36 Women in Jazz – Pianists / Composers

Kris Davis

Until recently women in jazz were predominantly singers and pianists. While women have expanded their contributions, women players still excel in both roles and there are an amazing group of women pianists enriching the music today, many of whom are top-flight composers. In our final program dedicated to women in jazz, celebrating an extended Women’s History Month, we’ll hear from some great pianist / composers.

Kris Davis, Renee Rosnes and Carla Bley
There’s no better place to start than Kris Davis. The Jazz Journalist Association selected Kris Davis as the composer of the year and pianist of the year in 2020. Of her much celebrated 2019 disc, Diatom Ribbons, Troy Dostert wrote, on AllAboutJazz, “To call pianist Kris Davis stylistically omnivorous would seem to be an understatement. While she started her career solidly in the avant-garde circles that brought her into projects with stalwarts of the genre like Ingrid Laubrock, Tyshawn Sorey, Tom Rainey and Tony Malaby, that hasn’t stopped her from forging connections with other musicians not typically included in that category.” Diatom Ribbons includes contributions from guitarists Nels Cline and Marc Ribot, tenor saxophonist JD Allen in addition to Tony Malaby, Esperanza Spalding and Teri Lynne Carrington. We’ll hear two tunes from Diatom Ribbons, Sympodial Sunflower, a duet with Terri Lyne Carrington and Stone’s Throw from a quartet of Davis and Carrington with Ches Smith on vibes and Trevor Dunn on bass.

In 2010, husband and wife pianists Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes recorded a piano duo disc entitled Double Portrait. In a set that includes compositions from Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Gerry Mulligan and Antonio Carlos Jobim is a gem from Renee Rosnes, the cinematic tune, The Saros Cycle.

Pianist Carla Bley, her partner, the bassist Steve Swallow, and saxophonist Andy Sheppard got together in 2016 to record Andando El Tiempo as a follow up to their 2013 disc, Trios. The heart of the disc is Bley’s three-part suite, Andando El Tiempo, Bley’s compositional retelling of watching a friend overcome addiction. In 2020, the Jazz Journalists Association awarded Carla Bley their Lifetime Achievement Award.

Sympodial Sunflower. Kris Davis – Terri Lyne Carrington Duo
(Kris Davis-p, Terri Lyne Carrington-d). From Diatom Ribbons. Pyroclastic Records. 2019.
Stone’s Throw. Kris Davis Quartet
(Kris Davis-p, Ches Smith-vib, Trevor Dunn-b, Terri Lyne Carrington-d). From Diatom Ribbons. Pyroclastic Records. 2019.
The Saros Cycle. Bill Charlap – Renee Rosnes Duo
(Bill Charlap-p, Renee Rosnes-p). From Double Portrait. Blue Note. 2010.
Andando El Tiempo: Camino Al Volver. Carla Bley – Andy Sheppard – Steve Swallow Trio
(Andy Sheppard-ts, Carla Bley-p, Steve Swallow-b). From Andando El Tiempo. ECM. 2016.

Kate Dunton and Lisa Hilton
TrioKait, consisting of pianist/composer Kait Dunton, her spouse and drummer Jake Reed with bassist Cooper Appelt, followed up their 2015 eponymous debut and 2016’s trioKAIT Casual, with the 2018 release TRIOKAIT 2. Like the debut disc, with one exception this latest effort is a set of Dunton compositions. The trio continues to grow and has never sounded better.

Pianist/composer Lisa Hilton put out another strong disc in 2018, Oasis. Of her tune Adventure Lands, Mike Jurkovic wrote on AllAboutJazz, “A sly, off-kilter Latin rhythm provides the undertow of Adventure Lands as Hilton’s active left hand teams brilliantly with the resilient give and take and formidable chops of bassist Lucques Curtis and drummer Mark Whitfield.”

Nude. TrioKait
(Kait Dunton-p, Cooper Appelt-b, Jake Reed-d). From Triokait 2. Real and Imagined Music. 2018.
Adventure Lands. Lisa Hilton Trio
(Lisa Hilton-p, Luques Curtis-b, Mark Whitfield Jr-d). From Oasis. Ruby Slippers Productions. 2018.

Carmen Sandim, Marta Sánchez and Helen Sung
In the midst of challenging personal circumstances, pianist/composer Carmen Sandim created the 2019 disc, Play-Doh. Doug Simpson of Audiophile Audition wrote, “Two pieces were impelled by natural surroundings. The darkly-brooding Undergrowth utilizes dimmer notes to echo the shadows and secretive life where the sun is absent or muted… The handsome Hear the Trees is the complete opposite. This has an open-hearted arrangement complemented by [Bill] Kopper’s attractive guitar, Sandim’s animated piano and [Bill] McCrossen’s plucky bass.”

Born and raised in Madrid, Marta Sánchez has led her New York-based quintet through three releases, most recently, the 2019 disc, El Rayo de Luz. The characteristic sound of the quintet comes from the two saxophone front line of Roman Filiu on alto and Chris Cheek on tenor.

Helen Sung’s well-regarded 2014 release, Anthem for a New Day “… is mostly a sextet outing,” writes Dan McClenaghan, “with Sung employing a trumpeter (the always marvelous Ingrid Jensen) for the first time on one of her discs. Jensen’s front line playing with saxophonist Seamus Blake opens Brother Thelonious, leading into her searing trumpet solo that gives way to Blake’s robustly smoldering bluster that Sung fans into high flames on her solo.”

Hear the Trees. Carmen Sandim Septet
(Bruce Williamson-fl, Carmen Sandim-p, Khabu Doug Young-g, Bill Kopper-g, Bill McCrossen-b, Dru Heller-d, Raoul Rossiter-per). From Play-Doh. Pathways Jazz. 2019.
Dead Flowers. Marta Sánchez Quintet
Roman Filiu-as, Chris Cheek-ts, Marta Sanchez-p, Rick Rosato-b, Daniel Dor-d). From El Rayo De Luz. Fresh Sound New Sound. 2020.
Brother Thelonious. Helen Sung Septet
(Ingrid Jensen-tp, Seamus Blake-ts/ss, John Ellis-bcl, Helen Sung-p/key, Reuben Rogers-b, Obed Calvaire-d, Samuel Torres-per). From Anthem For A New Day. Concord Jazz. 2014.

At the beginning of this set of six programs celebrating Women in Jazz for Women’s History Month, we remarked that in 2020, for the first time, woman musicians won half of the instrumental categories in the Jazz Journalists Association’s annual awards program. We have featured all of these fine players:

Female Vocalist of the Year Cecile McLorin Salvant
Baritone Saxophonist of the Year Lauren Sevian
Soprano Saxophonist of the Year Jane Ira Bloom
Flutist of the Year Nicole Mitchell
Clarinetist of the Year Anat Cohen
Pianist of the Year Kris Davis
Bassist of the Year Linda May Han Oh
Strings Player of the Year Tomeka Reed
Drummer of the Year Teri Lynne Carrington
Player of Instruments Rare in Jazz Brandee Younger

Our survey also included these additional JJA poll-winners:

Lifetime Achievement Award in Jazz Carla Bley
Musician of the Year Terri Lyne Carrington
Up and Coming Musician of the Year Lakecia Benjamin
Composer of the Year Kris Davis

A strong argument can be made that 2020 was the Year of the Woman Jazz Player.

Dostert, Troy. (2019, September 27). AllAboutJazz. Kris Davis: Diatom Ribbons. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/diatom-ribbons-kris-davis-pyroclastic-records-review-by-troy-dostert.php

Bilawsky, Dan. (2011, January 4). AllAboutJazz. Bill Charlap And Renee Rosnes: Double Portrait. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/double-portrait-bill-charlap-blue-note-records-review-by-dan-bilawsky.php

Kelman, John. (2016, May 6). AllAboutJazz. Carla Bley/Andy Sheppard/Steve Swallow: Andando El Tiempo. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/carla-bley-andando-el-tiempo-by-john-kelman.php

Bilawsky, Dan. (2018, July 9). AllAboutJazz. Kait Dunton: TRIOKAIT2. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/triokait2-kait-dunton-self-produced-review-by-dan-bilawsky.php

Jurkovic, Mike. (2018, December 19). AllAboutJazz. Lisa Hilton: Oasis. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/oasis-lisa-hilton-ruby-slippers-productions-review-by-mike-jurkovic.php

Simpson, Doug. (2021, January 2). Audiophile Audition. Carmen Sandim – Play Doh – Ropeadope. https://www.audaud.com/carmen-sandim-play-doh-ropeadope/

Whitehead, Kevin. (2020, January 14). The Audio Beat. Marta Sánchez Quintet • El Rayo de Luz. http://www.theaudiobeat.com/music/marta_sanchez_quintet_el_rayo_de_luz_cd.htm

McClenaghan, Dan. (2014, January 17). AllAboutJazz. Helen Sung: Anthem For A New Day. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/anthem-for-a-new-day-helen-sung-concord-records-review-by-dan-mcclenaghan.php

For other programs in Jazz at 100 Today! visit: Jazz at 100 Today!

Tags: , , , , , , ,


Become a Sponsor

Underwriting WTJU is a way to broadly share information about your business. It’s also a way for your business or organization to gain community-wide recognition for your support of WTJU’s community mission.

Underwrite a Program


Your gift nourishes our community and helps bring people together through music.

Underwrite a Program