The Quest for 21st Century Jazz

Like many jazz fans, I adore the music made between 1950 and ’67. It was a glorious period for the art form. Bird, Diz, ‘Trane, Monk, Miles, Mingus, Blakey, Roach … jazz exploded out of New York (and sometimes California) and took the world by storm.

And then everything changed.

Be-bop, post-bop, and modal jazz gave way to a free-form sound many could not connect with. Then came fusion, which added a rock element to jazz. This was the sound that carried the ’70s. Purists lost their ever loving minds. The Young Lions of the ’80s — like Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Marcus Roberts, Terence Blanchard, and Wallace Roney — brought the old sound back. The music was good, but at times sounded a little stiff. It was less like innovation, and more like regurgitation. I’m not even going to discuss the “smooth” jazz movement. Let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea.

I don’t consider myself a purist. I didn’t always get the free-style jazz sound, but I tried to hang in there now and then. I loved a lot of fusion. Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Weather Report remain among my favorite bands of all time. But over time, I found myself listening to less and less jazz, simply because I wasn’t hearing anything new.

I didn’t verbalize it at first, but I knew I was looking for the next step in the musical evolution. I was looking for 21st century jazz. What does that mean? To me, it combined the style and instrumentation of the ’50-67 era with elements of modern music. Bill Bruford had the right idea in the mid ’80s, when he created Earthworks. He and his young British cohorts were definitely playing jazz. But they also turned it on its ear a bit by adding electronic percussion and samples. But Bruford eventually backed off, and went with straight-ahead, acoustic instruments for his band again. The music was great. It just wasn’t as “new.”

I’m a fan of Medeski, Martin & Wood, who ruled the underground avant-jazz scene in the ’90s through the turn of the century. Theirs was a groove-laden sound I could sink my teeth into. And I positively loved the work they did with legendary fusion guitarist John Scofield. I still play those CDs all the time. But even MMW could get caught up in what I call existential noodling. Their improvisational pieces could lose their groove, making them far less enjoyable to my ears.

These days, I’ve been relying on the music app Bandcamp to take me where I’m dying to go. My search has unearthed a few 21st century jazz gems.

Saxophonist Donny McCaslin has an old school sound that reminds me of Wayne Shorter. But he’s surrounded himself with musicians unafraid to inject the old world sound with synthesizers and electric bass. The result is a very cool groove he can call his own. It caught and held my attention long enough for me to add his album, Fast Future, to my collection.


Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah (I’m only typing that entire name once, haha) is a dynamic young trumpet player. His playing clearly pays respect to the musicians that came before him. But like McCaslin, he has found a way to inject modern sounds, many of which seem to come from hip-hop and other electronic forms. It makes for a marvelous musical stew. This tune doesn’t have as much of the electronic sound, but there’s definitely a modern attitude afoot.

Now THIS tune has more of the hip-hop feel.

Scott’s album, Stretch Music, is appropriately named. It’s also one of my favorite Bandcamp finds.

There is a solid new generation of jazz musicians out there. I hope they continue to respect the old, while pushing those musical boundaries. I continue to learn more about them every day. I’ll keep you posted. And please tell me about what you’re hearing. I know I’m not alone.


  1. Great topic…I’ve been on this same quest for years (although my search has been more in the rock genre) which IMO also hit that “it’s great, but it’s nothing I haven’t heard” or “yeah he can play the shit out of that guitar, but what else” wall.

    The band I’ve stumbled across lately that gets check marks for hitting that sweet spot would be “Thank You Scientist” out of New Jersey…they are on Bandcamp…remind me of a 70’s band playing 2017 music. Great live show if ya get a chance…fat horn section and smokin’ lead guitarist.

    ..And then there is SW…almost a genre of his own…but I’ll let you lead all SW discussions

    Liked by 1 person

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