Hot young altoists: ten future stars to watch
By Ted Gioia
Earlier this month, I promised to serve up a list of hot young alto players. The spur to do so came in the context of my article on altoist Grace Kelly—a teenager who has benefited from an aggressive (and, in my opinion, somewhat heavy-handed) publicity campaign. I mentioned that there were other young alto players on the scene who might be at a more advanced level and more compelling soloists. Ms. Kelly will no doubt mature into a fine professional performer, but what about the players who have already arrived?
Sax With Green Curtain
(Artwork by by John C. Smith)
Lists of this sort are popular with readers, but devilishly hard to make—especially if one wants to keep them relatively short. There is so much good music in the jazz world these days, and lots of it is often easy to miss, given the glut of self-produced CDs on the market. So I won’t promise that the ten musicians below are head and shoulders above the rest of their contemporaries—one could come up with ten or one hundred more names. But I do feel that jazz fans won’t go wrong taking the time to track down the work of any of these deserving artists.
Each of the saxophonists on the list below is under the age of forty. This cutoff point eliminated many outstanding candidates, but allowed me to focus on the rising stars of the music. A few of the musicians here are already becoming well known, but even dedicated jazz fans will probably encounter some new names on the list. They are presented below by age, starting with the youngest.
Francesco Cafiso (born 1989) celebrated his 20th birthday earlier this week. But he is already a seasoned veteran, who began playing at age nine, and earned the praise of Wynton Marsalis when he was just thirteen. Sometimes the media is too accommodating in accepting the hype about “child prodigies,” but Cafiso is the real deal, an exciting, assertive soloist who has the potential to go far.
Featured track: “Louisiana”
From the CD Happy Time
Joris Roelofs (born 1984) is one of my favorite young altoists. His CD Introducting Joris Roelofs, released last year, was an impressive debut. I especially like this artist’s ability to create solos that are simultaneously emotionally deep and intellectually solid—traits that do not always come hand-in-hand. Born in Aix-en-Provence (France), Roelofs has been a member of the Vienna Art Orchestra and Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw, but currently is living in Brooklyn. (Here is a MySpace link for a little taste.)
Featured track: “I Fall in Love Too Easily”
From the CD Introducting Joris Roelofs
Loren Stillman (born 1980) exemplifies what I have called elsewhere the “new way of phrasing” in jazz. Each note is played with digital clarity, and no analog ambiguity. His improvised lines are sharply etched and the phrases have an atomistic quality, in which the individual tones stand out like free-floating melodic molecules. I’m not sure this way of playing will ever attract a wide audience, but musicians will find ample sustenance here. Stillman has been described as “Lee Konitz on steroids”—a clever quip and not without some merit.
Featured track: “Happy”
From the CD How Sweet It Is
Jaleel Shaw (born 1978) is one of the more impressive members of the Berklee contingent popping up everywhere one looks on the current jazz scene. He has made his mark as a sideman with Roy Haynes and the Mingus Big Band, but his name is still not as widely known as it should be. Shaw is first class soloist with an emphatic style in the tradition of Cannonball Adderley and Jackie McLean.
Featured track: “Grand Central”
From the CD Perspective
Sharel Cassity (born 1978) definitely resides in the retro camp, showing her clear allegiance to the bop idiom with every ii-V change she makes. She comes out of Juilliard, but you will be forgiven if, upon hearing her, you think you are having a flashback to the days of 52nd Street. There is nothing laid back about Cassity’s playing, which throws caution to the wind; but even in the heat of barn-burning solo, she still has a sweet, full tone. No, this is not The Shape of Jazz to Come, but if you don’t get a kick hearing a soloist of this caliber flying over bop changes at a breakneck pace, you need a jolt of digitalis before they let you back into the iTunes store.
Featured track: “Cherokee”
From the CD Just for You
Miguel Zenón (born 1976) was given a MacArthur “Genius Grant” last year, and some jazz fans complained about the award going a relatively unknown younger player. I can only assume that these critics hadn’t heard Zenón play, because he is a knockout performer. Check out the clarity of his double-time passages—dreams of playing like that are what keep practice room habitués working on their scales. But Zenón is anything but a showboat. His solos are pointed and probing, and my only complaint is that sometimes Zenón seems almost too much in control. But it’s hard to carp when someone plays this well. Thumbs up for the MacArthur judges, who made a daring call and picked a deserving candidate.
Featured track: “Camarón”
From the CD Awake
Géraldine Laurent (born 1975) will probably be a less familiar name to fans, especially in the US. But this French saxophonist has her own sound, and a daring style that stays inside the changes but strong-arms them with off-kilter phrases and a tone that can go from sweet to rough in a flash. Check out this YouTube video for a taste of this artist who reminds me of the late Art Pepper, another saxophonist who could play the most threadbare standard as if it were a matter of life or death.
Featured track: “I Fall in Love Too Easily”
From the CD Time Out Trio
Myron Walden (born 1972) won the Charlie Parker Competition back in 1993, but he is probably better known for sideman stints (with The New Jazz Composers Octet and Brian Blade Fellowship) than as a marquee leader. Yet he is powerful player who knows how to mix up short, pungent horn howls with more complex lines marked by lot of internal motion and restless up-and-down interval leaps. I especially like his rough and raw sound—Walden is willing to bend notes until they break. He has a strong musical personality and deserves to be better known.
Featured track: “Bad Alchemy”
From the CD The Turning Gate
Matt Criscuolo (born 1971) is probably one of the lesser known names on this list, but I was very impressed by his self-produced Melancholia CD, which came out earlier this year. Criscuolo’s calling card is his sound—in fact, I can’t think of a younger altoist who can do more with even the simplest phrases just by the way he shapes the notes. You can tell this even from his melody statements before he starts his solos; they are charged with lots of emotion. And my main complaint about Criscuolo’s solos is that they are too short. I fear the jazz world may lose this talent, who is also a successful entrepreneur who runs several pizzerias. I don't know much about pizza, but there must be more dough in dough these days than in the old do-re-mi. In any event, I'd hate to see Criscuolo put jazz on the back burner, for he is a very special talent.
Featured track: “Tell Me a Bedtime Story”
From the CD Melancholia
Rudresh Mahanthappa (born 1971), like Miguel Zenón, has probably outgrown the “rising star” label, and secured a place for himself as one of the acknowledged leaders on his instrument. His recent efforts to find a meeting ground between South Asian musical traditions and the jazz vocabulary have attracted a receptive audience, but what makes these projects click is not the world-fusion formula but the intelligence and musicality that this artist brings to his craft. When jazz polls pick the best altoists, the usual suspects—Ornette Coleman, Lee Konitz, Phil Woods—tend to be players who are either in their 80s, or soon will be. Mahanthappa may be the most likely under-40 candidate to break into the top ranks on his horn.
Featured track: “Apti”
From the CD Apti