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 by John C. Smith

                     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.

Happy listening!






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.

 Francesco Cafiso


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.)

Joris Roelofs


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.

Loren Stillman


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.

Jaleel Shaw


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.

 Sharel Cassity


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.

 Miguel Zenón


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.

 Géraldine Laurent


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.

Myron Walden


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.

Matt Criscuolo


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.

Rudresh Mahanthappa


Featured track: “Apti”
From the CD Apti






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May 28, 2009 · 19 comments

  • 1 "Flip Rebop" // May 29, 2009 at 07:41 PM
    What!?!? No Jon Irabagon, winner of the Thelonious Monk competition and member of Mostly Other People Do The Killing?!? Maybe this shoulda been one of those Dozens?
  • 2 Matt G. // May 29, 2009 at 10:46 PM
    Like you said, Jon just won the Monk competition- he'll have a record coming out soon and plenty of press for us to read. This article seems geared towards people who have been paying dues and are overlooked, maybe even unrewarded for their talents. I agree will a lot of these choices. These cats are musically hungry, self-motivated and play with conviction.
  • 3 Adam // Jun 02, 2009 at 06:28 AM
    No offense intended, but a winner of the MacArthur Grant isn't exactly overlooked.
  • 4 Eric Jackson // Jun 04, 2009 at 06:14 PM
    It's very interesting you say this article is about young saxophonists and you introduce it with a slightly negative comment about Grace Kelly. Some of the people you listed are old enough to be 16 year old Grace's father. At least one person is 38! I thought I was going to see a list of Grace's peers who you thought were more advanced than she is but I wouldn't consider most of the people you listed here as her peers. I am in no way saying anything negative about their skills but to me there is young and then there is very young and looking at the list you have here, Grace is very young compared to them. When you were 16 did you consider a 38 year old your peer? My guess is you didn't consider even a 30 year old your peer.
  • 5 Ted // Jun 04, 2009 at 06:50 PM
    The attempt to make Grace Kelly a "peer" of older musicians is coming from her handlers and publicity machine, not from me. Grace is the one posing for photos with every jazz senior citizen she can find (and recording with some of them as well). If the Grace Kelly story had not been hyped to such ridiculous excess, I would never have written my critique. But Grace's PR campaign constantly presents her as ready for stardom today. In such a situation, I am not only justified, but even obliged, to point to other talent more deserving of this acclaim.
  • 6 Scotty Wright // Jun 05, 2009 at 09:47 AM
    Thank you, Ted, for saying what needed to be said. I wish more critics and musicians had spoken up when the name of our music got co-opted by pop stars wanting to lend some sophistication to their puerile treatment of standards, or when 'jazz' got velcro'd to virtually every style of music on the planet. I had been contacted as well, by someone pushing Ms Kelly, to sing my praises. I'm always happy to support young musicians who dedicate themselves to this music, but for me to say that she belongs in the pantheon of today's saxophonists would be tantamount my endorsement of Michael Bublé or Peter Cincotti as the Next Great Jazz Singer: I just can't do it. Grace Kelly does some things very well, but she is missing the one most important point about jazz: daring. Anyone who is too concerned with being correct, being careful, can't be fully in the music of the moment, and therefore can't be truthful in what they're saying. She may as well go on American Idol, where that kind of packaged, processed performance is considered amazing; in jazz, the bar is set a bit higher. I remember the furor over Wynton Marsalis when he emerged on the scene in the early 1980s, after playing with Blakey. People dissed him as being unable to walk his talk. Is Ms Kelly even at the level Wynton was at the same age? Not even close. Most of the young wunderkinds of the past decade or so have flared up in a flurry of press, then quietly descended to their true level. Most of them have faded away altogether. Let's hope that Ms Kelly has another important trait among jazz masters (all great artists, really): objectivity. If she can ride the PR wave without drowning in it, she could still develop into the player they keep saying she already is. And, like Marsalis, she'll have the endure the slings and arrows of many of her colleagues, who feel her fame came too soon- and under false pretenses. Earning musicians' respect is never easy, and it shouldn't be. If you want to be considered the next Phil Woods, you need more than just his hat.
  • 7 Ted // Jun 05, 2009 at 06:33 PM
    Thanks, Scotty, for your comments. Site visitors who haven’t heard Mr. Wright sing are encouraged to check him out at http://scottywrightjazz.com/MP3s/LampIsLow.mov
  • 8 pug horton // Jun 06, 2009 at 12:40 PM
    Whattabout Nik Payton?CD 'Swingin The Changes'-
  • 9 Jason // Jun 06, 2009 at 02:30 PM
    There is absolutely nothing wrong with the notion of taking pictures with jazz musicians of the older generation ("senior citizens"). It's a very special feeling to revisit those pictures years later. I've played with many of them (Jimmy Smith, John Stubblefield, Bill Grant (drummer that recorded with Bird)and didn't have the sense to bring a camera with me and now they're gone. That's something that I regret even now. The musicians that take pictures with her have a choice to take one with her or not. The musicians that she's played with have a choice to allow her to play. She has the choice as to who she records with. The fact that Phil gave her his says more about his choice and his approval than Scotty's. If you have a gripe about someone's PR campaign, writing negatively about does nothing to help your cause. After playing with her for 2 years, I know that she's ready and has been ready for stardom. She has a great attitude, playing's first rate, imho, and she has the respect/support of many (if not all) of the musicians that are in a position to help her along her path, the MOST important aspect to any young jazz musician's prospective career if you ask me. If you think that there are musicians that are more deserving, that's cool. Perhaps you can spend your time really promoting their music as I'm sure they would really appreciate it. But to negatively criticiqe a very young jazz artist who you've probably only heard via cd once or twice makes you sound jealous and bitter. It's always been my observation that the people who critiqe her the most have heard her the least.
  • 10 Ted // Jun 06, 2009 at 07:27 PM
    Jason, you can't have it both ways. Grace is being marketed as a hot altoist who is at the forefront of her generation. But if I critique her music, then the angle changes, and she is just a very young artist and its not fair to say anything negative about her. Which is it? Is she ready for the big leagues? Or is she just another promising young talent?

    (By the way, I see that there is another feature article today on Grace in the Toronto Star to support her Canadian tour - check out "Jazz Saxist Found Calling at Age 10.")
  • 11 Jason // Jun 07, 2009 at 12:34 AM
    Ted, it seems to me that your biggest gripe about her is the publicity, not the music. What do you have to say about the MUSIC? The manner that she's being marketed is the way you are supposed to market an artist. What are the publicists supposed to say, that they have this mediocre artist and he/she needs some experience...give me a gig? I don't think so. There are artists that have been marketed before they should not have been, but Grace is not the case. There is a vagueness when you say that she is "at the forefront of her generation". What quantifies the "forefront"? At the rate that most young jazz musicians I know progress, I wouldn't consider anyone 5 years younger or older than me to be in my generation, and I'm 30. That being said, do you know anyone that's truly in her generation? She is an extraordinary talent, an old soul that should be applauded for taking this music so seriously, but at the same time, present herself in a fun, inclusive manner onstage. It certainly isn't fair for you to judge her if you haven't really CHECKED out her playing live several times to make an educated assement of her performance. You can critique her records in a thoughtful manner, but when you go after the people that are supporting this artist in a negative manner, your angle is questioned and you begin to look bitter and jealous. What are the "big leagues"? That term brings an exclusivity to the music that acts as a poison, which isn't what the music should be about. If an artist is serious about this music, it will show, there will be no question. Grace is in that league.
  • 12 Ted // Jun 07, 2009 at 01:25 AM
    There are several articles on the site where I discuss Grace Kelly's sax playing. Probably the place to start is http://www.jazz.com/music/2009/5/6/grace-kelly-i-ll-remember-april
  • 13 jason // Jun 07, 2009 at 03:41 AM
    I read those all ready and I didn't find them to be informative. Great music critics explore the music just as deep as the artists themselves. You say that I'll remember April has easy chord changes. Can you play them? Play them well? There's an art to critiquing without being negative.
  • 14 Scotty Wright // Jun 07, 2009 at 10:34 AM
    Well, Jason, 'April' is a simple chord progression; its long form is what most players are challenged by, not the changes. But this is not the point. <<it>> Grace's playing and singing is all I'm concerned with. I was not sent a ticket to hear her live, I was sent a CD, and asked to give my evaluation, which I did. Nothing jealous or bitter about doing exactly what I was asked to do. Based on the recording, she is a talented teen, that I hope can endure being thrust into the glare of all this media attention, without losing her objectivity about her true abilities. But of the dozen altoists that Ted listed above, I have heard about half of them, ALL of whom are further on the road toward jazz mastery than Ms Kelly; as a singer, she is even less developed. That's all I have said, and still say, but as she improves, I will be most happy to acknowledge and praise her growth, as I have when others have pushed themselves to the next levels, thereby earning the glowing press they had already received.
  • 15 Ted // Jun 07, 2009 at 03:41 PM
    Jason writes: "You say that I'll remember April has easy chord changes. Can you play them?"

    Jason, we need to decide this matter with a duel over the chords of "I'll Remember April." Our seconds will meet in the morning to determine the terms of the duel.

    But beware...I have been playing "April" changes since the Jimmy Carter administration, with many secret substitute patterns up my sleeve. Those four "tough" bars of G major 7 won't know what hit 'em.
  • 16 Jason // Jun 07, 2009 at 07:42 PM
    Sounds like Ted and Scotty need to understand that growth as a musician and growth in the press rarely, if at all, move in congruence with each other. It's never been that way, and it probably never will. Scotty, you say that all of the players that Ted mentioned are further on the path of jazz mastery. What I have to say to that is that they'd better be. Some of them are old enough to be her father. Don't think that just because she's getting lots of press that it's keeping someone else from getting press. What's funny is that every musician that I come into contact with that are skeptical of her skills, upon hearing her live, quickly change their tune. I've never experienced it the other way. Grace and have been hired by local rhythm sections by leaders who wanted to hear what all the hype was about. After the gig, the leader was speechless. Most players that question her abilities aren't of the same caliber of her anyway. Great players that hear her always have great things to say about her and are very supportive. What else can you expect from a young artist? Ted I don't care how long you've been playing "I'll remember April". You can come down to Wally's Jazz Cafe in Boston, where I've been hosting the Sunday Jam session every week for the past 11 years and you can show us all of your secrets. Session is free and we play from 4 to 8.
  • 17 Nicholas // Jun 08, 2009 at 09:09 PM
    I would like to say Justin Vasquez should be on this list, just check out his debut album, there is a demo of it on youtube.com.
  • 18 Scotty Wright // Jun 10, 2009 at 02:15 PM
    Jason, I would be happy to hear Grace live, and share a tune or two. As I made clear, I have not had that opportunity; all I've had to go on is the CD. And, as I also made clear, the hype doesn't bother me, if she brings the goods. I look forward to hearing her live soon...
  • 19 Tom // Jun 23, 2009 at 06:58 PM
    I think it's unfortunate that the attention directed at Grace took the spotlight away from the great young alto saxophonists that have been mentioned here. I was hoping to hear more comments about them as a reply to this post. But there don't seem to be any... Or maybe no one even knows any of them. As for Ms. Kelly. I think for her age and experience, she sounds great. Is it unfortunate that the other saxophonist mentioned here may not have received the attention she has gotten? Yes! But that's how the jazz scene can be. Why should we blame the parents for giving their daughter a "music biz boost" so that she can have a fighting chance in the music business in the future? Maybe we should blame the media, the jazz festivals, and the jazz clubs that make it so hard for some of the other to get anywhere now. As well as these booking agents and managers that barely give anyone a chance?? In my opinion, the music business and the actual music world are two separate entities. It's great that Grace has of all people - HER PARENTS to support her career and know exactly what to do on the business side. Finding a decent manager or booking agent in the jazz world is extremely difficult. THIS is probably the reason some of these other alto saxophonists may be overlooked. NOT because the fact that Grace Kelly's parents are pushing her. As I write this, the I'm thinking about the thousands of child stars that are out there making MILLIONS singing pop, rock, and R&B that aren't getting ANY flack for their lack of talent and if anything get all the press in the world. Come on people.. this is jazz music. It's great that Grace Kelly, at a young age is continuing this beautiful art form. Press or no press. Let's give her AND all of the alto saxophonist mentioned in this great article a chance to shine...