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No Accreditation? No Problem! 10 Potential Routes To Get Into Jazz As A Beginner
Don't listen to the snobs and gatekeepers: Jazz is for you if you want it to be. Setting the pivotal figures and desert-island discs aside, here are ten ways of approaching the music that might help you finally get into it — once and for all.
The search query "How do I get into jazz?" may elicit almost three billion results on Google, but here's what virtually none of the articles will tell you: the negative associations have a lot of truth to them.
Despite scores of wonderful participants, this community can look more like a bloodbath to an outsider. From finger-tenting critics and homicidal Discogs commenters to the hyper-competitive New York jazz scene, the impossibly complicated and diverse arena of jazz can seem impossible to perforate, much less enjoy. Throw in the politics, the pedagogy, and how it's all encased in academia, and other niche interests start to look mighty attractive — maybe building model airplanes.
But this is also true: you should forget all that and keep going. Because this is music, and the rest is noise. Approach it without reservations, and jazz might reveal itself as a fount of pleasure in your life. Any music blog or record-store clerk will tell you to check out the desert-island discs — Time Out, A Love Supreme, Kind of Blue — yet there's no playbook you're required to follow or mandate from the Jazz Police. If you want to kindle a relationship with jazz, the only boundaries involve what you enjoy and what you don't.
So, do you want to take the Wikipedia route and follow the history chronologically over the last century and change? You can certainly do that, although it might put you to sleep. Watch "Ken Burns Jazz" front to back and take notes? That's a classic docuseries, but it sure leaves a lot out. Take a music-appreciation course? It might be interesting, but you can also just open a streaming service and go nuts — especially if you don't feel like learning what a flatted fifth is.
The question remains: How do you get into jazz? Simple: whatever route makes you happiest.
At its core, this music is about the magic of extemporaneous human expression — which involves a spectrum of emotions, chief among them joy. So if your jazz journey feels more like a slog than a skip or a saunter, it's best to recalibrate and try again. Identify whatever makes you hate the process and dispose of it. Being lectured might be a mainstay of the jazz experience these days, but it's ultimately antithetical to the mathematical-yet-freewheeling soul of the music.
There are thousands of musical styles to enjoy in this life, but none of them will have the particular patina of Sonny Rollins at the Village Vanguard. Or Dave Brubeck at Carnegie Hall. Or Lee Morgan at Van Gelder Studio. A life without Louis Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, Duke Ellington, Hank Mobley, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Herbie Hancock, Benny Golson, Geri Allen, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Ambrose Akinmusire, Joel Ross, and everyone else — past, present, and future — is missing something significant from the garden of earthly delights.
One can't comprehensively discuss it in a hundred books — much less a single article online — and there's no perfect way to digest the canon in its entirety. So you'll never reach the bottom because no one has. And that's one of the best parts.
With that in mind, here are ten possible routes to appreciating and understanding jazz — and for heaven's sake, enjoying it — as part of your day-to-day listening.
Ask Yourself What You Want From Jazz
First, it's worth examining why you've read this article thus far and what compels you to want to get into this world. Are you looking for sheer athleticism or pure feeling? The wildest, craziest technique, or the most tasteful and soothing? Are you looking for melodies? Anti-melodies? Brazen experimentation? Adherence to tradition?
One could list artists all day in response, but let's throw out a few basic names regarding the first two qualities.
Chances are, you'll want to enjoy athleticism and emotional communication in tandem. So who had both? For the sake of argument: Charlie Parker did. So did John Coltrane. And drummer Art Blakey. Where do you start with those artists? Type "best recordings" or "best albums" into Google, plus their names. Easy. You could spend months or years checking out their work.
What of artists who leaned more on feeling than technical display? Let's talk trumpeters. Chet Baker is a perfect example — while technically limited, he could strip melodies to their essences. While Baker mostly stayed in one lane for his entire career, Miles Davis famously reinvented himself several times. Right there, you've got hundreds of albums to check out. (Though you'll probably want to head for Chet and Kind of Blue first.)
You've got numerous online resources at your disposal for those other qualities — if you haven't used Bandcamp, it's an incredible tool for jazz discovery. So the point is: first, ask what you want from this music. Because if you go looking, the chances are that you'll receive it.
Follow The Cover Art
A spectacular record is like another world you get to live in for a while, and ideally, a record cover should be a window into that space. And when it comes to jazz, it's often a hipper, more sophisticated plane of expression. And classic jazz labels — especially Blue Note Records — deliver on the album-art front.
Almost all jazz labels offer great covers, but it's worth zeroing in on Blue Note — especially since they provide some of the building blocks of the music. Go through their database and find something that catches your eye. Chances are, the contents will be worth hearing at least once.
Hank Mobley, looking relaxed, with his tenor sax hanging behind his shoulder? That's Soul Station, one of the most effortlessly elegant post-bop records ever. The monumental typography of Larry Young's Unity will lead you to one of the most majestic organ-jazz albums ever recorded. And the otherworldly cover of Melissa Aldana's 12 Stars showcases one of today's most celebrated young tenor saxophonists.
Just use the visual cues, and follow your instincts. If something doesn't click, keep looking. You'll find something captivating before you know it.
Read More: Hank Mobley's Soul Station At 60: How The Tenor Saxophonist's Mellow Masterpiece Inspires Jazz Musicians In 2020
Pick An Instrument And Go
Tenor, alto, soprano and baritone saxophone, trumpet, trombone, piano, bass, drums, vocals synthesizer, et cetera — which one do you gravitate to the most? Why not use that as a prompt for where to begin with jazz?
Then, think of the emotions you'd like that instrument to communicate. Want some fiery tenor saxophone? Coleman Hawkins is your man. Some soothing tenor? Check out Lester "Prez" Young.
And did you know both those players were at the helm of entire schools of thinking about the instrument? (Respectively, those are the "Hawk school" and the "Prez school.") Use the magic Google button and follow those lineages through the 20th century into today.
Follow Any Thread To Its Logical Limit
Jazz is a particularly fitting interest for completists and collectors — those with a nerdy streak. So once you digest the essential Herbie Hancock records, like Empyrean Isles, Head Hunters and Thrust, you can go down a rabbit hole of everything he played on, past and present. Even if something doesn't live up to the classics, it'll be fun to hear at least once.
Another fun mental game: find a goalpost and see if you can leap it in your research. Sure, you love Hank Mobley — but is there an even mellower saxophonist? Roy Brooks was a monster, but is there an even fierier drummer? Have two musicians more audibly hated each other on a joint recording than Chet Baker and Stan Getz on Stan Meets Chet?
Find what inspires, astonishes or tickles you, and keep ratcheting it up. Jazz will always deliver.
Take Critics With A Grain Of Salt
It's tempting to begin with just the masterpieces when it comes to jazz. But remember: the most vaunted selections were chosen by people just like you and us.
Case in point: if you disregard everything on Allmusic that got three stars or less, you've missed out on unrevolutionary yet totally worthwhile gems like Lou Donaldson's Hot Dog, Donald Byrd and Pepper Adams' Motor City Scene and Kenny Burrell's Soul Call.
This also applies to musicians themselves. Just because they're not venerated as once-in-a-lifetime innovators doesn't mean you shouldn't spend a lot of time with them.
"Jazz has its geniuses, but not everybody can be a total original. You need really good musicians who can do their thing in a way that is accessible to people and of a high quality," GRAMMY-winning jazz historian Dan Morgenstern said in the 2022 GRAMMYs program book, while discussing the saxophonist and composer Benny Golson.
"If everybody was a total original," he continued, "music would be very difficult to digest." As usual, it's wise to go with Morgenstern on this one. Seek out the slightly undersung players.
Begin At The Threshold Of The 1960s
For myriad reasons that can't be contained in this article, the period loosely spanning between 1958 and 1962 is a particularly sweet spot for recorded jazz.
From Sonny Clark's Cool Struttin' to Stanley Turrentine's Look Out! to Wynton Kelly's Kelly Blue, there are so many rewarding and listenable entries from this nexus point in the music — between producer extraordinaire Rudy Van Gelder's two studios, between the hard-bop and modal eras.
If you want a few particular years to dig around in, perhaps go with the end of the 1950s and beginning of the '60s — before you head backward and forward from there.
Find A Storied Club & Drop In
There are great jazz clubs all over the world — but if you're in or near New York City, you're particularly lucky. Any night of the week, there's bound to be something cutting-edge and captivating at the Village Vanguard, Smalls, Blue Note, Birdland and other venues. Drop in blind, and you probably won't be disappointed.
But if NYC isn't accessible to you, simply find the most talked-about spot near you. Because even if you don't care for what you find, identifying what you don't like is similarly important for forming your tastes.
Find Holes In Your Knowledge & Fill Them
Before we continue, did you notice that virtually all the performers in this article have been small-group jazz? Wait — what about big bands? What about crossover jazz performers? What about singers?
Realizing something's missing from your knowledge bank isn't a bad thing — those voids are where understanding grows.
For instance: if you want to know more about '90s jazz, find an artist like trumpeter Brian Lynch, or pianist Brad Mehldau, then look up who they played with. Then who they played with, and so on.
If you don't know much about big band performers, find the essential Count Basie and Duke Ellington recordings. Then look up who played in their bands. Again, who else did they play with? Then find the other major big-band arrangers and players and ask the same questions.
Just stay curious and diligent, and you'll get where you need to be.
Read More: John Coltrane's Unearthed A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle Is A Revelation. Without This Little-Known Figure, It Wouldn't Exist.
Unthaw The Icons
This brings us to the handful of progenitors that tend to be talked about more than listened to — at least by average listeners. Why is this? It could be recording quality, or just tastes changing with time — but certain genius artists from the early- to mid-20th century can get a little frozen in time.
Do your best to hear them as human beings and not encyclopedia entries — and seek out the recordings that sound the most vital to you.
Louis Armstrong's version of "Hello Dolly!" might not be your bag, but Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy is a bluesy, burning gem that remains powerful today. You may not think you like "jazz with strings" albums, but Charlie Parker With Strings contains some of his most exquisite and lyrical soloing in an accessible setting. Lionel Hampton's explosive vibraphone playing on Benny Goodman's The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert shows how he was jazz's consummate rock 'n' roller.
Becoming an "icon" over the course of decades can be a double-edged sword for pioneering musicians — so do your best to approach the greats with fresh ears.
Above All, Enjoy Yourself
Is something not clicking for you, even though you "should" like it? Quit banging your head against the wall, wondering why your tastes aren't refined enough. (There are innumerable classics that this jazz writer never puts on around the house.)
Too many times, jazz becomes a chore for people when it should be a source of pleasure. The dip and sway of an exquisite saxophone solo, a ride cymbal skipping like a stone, and a commanding vocalist at full tilt engage the heart and body even more than the head.
And if you keep trying and jazz doesn't speak to you — great! There are so many other styles of music to cherish in this life, and nobody can make you feel less-than for not feeling it.
But at the risk of pulling the "you just haven't heard the right jazz!" card, you're encouraged to try all the doors before you give up for good. There might be some you didn't even know existed. And as soon as one swings open, you're welcome inside for life.
Virtuosos, Voyagers & Visionaries: 5 Artists Pushing Jazz Into The Future
Photo: L. Cohen/WireImage
10 Record Store Day Releases You Need This Year: Taylor Swift, Nas, Dolly Parton & More
Celebrate Record Store Day this April 22 by stocking up on new, exclusive LPs from Taylor Swift, Björk, The Rolling Stones and more at your local participating record store.
From Post Malone to Peppa Pig vinyls, record stores around the world are stocking up on limited exclusive releases for Record Store Day 2023.
Held annually every April since 2007, the event honors independently owned record stores and the unity of fans and artists. This year, many stores will globally welcome more than 300 limited, exclusive records ranging from rock to jazz to rap on April 22.
With former official ambassadors including Taylor Swift, Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, Jack White, Chuck D, and St. Vincent, Record Store Day celebrates music of all genres. And that's exactly the case with this year's lineup of special releases, spanning from Miles Davis to Beach House.
In honor of Record Store Day 2023, get excited about these 10 limited, exclusive releases dropping in your local participating store.
The 1975 — I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it: Live With The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Serving as the official Record Store Day UK Ambassadors this year, the 1975 take us back to 2016 with their second LP, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it — this time, along with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Available for the first time on double clear vinyl, this orchestral version of the British rock band's second studio album also features a version of their breakout hit, "Chocolate."
Miles Davis — TURNAROUND: Unreleased Rare Vinyl from On the Corner
Miles Davis' album On the Corner celebrated its 50th birthday last October, and its innovation takes yet another turn on Record Store Day. Titled Turnaround, this sky-blue vinyl features four cuts from the expanded 2007 album The Complete On The Corner Sessions, also offering appearances from Herbie Hancock, Dave Liebman and Bennie Maupin.
Björk — the fossora remixes
Fill your record collection with some flora and fauna — natural, eccentric scarlet and green patterns adorn each vinyl sleeve of Björk's exclusive the fossora remixes. The release features two dynamic songs: A1 Ovule featuring Shygirl (Sega Bodega remix) and A2 Atopos (sideproject remix).
Beach House — Become
Fourteen months after psychedelic pop duo Beach House unveiled their eighth studio album, Once Twice Melody, they continue the story with a new EP. Titled Become, the five-song project — which is available on crystal-clear vinyl on Record Store Day — features five formerly unreleased songs from their 2022 LP.
Nas — Made You Look: God's Son Live 2002
Just over 20 years ago, Nas gave a spectacular performance at Webster Hall in New York City, further solidifying his status as a legend of East Coast hip-hop. The spirited 20-song concert now appears on vinyl for the first time, with familiar artwork calling back to its original DVD release in 2003.
Dolly Parton — The Monument Singles Collection 1964-1968
More than six decades into her career, Dolly Parton joins the Record Store Day fun with a celebration of her early years. The country legend's remastered singles from the 1960s are hitting record store shelves, and the special first-time collection also features liner notes from two-time GRAMMY nominee Holly George-Warren.
The Rolling Stones — Beggars Banquet
As the Rolling Stones sang of "a swirling mass of grey, blue, black, and white" on "Salt Of The Earth," the rock band's upcoming limited vinyl for Beggars Banquet will be pressed with a swirl pattern of the same four colors in tribute. The group merges classic rock with their blues roots on Beggars Banquet, and the vinyl of their 1968 critically-acclaimed album features the original artwork and window display poster.
Taylor Swift — folklore: the long pond studio sessions
In September 2020, Taylor Swift's GRAMMY-winning album folklore was reimagined at New York's Long Pond Studio with a pair of the singer's closest collaborators, Aaron Dessner (The National) and Jack Antonoff (fun./Bleachers). And in November that year, fans got to witness those sessions in a Disney+ documentary. Now, more than two years later, the serene album's acoustic studio sessions are available on vinyl for the first time, including four sides and bonus track "the lakes."
'Ol Dirty Bastard — Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version
ODB's memory lives on in the vinyl rerelease of his iconic 1995 debut album, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version. Featuring the 2020 remasters of 15 tracks, this drop is the first posthumous release from ODB since 2011, but not the first time fans have heard his voice since then: SZA's SOS track "Forgiveless" concludes with a previously unreleased verse from the late rapper.
Donna Summer — A Hot Summer Night (40th Anniversary Edition)
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Donna Summer's momentous Hard For The Money Tour. This exclusive vinyl celebrates the Queen of Disco in all her glory, capturing her live concert at Costa Mesa's Pacific Amphitheatre from August 1983. The vinyl offers performances by special guests Musical Youth, her sisters Dara and Mary Ellen, and her eldest daughter Mimi.
The Vinyl Shortage, Explained: How Long Waits, Costly Materials & High Demand Are Changing What's On Your Turntable
Photo: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Remembering Wayne Shorter: 7 Gateway Tracks From The Jazz Titan's 1960s Run
The pioneering composer and tenor and soprano saxophonist passed away on March 2. His influence and legacy spans decades and permutations of jazz, but for the uninitiated, here are seven highlights from his 1960s leader albums.
When the world learned of the pioneering saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter's death on March 2, it did so partly through a quote from the maestro itself: "It's time to go get a new body and come back to continue the mission."
This evocation of reincarnation not only speaks to Shorter's elaborate psychospiritual universe — he followed Nichiren Buddhism for half a century — but his multitudes as an artistic behemoth. In his 89-year life, Shorter irrevocably altered so many sectors of jazz and related forms that he seemed to inhabit many bodies at once.
To trace the 12-time GRAMMY winner's artistic evolution is to tell the story of the music as it evolved and propagated through the latter half of the 20th century. He was a member of two of the most crucial groups in jazz history: the brilliant, hotheaded drummer Art Blakey's unofficial jazz academy the Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis' so-called Second Great Quintet.
But even that's just the tip of the iceberg. After an astonishing run of leader albums on Blue Note — including all-timers like JuJu, Speak No Evil and The All Seeing Eye — Shorter formed Weather Report, a fundamental group in '70s and '80s jazz fusion. Along the way, he also collaborated with AOR legends — Joni Mitchell on a slew of mid-period records, and on the title track to Aja, Steely Dan.
In the 21st century, he continued hurtling forward as a composer, and work only seemed to grow more eclectic and multifarious, arguably culminating with (Iphigenia), an expansive opera co-created with bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding. At the 2023 GRAMMYs, he won Best Improvised Jazz Solo alongside pianist Leo Genovese for "Endangered Species," a cut on Live at the Detroit Jazz Festival, which also features Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington.
In 2015, the Recording Academy bestowed upon him a Lifetime Achievement Award. "Wayne Shorter's influence on the jazz community has left an indelible mark on the music industry," Harvey Mason jr., CEO of the Recording Academy, said in part. "It's been a privilege to celebrate his contributions to our culture throughout his incredible career."
As bandleader Darcy James Argue put it, "There isn't a jazz composer today who does not owe an absolutely immeasurable debt to Wayne Shorter. Whether you assimilated his harmonic language, or consciously rejected it, or tried to thread a path somewhere in between, his influence is as unavoidable as the elements."
But with this vast cosmology established, how can Shorter neophytes find their own way in? To traverse the universe of the self-dubbed Mr. Weird — from a line about person or thing X being “as weird as Wayne” — one need not enter it at random.
Arguably, the gateway is Shorter's aforementioned '60s run as a leader; from there, one can venture out in a dozen directions and be rewarded with a lifetime of cerebrality and majesty.
So, for those looking for a way in, here are seven essential tracks from that specific period and component of Shorter's culture-quaking legacy.
"Night Dreamer" (Night Dreamer, 1964)
Shorter was terrific as a leader from the jump, but he arguably came into his own with his fourth album under his own name, Night Dreamer. Much of this had to do with paring down his compositions to their haunting essence. "I used to see a lot of chord changes, for instance, but now I can separate the wheat from the chaff," Shorter said at the time.
Immerse yourself into the fittingly crepuscular title track, which Shorter crafted for a nighttime brood. "The minor keys often connotes evening or night to me," he wrote in the liner notes. "Although the beat does float, it also is set in a heavy groove. It's a paradox, in a way — like you'd have in a dream, something that's both light and heavy."
"Juju" (Juju, 1965)
Night Dreamer and Juju feature a rhythm section closely associated with John Coltrane — the classic Olé Coltrane one, composed of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Elvin Jones.
As a tenorist influenced by Coltrane, Shorter invited comparisons to his inspiration. But alongside Trane's accompanists, he had developed his own style — with the raw, unvarnished quality of said legend, but a barer tone and more elliptical sense of articulation. Juxtaposed against his accompanists' dazzling, shattered-glass approach, the side-eyeing Shorter is enchanting.
"House of Jade" (Juju, 1965)
After the rainshower of piano notes that initiates "House of Jade," Shorter demonstrates his inimitable way with a ballad, hung on Jones' weighty swing and sway. As jazz author and columnist Mark Stryker put it in an edifying Twitter thread compiling the best of Shorter at a gentler pace: "The ballads are everything. It's all there, now and forever."
"Indian Song" (Etcetera, rec. 1965 rel. 1980)
Featuring bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Joe Chambers, and harmonic mastermind Herbie Hancock — Shorter's lifelong ride-or-die — on piano, Etcetera was recorded the same year as Juju but remained on the shelf for a decade. Better late than never: it stands tall among Shorter's Blue Notes of its time.
All five tracks are fantastic — four Shorters, one Gil Evans, in "Barracudas (General Assembly)." But regarding its final track, "Indian Song," one reviewer might have hit the nail on the head: "At times the rest of the album seems like a warm-up for that amazing tune."
Across more than 11 minutes, "Indian Song" expands and retracts, inhales and exhales, on a spectral path into the unknown. Want an immediate example of how Shorter and Hancock twinned and intertwined their musical spirits to intoxicating effect? Look no further.
"Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" (Speak No Evil, 1966)
As per compositional mastery, evocative interplay and plain old vibe, Speak No Evil represents something of an apogee for Shorter — and many in the know regard it as the crown jewel.
The majestic, mid-tempo "Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" is just one highlight of this quintessential, classic-stuffed Blue Note. Hear how Hancock's elusive harmonic shades and Shorter's simple yet impassioned approach just gel — with support from trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Elvin Jones.
"Wayne isn't playing the changes, but plays around the composition—he's creative within the composition," saxophonist David Sanchez once explicated. "[It's] distinct from a lot of other Blue Note recordings of the period on which, generally speaking, people would improvise on the changes once the head or theme was over."
But you don't need to know what's under the hood to hear how this classic thrillingly pushes and pulls.
"Infant Eyes" (Speak No Evil, 1966)
"Infant Eyes" is a Shorter ballad of almost surreal atmosphere and beauty: on a compositional and emotional level, it's difficult to compare it to much else. It's "doom jazz" decades before that was ever a thing.
Down to Shorter's sheer note choices and the grain of his tone, "Infant Eyes" will make your heart leap into your throat. As per Stryker's Twitter litany of enchanting Shorter ballads, the combination is stiff — but if one is supreme, it's difficult to not pick this one.
"Footprints" (Adam's Apple, 1967)
This loping waltz-not-waltz from 1967's Adam's Apple is one of Shorter's most well-known tunes; even without close analysis of its sneaky rhythms, it's downright irresistible. And talk about gateways: it's a launchpad for any young musician who wants to give his tunes a shot.
"Footprints" continues to be a standard; it titled his biography; the Facebook post announcing Shorter's death bore footprint emojis. Shorter may have transitioned from this body, but his impressions are everywhere — and we'll never see the likes of Mr. Weird again.
No Accreditation? No Problem! 10 Potential Routes To Get Into Jazz As A Beginner
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
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Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
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