Best Modern Jazz Artists: Modern Jazz Explained In 2024

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The jazz genre of music has been around for many many decades. However, the evolution of Jazz music that happened after the 1940s is typically what we refer to as “Modem Jazz.” However, that’s only one part of the whole concept and you can only wish that it was that simple!

Every time I talk about jazz music, there is always one person in the room who asks, “What is modern jazz?” So, I thought, why not clear the confusion once and for all?

Have you ever heard the kind of music where you just want to get up and dance? It has a sense of sophistication to it and it calms your mind, but it also makes you want to move on the beat?

That’s modern jazz music! In other words, you can describe it as the rise and fall of chords that end with freer improvisation. However, to understand modern jazz and its uniqueness, one needs to go into its depth or listen to some of the most famous artists making music in the genre.

Here, you will find both! I will start by discussing modern jazz and what it is, describe it talk about its history, and then, I will show you a list of 5 must-watch modern jazz artists who will make you understand precisely what modern jazz sounds like. Also, I’ll explain the difference between traditional and modem jazz in good detail.

what is modern jazz

What Is Modern Jazz?

Like I said, the evolution in Jazz music that occurred after 1940 was labeled as Modem Jazz. And even though “modern” might not sound like the right word to describe it now that we have entered 2021, the typical characteristics of the music remain the same, so the name hasn’t been changed.

Modern jazz can be described as a more freestyle version of traditional jazz music. One can also say that modem jazz is a gradual movement away from vertical thinking (chords) and more towards horizontal thinking (scales).

A jazz band performing on the street
A jazz band performing on the street.

Since the 1940s, there have been many variations in the genre, rhythmic and harmonic complexity, elusive melodic tags, focus on chord progressions, drawing on classical styles and forms, and plenty of subgenres emerged from jazz music as well. They included Bebop, Cool jazz, and Hardbop.

The best thing about modern jazz is that everything is relative, and there are no laws or rules. There is no right or wrong in modern jazz; artists can do whatever they like, whatever pleases their ears, and whatever their audience wants to hear.

If it sounds good and appealing, it works! And this particular characteristic of the genre was what made it such a huge trend. This new kind of music was so similar yet so different from traditional jazz music that it sounded like an upgrade to something the people already loved.

A painting of Miles Davis playing the trumpet.
A painting of Miles Davis playing the trumpet.

Artists like Miles Davis had a huge role to play in the popularity of modem jazz music. With albums like Kind Of Blue, he introduced the idea of improvisation and loosened the strictness around sticking to one chord. He slowly moved away from thick and dense chords and introduced a new jazz style that was supposedly “less busy.” Instead of relying on chords to take the artist through improvisation, he created some unique melodies on his own – a trend which many musicians and artists then followed after him.

This new “Free Jazz” style quickly gained popularity because it allowed artists to create unique things without restricting themselves to any rules. For example, there were no laws regarding adhering to harmony, and the soloist was entirely free to create whatever they wanted. For creative fellows who wanted to explore jazz, this was an opportunity of a lifetime and a dream come true!

What Does Modern Jazz Sound Like?

When most people ask, “What is modern jazz?” there is a high chance that they have already listened to the music many times; they just don’t know it was called modem jazz. Here are a few essential characteristics of the music to help you identify the genre the next time you hear it anywhere:

The sound of Modern Jazz
A few key musical characteristics that will help you distinguish Jazz from other genres.

Harmonic Complexity

The term harmonic complexity refers to the lack of any order or rules. For example, when a piece of music obeys the rules of harmony in a typical and efficient manner, its complexity value decreases. On the other hand, if the rules become more complicated, or the musical harmony doesn’t obey any of the laws, the values of complexity become higher. In modern jazz since there are no specific rules that the artists have to follow and no harmony that they have to adhere to. the harmonic complexity value is high.

Less Melody, More Progression

Another vital aspect to remember about modern jazz is that artists rarely ever focus on melody and state their focus is on progression. In the most straightforward words, possible melody refers to the gradual succession in musical tones, and the listener or audience usually perceives it as one continuous entity. Melody is also sometimes referred to as a line, voice, or tune, and it is a combination of both rhythm and pitch.

In musical terms, progression, also known as harmonic progression or chord progression, refers to the succession and gradual movement of chords from one to the other. And so, modern jazz artists primarily focus on chord progression and pay less attention to the melody.

Inclusion of Classical Styles

The exciting part about modern jazz is that it has no restrictions on the application or inclusion of conventional jazz styles. It gives a free hand to the artists and musicians, and many try to draw in the classical styles and forms of it as well, creating a beautiful merge of different kinds of music.

Since classical styles are beautiful on their own, their inclusion more often than not amplifies and adds sophistication into a song and brings a vintage feel to it.

Rhythmic Complexity

A rhythmic pattern’s complexity depends on the highest number of overall root patterns and structural levels needed to generate a particular rhythmic pattern.

The complexity score of a rhythm is an overall measure of all the possible perceived beats against counter-evidence. It indicates how ideally a particular rhythm can fit with a certain beat’s perception.

Improvisation With Allusive, Eclectic Melodic Tags

This one is a little hard to point out for some people initially, but if you know music well, there is no way you can miss it.

Improvisation in modern jazz music usually involves eclectic and elusive melodic tags that give it a unique touch. Those who are familiar with it can pinpoint modern jazz playing anywhere!

5 Popular Jazz Artists You Should Listen To

Understandably, people find it hard to understand what modern jazz is by reading explanations or hearing verbal descriptions. Unless they listen to the music genre in its most popular form, they will never be able to understand its meaning truly.

So, for such people, the following are 5 of the most popular modem jazz artists that you should listen to:

Marius Neset

A jazz musician from Norway, Marius Softland Neset is popular for his role in jazz bands like Jazz Kamikaze, People Are Machines, and Kaktusch. He plays saxophones, particularly sopranos and temps, and his youthful energy portrays well through his music.

However, he is more popular for how exceptionally he incorporates folk music from his Norway native origins into contemporary jazz, creating a unique version of modern jazz.

It is safe to say that Marius Neset added geographical diversity to the genre since it was previously presumed to be dominated by New Yorkers.

And even though the music was pretty trendy in many other areas of the world, including Europe, there was very little representation in media. There were not many native musicians that audiences could relate to.

Terri Lyne Carrington

Scoring a Grammy for her drumming skills, Terry Lyne Carrington is one of the best producers bandleaders, composers, and percussionists in the world of jazz. Her funky drumming style and signature music have given her a popular image in the music industry.

However, for many who knew Terri closely, it wasn’t a surprising turn of events at all. According to them, she impressed many different veteran jazz musicians while she was in college and even in high school, so it was only fair that Carrington made a name for herself in the industry because she showed early signs of musical talent.

When she moved to New York City during the eighties, she caught several gigs from the local musicians in the city and gained popularity and attention throughout the region. In 1989, she finally released a debut, and in 2002, she released her second album, a solo, and called it “Jazz Is A Spirit.”

To this day, Terri remains one of the most popular names when it comes to modern jazz, and if you want to know what the genre is really about, you should listen to some of her music.

Ambrose Akinmusire

When Ambrose was playing with Steve Coleman’s band Five Elements while they were on tour in Europe, his skills caught the attention of the infamous saxophonist, who then decided to mentor Ambrose.

Throughout his musical career, Ambrose frequently collaborated with Walter Smith III, the California native, and saxophonist, and developed an expressive and incredibly personal sound of his own. The albums that he launched most recently included Justin Brown on the drums, Harish Raghavan on the double bass, and Sam Harris on the piano.

The songs have been featured on the popular Blue Note Records and are also special because they explore political issues like gentrification, structural racism, and police brutality. Overall, through the years, Ambrose Akinmusire has developed a unique image in the modem jazz world.

Brad Mehldau

During the 1990s, especially in the early years, Brad made waves in the jazz market in New York. But it wasn’t all that much of a surprise since he came from an educational background where he shared rooms with Peter Bernstein, the infamous guitarist, and Spike Wilner, the popular jazz club owner, and pianist.

Brad’s work as a jazz pianist has been ”indisputable,” and he showed clear signs of talent since the very beginning. His early songs notably displayed a good knowledge of keyboard music like many famous artists of the time.

However, there was one thing that always stood out in his approach: progressivism. Brad has mentioned many times that he particularly loves German romantic and other types of classical music.

And in many of his famous songs, Brad and his musical partners Jeff Ballard, the drummer, and Larry Grenadier, the bassist, have interpreted pop and rock songs from after the 1960s and merged them with classical jazz to create exceptional modern jazz masterpieces.

Marcus Miller

William Henry Marcus Miller junior is a multi-instrumentalist, record producer arranger jazz composer, and film composer. But as multi-talented as he is, he is specifically famous for his modem jazz skills, specifically as a bassist.

Initially, the artist got recognition when he was played as a part of Miles Davis, the infamous trumpeter’s band. As long as he was a band member, he piled up many session credits and created a long list of memorable performances. Simultaneously, he also launched a career of his own and became a leader.

Before he was even eligible to drive, he became a prominent performer in various jazz clubs of New York. Until the 2000s, Miller rapidly created albums and launched them to increase his popularity as a modem jazz artist.

The Difference Between Conventional Jazz Music And Modern Jazz Music

We have discussed what modem jazz music is like, how it sounds, and the different famous artists who have made a popular identity in the genre.

Now, let’s take a quick look at another most frequently asked question in the same category, “What is the difference between conventional/ traditional jazz music and modern jazz music?”

To help you understand the most significant differences between the two musical genres, let us divide them into three major categories:

The Overall Sound

First and foremost the overall sound of both traditional jazz and modern jazz is significantly different, even though they sound pretty similar. For those who are familiar with the two genres, the difference is very easy to identify. But for beginners who have no idea what either of them sounds like they can both sound pretty much the same and a massive confusion can arise.

Typically, conventional forms of jazz are melodic, soothing, and soft. In contrast, modern jazz music is relatively faster, slightly harsher, and more rigid than the former.

As a result, modern jazz is quite tricky to follow, even though it sounds fantastic. It is a bit intrusive and lacks the calmness that is in traditional jazz music. In addition, modern jazz compositions differ from traditional ones, and lyrical content is only present in the latter and not the former.

The Ambiance

The atmospheres created by classical and modern jazz are very different.
The atmospheres created by classical and modern jazz are very different.

Since the sounds are pretty different, the ambiance that each of them creates is also quite different. You can indeed dance to modern jazz, and it is the kind of music that provokes you to get up and dance around, but it lacks the harmony and beat you find in traditional music. It means that it is harder to dance in synchronization with modern jazz music.

Since traditional jazz music usually has a strict harmony and rhythm, it is easier to dance to it. However, those who like to dance in the living room in their freestyle usually go for modem jazz.

In simple words: if you want to dance professionally modern jazz works pretty well. But if you want to have a sweet moment with your loved ones and dance with them to the beat you should go for classical jazz.

The Appeal

Now, this one can vary from person to person because personal opinions and tastes do matter. However, in general, traditional jazz music and modern jazz music are categorized in a set manner in terms of appealing.

Traditional jazz is generally more straightforward and is easy on the listener’s ears. Thus, the overall appeal is very calm, neat, and soothing. Of course, modern jazz can also provide the same sensations, but there’s a usual difference that’s almost always present between the two genres.

Since modern jazz is more complex, it is somewhat challenging for people to follow. And if someone is not a jazz enthusiast, it might not be as appealing to them the first time they hear it. The compositions of modern jazz Aryan theory and the musical arrangements are not simple at all.

In Conclusion

In a nutshell after the 1940s, traditional jazz became more freestyle and fun giving birth to numerous variations, and this new kind of jazz music was called ‘modern jazz’

But to understand what modern jazz is, it is usually vital that you listen to some of the most popular and iconic modern jazz artists. The five musicians mentioned above should give you a clear idea of what this genre is about and how diverse and beautiful it is.

If you still have any questions related to the topic, don’t hesitate to comment down below.

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About Jayden Buckley

Hi, my name is Jayden and I am author/editor for PlayTheTunes. I remember the first time I hopped on the drums, I was hooked. Music has played an enormous part of my life, and I'm honored I get to share my experiences with you!