Trailblazing Modern Jazz Trumpet Players to Discover

Of course, every fan loves to dive deep into the history of the music and check out the most famous jazz musicians of all time, but what about the current scene? Here’s our pick of some of the best modern jazz trumpet players.

From the very beginnings of jazz, the trumpet, or its close relative the cornet, have played an important role in the music.

In early jazz, with its brassy sound and natural volume, it was able to cut through the ensemble to be clearly heard and was often first choice as a solo or lead instrument over the quieter woody sound of the clarinet (the saxophone would make an appearance a few years later) while the trombone was used to provide a counter-melody of fill to the lead instrument.

With the advent of swing and later bebop, the trumpet again played a vital part in the evolution of the music and it is therefore no surprise that some of the major innovators in jazz have played the trumpet.

In a constantly moving and evolving musical landscape the trumpet continues to be a powerful voice, and there is no shortage of contemporary trumpeters that are making their mark on the music. 

The list below offers a glimpse into the work of some of the leading trumpeters active today, and our recommended listening in this instance is one of their most recent recordings to give a current view of their playing.

Wynton Marsalis (b. 1961)

Courted as a somewhat outspoken traditionalist, stands by his values in the music and his view of the music is for acoustic jazz. His music spans early jazz through swing, big band and small group jazz. His first major band was with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers where he cemented his reputation as one of the Young Lions of the eighties to watch. 

His first recordings were in the hard bop idiom playing original compositions and standards. These early albums were consistently of a very high standard. As his reputation grew, Marsalis became increasingly outspoken about what was and was not jazz, often criticising other musicians. The golden boy of jazz may have tarnished his halo a little, but he continued on his path exploring the roots of the music from blues, gospel and early jazz. 

A passionate advocate education Marsalis is the Managing and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, a post he has held for some time and devoted himself to making the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra one of the finest in the world.

Recommended Listening: 
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet with Wynton Marsalis – The Democracy Suite (2021)

Dave Douglas (b. 1963)

Trumpeter Dave Douglas is a prolific and restless trumpeter. He has been on the cutting edge of jazz for more than three decades and is renowned for his prowess as an improviser and gifts as a composer.

Another talent that the trumpeter seemingly manages with ease is running multiple projects simultaneously. His current projects include the Dave Douglas Quintet, the co-led Sound Prints with saxophonist Joe Lovano, a duo with Uri Caine, and an electronic ensemble with Shigeto, Jonathan Maron, and Ian Chang, and the sextet Engage among others.

As befits that vast and diverse nature of Douglas’s music his trumpet playing can veer from pure and sweet toned to plangent with a latent power and wildness that will sometime bubble to the foreground. 

Whatever context one encounters the work of Dave Douglas there will be some first-rate compositions and improvising that will encapsulates past and present. Douglas’s tone on the trumpet and his ear for fine detail are ever present in his work making his truly asa trumpet sound for today.

Recommended listening: Dave Douglas & Elan Mehler – If There Are Mountains (2023)

Arve Henriksen (b. 1968)

One of the most original voices on trumpet, Henriksen works outside of mainstream of jazz. As well as releasing music on his own label he appears regularly on albums recorded for the ECM label.

His trumpet playing, and the context in which he often places it, has an ambient quality. He does not play with a strident or brassy tone but favours a quiet almost whispered approach to the instrument, and his sound has been likened to that of the shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese flute.

So pure and expressive is his playing that seems to blend well with acoustic as well as electronic instruments, and his playing on the album Rímur alongside the three female voices of the group Trio Mediaeval is intoxicating and captivating.

Associations with other ECM artists have included appearances on albums by Jakob Bro, kantele player Sinikka Langeland, Jon Balke and the Magnetic North Orchestra, Tigran Hamasyan, Eivind Aarset, Jan Bang and Trygve Seim.

Recommended Listening: Sanctuary (2023)

Nils Petter Molvær (b.1960)

Norwegian trumpeter Molvær is another musician who has taken his style on the instrument away from the American model of jazz trumpet and incorporated it with rock, electronics and ambient sounds to create a music that while it contains improvisation can also be more of a product of the studio.

In the early 180s he played with the quintet Masqualero (named after a Wayn Shorter composition) with who he toured and recorded. This brought him to the attention of Manfred Eicher and with the famed ECM producer Molvær recorded his remarkable album Khmer. With its juxtaposition of fiery solos, strong beats and grooves the music was as diverse as it could possibly be drawing on other genres such as hip hop, drum’n’bass and ambient music. As well as recordings under his own name the trumpeter has also featured on ECM albums by Jon Balke’s Oslo 13, Manu Katché, Arild Andersen Quintet and the electro-acoustic improvising collective Food.

Since leaving ECM, Nils Petter Molvær has been recording for his own label and taking his own brand of music, that takes inspiration from 1970s Miles Davis and trumpeter/composer Jon Hassell, still further and following his personal vision.

Recommended Listening: Stitches (2021)

Ralph Alessi (b. 1963)

Another US musician who in recent years has found a home with the German based ECM Records, Alessi has over the last two decades forged an inimitable style that paradoxically incorporates the history of his instrument without making direct reference to the past, but instead fixes on the present while perhaps giving us a glimpse of the future.

More than any other of his recordings, the four albums he has recorded as leader for ECM give a distillation of his career and playing to date, and with each it is possible to map the trumpeter’s musical journey, and vision of where he wishes to take his music.

Recommended listening: It’s Always Now (2023)

Ingrid Jensen (b. 1966)

Canadian born Jensen has frequently been described as one of the most gifted trumpeters of her generation. She has toured and recorded extensively with a diverse range of musicians including Maria Schneider, Terri-Lyne Carrington, Clark Terry, Esperanza Spalding and Corrine Bailey Rae. She has played an important role in the music of her sister, saxophonist Christine Jensen, playing in her small groups and as featured soloist with the Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra.

While she is not prolific making albums under her own name, she has a significant discography on the recordings of others most notably Darcy James Argue, Peter Herbert, Artemis, Chris Connor and George Colligan.

Drawing he influence from hard bop trumpeters Woody Shaw and Art Farmer, as well as the more laconic and laid back style of fellow countryman, Kenny Wheeler. Within this frame of reference, Jensen has forged a style that is harmonically sophisticated yet retains a lyrical side that graces every setting in which she finds herself. 

Recommended listening: Ingrid Jensen & Steve Treseler – Invisible Sounds: For Kenny Wheeler

Charlotte Keeffe 

Trumpeter and flugelhorn player Charlotte Keeffe is a one of a new breed of musicians who embraces jazz, free improvisation and experimental music and fearlessly moves between these different disciplines and modes of expression in heartbeat. 

Influenced by art and painters as much as fellow musicians, Charlotte will often refer to her instruments as ‘sound brushes’, and there is an element of colour in the way she shapes and embellishes her solos. 

If her music is not always for the fainthearted, her playing is never mundane or uninteresting. She always has something to say, and an individual way of expressing her music that has been embraced by others. This has seen her collaborating frequently with musicians associated with the UK based Discus imprint and has worked with Martin Archer, Julie Tippetts, Anthropology band and Hi-Res Heart.

Recommended listening: Right Here, Right Now (2021)

Ambrose Akinmusire (b. 1982)

The youngest of our featured trumpeters and one of the most adventuress, as can be heard if following our recommended releases. In a career that is yet to span twenty years, Akinmusire has recorded a handful of albums for Blue Note that cross fertilise musical genres with an infallible sense of belief in the fact that such projects will work. And, to his credit they do.

Born in Oakland, California Akinmusire retains his West Coast roots along with an East Coast attitude, a throwback of his time studying the Manhattan School of Music while still a teenager. His music is a restless blend of contemporary jazz that is respectful of the tradition but is also inflected by the trumpeter’s interest in classical music and hip hop.

Over the course of a decade, he has recorded an ever more assured series of albums with a core of musicians that he has been able to call on. For his most recent release, Beauty Is Enough, Akinmusire has stripped his music back to basics, an album of solo trumpet that harks back to the early days of jazz and tracing its history through some inventive and melodic playing that draws techniques from the past and present moulding them into a series of soliloquies that are as captivating as they are eloquent.

Recommended listening: Beauty Is Enough (2023)

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