IT'S no news that jazz is short on icons these days. But there's an upside in that contemporary players, working without the dominant stylistic influence of a John Coltrane, a Charlie Parker or a Duke Ellington, are freer to follow their own muses. In some respects, that has had a particularly significant impact on players from outside the U.S. Here's a sampling of jazz artists -- from here and elsewhere -- who start from the tradition before moving into their own territory.
Potter has been identified as an "underground" performer for so long that it's probably appropriate (and whimsical) that he has used the word on this release, scheduled to be in stores this month. Potter's relatively low visibility -- even though this is his 11th CD as a group leader -- traces, in some measure, to his frequent gigs as a kind of super sideman. Two current Dave Holland albums nominated for jazz Grammys, "What Now?" and "Overtime," feature his saxophone playing.
Potter's affection for leaping, angular tenor saxophone lines, combined with a rich, meaty sound, recalls early Sonny Rollins. But Potter is no imitator, instead combining influences from Rollins and Coltrane into a style that is rapidly emerging as one of the most distinctive jazz saxophone voices of the decade.
His playing on his original tunes explodes with inventiveness and swing. And without resorting to the trendy superimposition of rap and hip-hop elements, his playing on tunes such as Radiohead's "Morning Bell" and Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" (a gorgeously re-harmonized rendering also featuring guitarist Adam Rogers) impressively underscores the continuing contemporary vitality of the improvisational jazz art form.
"For the Rhythm"
Yes, it's an unfamiliar name, but keep it in mind. Postma is a 27-year-old Dutch saxophonist with the chops and the imagination to do well in a category that is dominated by male players. Working with an ensemble that features the dynamic support of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, Postma plays smoothly and effectively on alto and soprano saxophones. A former student of Chris Potter, she displays some of his rhythmic urgency, combined with phrasing that suggests a cool, North Sea version of Cannonball Adderley.
At 26, pianist Hiromi Uehara (she uses only her first name professionally) is well established in her native Japan and the recipient of numerous awards. Her first album, "Another Mind," produced by Ahmad Jamal, sold more than 100,000 copies in Japan. She describes her ensemble as a "three-piece orchestra," a label she uses as the title for a four-part suite that is the centerpiece of this combined CD-DVD release. The description is on target -- especially in her sense of the piano as an orchestra in itself.
Working with bassist Tony Grey and drummer Martin Valihora, the photogenic young performer places her virtuosic technique and classically trained improvisational imagination front and center. Although she rips through high-speed, bebop-tinged passages with ease, Hiromi's jazz sensibility has less to do with swing and propulsive lift than it does with atmosphere and visually oriented impressionism.
Pieces such as "Old Castle, by the river, in the middle of a forest," "Love and Laughter" and "Return of Kung-Fu World Champion" (with Hiromi's explosive synthesizer textures) paint evocative aural portraits blurring traditional boundaries among jazz, classical music, New Age and electronica. And the results are fascinating. The album includes a bonus DVD showing the Hiromi trio in a live rendering of the "Kung-Fu" piece.
The superficial take on Sitson is that he's an African version of Bobby McFerrin. And the comparison is apt, in the sense that he is a stunningly versatile vocalist with a cunning imagination and a seemingly endless capacity to create colorfully layered vocal sounds. Born in the Bamileke area of Cameroon, Sitson has been living in New York City since 2000, and his music has evolved into a magical blending of traditional elements from his native land and the urban swing of the city. Many of the pieces here, all of which are original, feature the sturdy rhythm section support of pianist Helio Alves, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts. On some tracks, Sitson's voice has been overdubbed to produce the intriguing tonal qualities of traditional African choirs. Although many of his pieces are constructed from repetitious ostinato patterns, the results are consistently compelling -- producing more fascinating results with each hearing.
Bill Bruford and Tim Garland
"Earthworks Underground Orchestra" (Summerfold Records)
English drummer Bruford has come a long way since his days with prog-rockers King Crimson and Yes. But the results have been consistently rewarding, especially when he's teamed with saxophonist Garland. This installment of their Earthworks ensemble, recorded live at Iridium in New York City in 2004, displays the group's explosive music in its most galvanized manifestation. Bruford is that rarest of former rock players -- a musician who successfully combines the power and drama of rock with the complexity and inventiveness of jazz. And this time out -- aided by such Manhattan stalwarts as saxophonist Steve Wilson and trombonist Robin Eubanks -- he and Garland (playing his usual range of woodwind implements) make it happen in particularly delightful fashion.