The Shape of Jazz to Come: Artists to Watch in 2019

Jazz thrives on regeneration and invention, which means that each new year brings a new opportunity for artists to extend the tradition, challenge norms, make new connections and push the music into unforeseen territory.

Here are 19 artists we think will take jazz to new heights in 2019. Some have been on the scene for a while; others you should get to know. Young and visionary, they’re all linked by a desire to move the music forward, tugging the tradition along with them. Want to get a sense for where jazz is headed? Follow these players.

Joel Ross, vibes

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This Chicago native has worked alongside a host of seasoned vets, from Herbie Hancock and Christian McBride to Jon Batiste and Ambrose Akinmusire. But as he proved on his 2018 release Good Vibes, he’s a dauntless leader in his own right, one of those rare musicians whose presence elevates the players around him. Plus, he’s got quick hands, an adventurous ear, and a knack for blurring lines.

Roxy Coss, saxophone

Saxophonist Roxy Coss’ recent album The Future Is Female captivated listening audiences in 2018. And for good reason. Not only did the album showcase Coss’ fluid improvisational style and grand compositional vision, but it also positioned the saxophonist as a powerful advocate for inclusion in the jazz world. Coss is the founder of the Women in Jazz Organization, which was founded in 2017 to promote equality and solidarity within the scene. The aim, says Coss, is for “women and non-binary people [to] have equal opportunity to participate in and contribute to Jazz, leading to an improved and more rich, diverse, and successful art form.” Her voice — as an artist and champion of inclusion — is as important as ever.

Theo Croker, trumpet

Theo Croker has been generating momentum in the jazz world for a while, but 2019 may prove the year he blasts through the stratosphere. In March, the trumpeter is slated to release a new album, Star People Nation, that will find applying his irrepressibly hip, funk-flavored aesthetic to the role of producer, songwriter and performer. Never one to shy away from issues of social justice, Croker calls his new album “a self-reflective collection of provocative, powerfully-passionate and boundary-busting compositions that speak to our greater, shared human existence.”

Maria Grand, tenor saxophone

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Swiss-born saxophonist Maria Grand is a standout among the cohort of young artists blazing trails in the avant-garde jazz scene. In 2012, at age 20, she was the youngest musician selected to perform in a tribute to NEA Jazz Master Von Freeman, and in 2013 she landed a coveted spot at the Newport Jazz Festival. Her full-length leader debut, Magdalena, was released on Biophilia Records in 2018. Featuring her dauntless ensemble Diatribe and tackling subjects ranging from mythology to family relationships, the album positioned Grand as an improviser of piercing insight and a composer of vast ambition.

Adam O’Farrill, trumpet

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Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill was born in Brooklyn to Latin-jazz royalty — his father is Grammy-winning pianist Arturo O’Farrill, and his grandfather is legendary Afro-Cuban composer Chico O’Farrill — but the acclaim he’s built as a performer and bandleader is entirely his own. Adam’s group Stranger Days released its first album in 2016, and while the disc was a magnet for critical praise, it was Adam’s highly idiosyncratic playing that turned the most heads. His tone is warm and flame-kissed, and his brilliant improvisations employ a vast and refreshingly unconventional jazz vocabulary. Years from now, this a cat that other trumpet players will be trying to emulate.

Veronica Swift, vocals

Veronica Swift is a vocalist possessing that rare combination of grand vision and exquisite technique. Her style encompasses nearly every page of the jazz songbook, from Dixieland to bebop and beyond. She’s performed at the Telluride Jazz Festival a staggering 10 times — her first coming at only 10 years old — and in 2015 came in second place in that year’s Thelonious Monk International Vocal Competition. In 2019, she is slated to release an album on Mack Avenue Records. Expect ample radiance and poise.

Connie Han, piano

With the release of her debut album, Crime Zone, L.A. native Connie Han announced herself as a pianist keen on tradition yet unafraid to redefine it. The album pays tribute to her primary jazz influences — the pianists McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Kenny Kirkland — by way of spirit and energy, not mere reproduction. Her originals were firmly stamped with her own artistic vision, and it’s a vision that she will certainly continue to expand through 2019 and beyond.

Alexander Claffy, bass

A native of Philadelphia, bassist Alexander Claffy grew up steeped in his hometown’s invigorating jazz tradition, soaking up a lithe, groove-oriented aesthetic. After a move to New York in 2011, he would go on to study with giants of the genre like Ron Carter and Jimmy Cobb, all the while cultivating a reputation as a steadfast accompanist with a sophisticated harmonic vocabulary and a warm, glowing tone. His 2018 leader debut Standards: What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life? (SMK) brought together like-minded contemporaries and jazz vets for a program that challenged the jazz canon even as it embraced it.

Lakecia Benjamin, saxophone

Born and raised in New York City, saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin came to jazz from the angle of funk and soul. She was reared on the music of James Brown, The Meters and Sly and the Family Stone, and as she set out on her own in the music world, she brought those influences with her, mixing them the prodigious jazz chops she acquired as a student at Fiorello LaGuardia High School and The New School. As a performer, she’s shared the stage with the likes Stevie Wonder, The Roots and Macy Gray. More recently, she can be seen as a featured saxophonist in vocalist Gregory Porter’s ensemble. The new year will find her touring behind her powerful 2018 album, Rise Up, while plotting her next step as a recording artist.

Emmet Cohen, piano

Starting in 2017, pianist Emmet Cohen set out on a mission to build bridges between jazz generations. His method: the Jazz Masters Legacy Series, a collection of albums in which he invites jazz legends to record alongside his trio of abundantly skilled young artists. The first in the series featured drummer Jimmy Cobb (of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue fame). The second featured bass legend Ron Carter. Soon, Cohen will release even more installments in the series, including an edition with saxophone luminary Benny Golson.

Nubya Garcia, saxophone

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Jazz of a polyphonic, multidisciplinary sort is having its day in the U.K., and London-based saxophonist Nubya Garcia is one of the reasons why. Her invigorating brand of Caribbean-flavored jazz has made her a superstar on the local scene, and as an accompanist, she’s been a crucial voice in groups led by drummer Moses Boyd and electronic-music producer Congo Natty. More revelatory, however, are her leader projects — including the six-piece ensemble Maisha, the Nérija septet and the group featured on her latest album, Nubya’s 5ive — which reveal her to be a player whose sound alone can ignite a scorching groove.

Nick Finzer, trombone

Trombonist Nick Finzer is changing the jazz landscape from within its own borders. In addition to leading his own bands in and around New York City and teaching at the University of North Texas, he also founded and runs Outside In Music, an artist-focused label and media company that seeks to build a community of forward-thinking artists who are passionate about sharing their music with the world. This year’s release schedule is full of promise and ambition, and you can bet you’ll be hearing more from Finzer in the months ahead.

Linda May Han Oh, bass

Linda May Han Oh’s album debut Entry, from 2009, put the bassist on the map as a player with an enchanting combination of technical skill and musical insight. It wasn’t long before she was sharing the stage with artists like Vijay Iyer and Dave Douglas. Critical acclaim came fast and furious. In 2010, she was named the No. 1 Rising Star Acoustic Bassist in DownBeat Magazine’s Critics’ Poll, and later that year she received second place at the BASS2010 Competition in Berlin. Currently, she’s touring the world with Pat Metheny’s quartet, and a release by this group is expected soon.

Michael Mayo, vocals

In late 2018, vocalist Michael Mayo closed out a South American tour with Herbie Hancock, impressing international audiences with his towering vocal range, crystal-clear articulation and expert use of electronics (his solo version of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” in which accompanies himself via vocal loops, is simply mind-boggling). He finished the year by releasing a video single, “20/20,” on which he applied his silk-lined voice in the service of a groove flavored by R&B and neo-soul.  He’ll also have a track on the forthcoming Kneebody EP By Fire, due out in May on Edition records. Expect big things from this impeccable young vocalist.

Justin Brown, drums

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Justin Brown’s palette as a drummer includes almost every shade of the jazz spectrum. For years, he served as the percussionist in trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s groundbreaking left-of-center jazz ensemble, and more recently occupied the drum chair behind crossover phenom Thundercat, painting vibrant rhythmic streaks onto the bassist’s wall of R&B-inflected sound. His 2018 album NYEUSI (Biophilia) was among the year’s best, a jazz-rap hybrid project full of thronging synth grooves and pulse-quickening drum beats. Watch him take his game to the next level in 2019.

Arianna Neikrug, vocals

Vocalist Arianna Neikrug emerged, white-hot, on the jazz scene in 2015, propelled by her victory in that year’s Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. The following year, she performed a critically praised set at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and in August 2018 she released her debut album, Changes, on the Concord Jazz label. She’s already a vital presence on the New York jazz scene, but 2019 is squaring up to be a big year, as the vocalist continues to tour and hone material for a new album. Of the fresh batch of vocalists cropping up on today’s scene, no one interprets a lyric quite like her.

Alfredo Rodriguez, piano

Photo by Anna Webber

Alfredo Rodriguez was born in Cuba to a musical family — his father was a popular singer and TV host. As a child, he studied classical piano at some of his country’s finest musical institutions, while playing popular music in his father’s orchestra by night. While performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2006, he was discovered by the legendary Quincy Jones, who would become his mentor and set him on a path toward international acclaim. Beginning in 2012, the pianist released four sterling albums on Mack Avenue Records, each as captivating as the next. His latest project, Duologue, is an intimate project with Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez, full of bristling musical ideas and scintillating rhythms. It should set the course for an exciting year of touring.

Jamison Ross, drums/vocals

Photo by Elton Anderson

Drummer Jamison Ross’ astounding musical versatility helped propel him to victory in the 2012 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Drum Competition, for which he was awarded a recording contract with Concord Records. His debut album, 2015’s Jamison, proved just how versatile he truly was. That’s because Ross used the album as an opportunity to showcase not only his astute drumming but also his tremendous ability as a vocalist, a talent that few in the jazz world knew he possessed but were all too glad to discover. (It was subsequently nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album.) Ross’ singing has since become a primary vehicle for his artistic expression, and his follow-up album, All For One, proved once again just how eloquent he can be behind the mic.

Samora Pinderhughes, keyboards

In recent years, keyboardist Samora Pinderhughes has established himself as an artist willing to take on today’s most pressing social issues. His monumental 2016 album The Transformations Suite was an important reminder of jazz’s power as a form of protest. And in 2018, he was the first-ever recipient of the Arts for Justice + Soros Justice Fellowship, given in support of his upcoming suite The Healing Project, a series of compositions that examine life in environments of high violence, pulling together stories of people who are forced to deal with trauma every day. More recently, he received a Chamber Music of America New Jazz Works Grant for an untitled work to be premiered in 2019. Like everyone on this list, he’s an important voice in jazz. Make sure you’re listening.

All photos courtesy the artist unless otherwise noted.

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