big bands are a longstanding tradition in New York City, where the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and the Mingus Big Band still pack houses on Monday nights. But the genre got a major jolt of new vitality with the 1985 arrival of composer and bandleader Maria Schneider, whose groundbreaking residency at the late, lamented Village club Visiones extended the sophisticated work of her mentors, Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer. Increasingly busy in the classical world, Schneider leads her band less frequently, which makes its every appearance a must-see event; meanwhile, spiritual progeny like John Hollenbeck, Darcy James Argue and Joseph C. Phillips have continued to explore trails Schneider helped to blaze.

9. Ornette Coleman
Once a controversial maverick much derided by establishment tastemakers, Texas-born saxophonist, composer and bandleader Ornette Coleman has quietly become an elder statesman over the past half century: His homespun melodies and freewheeling rhythmic conceptions are accepted as gospel throughout the jazz world. Yet at 80, Coleman retains his gently eccentric mystery; he's a chimerical philosopher who plays here annually at best, though his presence fans out well beyond his midtown doorstep, fueling New York's unquenchable creative flame.

8. Ethan Iverson
Ten years ago, Ethan Iverson was the piano player in the Bad Plus, an upstart trio that garnered hype and scorn in equal measure for covering "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and other modern standards. A decade on, that core fact hasn't changed: The Bad Plus has persevered and thrived—its excellent 2010 album, Never Stop (made up of all original pieces), felt like a definitive statement. But via his peerless blog, Do the Math, and his meaningful engagement with veteran players like Billy Hart and Albert Heath, Iverson has simultaneously established himself as perhaps NYC's most thoughtful and passionate student of jazz tradition—the most admirable sort of artist-scholar.

7. Tim Berne
John Zorn soaked up much of the media attention with his splashy genre-colliding experiments such as Naked City, but based purely on the recorded evidence, it may very well have been Tim Berne who was the definitive genius of NYC's downtown 1980s jazz scene. (Check out Fulton Street Maul or Fractured Fairy Tales if you need proof.) In the intervening years, Zorn has moved well beyond the small-group-jazz sphere, but Berne has remained committed to exploring that idiom with a series of gritty, head-turning projects, including Bloodcount in the '90s, Hardcell in the aughts and currently, Los Totopos: all bands that have helped propel younger players such as Jim Black, Craig Taborn and Ches Smith into alt-jazz stardom. Factor in Berne's prolific and charmingly irreverent Screwgun label and his busy local performance schedule, and you've got an unassuming legend on your hands.

6. Cecil Taylor
It's been a half century since Cecil Taylor has played anything resembling what is conventionally called jazz, with clearly delineated themes, an orderly progression of solos or a foot-tapping pulse. But like Lena Horne and the many other vocal divas he's more likely to cite as an influence than, say, another pianist, he revels in the mode of the unabashedly dramatic, soul-baring performance. Whether attacking the piano or caressing it (or stamping on the floor around it, in one of his frequent preconcert dance expositions), the Queens-born, Brooklyn-residing 82-year-old never fails to reignite the listener's belief in the dead-seriousness of American improvised music. Taylor's marathon recitals—solo is still the best mode in which to catch him—remain the definitive un--background music, thrillingly unfettered rejoinders to anyone who thinks of jazz as a mere lifestyle accoutrement.

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