12 New Jazz Artists to Watch in 2019

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12 New Jazz Artists to Watch in 2019

As the jazz community bids farewell to some revered elders who passed away in 2018 (Cecil Taylor, Randy Weston, Nancy Wilson, Bob Dorough, Sonny Fortune, Hugh Masekela), some intriguing new faces are emerging on the scene, bringing fresh visions and expanding the boundaries of the music in the process. Here are a dozen to watch for in 2019:

Camila Meza

The Chilean-born musician is a bona fide triple threat—consummate guitarist, captivating singer, accomplished songwriter. Arriving to the New York in 2009 from her native Santiago, Chile, Meza studied at The New School with guitar greats Peter Bernstein, Vic Juris and Steve Cardenas and soon began making a name for herself on the scene, bringing what The New York Times’ Nate Chinen described as, “an appealing combination of lightness and depth to all the material, singing in a bright, clear voice against the agile stir of a first-rate band” to her performances around town. Inspired by American jazz guitarists George Benson and Pat Metheny, South American folkloric music, Brazilian music and American popular songs, she debuted in 2007 with Skylark then had her Stateside debut with 2016’s Traces, which showcased her great storytelling (in English and Spanish) as well as her remarkable dexterity on voice and guitar. Traces won two Independent Music Awards for Best Adult Contemporary Album and Best Latin Song (“Para Volar”), and established her as a Rising Star in both guitar and female vocal categories in the esteemed DownBeat Critics Poll. She also performs as a member of Ryan Keberle’s Catharsis and Fabian Almazan’s Rhizome and leads her expanded jazz-plus-strings octet, The Nectar Orchestra, which is showcased on her upcoming Sony Music Masterworks release Ambar, a new project that elevates Camila’s musical storytelling to another level. “Music is my driving force, the expression I feel the most resemblant of our essence as human beings,” says the Brooklyn resident. “I’ve found my deepest moments of connection, reflection and joy through music and I hope to bring the same to the ones who listen.” And while she may be deeply connected to the jazz tradition, Meza’s appeal goes beyond jazz. “I’m always looking for new music,” she explains, “and I’m always listening to whatever I feel attracted to.” (Top photo by Chris Drukker)

2. Connie Han

The 22-year-old Los Angeles pianist combines astounding chops and rare maturity that belies her young age on her latest album, Crime Zone. Creating an edgy blend of modern and traditional jazz, Han is pushing the music forward with her own unique vision. Han’s parents, both practicing classical musicians, instilled in her an appreciation for music and a strong work ethic very early on, enrolling her in piano lessons at the age of five. “Learning the piano as a child was a gift,” she says. “By the time I became interested in jazz at the age of 14, I had great technical proficiency on my instrument allowing me to focus all of my energy on the more sophisticated elements of jazz music. It takes a lot of time and patience to internalize the essence and heartbeat of jazz.” Han’s connection to jazz began at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts where she was mentored by drummer Bill Wysaske, who produced Crime Zone and has also become the musical director of her trio. Following a three-week stint at UCLA, she began her professional career at age 17. After releasing her independently-produced 2015 album, The Richard Rodgers Songbook, Han signed to Mack Avenue Records. Her first for the label, Crime Zone, pays tribute to her jazz piano heroes McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Kenny Kirkland while also striking out on her own path. The expansive title track, for instance, draws its inspiration from films like Blade Runner and the 1988 Japanese animated film Akira. “Not only does jazz capture the rebellious spirit of cyberpunk culture,” Han explains, “but also the forward-thinking essence of science fiction. This record is really meant to be a statement about being rebellious but within the tradition. It’s provocative and fresh in its own way, while still having one foot in the past and honoring the jazz tradition.” (Photo by Raj Naik)

3. Veronica Swift

One of the sparkling new voices on the jazz scene today, Swift has come to prominence in guest appearances with trumpeter Chris Botti, pianist Benny Green and fellow vocalist and Ambassador of the Great American Songbook, Michael Feinstein. This past December she also guested with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra on their 14-city Big Band Holidays tour, bringing good cheer to audiences from Ann Arbor to Austin to Atlanta, concluding with a five-night residency at Rose Theater, Marsalis’ House of Swing in New York City. A powerful onstage presence and adept lyrical interpreter with tremendous tonal command and a dramatic penchant for space and dynamics, Swift’s mature delivery belies her young age. The 24-year-old singer, a second place winner in the prestigious Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition for 2015, has already traveled the country and performed in such faraway venues as Jazz at Lincoln Center Shanghai and Marian’s Jazz Showroom in Bern, Switzerland. Born in a musical household (her parents are the renowned jazz pianist Hod O’Brien and celebrated jazz singer Stephanie Nakasian), Veronica recorded two CDs as a child—one at age 9 with Richie Cole and her father’s rhythm section and her mother (Veronica’s House of Jazz) and one at age 13 with saxophonist Harry Allen (It’s Great To Be Alive). Her 2015 album Lonely Woman garnered wide critical acclaim. “I’m really lucky because my dad was one of the last pianists from the bebop era, so he’s as authentic as it gets,” she told Birdland Jazz. “So growing up with that kind of music around me, it was a lot more natural for me to gravitate to. Now I’m not actively thinking about preserving it because it’s just a way of life for me.” Swift’s perfect pitch, tone and phrasing will be put to good use on her upcoming Mack Avenue Records debut. (Photo courtesy of Veronica Swift)

4. Jaimie Branch

The fiery, free-spirited trumpeter came to New York from Chicago, where she had been blending avant-jazz and punk for nearly a decade. Her 2017 debut album Fly or Die garnered immediate attention, making her an in-demand figure on the Brooklyn-based improvisers scene. Mentored by trumpeter John McNeil while attending a jazz summer camp in Boulder, Colo., Branch relocated to Boston to study at the New England Conservatory, where McNeil was on the faculty. She returned to Chicago and immersed herself in the Windy City’s free jazz legacy by diving into AACM recordings by the likes of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Muhal Richard Abrams and the scene surrounding legendary saxophonist Fred Anderson at the Velvet Lounge. She later fell in with an avant-jazz crowd that included tenor saxophonists Ken Vandermark and rising star players like cornetist Josh Berman, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, saxophonist Keefe Jackson and drummer Frank Rosaly. Following a stint at Towson University in Baltimore, where she studied with trumpeter Dave Ballou, Branch made her move to New York City in 2015 and quickly hooked up with like-minded members of Brooklyn’s underground scene. Following the release of Fly Or Die, she was was featured in the horn section of Harriet Tubman’s recreation of the Ornette Coleman opus Free Jazz at the 2018 Winter Jazz Fest. Stay tuned to see where this audacious new trumpet star will fly next. (Photo by Peter Gannushkin)

5. Jonathan Barber

Named Modern Drummer’s “#1 Up-and-Coming Drummer of 2018,” the powerhouse, Hartford-born drummer initially fell in love with the instrument by watching his father perform in the family church. His upbringing in the church instilled in him a passion for gospel music and he later became attracted to jazz through the music of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, drummers Tony Williams, Max Roach, Roy Haynes and Art Blakey and the Hartford-based alto sax great Jackie McLean, who headed the jazz department of the Hartt School of Music where Barber studied. Since relocating to New York City, he’s worked with the likes of pianists Kenny Barron and Harold Mabern, bassist Buster Williams, trumpeters Jeremy Pelt, Nicholas Payton and Wallace Roney, saxophonist J.D. Allen, Marcus Strickland and Abraham Burton. Barber’s debut as a leader, 2018’s Vision Ahead, firmly established the 28-year-old drummer as a leader and composer in his own right as well as a highly respected player. Offering a fresh blend of classic jazz with elements of gospel, rock, soul and fusion, Vision Ahead is the first step in what promises to be a stellar career. “I recognize my God given gift,” says Barber. “Maximizing this gift to its full potential is the best thing you can do for yourself. Operating in this gift is how you give back to the world.” Barber’s Vision Ahead band will be featured as part of the upcoming “Next Faces of Jazz” program on March 2 at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in Lower Manhattan. (Photo by Gulnara Khamatova)

6. Julius Rodriguez

The accomplished pianist/drummer, whose nickname since grade school has been Orange Julius, is poised to make his move on the Big Apple jazz scene. A native of White Plains, N.Y., and a student in Juilliard’s jazz program, Rodriguez is one of those rare doublers, calling to mind Jack DeJohnette, the renowned drummer who is also a pianist. A member of the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, Rodriguez has also performed internationally with such greats as the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, singers Carmen Lundy and Jazzmeia Horn and the acclaimed Onyx Collective. Starting on piano, Rodriguez began incorporating drums into his toolkit, emulating drumming legends like Art Blakey, Tony Williams and Max Roach while also drawing inspiration from jazz piano greats Sonny Clark, Bud Powell, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. “Knowing piano and knowing harmony helps me on drums to learn forms faster and pick up things quicker,” says Orange Julius. “And playing drums helps me to solidify my rhythm a lot better when I’m playing the piano. It also helps me to lock in with piano players when I’m on drums. And if the harmony and rhythm are locked in, it makes for a better band.” Rodriguez came up in the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead workshop directed by Jason Moran, where he learned about committing to the music on a deeper level. “The faculty there really knew how to draw it out of you by drawing on your emotions and really making you play for your life,” he recalls. “And because of the experiences I had there, I’m always searching to find that every time I play. I’m trying to stay in the middle but push forward at the same time. I’m just trying to bring it all forward. I’m interested in music because I heard something and it made me feel something, and I want to be able to provide that to another person. I want to connect to people like that.” (Photo by Chioma Nwana)

7. Chris Beck

The New York-based drummer/composer has been an emerging talent on the scene in recent years. With the release of The Journey, his 2018 debut recording produced by master drummer and mentor Michael Carvin, Beck pays homage to the classic straight-ahead style of jazz while infusing elements of his African roots and gospel upbringing. Honing his craft on the stage with the likes of pianists Cyrus Chestnut and Mulgrew Miller, bassists Rufus Reid and Charles Fambrough, saxophonists Oliver Lake and David Murray, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, guitarist Mark Whitfield and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, the Philadelphia native plays with true emotion, sensitivity and power. And his compositional skills place him in rare company among drummers. This gentle giant is all in for the music and he understands how music can affect people. “We need honesty and love, that’s what the world needs,” he says. “And that’s what I’m here to do. I’m just here to share what God has blessed me with and give it to the world.” With interpretations of Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” and Eric Clapton’s “Tears In Heaven,” interspersed with several potent originals, Beck makes a strong case for wider recognition with The Journey. (Photo by Gulnara Khamatova)

8. Arianna Neikrug

The Los Angeles native and current New York City resident is making her mark on the jazz world in a big way. Winner of the 2015 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition (the “Sassy” Awards), she also won an outstanding soloist award in the college division at the Monterey Next Generation Jazz Festival that year. Neikrug has shared the stage with seasoned players like Kenny Burrell, Al Jarreau, George Benson, Karrin Allyson, Gretchen Parlato and Roseanna Vitro and also earned critical acclaim for appearances at the Montreal Jazz Festival and such renowned jazz clubs as the Jazz Standard in New York and the Blue Whale in Los Angeles. But the 25-year-old singer made an even grander entrance into the jazz world with the release of her acclaimed 2018 Concord Jazz debut, Changes. “Neikrug sings beyond her years, and while her technique and flexibility are striking, it’s her soulfulness that startles and lingers,” wrote Carlo Wolff in Downbeat magazine. Adds her producer, pianist Laurence Hobgood, “I can honestly say that she’s the most theoretically informed singer that I’ve ever worked with—in terms of just knowing music. She has a healthy combination of being strong-willed with being totally open-minded to suggestions. Those are attributes of a singer with a long career.” From her hypnotic reading of “No Moon at All” to her graceful rendition of “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” and her burning take on the standard “The Song Is You” to a divine makeover of Al Green’s R&B staple“Let’s Stay Together,” a mash-up of Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me/Be Cool,” a lush jazz ballad take on the Jackson Five’s Motown hit “I’ll Be There” and her own alluring samba flavored title track, Keikrug distinguishes herself as a fresh new force in vocal jazz on the winning Changes. “When you’re recording your debut album, fresh out of college, you’re not exactly sure how you want to present yourself,” Neikrug explains. “It was easier figuring that out by discovering who I didn’t want to be. I’m just trying to take the jazz tradition and move it in my direction.” (Photo courtesy of Arianna Neikrug)

9. Sasha Berliner

At only 20 years old, the vibraphonist is blazing a path for herself as someone to watch. Having already shared the stage with Ravi Coltrane, Ambrose Akinmusire, Matt Wilson, Billy Hart, Victor Wooten and Tyshawn Sorey and having performed at a number of festivals, including the Atlanta Jazz Festival, NYC Winter Jazz Fest and the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, the San Francisco native and current student at The New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York is ready to make her big splash with Azalea, set for a September 2019 release. Seton Hawkins wrote in Hot House magazine: “As a versatile drummer and gifted vibraphone player, Sasha wields a technique and musical sense that portends a thrilling career. In her original music, she deserves significant praise.” And she just won the LetterOne RISING STARS Jazz Award. Not only is Berliner a prodigious vibraphonist, she is also outspoken in the fight for equality in jazz. She publicly advocates for the We Have Voice organization, vowing to create a non-tolerance and accountability policy for discrimination or harassment based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and violence and abuse, in the performing arts. Her essay on sexism in the jazz industry, “An Open Letter to Ethan Iverson (And the Rest of the Jazz Patriarchy),” was shared on the PBS News Hour and discussed in tandem with the Winter Jazz Fest discussion panel on sexism, featuring activist Angela Davis. (Photo by John Rogers)

10. Sasha Masakowski

Growing up in New Orleans, the daughter of jazz guitar luminary Steve Masakowski, singer Sasha Masakowski had Mardi Gras tunes and second-line rhythms ingrained in her DNA. Her recording debut at age 21, 2007’s Musical Playground, led to her being named “Best Emerging Artist” in the Crescent City’s 2009 Big Easy Awards. She continued gigging and recording around town with her band Musical Playground, her trad jazz party band The Sidewalk Strutters and the Masakowski family band Nova Nola, featuring her father on guitar and brother Martin on bass. By 2015, she relocated to the Big Apple, hoping to reinvent herself. But she took a little bit of the Big Easy with her. Sasha’s musical curiosity led her to the experimental sound design of Hildegard, her duo with guitarist Chris Hines, and the edgy electro-pop art-rock band Tra$h Magnolia, which represented another sonic walk on the wild side. With 2018’s playfully eccentric Art Market, her Ropeadope Records debut, she blends her N’awlins roots with the edgier aspects of her musical personality. “It’s a thank you to New Orleans and to my family,” says the current Brooklyn resident. “But it’s also a looking at New Orleans from the perspective of now having been in New York for several years and how that’s changed my sound. It’s just a glimpse into all of my influences and where I am in this moment.” Sasha’s airy, delicate voice melds with New Orleans street beats, synth bass lines and electro-pop drum programming on her reimagining of the Mardi Gras staple “Iko Iko,” a tune she remembers from her early childhood. Louis Armstrong’s “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” gets a similar art-rock reworking while her affinity for New Orleans grooves comes through on “Sister.” Her “Scary Monster Song” utilizes looping and multiple-voice overdubbing while her wordless vocals alongside her father’s flowing guitar work on his “Ascending Reverence” (from his 1994 Blue Note album, Direct Axecess) and scat-infused abandon on Bill Evans’ “Interplay” prove that she can indeed hang with the jazz cats. That kind of blurring of boundaries defines Art Market, which she calls,“a snapshot of my musical mind.” For a change of pace, check out Sasha’s recent collaboration with the Pagsberg Big Band of Denmark on Surprises, a more straight-ahead offering. (Photo by Tatiana Eva Marie)

11. Jamison Ross

The winner of the 2012 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Drums Competition is also a winning vocalist, as he demonstrated on his 2015 debut album Jamison on Concord Jazz. “At the time I recorded that album, people knew me as a drummer,” he recalls. “They didn’t know I could sing, and I wanted to merge my gifts.” A native of Jacksonville, Fla., Ross began his music journey at his grandfather’s church, where he sang and played drums. He continued to study music at Douglas Anderson High School and subsequently earned a Bachelor of Arts in Jazz Studies at Florida State University. He then attended the University of New Orleans, where he earned a Master of Music. In 2009, Ross was invited to the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Residency at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. There he connected with Grammy-award winning singer/songwriter Carmen Lundy, who invited the 19-year-old drummer to join her band. Jamison would go on to record with Lundy on Lundy’s Changes and Soul to Soul. His self-titled debut was recorded in New Orleans and featured guest appearances by pianist and Late Show with Stephen Colbert bandleader Jon Batiste. It received a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Ross’ 2018 sophomore release on Concord Jazz, All For One, takes listeners a level deeper into his ethos, further solidifying his reputation as one of his generation’s brightest young talents. (Photo courtesy of Jamison Ross)

12. Olli Soikkeli

The 28-year-old Finnish guitarist fell in love with the music of gypsy jazz guitar great Django Reinhardt as a teenager. That has been his main focus ever since. Based in New York City since 2014, Soikkeli has played such Big Apple venues as Birdland, Blue Note and Jazz at Lincoln Center and shared the stage with such six-string stars as Bucky Pizzarelli, Stochelo Rosenberg, Tommy Emmanuel and Andreas Öberg. In 2011, he recorded his first album Trois Générations, with the Hot Club de Finland and followed in 2012 with Kouvola Junction. After moving to New York, he formed the Rhythm Future Quartet with violinist Jason Anick. Dedicated to expanding the boundaries of gypsy jazz, they released their self-titled debut album in 2014 followed in 2016 with Travels, which received rave reviews from Huffington Post and All About Jazz magazine. The Wall Street Journal called Soikkeli “a riveting Finnish guitarist who combines astonishing dexterity and speed with pure soul in a way that places him among the worthiest current day successors to the legacy of the great Django.” The group’s latest release is 2018’s Rhythm Future Quartet and Friends, which features guest appearances from critically acclaimed singer Cyrille Aimée, Brazil’s top bandolimist Hamilton de Holanda and Netherlands gypsy jazz guitar sensation Stochelo Rosenberg. Soikkeli and his Rhythm Future Quartet bandmates (violinist Anick, rhythm guitarist Max O’Rourke and bassist Greg Loughman) have indeed pushed the gypsy jazz tradition into the future by incorporating multiple influences from gypsy jazz to Balkan folk, Spanish Flamenco to country swing, teaming it with their own virtuosity and playing it all with a joyful abandon that is downright infectious. (Photo courtesy of Olli Soikkeli)

Paste jazz correspondent Bill Milkowski has been writing about jazz since the 1970s. He’s the author of several books, including a biography of Jaco Pastorius, and has written more than 1,000 set of liner notes for everyone from Weather Report to John Coltrane.