8 Musicians Redefining the Sound of Jazz in 2021

Kiefer — Photo by Eric Coleman via Stones Throw

+ Combine theory, improvisation, and jazzy hip-hop, and improve your piano chops with Grammy-winner Kiefer in Kiefer: Keys, Chords, & Beats.

Jazz is largely considered to be “America’s classical music.” Jazz is, by sonic definition, an amalgamation of African and European musical traditions such as the blues, gospel, everything J.S. Bach did, marching music, and 20th century atonality. However in some circles, the term “Jazz” can actually be considered an expletive, whether for historical context or musical connotations.

The history of the term jazz may have started as “Jass” or the slang term “Jasm,” which meant vigor, spirit, or energy. Some stories attribute it to an elision of the phrase Jackass Music by reviewers intending to demean the early jazz musicians who were by and large African American. As jazz developed and found its place within the American mainstream, the term became associated with sentiments of coolness, hip culture, and even innovation and experimentation.

Even at the height of the genre’s popularity within the American consciousness — between the 1920s and 1960s — most jazz musicians were more concerned with pushing their genre forward than commercial popularity.

As rock ‘n roll, funk, disco, techno/house, hip-hop, and of course pop music started to grow towards the end of the 20th century, jazz was yet again forced underground. The rhythms and harmonies and improvisation had to hide in plain sight behind the work of artists like Earth, Wind, & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Kahn, Paul Simon, Carlos Santana, and others.

In recent years, jazz has seen a resurgence in popularity, in no small part due to jazz records being sampled so widely in hip-hop production. Yet in just the last decade, musicians from all across the jazz spectrum have tried to deconstruct some of the outdated tropes of jazz standards; instead opting to create a more open-ended sonic palette that incorporates the musical innovations of the later half of the 20th century.

Artists such as Robert Glasper, Christian Scott, Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, Gogo Penguin, Mark Guiliana, Moonchild, and Nicholas Payton have all pushed the creative and sonic limits of jazz. In other words, this is the first wave of modern artists trying to redefine jazz for the millennial generation.

In 2021, we’ve seen that new generation continue to blossom even further. So below is a list of musicians who are reshaping the sound of jazz in their own unique ways, and creating a route for younger audiences to engage with a genre that’s over 100 years old. Let’s start with someone special to the Soundfly universe…

1. Kiefer

Los Angeles based keyboardist and producer, Kiefer, is a prime example of a jazz musician turned producer. In the modern era of bedroom producers, Keifer’s jazzy piano riffs, boom bap inspired drums, and funky bass lines fit right in. Kiefer is equally adept at home programming beats in Ableton Live and live looping keyboards and bass lines as he is playing in an ensemble setting on stage.

It’s that multifaceted approach to musicianship that we wanted to capture when Soundfly asked Kiefer to collaborate on an exciting new online course! In it, Kiefer showcases his approach to the piano and keys, and making modern piano-based beat music, by tackling various writing challenges and explaining how he creatively navigates each one. He explores how to write sophisticated and soulful chord changes, harmonize with a melody, manifest exciting solos, fashion short loops into interesting beats, and so much more. 

Check out Kiefer: Keys, Chords, & Beats!

Kiefer has landed placements on Anderson .Paak’s album, Oxnard, as well as being sampled on Drake’s latest release, Certified Lover Boy. As a performer he has ventured out as a solo act and as part of a trio with fellow producers Mndsgn and Swarvy. Kiefer recently released his latest project on legendary hip-hop label, Stones Throw Records. His latest album is his first with a full band, and is his most “jazz” outing to date. It’s clear that Keifer can conjure everything from late ’60s soul and modal jazz to crisp neo-soul beats of the Soulquarian era.

2. Braxton Cook

Hailing from Maryland, but now based in Los Angeles, Braxton Cook is a saxophonist and songwriter who has been carving out a very unique lane in the music industry for the last five years. Braxton has toured extensively with artists such as Christian Scott, Marquis Hill, Phonny Ppl, and Tom Misch, recorded with Mac Miller, Anderson .Paak, Mac Ayers, Kota the Friend and many more. A proficient saxophonist, Cook also has a pension for crafting soulful R&B ballads as well as groovy modern jazz jams. His most recent release, Fire Sign, showcases his ability to craft both while creatively integrating electronic production.

Cook also recently released a sample pack with Splice that showcases his compositional ideas, vocal abilities, and layers of saxophone and flute. In an ever evolving music industry Cook aims to defy the conventions of what it means to be a horn player or a jazz musician in general. His latest releases have been streamed over a million times on Spotify and his music has been featured regularly on major media platforms.

3. Sasha Masakowski

Sasha Masakowski is more than just a jazz singer. The daughter of New Orleans guitar legend and inventor of the keytar, Steve Masakowski, Sasha has been surrounded by music her entire life. The enigmatic singer is equally proficient at wielding synthesizers and electronic effects like live vocal looping, as she is singing behind a mic. Her music encompasses a wide range of influences which include traditional jazz, progressive rock, hip-hop, electronica, indie rock, and more.

Her band Art Market, is a blend of New Orleans jazz, bounce music, and experimental electronic music, while her alter ego, Tra$h Magnolia, is a blur of sonic influences that showcase the singer’s heritage as a girl from uptown. The singer recently joined Nicholas Payton’s latest trio, Lofty Ideals, which is an electronic group that features Payton on multiple instruments, guitarist and modular synthesist, Cliff Hines, and Sasha on vocals and synths.

Despite the many innovations in music technology, many jazz singers have traditionally stray away from incorporating electronics into their performance setup. Sasha not only embraces electronics, she has mastered them to the point of being able to create her own unique improvisational language.

A brief aside…

We recently launched a video on our YouTube channel about a jazzy, moody, sombre chord that we can never get enough of; also how and when to use it to full effect. Musicians, theorists, and curiosity-junkies, come one come all, and subscribe if you like that sorta thing!

4. Joel Ross

Joel Ross is a rising star of jazz vibraphone. Although the vibraphone isn’t typically the most popular instrument in jazz, the instrument has a long lineage in the jazz community with artists such as Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, Cal Tjader, Bobby Hutcherson, Dave Samuels, Stefon Harris, and Warren Wolf. A Chicago native, Ross has performed with jazz luminaries such as Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride, Chris Potter, and Louis Hayes. He is a regular member of Marquis Hill’s Blacktet, Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings and recently released his first album, Kingmaker, on Blue Note Records.

Nicknamed “Young Genius” by his peers, Ross’ angular yet soulful manner of improvising has made him one of the most in demand musicians of his generation. Ross is currently developing his own ensembles aptly named Good Vibes and Parables.

5. James Francies

James Francies is one of the most dynamic young pianists on the modern jazz scene. Hailing from Houston, Francies has amalgamated a range of varying styles and musical traditions which have landed him on the bandstand with The Roots, Chris Potter, Stefon Harris, Jeff Tain Watts, Pat Metheny, and Marcus Strickland.

Francies has a condition known as “sound-to-color synesthesia,” which allows him to make visual associations with sound, associating certain colors with certain chords and melodic structures. Francies has used this ability to compose some of the music on his debut recording for Blue Note Records, Flight. His playing style sounds directly connected to the lineage of Houston jazz piano pioneers: Joe Sample, Jason Moran, and Robert Glasper. His fiery, angular improvisational style is very reminiscent of Moran, yet much like Sample and Glasper, Francies embraces the vast world of electronic keyboard textures.

Francies is continuously involved in projects that push the boundaries of jazz such as his group, Stem Sounds, or his work with the Chris Potter Trio in which he plays keyboards and synth bass. He was recently featured on Drake’s Certified Lover Boy album in a duet with rising vocal star Yebba. He’s also a part of Pat Metheny’s group, Side-Eye, which further explores the boundaries of jazz and electronic music.

6. Butcher Brown

When I think of the glory days of bands, when a band meant you and your friends getting together at somebody’s house and playing in the basement or garage, one modern band comes to mind: Butcher Brown. This band was founded in keyboardist and producer extraordinaire Devonne Harris (aka DJ Harrison)’s basement. Harris converted this room into a full-blown recording studio which served as the band’s headquarters (Jellowstone Studios) in which most of their early work was filmed and recorded.

The band members all live in and around Richmond, and have known each other for many years. Drummer Corey Fonville splits his time between touring with jazz luminaries, Christian Scott and Nicholas Payton, and Butcher Brown. This group also features Marcus Tenney (trumpet and saxophone), Andrew Randazzo (bass), Morgan Burns (guitar), and DJ Harrison (keyboards/producer/engineer). What makes them so special is their ability to groove like a ’70s funk band, lay in the pocket like a hip-hop DJ, and reach celestial heights of improvisation that rival any modern jazz fusion group.

Their music is heavily rooted in funk, soul, R&B, and gospel — with jazz as the anchor holding everything in place, of course. Each musician is well versed in jazz vocabulary but the mantra of the group seems to be to embrace the totality of Black American music in one ensemble. The band’s collective synergy and musical interplay will call into mind groups such as Earth, Wind, & Fire as well as Weather Report and the sonic color of their recordings feels closely related to those groups because the band mostly uses vintage recording equipment to record.

7. Melanie Charles

Melanie Charles is a sonic alchemist who puts jazz, soul, experimental music, and Haitian roots music in a blender to create something completely unique. The singer songwriter, flautist, and keyboardist finds herself equally at home singing haunting melodies in Creole, manipulating samples on the Roland SP404, and soulful improvising on flute. Her voice is steeped in the tradition of great vocalists such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dinah Washington; yet Charles has found her own eclectic style of singing which pulls from a vast variety of Black American musical styles.

A staple in the New York City jazz and soul scene for many years, Charles has found herself equally inspired by the LA beat scene made famous by experimental hip-hop producers such as Flying Lotus, Teebs, Madlib, and Diba$e. Charles, a Haitian-American hailing from Brooklyn, began her love for jazz at a young age. As hip-hop continued to evolve, she would hear more and more producers sampling jazz and reimagining jazz standards. This led her to want to make “jazz” that resonated with her peers; music inspired by the greats of the past and the innovators of today.

Her motto for the past few years has been to “Make jazz trill again” — which simply means, make the music fun and accessible for younger audiences. This has led to her genre bending NPR Tiny Desk performance as well as her major label debut, Y’all Don’t (Really) Care About Black Women on Verve Records.

8. Brandee Younger

The harp may be one of the more obscure instruments in the jazz lineage but artists like Brandee Younger are bringing new life to the instrument. Younger’s versatility as a classically trained harpist and a jazz improviser allows her to transcend musical paradigms and work with a wide range of artists. Since the mid 2000s, Younger has made her rounds working with jazz heavy weights such as Christian McBride, Ravi Coltrane, Marcus Strickland, Jeremy Pelt, and Robert Glasper to name a few. She has also worked with major hip-hop and R&B artists such as Common, Lauryn Hill, ASAP Ferg, Drake, Pete Rock, and most recently was featured on Kanye West’s latest, Donda.

Younger’s music is heavily inspired by one of the most notable jazz harpists, Alice Coltrane, however Younger has managed to find her own lane which can veer into soul music, jazz, hip-hop, or R&B at any moment. Her sound is both tranquil and ethereal, while never falling into the expected sound for a harp. Her compositional voice is unique and not only stretches the limits of her instruments but of her ensembles. Her song “Hortense” was featured on Beyonce’s 2019 Netflix’s documentary Homecoming, and her recent album, Somewhere Different, is a genre-bending exploration of all of the various influences that make up the jazz spectrum; featuring an all-star cast of musicians.

This list is just a snapshot of young jazz artists reshaping jazz — and to be honest, it only includes American artists. Notable international innovators like Jacob Collier, Yusef Kammal, Anomalie, Alfa Mist, Binker and Moses, BigYuki, BADBADNOTGOOD, Ezra Collective, WONK, and Ronen Shemeli, make up some of the many artists around the world who are finding new ways to explore jazz and improvised music. Take a listen to our playlist below that features these and other artists redefining the sound of jazz in 2021:

Don’t stop here!

Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, recording and production, composing, beat making, and more on Soundfly, with artist-led courses by KimbraCom TruiseJlinRyan Lott, and the acclaimed Kiefer: Keys, Chords, & Beats.

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