A year and change before his 2022 death, the eminent saxophonist Pharoah Sanders released one final dispatch. That album was Promises, a meditative, collaborative album with British electronic musician Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra.
Promises swung open the gates for jazz and electronic music's convergence.. Not only was it an out-of-nowhere critical smash, earning "universal acclaim" as per Metacritic; it acted as an accessible entrypoint for the hipster set and beyond.
As Pitchfork put it, "One of the year's most memorable melodies consists of a seven-note refrain repeated, with slight variation, for more than three quarters of an hour." (They declared Promises the fourth best album of the year; its neighbors included Turnstile; Tyler, the Creator; and Jazmine Sullivan.)
Since then, jazz and electronic music have continued their developments, with or without each other. But Promises struck a resonant chord, especially during the pandemic years; and when Sanders left us at 81, the music felt like his essence lingering in our midst.
Whether you're aware of that crossover favorite or simply curious about this realm, know that the rapprochement between jazz and electronic idioms goes back decades and decades.
Read on for 10 albums that exemplify this genre blend — including two released this very year.
Miles Davis - Live-Evil (1971)
As the 1960s gave away to the '70s, Miles Davis stood at his most extreme pivot point — between post-bop and modal classics and undulating, electric exploits. Straddling the studio and the stage, Live-Evil is a monument to this period of thunderous transformation.
At 100 minutes, the album's a heaving, heady listen — its dense electronic textures courtesy of revered keyboardists Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Joe Zawinul, as well as the combustible electric guitarist John McLaughlin. The swirling, beatless "Nem Un Talvez" is arguably Live-Evil's most demonstrative example of jazz meets electronic.
For the uninitiated as per Davis' heavier, headier work, Live-Evil is something of a Rosetta stone. From here, head backward in the eight-time GRAMMY winner and 32-time nominee's catalog — to In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew or Jack Johnson.
Or, move forward to On the Corner, Get Up With It or Aura. Wherever you move in his later discography, plenty of jazz fans wish they could hear this game-changing music for the first time.
Herbie Hancock - Future Shock (1983)
In the early 1970s, Herbie Hancock delivered a one-two punch of fusion classics — 1973's Head Hunters and 1974's Thrust — to much applause. The ensuing years told a different story.
While the 14-time GRAMMY winner and 34-time nominee's ensuing live albums tended to be well-regarded, his studio work only fitfully caught a break from the critics.
However, in 1983, Hancock struck gold in that regard: the inspired Future Shock wittily and inventively drew from electro-funk and instrumental hip-hop. Especially its single, "Rockit" — shot through with a melodic earworm, imbued with infectious DJ scratches.
Sure, it's of its time — very conspicuously so. But with hip-hop's 50th anniversary right in our rearview, "Rockit" sounds right on time.
Tim Hagans - Animation • Imagination (1999)
If electric Miles is your Miles, spring for trumpeter Tim Hagans' Animation • Imagination for an outside spin on that aesthetic.
The late, great saxophonist Bob Belden plays co-pilot here; he wrote four of its nine originals and produced the album. Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, synthesist Scott Kinsen, bassist David Dyson, and drummer Billy Kilson also underpin these kinetic, exploratory tunes.
The engine of Animation • Imagination is its supple and infectious sense of groove, whether in breakbeat ("Animation/Imagination"), boom bap ("Slo Mo") or any other form.
This makes the drumless moments, like "Love's Lullaby," have an indelible impact; when the drums drop out, inertia propels you forward. And on the electronics-swaddled "Snakes Kin," the delayed-out percussion less drives the music than rattles it like an angry hive.
Kurt Rosenwinkel - Heartcore (2003)
From his language to his phrasing to his liquid sound, Rosenwinkel's impact on the contemporary jazz guitar scene cannot be overstated: on any given evening in the West Village, you can probably find a New Schooler laboriously attempting to channel him.
Rosenwinkel's appeared on more than 150 albums, so where to begin with such a prodigious artist? One gateway is Heartcore, his first immersion into electronic soundscapes as a bandleader.
Throughout, the laser-focused tenor saxophonist Mark Turner is like another half of his sound. On "Our Secret World," his earthiness counter-weighs Rosenwinkel's iridescent textures; on "Blue Line," the pair blend into and timbrally imitate each other.
Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest co-produced Heartcore; it's as unclassifiable as the MC's most intrepid, fusionary works. "This record — it's jazz," Rosenwinkel has said. "And it's much more."
Graham Haynes - Full Circle (2007)
Cornetist, flugelhornist and trumpeter Graham Haynes may be the son of Roy Haynes, who played drums with Bird and Monk and remains one of the final living godfathers of bebop. But if he's ever faced pressure to box himself into his father's aesthetic, he's studiously disregarded it.
Along with saxophone great Steve Coleman, he was instrumental in the M-Base collective, which heralded new modes of creative expression in jazz — a genre tag it tended to reject altogether.
For Haynes, this liberatory spirit led to inspired works like Full Circle. It shows how he moved between electronic and hip-hop spheres with masterly ease, while being beholden to neither. Featuring saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, bassist Shahzad Ismaily, drummer Marcus Gilmore, and other top-flight accompanists, Full Circle is wormholes within wormholes.
Therein, short-circuiting wonders like "1st Quadrant" rub against "Quartet Circle" and "In the Cage of Grouis Bank," which slouch toward ambient, foreboding kosmische.
Craig Taborn - Junk Magic (2004)
Steeped in brutal metal as much as the AACM, the elusive, resplendent pianist Craig Taborn is one of the most cutting-edge practitioners of "creative music." Some of his work resembles jazz, some is uncategorizably far afield.
Strains of electronic music run through Taborn's entire catalog. And his Junk Magic project, which began with his 2004 album of the same name, is a terrific gateway drug to this component of his artistry.
Junk Magic has a haunted toyshop quality; tracks like "Prismatica," "Bodies at Rest and in Motion" and "The Golden Age" thrum with shadowy, esoteric energy.
If these strange sounds resonate with you, 2020's sinewy Compass Confusion — released under the Junk Magic alias — is a logical next step. So is 2019's Golden Valley is Now, an electronics-inflected work of head-spinning propulsion and kineticism.
Flying Lotus - You're Dead! (2014)
Spanning spiritual jazz, devotional music, the avant-garde, and so much more, Alice Coltrane has belatedly gotten her flowers as a musical heavyweight; she and her sainted husband were equal and parallel forces.
Coltrane's grandnephew, Steven Bingley-Ellison — better known as Flying Lotus — inherited her multidimensional purview.
In the late 2000s, the GRAMMY-winning DJ, rapper and producer made waves with envelope-pushing works like Los Angeles; regarding his synthesis of jazz, electronic and hip-hop, 2014's You're Dead marks something of a culmination.
Flying Lotus was in stellar company on You're Dead!, from Kendrick Lamar to Snoop Dogg to Herbie Hancock and beyond; tracks like "Tesla," "Never Catch Me" and "Moment of Hesitation" show that these forms aren't mutually exclusive, but branches of the same tree.
Brad Mehldau - Finding Gabriel (2019)
As per the Big Questions, pianist Brad Mehldau is much like many of us: "I believe in God, but do not identify with any of the monotheistic religions specifically." But this hasn't diluted his searching nature: far from it.
In fact, spirituality has played a primary role in the GRAMMY winner and 13-time nominee's recent work. His 2022 album Jacob's Ladder dealt heavily in Biblical concepts — hence the title — and shot them through with the prog-rock ethos of Yes, Rush and Gentle Giant.
Where Jacob's Ladder is appealingly nerdy and top-heavy, its spiritual successor, 2019's Finding Gabriel, feels rawer and more eye-level, its jagged edges more exposed; Mehldau himself played a dizzying array of instruments, including drums and various synths.
The archetypal imagery is foreboding, as on "The Garden"; the Trump-era commentary is forthright, as on "The Prophet is a Fool." And its sense of harried tension is gorgeously released on the title track.
All this searching and striving required music without guardrails — a marriage of jazz and electronic music, in both styles' boundless reach.
Caroline Davis' Alula - Captivity (2023)
Caroline Davis isn't just an force on the New York scene; she's a consummate conceptualist.
The saxophonist and composer's work spans genres and even media; any given presentation might involve evocative dance, expansive set design, incisive poetry, or flourishing strings. She's spoken of writing music based on tactility and texture, with innovative forms of extended technique.
This perspicuous view has led to a political forthrightness: her Alula project's new album, Captivity, faces down the horrific realities of incarceration and a broken criminal justice system.
Despite the thematic weight, this work of advocacy is never preachy or stilted: it feels teeming and alive. This is a testament not only to jazz's adaptability to strange, squelching electronics, but its matrix of decades-old connections to social justice.
Within these oblong shapes and textures, Davis has a story to tell — one that's life or death.
Jason Moran/BlankFor.ms/Marcus Gilmore - Refract (2023)
At this point, it's self-evident how well these two genres mesh. And pianist Jason Moran and drummer Marcus Gilmore offer another fascinating twist: tape loops.
For a new album, Refract, the pair — who have one GRAMMY and three nominations between them — partnered with the tape loop visionary Tyler Gilmore, a.k.a. BlankFor.ms.
The seed of the project was with BlankFor.ms; producer Sun Chung had broached the idea that he work with leading improvisational minds. In the studio, BlankFor.ms acted on a refractory basis, his loops commenting on, shaping and warping Moran and Gilmore's playing.
As Moran poetically put it in a statement, "I have always longed for an outside force to manipulate my piano song and drag the sound into a cistern filled with soft clay."
The line on jazz is that it's an expression of freedom. But when it comes to chips and filters and oscillators, it can always be a little more unbound.
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