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Seven Contemporary Jazz Guitarists Worth Checking Out

(Image credit: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images)

Frank Zappa famously proclaimed that “jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny.”

And while that certainly may have been true in the fusion heyday of the Seventies and Eighties, there's a younger breed of jazz musicians making music that is forward-looking but far less odorous.

Here are some personal favorites—seven jazz guitarists you might want to check out.

Stephane Wrembel, "Bistro Fada," Origins

Is Gypsy jazz "jazz"? Of course it is! And Stephane Wrembel is one of the most promising young players in the genre. Wrembel—who is from France —got a major boost from Woody Allen when the filmmaker used Wrembel's song, "Bistro Fada," in his successful (and pretty damn good) 2011 comedy, Midnight in Paris. Below, check out a live-in-the-studio performance of the incredibly catchy tune. Wrembel's latest album is 2014's Dreamers of Dreams. He also teaches, folks.

Kurt Rosenwinkel, “Filters,” The Next Step

Rosenwinkel is probably the most renowned modern jazz guitarist since Pat Metheny. His adventurous improvisations and emotional hornlike phrasing have made him a favorite of aspiring Berklee guitar performance majors for almost two decades. He has performed with jazz legends like Gary Burton and Joe Henderson as well as with hip-hop artists the Roots and Q-Tip.

Julian Lage, “223 Butler,” Gladwell

Guitar World columnist Julian Lage can best described as a “post-jazz” guitarist, well versed in genres ranging from be-bop to classical to bluegrass and blending them seamlessly into a style that's all his own. On this solo performance of his original composition, “223 Butler,” Lage shows off his limitless melodic creativity as well an expressive and dynamic touch on his vintage Gibson archtop.

Lage got his start as a young jazz prodigy, cutting his teeth with legendary vibraphonist Gary Burton’s band at 15. Since then he has performed with a number of incredible musicians, including Chris Thile, Eric Harland and Mark O’Conner.

Lionel Louke, “Tin Man,” Gilfema

Benin-born guitarist Lionel Louke is celebrated for his fusion of traditional West African music and modern jazz harmony. Louke sings along with his guitar melodies in his native language, known as Fon, and plays finger-style on a nylon-string guitar to produce a percussive effect he says is influenced by traditional African instruments.

“Tin Man” highlights Louke’s unique rhythmic phrasing along with intriguing harmonic chord voicings complimented by his vocals. Louke was awarded scholarships at prestigious music conservatories in the Ivory Coast, Paris and eventually the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Since earning his degree, he has toured with his own group as well as a number of jazz greats including Terence Blanchard and Herbie Hancock.

Gilad Hekselman, “Prelude to a Kiss,” Hearts Wide Open

Gilad Hekselman is another stunning young guitarist. On the standard “Prelude to a Kiss,” he succeeds in bringing a contemporary sound to a tune jazz musicians have been playing for more than 60 years. Hekselman’s fluid lyricism, singing bell-like tone, and ability to expand the given harmonic structure of a song are all highlighted in this performance. Hekselman is originally from Israel and now resides in New York where he regularly gigs at Manhattan’s legendary jazz clubs.

Jonathan Kreisberg, “Five Bucks a Bungalow,” New for Now

Jonathan Kreisberg takes Pat Martino’s hard-bop chromatic phrasing and turns it on its head. In this video, Kriesberg uses his forward-looking composition “Five Bucks a Bungalow” as vehicle for a fiery improvisation that will surely make you want to head back to the woodshed.

Bobby Broom, "Ask Me Now," Bobby Broom Plays for Monk

Booby Broom was born and raised in New York City but moved to Chicago about 30 years ago. While versed in trad jazz (bebop and post-bop), Broom draws from a variety of American music forms such as funk, soul, R&B and blues. Here's a song from his highy regarded 2009 album of Thelonious Monk songs, Bobby Broom Plays for Monk. The record established Broom as a thoughtful and innovative interpreter of some pretty challenging music.