Five Contemporary Jazz Guitarists Worth Exploring

November 10th, 2011

By Ethan Varian

Frank Zappa famously proclaimed that “jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny.” And while that certainly may have been true in the fusion heyday of the 1970s and ’80s, there’s a younger breed of jazz musicians making music that is forward-looking but far less odorous.

Here are some personal favorites of mine—five videos of contemporary jazz guitarists you might want to check out.

Kurt Rosenwinkel
“The Next Step”
Next Step
Rosenwinkel is probably the most renowned modern jazz guitarist since Pat Metheny. His adventurous improvisations and emotional hornlike phrasing have made him a favorite of aspiring Berklee guitar performance majors for almost two decades. This video of his composition “The Next Step,” features Rosenwinkel along with a collection of the biggest names in contemporary jazz including Joshua Redman on tenor sax and Brad Mehldau on piano.

Rosenwinkel has performed with jazz legends like Gary Burton and Joe Henderson as well as with hip-hop artists The Roots and Q-Tip.

Julian Lage
“223 Butler”
Julian Lage can best described as a “post-jazz” guitarist, well versed in genres ranging from be-bop to classical to bluegrass and blending them seamlessly into a style that’s all his own. On this solo performance of his original composition, “223 Butler,” Lage shows off his limitless melodic creativity as well an expressive and dynamic touch on his vintage Gibson archtop.

Lage, now 23, got his start as a young jazz prodigy, cutting his teeth with legendary vibraphonist Gary Burton’s band at 15. Since then he has performed with a number of incredible musicians including Chris Thile, Eric Harland and Mark O’Conner.

Lionel Louke
“Tin Man”
African-born guitarist Lionel Louke is celebrated for his fusion of traditional West African music and modern jazz harmony. Louke sings along with his guitar melodies in his native language, known as Fon, and plays finger-style on a nylon-string guitar to produce a percussive effect he says is influenced by traditional African instruments.

“Tin Man” highlights Louke’s unique rhythmic phrasing along with intriguing harmonic chord voicings complimented by his vocals.

Louke was born in the West African country of Benin before being awarded scholarships at prestigious music conservatories in the Ivory Coast, Paris and eventually The Berklee College of Music in Boston. Since earning his degree, he has toured with his own group as well as a number of jazz greats including Terence Blanchard and Herbie Hancock.

Gilad Hekselman
“Prelude To A Kiss”
Hearts Wide Open
Gilad Hekselman is another stunning young guitarist under the age of 30. On the standard “Prelude to a Kiss,” he succeeds in bringing a contemporary sound to a tune jazz musicians have been playing for over 60 years. Hekselman’s fluid lyricism, singing bell-like tone, and ability to expand the given harmonic structure of a song are all highlighted in this performance.

Hekselman is originally from Israel and now resides in New York where he regularly gigs at Manhattan’s legendary jazz clubs. He tours and records with his own trio that often includes drummer Ari Hoeing.

Jonathan Kreisberg
“Five Bucks A Bungalow”
New for Now
Jonathan Kreisberg takes Pat Martino’s hard-bop chromatic phrasing and turns it on its head. In this video, Kriesberg uses his forward-looking composition “Five Bucks A Bungalow” as vehicle for a fiery improvisation that will surely make you want to head back to the woodshed.

Kriesberg tours internationally with his own group, and when not on the road, he performs every Wednesday at La Lanterna in New York City.

  • j lamar wagner

    Wow…these guys…all of them…are “freakin” incredible. I was mesmerized and I’m a drummer.

  • pavle

    Johnathan definitely,that tone is incredible,smart guy..

  • Rustynuts

    How could you miss out Graham Dechter?

  • Jonathan Kreisberg Group: Smokin’ -every one of them!

  • Mike

    I’m not exactly the world’s foremost authority on jazz, but I know music is good when I can’t seem to control my right leg or ‘un-scruntch’ my sourpuss face :). The Jonathan Kreisberg Group has passed this test. Watch the #2 video and check out the shot of the back of his guitar with the finish completely worn off on the thumb-portion of the neck. Excellent! Thanks for the heads-up GA!

  • I’m not sure whether to quit guitar or quit my dayjob. Some amazing guitarists here. Thanks for sharing!

  • Filip

    Add Mike Moreno to the list, he’s pretty amazing also!!!

  • Dave Allen

    There is a big hole in this list and his name is Ben Monder. These guys are all great, but they have not really changed what jazz guitar is. Monder has.

  • John Thomas

    Bob Burford is the best guitar player since Chett Atkins I know because Chett told him many years ago when Bob wanted a lesson.