Photos (L-R): Stephen Pyo, Abby Lank and Jared Lank, Shervin Lainez, Adrien Tillmann, Nicolas Manassi, Gina Principe, Raees Hassan, Gabrielle Hervey, Matt Baker, Rudy Royston
10 Emerging Jazz Artists To Watch: Simon Moullier, Mali Obomsawin, Julieta Eugenio, Jeremy Dutton & More
Pandemic lockdowns battered jazz like almost no other genre, but these 10 artists forged ahead and played on — more imaginatively and powerfully than ever.
Miki Yamanaka tried to play music in her own home. She found her front door knob covered in peanut butter.
The year was 2020, and the pianist and her drummer husband were deep into lockdown. Despite numerous attempts at transparency and compromise with their Harlem neighbors, she says, they opted for harassment and hate mail — including the threatening application of the lunch spread. For Yamanaka, this felt like death by a thousand cuts.
With no gigs or recording dates to speak of — nor assurance she'd ever work again — it was destabilizing to be unable to hone the craft that made her a living. "My visa was about to end," Yamanaka tells GRAMMY.com. "My bachelor's degree is in earth science in Japan. [I thought I'd] have to go back and restart my career or some s—."
When all hope seemed lost, something magical transpired. Realizing her colleagues, the revered saxophonist Mark Turner and top-flight bassist Orlando le Fleming, were also busy doing nothing, she invited them to take COVID tests and record in her living room.
Turner and le Fleming accepted, and the three made resplendent music together, as heard on 2021's Stairway to the Stars. "It was such a wake-up call for me that this is absolutely what I love. This is why I am alive," Yamanaka tells GRAMMY.com. "I got to remind myself that I love playing music."
Yamanaka's expressions speak to how this cataclysm defined the current crop of emerging jazz talent. While the pandemic was a universal experience, it can't be overstated how much it throttled this musical community. (There's a reason it still pops up in numberless press releases.)
A livewire, interconnective artform contingent on human beings gathering in close proximity, jazz was practically first on the list to go. By the time it returned, some talented practitioners had abandoned that dream — often for understandable reasons. But due to sheer gumption, a confluence of life circumstances, or both, others felt galvanized to charge through it.
In this reshaped jazz landscape, here are 10 artists who are currently perforating the scene — and the conversation.
Miki Yamanaka. Photo: Martina DaSilva
During a recent album release show for the trombonist Nick Finzer at Birdland in New York City, Yamanaka's pianistic touch was ear-turning. Comping, or accompanying, behind a soloist isn't arbitrary or automatic; it's an artform all its own; Yamanaka brings this musical truth into stark relief.
"I have such a huge passion for comping. If I don't play, that creates one vibe. If I play a lot, that creates another vibe," she says. "I could play super inside the chord changes, rhythmically, like Horace Silver would do, or I could play a lot of different re-harms like Herbie [Hancock] would do."
But, to transcend one-to-one comparisons: "The music is not supposed to be a muscular technique, per se. It's about the emotions," Yamanaka says. "It's about the colors and textures, but also rooted[ness] to the tradition."
Yamanaka comes from a big-band background: the foundational works of Count Basie, Buddy Rich and Duke Ellington moved her early on. And artists more associated with small groups, from Oscar Peterson to Cedar Walton to Sonny Clark, filled out her early influences.
These days, contemporary giants like the late Geri Allen and Paul Bley pique Yamanaka's interest: "For now, my interest is moving forward in a different direction."
To date, Yamanaka has released four albums as a leader: 2012's Songs Without Lyrics, 2018's Miki, 2020's Human Dust Suite, and Stairway to the Stars. While the lion's share of her work is as an accompanist, the latter proves she's rapidly coming into her own as a leader.
"For my future, I want to step up more — and even travel more — to bring my music, the excitement, and work with other people that I admire," she says. "To make their music even more interesting — that I could partake, and make it special."
Simon Moullier. Photo: Shervin Lainez
Vibraphonist Simon Moullier dazzled at the Jazz Gallery in Manhattan last winter, supporting his latest album, Isla. Accompanied by pianist Lex Korten, bassist Alex Claffy and drummer Jongkuk Kim, Moullier's capacity for impressionistic effect beautifully counterweighted his technical acumen.
One might walk away thinking Moullier was born for the vibraphone. Not the case, he says.
"It's never really been much about the instrument itself," Moullier admits to GRAMMY.com. "The vibraphone is just something I chose because I was a percussionist, and it was an immediate way for me to get to the expression I [desired]."
To be clear, "I love the instrument," he adds. "But my love for it is not even close, compared to composing, playing or improvising. I don't really think about the instrument as much as I think about what I'm trying to express on it."
Moullier's concept for this quartet hinges on the timbral marriage between the piano and vibes. "We play a lot of things together in the same register," he explains, "which means both instruments kind of blend together and almost create this third, invisible instrument."
Aesthetically, Isla is something of a rapprochement between his first two albums: 2020's electronic-tinged Spirit Song and 2021's Countdown, a raw, acoustic trio album of standards.
"Even though I love electronics, I think learning how to treat acoustic instruments and combine them is really fun to do," Moullier says. "Sometimes, from limitations comes a lot of possibilities."
While classical impressionism looms large in Moullier's musical DNA, he connects it to modern-jazz giants like Horace Silver and Wayne Shorter. ("There are a lot of similarities between Horace Silver and Ravel, harmonically speaking," he notes.)
And judging by the luminescent Isla, the future is boundless as to how he can straddle these worlds. He has a trio album with bassist Luca Alemanno and Kim in the can — the same trio featured on Countdown. He's checking out West African and Brazilian music. He's eyeing film scoring.
All in all, whether you're a fan of the vibes or forward-thinking composition writ large, you'd be remiss not to keep tabs on Moullier.
Chien Chien Lu. Photo: Stephen Pyo
Chien Chien Lu
Fellow vibraphonist Chien Chien Lu initially cut her teeth in her native Taiwan's contemporary classical scene. To put it lightly, it wasn't for her.
"I didn't really like the culture that much," Lu tells GRAMMY.com, adding that she was rankled by the stiff, contrived nature of the performances. "We were all playing written music, and you need to be pretty and smile onstage and that kind of stuff."
This, coupled with its hard-drinking, politically freighted nightlife, compelled her to shift gears professionally.
When Lu heard vibraphone royalty Roy Ayers and Milt Jackson on the radio in Taiwan, she was enamored. "I was like, 'My god, they are also doing percussion, but they do it with so much soul," she recalls.
Lu fled overseas to Philadelphia to study jazz, but initially hit a wall. "I found out that it's almost impossible to start to play jazz with a classical mindset," she admits. "I had to train a new skill muscle."
While spending "eight to 10" hours in a practice room building that muscle, Lu shifted her mindset and struck gold. The skeleton key was to access that casual precision, that personality-forward approach — that soul — that Ayers and Jackson embodied.
"I can just be myself on the stage and do my improvisation," she remembers realizing.
One thing led to another: just as she relocated to New York, esteemed trumpeter Jeremy Pelt took her under his wing as an accompanist on three of his records. Her debut album, The Path, arrived in 2020.
Her working relationship with the exceptional jazz-funk-rock bassist Richie Goods — who appeared on The Path — has reached new heights in recent years: their co-billed album, Connected, arrived at the top of 2023.
Despite being recorded remotely due to pandemic concerns, tunes like "Water," "Embrace the Now" and "Someday We'll All Be Free" are suffused with camaraderie and love.
Being that Lu's of Asian descent and Goods is Black, they came to commiserate about the traumas that plague their communities.
As the pair considered issues as thorny as racial violence, they conceived Connected as something of a tranquil counterweight — complete with shimmering textures and sinuous R&B grooves.
In all her expressions about her artistry and career, Lu's gratitude to have a foothold in the New York scene shines through. "I feel like, with this rise, I'm confident to say what I want to say," she says, and corrects herself immediately: "To say what I need to say."
Jeremy Dutton. Photo: Jason Rostkowski
Germane to an era where matters of mental health and capitalistic workaholism are front of mind, a theme has popped up in young jazz artists' PR narratives: the grind.
Uprooting from a faraway home country, being laughed out of jam sessions, scuffling for gigs 24/7: artists are talking about it, reassessing it, making music about it. And it's at the essence of drummer extraordinaire Jeremy Dutton's debut album, Anyone is Better Than Here, out June 16.
"It's a call-out to this idea that once we get to a certain place, we'll be happy in life," he tells GRAMMY.com. "If I get these gigs, if I get these opportunities, I'll be fulfilled; I'll be happy… obviously, they can bring you some amount of joy, but I think the ultimate amount of satisfaction and joy comes from accepting yourself and allowing yourself to be who you are."
Indeed, the supple, cerebral Anyone is Better Than Here is permeated with Dutton's personality; he labored over these tunes for years before they finally emerged. Dutton wrote every tune on the album, from "Waves" to "Shifts" to "The Mother."
"I tend to think visually a lot," he says of his process as a composer. "I think cinematically, which I think relates closely to the drums, because the drums can be a very cinematic instrument." (As another exemplar of the drums-composition relationship, Dutton cites Kendrick Scott, who produced Anyone is Better Than Here and is out with his own superlative album on Blue Note, Corridors.)
The album is augmented by new and old compatriots, who happen to be cats of the highest order: vibraphonist Joel Ross, saxophonist Ben Wendel, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and others, who all appear in various configurations.
"The musicians on this record are all people that I've met at different points in my musical journey," Dutton explains. "We're all like-minded in the sense that we're all very committed and serious about the music… through exploring the music, exploring our lives and identities, and honoring the tradition of the musicians that have come before us."
Anyone is Better Than Here represents the culmination of Dutton's legacy as a sideman: he's worked with artists who rightly, and often, occupy the center of their sphere, like trumpeters Marquis Hill and Keyon Harrold, saxophonists Melissa Aldana and Immanuel Wilkins and pianists Vijay Iyer Iyer and Gerald Clayton.
Wherever Dutton goes from here, it'll bear the marks of his finely-attuned musical philosophy. "I think of a melody being memorable being memorable in the sense that, can you remember the shape of it? Is there a clear shape that's running through it?"
With this auspicious debut, Dutton himself has an arc: one trending skyward.
Mali Obomsawin. Photo: Abby Lank and Jared Lank
As declared in press stretching all the way up to the Gray Lady, Mali Obomsawin — who hails from the Odanak First Nation — is part of a new wave of Indigenous jazz artists. From trumpeter Delbert Anderson to pianist Renata Yazzie to singer Julia Keefe, these artists are changing the conversation about the confluence between Native American and American musics.
Is that true? Is there a "there" there?
Obomsawin laughs at the question, just prior to her drive from Maine to her rez in Canada.
"I think we're still trying to get there to be a 'there' there," she admits to GRAMMY.com. "The New York Times did that piece on Delbert. But when it comes to meat and potatoes… in addition to doing a land acknowledgment, why don't you hire an Indigenous big band to play there?"
This debate and others like it will rage on; it's probably aflame right now on Indigenous Instagram. But when considering Obomsawin's art — as captured on her critically acclaimed 2022 debut, Sweet Tooth — one thing is clear: Obomsawin is an exceptional and eminently tasteful composer, bassist and bandleader.
While finding a balance between bassist and bandleader can be tricky, Obomsawin is the central pillar, the heartbeat, a steward of her accompanists — as exemplified on Sweet Tooth.
"I think there are moments to shine, but a lot of times, bassists feel like they haven't had their moment because they're doing their job," Obomsawin says. "So, when they're in the writer's seat, they write themselves all the solos that they wish they had been offered in the past."
Billed as "a suite for Indigenous resistance," tunes like "Fractions," "Lineage" and "Blood Quantum," showcase cornetist and flugelhornist Taylor Ho Bynum, saxophonist Noah Campbell, clarinetist and alto saxophonist Allison Burik, guitarist Miriam Elhajli, and drummer Savannah Harris. (Sweet Tooth is an exceptional showing from Elhajli, who picked up the electric guitar for the first time on this record and plays with McLaughlin-esque fire: watch out for her, too.)
Obomsawin is working toward another jazz album, but notes "I think I hit my threshold with being too much in one place, or too much in one framework." Instead, she's just recorded — of all things — a shoegaze album.
"We're thinking of calling it Greatest Hits," she says with a smirk. "I feel like I'm going to make myself a perpetual outsider by getting people to pay attention to me in jazz and then, 'You know what, though? I'm going to put out a shoegaze record." (It's not that much of a stretch; after all, Obomsawin and her group recently opened for Yo La Tengo.)
Perhaps there is a "there" there. It's just that "there" isn't going to define her.
Jonathan Suazo. Photo: Gina Principe
When it comes to creative inspiration, many artists experience a big-bang event: music bios and docs are so riddled with them, it's almost a cliché.
But there's nothing trifling or trite about Jonathan Suazo's eureka moment: a single note on saxophonist Kenny Garrett's "May Peace Be Upon Them," from his 2006 album Beyond the Wall. Seeming to reach the limit of what he can express with his horn, Garrett screams into the mouthpiece. Listen to it at 5:47; try not to get goosepimples.
"That's the life-changing note," the Puerto Rican saxophonist tells GRAMMY.com, still audibly flabbergasted. "I wanted to play that note, or the equivalent of that note, one day."
That note may have sent Suazo on a journey, but it was never a given it'd be successful. When he started at the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico, he found that his feet weren't touching the bottom.
"I sucked," he says. (He admits he may be exaggerating, but the answer is a jolt anyway.) "I wasn't on par like I thought I was."
Suazo's father was the one who turned him on to Beyond the Wall; on his deathbed, Suazo had promised him he would make something of the saxophone. So he set aside a year — stretching from 2008 to 2009 — that would form an ultimatum: Either you do this, or you don't.
The year of doing nothing but woodshedding paid off: first via a big break by way of gigs with percussionist Paoli Mejias, then tutelage at the Global Jazz Institute in Boston — often by way of masters of this music, like bassist John Patitucci and saxophonist Joe Lovano.
Things ramped up in 2019, when Puerto Rican saxophone titan Miguel Zenón invited Suazo to perform at a concert series. Right then, Suazo found himself making regular trips to New York, immersing himself in its jazz firmament.
Suazo entered a period of "reawakening" and "reevaluating" during the pandemic years: "Things were so rough, that I was contemplating not doing the music thing for a second," he admits.
But Suazo emerged from the mire, first slowly — via a Kennedy Center remote series — and then rapidly. He's gearing up to release his formal debut, RICANO, in August — a celebration of his dual roots in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
"I started doing a deep dive into my roots as an important exercise to find something in the source of your identity that can carry the rest of your career forward," Suazo explains of his time at Global Jazz Institute. "Something that you personally identify with that can be translated into your music."
Each tune on RICANO highlights a specific musical tradition — Dominican salve on "Héroes," Puerto Rican yubá on "Don't Take Kindly," so on and so forth. Taken as a compositional cycle, it acts as both a loving tribute to his origins and lodestar as to his future evolution.
Speaking of that evolution, we've left out one crucial part.
"In one of those practice sessions, I figured out how to convey emotion like Garrett in my own way," he says. "I figured out how to play that thing." That thing being: Garrett's growl, and how he managed that galactic caterwaul, which seemed to shake the concept of music to its foundations. It may have been the skeleton key to Suazo's destiny.
Anthony Hervey. Photo: EBAR
Whenever Anthony Hervey picks up his trumpet, he does so donning a charm reading a simple phrase: "When words fail, music speaks."
"That's a big part of my concept and sound," he tells GRAMMY.com, connecting the axiom to the title of his upcoming debut album, Words From My Horn, out in June 2023. "It's about the power of sound to reach people in a place beyond words." (None other than Wynton Marsalis has sure offered some words about him: he called him "beautiful trumpet player of the first magnitude.")
In an effort to "transcend the barrier between my soul and my music," he finds clever ways to communicate without words: flipping the rhythms of poems he's written into tunes, and even transmuting sung verses into phrases. ("I'm a singer," he says. "Well, kind of.")
He also finds inspiration in his cohort of young trumpeters, among them Giveton Gelin, Noah Halpern and Summer Camargo. "Each one has a distinct voice," Hervey says says. "I would say I'm another voice in addition to that."
Marsalis played a tremendous role in paving Hervey's path; he spent time with the nine-time GRAMMY winner while studying at Julliard. From there, the associations spiderwebbed; he came to perform with Christian McBride, Ulysses Owens Jr., Jon Batiste, and other leaders in this field.
Now, his time as a sideman has led him to step out with Words From My Horn — his own statement of purpose as a leading trumpeter in the straight-ahead scene.
"On one hand, you're trying to deal with changes and vocabulary and all that stuff, but once you get past that, what is your sound saying?" Hervey says, outlining his creative philosophy. "Behind all the notes you play, it's your sound, and that's what people hear."
Indeed, as soon as Hervey raises the horn to his lips, a connection is established — from your mind and heart to his.
Bokani Dyer. Photo: Raees Hassan
South African pianist, composer and producer Bokani Dyer describes his new album, Radio Sechaba, as "a roundabout journey back into my earliest inspirations in music-making." But that statement belies that these incentives are beamed from all directions — not just his home country.
When discussing his musical history and interests, Dyer's citations reach far and wide: alternative hip-hop, salsa, soul, R&B, house, D'Angelo. While channels to study newer music are scarce in South Africa, that was just as well: "Jazz influenced more heavily these types of music, that I was more interested in," Dyer tells GRAMMY.com.
If the pantheon of Black music is a sprawling tree, just about every branch seems to offer ripe fruitage for Dyer's pianistic inspiration. (He even prepares his piano to give it an African timbre.) This omnivorousness led him to play in all manner of styles and idioms in college.
"To fast forward today and to this album," Dyer says, "I was looking at collaborators who either shared the same ideas when it was time for me to let them do their thing, or people who are just great musicians."
The glue that coheres this multitude of concepts is the notion of nation-building — hence Radio Sechaba's title. (Sechaba meets "nation" in Setswana.) Part of that came from his recent completion of his master's degree, where he was prompted to contemplate the role that music can play in social justice.
Still, a society can only be healed from the inside out; accordingly, Dyer is firm that Radio Sechaba is, at its core, individual-forward. "A lot of the music is actually about internal reflection and personal challenges," he says. "Trying to liberate oneself to become a stronger member of the community and nation."
Featuring guests from rapper Damani Nkosi to Botswanan folkies Sereetsi and the Natives to pianist and singer Tonela Mnana, Radio Sechaba is packed with so many ideas that it can provide hours of entertainment: turn it like a prism, and you'll find something new every time.
And when the album arrives on May 12, expect Dyer to step onto a similar level as other South African leading lights, like fellow pianist Nduduzo Makhathini.
"We've done a few shows," Dyer says of him and his ensemble, "and hopefully a lot more will come as a result of the album. I'm looking for some high-energy, kind of Afrobeat, socially conscious, beautiful music — an unbridled expression of positivity."
Julieta Eugenio. Photo: Anna Yatskevich
If you're a fan of tenor saxophonists in that Goldilocks zone — neither too harsh nor too mellow; tuneful, but with a subtle edge — seek out Julieta Eugenio immediately. Indeed, few younger musicians can access that satisfying Ben Webster or Lester Young frequency like her.
"She doesn't need to play extremely aggressively to say what she's trying to say through her instrument," bassist Matt Dwonszyk, who accompanied on her 2022 debut, Jump, told JazzTimes that year. "She writes the melodies [to her compositions] first, then puts chords to [them], which is very interesting. And, of course, the melodies are beautiful."
The Jump tunes are occasionally tinged with influence from her native Argentina. But these days, Eugenio is pulling them from many other parts of the world, and sometimes from sources far afield from jazz.
"I don't listen to much Argentine music," she admits to GRAMMY.com. Instead, she points to the Malian kora master Toumani Diabaté and Nina Simone ("I've been obsessed with her lately") as providing a well of communion.
Eugenio has a slew of new music written for the chordless trio on Jump — herself, Dwonszyk and drummer Jonathan Barber — and is preparing to debut it at the legendary New York club Smalls later in the month. (She's also eyeing a recording date later this year.)
"It hasn't been easy, and it's not easy still," Eugenio admitted to JazzTimes, "but I keep pushing." But with such a mature, self-assured debut out in the world, and its follow-up on the way, that door may soon swing wide open.
Hailey Brinnel. Photo: Emilie Krause
As a singer and trombonist who interprets the Great American Songbook, Hailey Brinnel has two potential associations to dodge: the novelty factor and the imitator factor.
Luckily, she has the perceptiveness and facility to avoid both snares — and her inviting, accessible music resists any reduction anyone might want to impose on her.
"People say trombone and cello are the two instruments closest to the human voice, so it's a really natural connection between the two," she says. "I was always drawn to earlier eras in jazz — swing, New Orleans trad jazz, the Great American Songbook."
Speaking of the latter: how did Brinnel find a livable space within that very well-trodden catalog — and learn to interpret it without falling into been-there-done-that territory?
"A lot of that had to do with my repertoire choice," she explains. "When I started out and had my first quintet gigs, I was trying really hard to do what I thought was cool at the time and would appeal [to the largest number of people]."
Early on, Brinnel thought she could accomplish this through feats of technical bravado and derring-do, like playing the intentionally difficult arrangements in knotty time signatures.
But eventually, Brinnel had the realization that most all great jazz traditionalists do — including Samara Joy, who won the GRAMMY for Best New Artist in 2023. Which is: carving out her niche in the jazz space isn't contingent on reinventing the wheel, but being herself.
That's the energy that fed into Brinnel's charming and companionable new album, Beautiful Tomorrow, which dropped in March and cemented her status as a Philadelphia it girl. In equal parts sweet and swinging, classics like "Tea For Two" and "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" swim alongside originals "I Might Be Evil" and "The Sound."
An inspired version of Donald Fagen's solo The Nightfly tune "Walk Between Raindrops" shows she's got big ears and a big record collection: in conversation, her enthusiastic shout-outs to the Beatles and Harry Nilsson show she's a classicist in more ways than one.
"All of the selections in the album are so me, and from different points in my life, and reflect a lot of things about my personal past," she says. "I was picking the songs during the pandemic lockdowns, wanting that feeling of optimism: the acceptance of today might not be wonderful, but there's a promise of a beautiful tomorrow."
Because these 10 artists kept the flame burning, what could have ended the music altogether spurred them to write, sing and play like they never had before.
Photo: Maurice Johnson
America Has Birthed A Wealth Of Musical Forms. These Indigenous Artists Want To Know Where They Fit Into Them.
Despite being the first, truest Americans, Indigenous peoples have historically been alienated and othered while working in what we understand as American forms — from jazz to country to hip-hop and beyond
A festival promoter told Delbert Anderson he didn't present as Indigenous enough. The trumpeter and his group, DDAT, showed up to the State Fair of Texas in what he calls "the Native American section" — filled with dancers in traditional garb, among other signifiers. DDAT, for their part, donned suits.
"They immediately assumed that we had some type of traditional feather show," Anderson, who is of Diné and Navajo descent, tells GRAMMY.com. "They probably thought we were going to show up in regalia or something."
The promoter asked Anderson whether or not DDAT played traditional music. "No, we don't," he responded. "But there are a lot of melodies that are inspired from that." The promoter didn't comprehend this — so much so that she went up to Anderson mid-set and shoved a turquoise necklace around his neck.
Anderson was shocked. "I kind of stopped and said, 'Excuse me,'" he recalls. "And she just sort of said, 'You don't look Native enough.'"
Ever good-humored, Anderson brushed off the harassment and tossed the necklace around his white bass player's neck. Still, he can't get the incident out of his head. "That's one of the first times anything like that has happened to me," he says. "They expect that kind of back-to-the-roots, traditional type of music from anyone who uses the words 'Native,' 'Indigenous' or 'tribal.'"
He's not alone: Many musicians of Indigenous ancestry in his circle — and outside of it — have felt the micro- and macroaggressions come fast and hard. And othering those who identify and market themselves as Indigenous isn't exclusive to jazz.
Even though Indigenous peoples have been here longer than anyone, they face tension, discomfort and/or unadulterated racism in a slew of genres understood to be American — from country to blues to gospel to hip-hop.
This is despite the fact that all these genres have deep Indigenous roots. Jazz household names Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk had Native American ancestry. Same with blues musicians like Howlin' Wolf, Charley Patton and Martha Redbone. In classic rock, you've got Jimi Hendrix and Robbie Robertson. The list goes on.
Renata Yazzie. Photo: Darklisted Photography
Despite this, Diné classical pianist Renata Yazzie says moving through her world is a "scabrous" experience. "The greatest difficulty is not only teaching ignorant people, but willfully ignorant people who refuse to recognize how the elitism of classical music has affected historically underrepresented groups," she tells GRAMMY.com.
Why do musicians who identify as Indigenous, like Anderson, Yazzie, Mali Obomsawin, Adrian Wall, JJ Otero, James Pakootas, Julia Keefe, Warren Realrider and Raven Chacon — all of whom spoke to GRAMMY.com for this story — experience such tension, both from within their communities and in the wider world?
The answers are manifold, varying wildly between artists and their tribal affiliations. Here are some of the ways that artists of Indigenous descent have experienced unease in the American music landscape — and how they overcame it.
Howlin' Wolf. Photo: Gilles Petard/Redferns via Getty Images
Considering The Course Of History
Since time immemorial, Indigenous peoples have developed an impossibly broad array of musical traditions. And with the arrival — or invasion, depending on who you ask — of European settlers came trade, fighting over boundaries and the introduction of European instruments.
At mission schools, Europeans taught Native Americans to compose on European instruments. This led to students composing Indigenous usic with those tools and methods. Works like 1845's Indian Melodies featured traditional Native tunes composed with European notation.
In the back-half of the 19th century, the primordial stew of Black American music was percolating — the one that would give the world jazz, blues and other idioms. And the pervasive invisibility felt by Indigenous peoples meant they had a point of commiseration with Black musical communities.
"Black and Indigenous people have been in community with each other since the beginning, since Black Africans were forcibly brought here for slavery," jazz bassist Mali Obomsawin, who is affiliated with the Odanak Abenaki First Nation tribe, tells GRAMMY.com. "I think people tend to forget that many of the founding blues and jazz artists were both Black and Native."
This confluence of heritages and traditions has been obscured by what Obomsawin calls a larger obfuscation of Indigenous identity — coupled with anti-Blackness. "If someone like Thelonious Monk, who was Tuscarora, was to be like, 'I'm Native American,' everyone would be like, 'No, you're Black,'" Obomsawin says.
"It was not desirable for Natives to be higher in numbers, whereas it was desirable for Black folks to be higher in numbers because they were considered property," she continues. "That means that slave owners and human traffickers had more property value. Whereas the more people that were Native, the more people the government was accountable to."
Mildred Bailey. Photo: Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images
Julia Keefe, a jazz vocalist and enrolled member of the Nez Perce tribe, is acutely aware of the crossroads of Blackness and Indigenousness in early American music.
"There is a historical precedent for Native Americans in jazz," she tells GRAMMY.com, citing Indigenous people who learned European music in boarding and residential schools. "Around the same time that jazz was taking off in the '20s and '30s, there is evidence of Native people forming their own big bands."
One lesser-known early Indigenous jazz musician was Mildred Bailey, a singer of Native descent from the Coeur d'Alene tribe.
"She was the first one to sing in front of a big band," Keefe notes. "You think about all the female vocalists — Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan — who got their start singing in front of big band, and it was because there was such an appetite for that sound by Mildred Bailey singing in front of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra."
Oscar Pettiford. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images
But Bailey is just the tip of the iceberg in this regard. Besides Parker and Monk, there's a lengthy list of jazz artists of Indigenous descent — including saxophonist Jim Pepper, bassist Oscar Pettiford and trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist Don Cherry.
And jazz is but one piece of the puzzle: Indigenous artists can be found in all genres. But at times, proudly broadcasting their heritage in these spaces has proved difficult in the face of divisive politics.
Navigating Political Divides
While Anderson can only speak for his local scene near Farmington, New Mexico, he has a clear vantage on what it's like to market oneself as a Native American musician.
"I think as time progressed from the '80s until now, there were a lot of stronger Indigenous voices that came out," he says, citing activist causes like the American Indian Movement. "The moment you try to take any stand for Native American something, people tend to take those words as 'You're a hardcore activist.'"
"I mean, I could go outside right now and say, 'I stand with Standing Rock,'" he adds. "Immediately, people are going to think of me as a negative force here."
And while that scene comprised a healthy variety of perspectives and genres, it attracted judgement from the outside. "I think a lot of the people who were involved didn't really realize what they were creating," Anderson says. "It really looked like they were making some type of coalition — or Indigenous organization — that's going to fight everything that goes in their path."
Delbert Anderson. Photo: Maurice Johnson
This atmosphere weighed heavily on Anderson's career in 2013, when DDAT began to market themselves as "Native American jazz." (James Pakootas, their MC, is Indigenous; bassist Michael McCluhan is white; drummer Nicholas Lucero is Hispanic.)
"We immediately got thrown into this pool of musicians that were stirring up this big group or organization," Anderson says. "The moment we said 'We are Native American jazz,' they immediately assumed we're part of this Native American music scene, and it lost us gigs because they thought we were there to lecture the audience."
Anderson saw his more militant colleagues as refusing to compromise, acting as if rules didn't apply to them. "There's a lot of that showing up in musicians today," he says. "The moment a venue says something that they can't do, like, 'Oh, you can't burn cedar here before the show,' or anything like that, they'll throw a huge, huge fit."
"I hate to say it," Anderson says, "but it kind of ruined it for the rest of us who don't participate in that ceremony."
To avoid these associations, DDAT eventually decided to pivot away from "Native American jazz," describing themselves as a funk/jazz group inspired by Indigenous melodies. "People started to see us as not being activists, or the rowdy ones," Anderson says. As a result, the group immediately started getting offered more gigs.
Julia Keefe. Photo: Don Hamilton
Braving Inner Conflict
This dissonance isn't limited to sociopolitical factions, or a conflict between musicians and promoters — although Anderson could certainly share other horror stories. Even so-called enlightened spaces, like jazz workshops, have left Indigenous musicians second-guessing themselves.
"At gigs or at workshops or what have you, people will come up and be kind of aggressive about it — almost offended," Keefe says. "Like, [Flustered voice] 'What does that mean? What do you mean you are a Native American jazz vocalist?' 'Well, I'm Native American and I sing jazz. That's what I do.'"
"With that confrontation of my identity," she adds, "there's been tension within myself of, 'If I'm going to claim my Native heritage on my business card, should my music be more influenced by my Indigenous heritage?'"
But even if an artist defines what Indigenousness means for themselves, it's bound to create friction with others' preconceptions or stereotypes. "That's something that Natives come up against in any sort of art form," Obomsawin says.
Adrian Wall. Photo: Shondinii Walters
Adrian Wall, a flutist and guitarist with roots in the Jemez Pueblo tribe, experiences dislocation just by announcing who he is to the world.
"Once you play the Native card, you're kind of stuck being a Native musician when you're actually playing music that's accepted worldwide just as American music," he tells GRAMMY.com. "Once you call yourself a Native, all of a sudden you're playing Native music."
Raven Chacon, a Diné composer who works in the experimental and noise scenes, has had to push against assumptions that his work would be stereotypically Native — or adjacent to new age.
"There was an assumption it was going to involve flutes or drums or something," he tells GRAMMY.com with a laugh. "Even from people should know better, there have been assumptions."
Raven Chacon. Photo: Jamie Drummond
To fellow experimental musician and sound sculpturist Warren Realrider — who is Pawnee and enrolled with the Crow Nation of Montana and makes music akin to John Zorn, Pauline Oliveros and Merzbow — the solution lies in creating a music industry framework that accurately represents Indigenous creators.
"These systems of music, distribution, performance, whatever — they are built on a world that's not the Indigenous world," he tells GRAMMY.com. "You're always going to have to work against that in some way."
Plus, as a representative of his background in the insular noise space, Realrider's work has become bigger than him — he feels inordinate pressure to not let his tribe down.
"A lot of Indigenous artists don't lose that aspect," he says, considering the arc of his life and career so far. "That's something you carry along with you, and you present yourself that way."
Addressing Language Barriers
Sometimes, the criticism comes from within Indigenous communities themselves. JJ Otero, a Hopi and Diné singer/songwriter inspired by bands like Counting Crows and Pearl Jam, had to deal with the finer points of language — even one he knew backward and forward.
"I didn't use the Navajo language in my music for the longest time," he tells GRAMMY.com from his home on a Navajo reservation. "The white guys in [my first band, Saving Damsels] said, 'You should write a song in Navajo that we can play.'"
JJ Otero. Photo: Unek Francis
Despite being a fluent Navajo speaker, Otero wanted to be careful that he said things exactly right. "I don't want my songs to just be a lazy utterance of words in Navajo," he says. To thread the needle, Otero enlisted his father to vet his lyrics for inexact grammar and syntax.
"I do believe that sometimes our own people can be our toughest critics," Otero says. "We can take that criticism and be mad and upset about it, or we can dive deeper into why those criticisms exist and understand the foundation of why Navajo is sacred."
Facing One's Own Community
As a rapper and motivational speaker who spits bars in DDAT, James Pakootas operates by what he calls "a very deep awareness of protocol."
"A lot of times, Native artists in contemporary music want to meld the two worlds, but it seems like sometimes they're taking away from the culture. It's not done with care," Pakootas tells GRAMMY.com. "It's like sampling a powwow song, putting it on a hip-hop beat and calling it good."
James Pakootas. Photo: Maurice Johnson
To avoid this sort of mishandling, Pakootas works with collaborators to tell his stories as considerately as possible, preferring to bring in a drum group and analyze together how the story could be told.
"A lot of songs I know are ceremony songs," he adds. "There's not going to be any of those that I share because there's a protocol in place to keep that sacred. There's a time and a place for that song to be sung or that melody to be used."
Reaching Harmony From Dissonance
How can music fans right these wrongs and push against the othering of Indigenous artists? Maybe the first step is realizing that Indigenous music is all music.
"Native people are very much seen as mythological creatures, as the villains in Westerns, the mascots that you love to hate, or whatever," Keefe says. "So, I can see why [musical discrimination] would be a thing because so often we are perceived as a figment of someone's imagination."
Warren Realrider. Photo: Shane Brown
For Obomsawin, this necessary shift begins with education — and by listening to the stories of her elders. In her case, that teacher is Pura Fé, a Tuscarora and Taino vocalist and activist related to Thelonious Monk.
"She is so intimately aware of those dual legacies — the Black and Native lineages of jazz," Obomsawin says. "I just hope that more air time is given to the elders in the jazz and blues community who know those things. I think it could really help to unearth some of those stories as really important parts of American music history — as well as our history in general."
Mali Obomsawin. Photo: Nolan Altvater
As for Yazzie, she believes significant change won't occur until we give sovereignty to Indigenous artists — so they can decide who their audience is, why they perform their music, what their music sounds like, where they want their music played, and how they want it to be perceived by the rest of the world.
"I always maintain that Native music is Native music because a Native person is outputting it," Yazzie says. "But on the flipside, you don't want to limit people to where all they do is Native music. I think you have to be really careful to not use the Native music label as a way to put people in a specific box. Because Native music is still also blues. It's still jazz. It's still country. It's still hip-hop. It's still classical music. [Indigenous] people are in those genre-specific spaces and they're doing amazing things."
When considering this subject, Anderson always returns to Don Cherry, who remains one of his idols. "In one of his interviews, he said, 'Hey, it's about meeting other people. It's about having relationships with your friends,'" he says.
"I think everyone just needs to go back to their original state, going back to just being a human and recognizing that we're all humans here," Anderson adds. "Approach each other as human beings with our minds or our thoughts."
Anderson is bringing Cherry's openhearted philosophy to his next endeavor — collaborating with the American Pops Orchestra for a Bureau of Land Management project. This has been a laborious process, with no shortage of fine lines to navigate.
"Bringing this orchestra onto the Indigenous lands is going to be a real struggle because of all the racial division going on in the world," he says. But in the end, Anderson believes all the work is going to be worth it.
"Having these two different identities on that land, I'm hoping the land can really heal the group that's there," he says. "I mean, if the land really heals, we're going to put the land to the test."
Because it's happened before on this soil: Indigenous people and those of so many other backgrounds have come together to make great American music. Sure, it's been a rocky path to get there — sometimes a troubling and treacherous one. But Anderson and his colleagues aren't afraid to tread it.
Photo: Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Netflix
Inside 'American Symphony': 5 Revelations About The Jon Batiste Documentary
'American Symphony,' a new Netflix documentary about five-time GRAMMY winner Jon Batiste and his wife, author Suleika Jaouad, is an uncommonly intimate and incisive work. At a screening, Batiste and the filmmakers revealed how it came together.
Director Matthew Heineman planted his flag with gritty, warts-and-all documentaries about warfare, drug cartels and the devastating impact of the pandemic. As such, the proposition for American Symphony — a beloved musician's journey to his Carnegie Hall debut — might seem like lighter fare.
But as Heineman expertly draws out, this is a whole other kind of battlefield.
From its first scenes, it's abundantly clear this is not just about Batiste's titular, boundary-bulldozing work from 2022. That story is twinned with a different kind of symphony — the one between human beings, loving one another through unimaginable duress. As Batiste labored over this expansive, freighted production, his wife, Between Two Kingdoms memoirist Suleika Jaouad, reckoned with the return of her leukemia.
From Batiste's palpable panic to an (unshown) bed filled with blood, American Symphony is unafraid to stare this tribulation in the eyes, as it follows Batiste's inimitable creative process. Even as it builds to its crescendo, Heineman keeps it bracingly human-level — and the result is a triumph.
A week after American Symphony hit Netflix, Heineman and Batiste sat down with the film's co-producer, Lauren Domino, and moderator Joe McGovern of "The Wrap," at Brooklyn Academy of Music for a post-screening spin through the documentation process. Here are five revelations from the discussion.
Working With Jaouad's Health Was Beyond Delicate
First, it must be said: by Batiste's telling, Jaouad is "doing great" today — in fact, she had to miss the event, as she had just headed to Costa Rica. (In a sweet moment at night's end, Heineman pointed his phone at the audience for a mass shout-out: "We love you, Suleika!")
But when the author was in the throes of her rediagnosis, nothing was certain — and given the pandemic was still in full swing, every precaution had to be taken. "After the bone marrow transplant, she didn't have an immune system," Heineman said. "If she got a cold, she could have died."
As such, "It was very complicated from a producing point of view to navigate the puzzle of Jon's insane life, and then trying to find our way into the hospital, and then back out again, and back in again."
But they pulled it off, in the most concise way possible — which, given the unbelievable amount of footage they got, is something of a miracle.
1,500 Hours Were Filmed For American Symphony
As this writer came across Batiste in various situations, over the last couple of years — including in Las Vegas around the 2022 GRAMMYs, and the American Symphony premiere — a camera crew conspicuously trailed him everywhere he went.
Clearly, it was for something down the pike. And that something accrued an unbelievable 1,500 hours of footage — about 62 straight days. This could have resulted in a nine-hour bonanza, like The Beatles: Get Back. Or even an entire television series.
But to Heineman's credit, he resisted going maximal, and opted for a fundamentally quiet story. In fact, in the lynchpin scene of the film, no words are said at all.
About That Scene…
American Symphony arguably hinges on this scene: Batiste sits alone onstage, at the piano, before a smallish audience. He dedicates his next piece to Jaouad. And then he sits silently for 95 seconds; his microexpressions, breath and hands are poetry. Finally, the notes come.
"It's so easy in documentaries… forcing an essay, or an idea, through dialogue, through words, through voiceover, or through talking heads, or whatever," Heineman said. "[I wanted to] hold that space to allow you all to interpret that moment in your own way."
As Batiste clarified, the concert in question was a totally extemporaneous affair, where Batiste played whatever his antenna picked up.
"There'd be moments where I would even sometimes get up from the piano and leave until something came," he recalls. "And it felt like at that moment, there was a prayer that really needed to be specified and spoken out."
When The Power Went Out At Carnegie, Adrenaline Shot Through The Roof
Another of the most powerful scenes in American Symphony is during the titular performance itself — and, naturally, it's also of Batiste playing piano.
Although it was inconspicuous to the audience during the symphony's world premiere, panic had set in at one point: the power had gone out onstage, rendering the microphones and electronics dead.
Right then, he pauses and spins a melody out of the air, reflecting and refracting sad and sweet footage of their couplehood, which plays out onscreen.
"If you could see my blood pressure spike in the control room," Domino said. Of co-producer Joedan Okun: "We're sitting next to each other, and we're like, 'This is what we have anxiety dreams about, and now it's happening.' This guy is used to shooting in war zones. Jon is a genius, and they're just cool as cucumbers."
Suffice to say, when it turned out their 13 cameras didn't kill the power, the relief was unimaginable. And as Okun correctly observed in the moment, "This is a cinematic wonder."
The Ending Was Almost Much Different
True to Heineman's facility for smiting darlings in the editing stage, he was unafraid to completely change the ending at the eleventh hour — even though that version was, by all accounts, tremendous.
"Jon did his encore, which is what happened in real life… this beautiful rendition of the national anthem," Heineman said. "But it just felt like we weren't paying attention to the rest of the film that we had just made, and we didn't feel the two of them together."
"So, I guess I wanted to have my cake and eat it too," he continued. "To have the culmination of American Symphony, but also the symphony of life that we witnessed over the past year, come together with the two of them walking forward."
Right then, against a velveteen, winter sky, Batiste and Jaouad walk together into the future. Regarding both symphonies, personal and musical, together as one: Bravo.
Photo: Courtesy of Babygirl
Press Play: Babygirl Deliver An Emotional Performance Of Their Honest Single, "Born With A Broken Heart"
With just their voices and a burning electric guitar, Toronto-based duo Babygirl bring out the melancholy of "Born With A Broken Heart," the lead single from their latest EP, "Be Still My Heart."
Tainted by years of endless sadness, Babygirl frontwoman Kiki Frances fears she might be "Born with a Broken Heart." As she declares in the chorus, "It's almost like I'm built to fall apart."
In this episode of Press Play, Babygirl deliver an acoustic performance of their track, with bandmate Cameron Bright supporting Frances's vocals with a melancholy electric guitar.
"Born with a Broken Heart" is the lead single from Babygirl's latest EP, Be Still My Heart, released earlier this year via Sandlot Records.
"This is one of our favorite pieces of music we've ever made together," they revealed to Broadway World. "A lot of our writing is character-driven or based on some fantasy, and those are personal in a more subconscious way, but this one feels very directly personal."
Watch the video above to view Babygirl's tender performance of "Born with a Broken Heart," and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Press Play.
Photo: Scott Legato/Getty Images
5 Ways Peter Gabriel's 'i/o' Furthers And Cements His Legacy
It was worth the wait: Peter Gabriel's 'i/o,' his first album in 21 years, both marks an evolution of his artistry and consolidation of his musical message. Here are five ways how.
"You've got to get in to get out," Peter Gabriel declared, over and over, in Genesis' epochal "The Carpet Crawlers."
A highlight of 1974's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway — Gabriel's final album with the prog giants — the track is drenched in philosophical and religious symbolism, redolent of a spiritual pursuit. A mystical staircase stretches into the firmament, and the eerie "crawlers heed their callers."
If that sounds maximum heady, it's because it is. And almost half a century later, Gabriel sang a nearly identical line. "Stuff coming out, stuff going in/ I'm just a part of everything," he announces in "i/o" — the title track to his album of the same name, which stands for "Input/Output," dropped Dec. 1 after a 21-year wait.
Not all critics were taken with that turn of phrase. But despite its simplicity, coming from Gabriel, it's profound.
Listening to Gabriel's inimitable body of work — whose cerebral art-pop captivated a generation, and unforgettable videos brought MTV to its knees — you get the sensation of widening the aperture, of considering an eternal timeline, of surveying and striving to transcend human limitations.
Like his past classics — the four eponymous albums, his 1986 knockout So, its 1992 dark-horse followup Us — i/o connects not just due to its vast purview, but because of Gabriel's gigantic, ever-beating pop heart.
The ballads, like "Playing for Time" and "So Much," are magnificent, showing how Gabriel can ably occupy an elder-statesman role and project gravitas that way. But so are the perky, uptempo numbers a la "Sledgehammer" of yore. "Olive Tree," with its ebullient, Graceland-like horn blasts, suggest Gabriel preserving the best parts of the '80s charts, holding them in the light, and discarding the rest.
Once you come out of i/o, you go back in: Gabriel released the album in two simultaneous, slightly different forms, dubbed the "Bright Side Mix" and "Dark Side Mix." As soon as you've finished your journey, you're asked to undertake it again, through an alternate series of corridors and halls.
Refractory, self-referential, mold-breaking, primevally moving — i/o ticks all those boxes. Here are five ways it adds to the six-time GRAMMY winner's discography.
Despite Its Piecemeal Release, It Flows As A Whole
If these songs seem familiar, that's because they are: last January, Gabriel began releasing one new single per every full moon, with an attendant, alternate mix on the new moon.
This one-by-one approach might have risked blunting i/o's impact, if the finished product didn't flow so incredibly well.
From opener "Panopticom" to closer "Live and Let Live," i/o ebbs, flows, and breathes: if you've been following these songs track by track, you're missing out if you don't behold it as a complete song cycle.
His Voice Is Still A Force Of Nature
By 73, many vocalists find their instrument diminished — yet, Gabriel's has aged like wine. Rather than stripping away its layers, the years have added ever more weight and body to his baritone.
A creamy center, with a biting edge of yearning and inquiry — this is just as we remember Gabriel's pipes, but they're arguably even more satisfying today.
Sonically, The Decades Paid Off…
Some legacy artists toil and toil on a comeback record for many years — and the result is still, paradoxically, a tad half-baked.
This is not the case at all with i/o — you're unlikely to hear an album this aurally detailed and mesmerizing for a while. Which doesn't mean it's overly commercial or slick: it means it's meticulously crafted, full stop.
…And He Didn't Spoil The Stew
Sad to say, there's another extreme that records of this ilk can fall into — becoming overproduced, overly teeming, terminally busy.
For how lush and expansive i/o is, there's a tremendous amount of space; nothing feels superfluous. That said, if you do wonder how these tunes might come across with something added or excised, the alternate mixes are right there to quench that curiosity.
There's (Hopefully) More On The Way
"I'm a tinkerer," he elaborated. "So there's always a diversion. I've never had trouble — touch wood — with musical ideas. But getting to a point where I think there's a lyric that I'm happy with — that has been harder for me."
That being said, Gabriel doesn't foresee i/o being old enough to drink before the next one arrives.
In the same interview, he cited a "brain project" in the works, with "a lot of stuff in the can" — including a track called "What Lies Ahead," which he performed a number of times in 2023 and almost ended up on i/o.
Lucky us that a musical hero of past generations is still diamond-sharp. And that after so many years of Gabriel soaking up the input, his output flows freely again, sans resistance.