The young lionesses: 10 future female jazz stars
by S. Victor Aaron
The face of jazz is changing, largely because the gender makeup of jazz is changing. The stereotype of jazz women strictly being torch singers has always ignored their instrumental contributions to the art form, from Mary Lou Williams and Marian McPartland to Shirley Scott, Emily Remler and Jane Ira Bloom. But today, that stereotype is being torn asunder evermore with perhaps the largest crop ever of serious women jazz players. And these ladies, hailing from all corners of the world, bring both a faithfully deep respect to the tradition and the daring to make a new tradition. What's more, their abilities as both performers and composers are at such a level to demand a recasting of the word "acu-men." This isn't a man's world anymore, J.B.
Some of these performers of the fairer sex have already achieved notice. You've likely already heard of Esperanza Spalding, Grace Kelly and Tal Wilkenfeld. Nonetheless, there are plenty more behind those poised to bubble up into the jazz public's consciousness because they are simply too good to be kept under wraps much longer. Below is a list of ten of the under-forty (with most under thirty) cadre of women jazz instrumental players, each of whom is ready to make that next step toward wider acclaim.
It's by no means an all-inclusive list, but the range of instruments, styles and nationalities of these ten illustrate that this trend is a broad-based one. And, in this writer's opinion, a very welcome one. Whenever you introduce more competition into a marketplace, the customer usually comes out the winner. And these ladies are tough competitors:
By the time Oklahoma City native alto saxophonist Sharel Cassity got around to recording her own album last year, she had already accomplished a lot. Holding a Master�s in Music from Julliard and having served as a sidewoman for Ingrid Jensen, Jimmy Heath and Mark Whitfield, Cassity piled up the kudos, like the 2007 ASCAP Young Composer Award and a couple of Downbeat Music Awards. In addition to the preferred alto, Cassity is also proficient with other saxophones (baritone, soprano and tenor), as well as clarinet, flute, alto flute and piccolo.
2008 saw the release her first CD as leader, the traditionally minded Just For You. While the up-and-coming trombonist Michael Dease produced the record and contributed three of the seven songs, it�s Cassity�s amazing alto that takes center stage. She�s got Parker�s vocabulary down pat with a sweet and sassy style. Whether it�s her commanding note runs on the perennial yardstick �Cherokee, � the intricate interplay on Lennie Tristano�s dynamic �Wow,� or the sublime reading of �Lover Man,� Cassity�s got the goods for a wide range of situations.
The joy evident in Sharel Cassity�s horn in turn makes her a joy to listen to. Whenever she focus more of her award-winning songwriting talents into her records, we could well see a full flowering of a talent that�s ready to conquer the bebop world.
Sharel Cassity: Lover Man
Anat Cohen is part of a family of talented jazz and world fusion musicians from Israel that includes brothers saxophonist Yuval and trumpeter Avishai. The three have even made a couple of albums together as The Three Cohens, but with four albums already to her solo credit, sister Anat has shown without a doubt that she can stand on her own.
Cohen�s primary weapon of choice is the trusty old clarinet, but that doesn�t hold her back from tearing it up on just about any other woodwind available, whether that�s a bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, or a soprano saxophone. Her music of choice is jazz that�s world-flavored, particularly that part of the world where her native Israel is located. But she doesn�t constrain herself to some form of klezmer as some world-jazz clarinetists are prone to do these days; other elements such as Latin rhythms and classical arrangements often play a role in her musical tapestry, too.
This Berklee School of Music grad have brought home several accolades, such as Downbeat Magazine�s Rising Star-Clarinet for 2007 and 2008, as well as the Jazz Journalists Association Clarinetist of the Year for the same two years. Cohen�s latest album, 2008�s widely acclaimed Notes from the Village, is arguably her best, revealing continued growth as a bandleader, interpreter, composer, and multi-instrumentalist. At the rate Anat is going, she may soon overtake brother Avishai�s high stature. Sometimes, sibling rivalry is a good thing.
Anat Cohen: Washington Square Park
A 2008 graduate of the well-regarded Jazz Studies at the University of North Texas, pianist Kait Dunton wasted no time in recording her first album, Real & Imagined, one in which she led a trio through eight songs that she composed herself. She also produced and arranged the album, and released it herself.
It�s one thing to do all these things, it�s quite another to do it all so impeccably as she did here, the first time out. While her meter and mood shifting compositions reveals an amazing amount of breadth and depth coming right out the gate, she also demonstrates restraint in all the right places. What�s more, she always leaves room in her carefully constructed pieces for human emotion, allowing them to groove, prance and meditate.
For these and other reasons, Real & Imagined is one of the top two or three jazz records I�ve heard put out by anybody in the past year, a statement I don�t make lightly. Dunton now resides back at her native Southern California, one of only a couple of our young lionesses not to work out of New York City. It�s not a question of if she�s ready for NYC, however. Rather, the question is, is NYC ready for Kait Dunton?
Kait Dunton: Phase Faze
Hiromi Uehara, better known as simply �Hiromi,� is unquestionably the furthest along in her career of these ten artists, having already made five albums as a leader. And this year�s records�her co-headlining a dueling pianos live set with Chick Corea (Duet) and her key appearance in the Stanley Clarke Trio�s Jazz In the Garden�are raising her profile even further.
A piano prodigy from Shizuoka, Japan, Hiromi had a chance encounter with Corea at 17 that quickly led to her performing with him the following evening. When Hiromi was studying at Berklee School Of Music, Ahmad Jamal discovered her from a demo tape and promptly got her into the studio, where he produced her first album, the mostly piano trio Another Mind. Subsequent records find her exploring an aggressive and technically demanding brand of fusion jazz. All of her releases reveal a talent not just at the piano, but also at composing, arranging and band-leading. Her stamina at piano is seemingly endless, as well as the depths she plumbs in harmonic complexity and dexterity.
So it might be a stretch to suggest that Hiromi has yet to arrive, when she is already garnering some attention for playing with the big dogs at an equal level. Her eagerness for challenges at a still-young thirty years of age suggests that she could go much further still, however.
Hiromi: Sakura Sakura
In Conversation with Hiromi by Larry Appelbaum
Anne Mette Iversen
Born and raised in Denmark, double-bassist Iversen studied classical piano at The Royal Danish Academy of Music and then bass for four years at the Rhythmic Conservatory of Music in Copenhagen, graduating in 2001 from The New School University with a BFA degree in Jazz Performance. Then she moved to New York to supplement her formal music education with hands-on experience in arguably the best location on Earth to get that. With only her third release, Iversen last year put forth a rather ambitious project: a two-CD album which showcases her quartet on one disc (Many Places) and the same quartet supplemented by four string players on the other disc (Best Of The West).
Iversen�s presence on bass is assertive without being overbearing and her tone and timbre is precise. Both sets come from a composer who understands how to maximize the potential of each instrument, while making the whole add up to greater than the sum of the parts. Leveraging both classical and jazz backgrounds, Anne Mette Iversen has that ability to create vibrant, intelligent compositions and then make them come to life from behind the front line.
Anne Mette Iversen: Many Places
Of our Terrific Ten, only multi-reedist Hailey Niswanger (pronounced �NICE-wonger�) is not yet out her teens. But she has proven her ability to learn quickly after first trying out a clarinet at the age of eight�and her talent has earned her a full scholarship to the Berklee School of Music, where she recently completed her first year of studies.
She will undoubtedly learn so much more there in the next few years, not to mention from some great gigs awaiting her when she graduates. Yet, she�s already come far enough to share the stage with or study under the likes of Terri Lyne Carrington, Christian McBride, Taylor Eigsti, Phil Woods, McCoy Tyner, George Duke, Maceo Parker and Wynton Marsalis. In 2008 she won the saxophone competition at the Mary Lou Williams Women In Jazz Festival and was invited to return this year as a headliner act.
If that wasn�t enough, she has also already recorded her first record Confeddie with a trio of fellow Berklee students backing her up. On sale since the end of June, Confeddie presents Niswanger exclusively on alto sax (although she can also play soprano sax, flute and clarinet). With the help of her professor�s suggestions, Niswanger made some nice choices for the seven songs she covered, and threw in one of her own, her Eddie Harris tribute which serves as the title track. As an album, Confeddie is proof that Niswanger has already mastered many of the nuances of post-bop jazz with a saxophone style that swings and grooves with proficiency. The arrangements stick close to the traditional renditions of the songs, and give you a good sense of how she stacks up to her influences and heroes. Let�s just say that she passed these tests with flying colors.
Even though Niswanger has graduated from high school near Portland, Oregon only last year, she looks back as she looks ahead. She has spent this summer teaching piano to five to seven year olds at the same arts camp where she first picked up that clarinet. It�s a rare trait for someone to give back to the art form while she still has so much of her own art ahead of her.
Hailey Niswanger: Oliloqui Valley
Linda Oh is a young female bass playing wiz from Australia, a description that immediately brings to mind Tal Wilkenfeld, but it�s there that the comparisons end. Born in Malaysia and raised in Western Australia, Oh moved through a wide variety of instruments in her childhood, from piano at age four, to woodwinds and electric bass throughout high school. She finally settled on the bass full time, playing acoustic bass for the first time in college. She later moved to New York, picking up her Masters at the Manhattan School Of Music.
She has tremendous composing abilities, having scored for films and big bands, and winning an ASCAP Young Jazz Composers Award. She currently performs on both electric and acoustic bass around NYC, leading bands that range from big band swing to political rock. Last year she recorded her debut album Entry, which is due out this October. It�s a very unique sounding recording, utilizing a standup bass-trumpet-drums trio, and featuring free-form melodies with dark, serious overtones. It�s firmly in the jazz idiom, but there are some rock intonations, perhaps a spillover from Oh�s influences from such rock acts as the Red Hot Chili Peppers. There�s even a RHCP cover at the end of her record.
It�s Oh�s uncompromising approach in forging her own sound from the start, combined with a very modern, advanced style of bass playing that will make her stand out easily from the crowd.
Linda Oh: Patterns
�Her grasp of harmony, sound and rhythm place her in a select group of musicians who are ready to tackle whatever comes their way. I am always happy to hear a young bassist who has studied the tradition but has moved on to make their own form of contemporary music. Iris is such a musician.� Those are words of high praise for Iris Ornig, made more meaningful by the fact that they came from one of today�s top bassists Larry Grenadier. Like Iversen, the German-born Ornig applies her formal European training to the swing and vibrancy of jazz in New York, both as a performer and educator.
Her debut album New Ground, out last May, shows not just her ability to assemble tight distinctive melodies, but the ability to drive them with precise cadence and note selection. Even on the three tracks featuring vocalists, Ornig shows that she can swing confidently in concert with the singer. In NYC since 2003, she has been playing regularly at many of the top clubs there. It probably won�t be long before many jazz lovers will discover what Grenadier already knows.
Iris Onig: It's Time to Say Goodbye
Alto saxwoman Matana Roberts is Chicago born and bred and a proud product of that town's vibrant improvised music scene. This associate member of Chicago's seminal Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians burnished her alto saxophone chops playing alongside such Chicago jazz heavies as Fred Anderson, Jeff Parker and Nicole Mitchell. Eventually she formed a local collective with bassist Josh Abrams, and drummer Chad Taylor called Sticks And Stones, which released two, well-received albums in 2002 and 2004.
In 2002, Roberts moved to New York and in 2008 perked up a lot of ears when she presented her first solo album The Chicago Project. Produced by Vijay Iyer, Chicago Project reveals how well she has grasped some deep harmonic concepts while injecting a great deal of humanness and spirituality into her work. For that reason, it is quite listenable while also being so adventurous. When Roberts solos, it�s more of a soliloquy rather than a bunch of scales and chords. That album helped to get her the attention in the Big Apple that she previously earned in the Windy City: Downbeat named her the Rising Star Alto Saxophonist for 2009, and in 2008 she just missed out to Lionel Loueke in being named Up and Coming Musician of the Year by The Jazz Journalists Association.
Roberts isn�t content to merely compose and perform small-group jazz; her epic Coin Coin is a musical narrative account of her rich family history, going back seven generations. �Matana� is the Hebrew word for �gift.� Roberts� music is just that for fans of avant garde jazz.
Matana Roberts: Love Call
Italian native Ada Rovatti is a specialist on tenor and soprano saxophones who went to Berklee College of Music on a full scholarship before cutting her teeth in Paris. She�s since settled in New York, working with a dazzling roster of major jazz and fusion artists that includes Joann Brackeen, Miroslav Vitous, Bob Mintzer, Randy Brecker and John McLaughlin.
There are at least two reasons to pay close attention to Ms. Rovatti. First of all, she�s got really terrific chops and she knows when to throttle back and when to kick it into overdrive. Secondly, with the release earlier this year of her fourth album, Green Factor, she�s pushing her art into daring new territory with a delicious blend of jazz, fusion and Irish/Celtic forms. Rovatti arranged traditional Irish songs or wrote her own, as well as produced the record. It�s adventurous, advanced and alluring all at once.
An accomplished multi-talent like Ada Rovatti with a zeal for trying out fresh approaches is just the type who can make big waves. Surf�s up!
Ada Rovatti: The Untold Story