Women of Modern Jazz

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Diana Krall in action with her band, including Anthony Wilson on guitar (not pictured), John Clayton on bass, and Jeff Hamilton on drums

Over the years, jazz has developed thanks to the many revolutionary musicians who have influenced and inspired other musicians — an influence that has extended beyond just the realm of jazz. For example, Erykah Badu has been compared to Billie Holiday; Kimbra uses jazz elements in her modern electro-pop music.

At the bottom of the page you will find a recommended listening list of some of my favorites, but first I would like to talk about some of the artists I’ve chosen.

Pianist and vocalist Diana Krall (Berklee ’83) was one of the first women of modern jazz who I had the opportunity to hear. I highly recommend her Live in Paris record, which features a phenomenal rhythm section: Anthony Wilson on guitar, John Clayton on bass, and Jeff Hamilton on drums. This is one of my favorite groups to listen to, not only when I am looking for generally great rhythm section playing, but also when I need to accompany a vocalist.

Another great vocalist and pianist is the Brazilian-born Eliane Elias. She is mostly seen singing in English and Portuguese, and is famous for doing many Brazilian standards. Elias used to be married to trumpeter Randy Brecker, but is now married to bassist Marc Johnson. Today she tours with both of them. Her musical career started at a very young age; when she was 12 years old, she began transcribing piano solos from the jazz masters. At age 15, she taught at a prestigious music school in Brazil and at age 17 she played with Brazilian singer-songwriter Toquinho and poet Vinicius de Moraes. In 1982, she became a member of the well-known fusion group Steps Ahead that featured many great musicians over the years of the group’s existence, including founder and vibraphonist Mike Manieri, saxophonist Michael Brecker, and bassist Eddie Gomez. Aside from Steps Ahead, Elias has played in a wide variety of contexts — from Big Band to Classical. In 1984, she released her first album, Amanda, a collaboration with ex-husband trumpeter Randy Brecker. In 2013, she released a tribute to Chet Baker, I Thought About You, to very positive reviews.

Later I heard about Norah Jones and Erykah Badu. Some may argue that Jones is more on the pop side and Badu more on the neo-soul side, but jazz can be heard in their music.  This reminds me of a Duke Ellington Saying: “I can’t help the feeling that the music has outgrown the word jazz.” Jazz can be heard in a lot of music, and that is why I have added some names that may not be defined as strictly jazz musicians.

ACS (Allen, Carrington, Spalding) with Geri Allen on piano, Esperanza Spalding on bass and Terri Lyne Carrington on drums

One of the most popular women in jazz over the last years has been bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding (Berklee ’05). She came to Berklee on a full scholarship where she studied with bassist John Lockwood. She has released four albums that are quite different. The first one, Junjo, released in 2005, is a trio album, while her second one, Esperanza, is from 2009. Esperanza was the first of her albums that I heard, and on this one she sings in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. About this, Boston Globe journalist Siddharta Mitter says: “the big change is the singing” he also talks about how it makes the album more accessible and more conventional. Her third album, Chamber Music Society, from 2010, features her in jazz and classical settings featuring strings. In 2012 she did a follow-up called Radio Music Society, which features guest artists such as Joe Lovano, Lalah Hathaway, Lionel Loueke, as well as a big band. On this record, she showcases a lot more of her electric bass playing: the music is modern and hip, which I believe catches the younger audience.

Out of Boston, we have the great saxophonist and singer Grace Kelly. She grew up in a musical family and often went to New York to see Broadway shows and jazz clubs from the age of 6, where she would fall asleep in the back of the club. She has studied with greats such as Jerry Bergonzi, George Garzone, and Lee Konitz, to mention a few. At age 12 she released her first album, Dreaming.


A then 19 year old Grace Kelly performing with trumpeter and Berklee professor Jason Palmer at Lake George Jazz Weekend a few years ago

The beauty of music is that you always spot artists you might not have heard of yet. When writing this article I spotted quite a few that I really liked, such as Laura Mvula and Cécile McLorin Salvant, a 25-year-old Miami native and francophone, who was part of the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. When I listen to her live performance of the standard “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was,” I hear a bit of Ella Fitzgerald in her voice. She brings a mix of tradition and modern sound into her voice. The jazz trio she plays with makes everything come together; the pianist and bassist play a hit on an upbeat, while the drummer plays time with brushes.

Going back further in time, many great masters of jazz such as Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, and Betty Carter inspired a lot of these artists and are part of the recommended listening section beneath. Inspiration is a huge part of the music; becoming a well-rounded musician means listening to the masters from the past and learning from them.

Kimbra – Teenage Heat
Laura Mvula – Green Garden
Gretchen Parlato – All that I can say
Norah Jones – Cold, cold heart
Linda Oh – Blue over Gold
Terri Lyne Carrington (Nona Hendryx on vocals) – Transformation
Diana Krall – Devil May Care
Erykah Badu – Think Twice
Cindy Blackman – Vuelta Abajo (Tony Williams Lifetime cover)
Esperanza Spalding – Winter Sun
Cécile McLorin Salvant – I didn’t know what time it was
Rebecca Martin (Once Blue with Kurt Rosenwinkel) – Save Me
Aubrey Logan – Compilation of songs
Snarky Puppy Feat. Lalah Hathaway – Something
Eliane Elias – Tangerine
Marilyn Mazur and Terri Lyne Carrington with Wayne Shorter’s band – Condition Red
Dianne Reeves with Wynton Marsalis – Feeling of Jazz
Dee Dee Bridgewater with Christian McBride – It’s your thing
Renee Rosnes with the J.J. Johnson Quintet – Autumn Leaves
Grace Kelly Quintet – Caravan
Charenee Wade
Cyrille Aimee 
Geri Allen Trio – Mysterious Traveller


          February 10, 2018