Nu Jazz: What’s The Deal?

nu jazzHave you ever wondered, what’s nu jazz?

What’s so special about it?

Well then, let’s discuss and learn more.

What’s Nu Jazz Anyway?

Have you heard some sophistically produced electronic dance music with real heavy elements of jazz?

This is a simplistic explanation of Nu Jazz.

End of story? Not quite.

Check this out:

There’s a lot going on in Nu Jazz that’s distinct from what we’ve known about other genres of jazz.

Let’s look at a couple of examples as we go along to help us figure out Nu Jazz.

J. Dilla Beats, Electronica, And Lo Fi Hip Hop: Important Rhythmic and Timbral Foundations For Nu Jazz

In any form of music, rhythm almost always dictates the kind of feel a particular style of music might have.

In most Nu Jazz tunes, rhythms found in the beats by J. Dilla are a huge influence.

The typical J. Dilla beat swings in a very peculiar way that is distinct from a blues shuffle or a bebop swing.

It has that unmistakable sort of drunken like feel that works well.

In some examples of J. Dilla beats, the hi-hats of the drums might swing while the kick drum follows a straight pattern that is often played slightly ahead of the beat.

Here’s an example of a J. Dilla beat in “Don’t Cry”:

In some instances, the J. Dilla groove gets sped up and feels more reminiscent of certain drum and bass as well as fast electronic dance music (EDM) rhythms.

Certain Nu Jazz groups would have a drummer play a kind of J. Dilla or EDM feel live, emulating an AKAI MPC drum machine but using acoustic drums. This is the sort of groove heavily utilized by the duo Domi and JD Beck:

As far as production values are concerned, there also seems to be some appeal towards Lo Fi hip hop:

This percussive element of Nu Jazz would inform how the rest of the musicians swing throughout a Nu Jazz piece.

Let’s take a look at other distinct elements:

The Many Flavors of Nu Jazz Bass

Owing to its eclectic nature, Nu Jazz bass lines are performed on various instruments.

Certain Nu Jazz artists, like Ellen Andrea Wang for instance, make use of a more traditional upright bass, piano, and drums combined with synthesizers:

In some Nu Jazz settings, electric basses are also used. Here’s MonoNeon live performing “Hot Cheetos”

Other bands will also incorporate bass synthesizers like Minimoogs, Moog Taurus pedals, Oberheim synthesizers, and modern recreations of analog bass synths.

In this particular example, Louis Cole uses synth bass to create bass lines in his tune “Park Your Car In My Face”

As it will be discussed later, this also informs some of the production that we hear in Nu Jazz.

Since we already mentioned music production elements, let’s talk about it some more.

Electronic Music Production Influence

In an effort to add more interesting timbres, a lot of Nu Jazz recordings feature heavy electronic music production techniques.

As such, we often hear atypical instrumentation in this style.

For instance, we hear a lot of synthesizers that are used more in electronic dance music rather than more traditional styles of jazz. Here’s Anomalie playing “Velours” live that features a lot of synthesizers coupled with a J. Dilla influenced groove:

Another example of the use of electric and electronic instrument

Now that we’ve covered some rhythmic and timbral characteristics, let’s figure out some ways how you can sound like Nu Jazz.

How To Learn Nu Jazz Harmonic Vocabulary

In terms of chords and chord voicings, Nu Jazz harmony still has your standard 2-5-1s as foundation.

The fact remains is that every Nu Jazz musician utilizes 2-5-1s or exploits the tonic-dominant relationship every time.

However, in some examples of Nu Jazz, there’s heavy use of reharmonization. Artists like Jacob Collier, Anomalie, Robert Glasper, Dirty Loops, etc. use plenty of chord substitutions.

Learn some principles of chord substitution here.

Other than reharmonizing your basic 2-5-1s, Nu Jazz also makes use of some other chord progressions.

For instance, in the tune “Sundress” by Butcher Brown, the A section goes like this:

IV | III7 | vi | II7

In the key of E, this would basically be Amaj7 | G#7 | C#m7 | F#7

The B section’s chords go bVI | V7 | I | I

In that same key, those chords would be Cmaj7 | B7 | Emaj7 | Emaj7

Now, let’s all see how this would check out in actual practice.

Putting It All Together

When we put all the traditional elements of jazz with that of hip hop, fusion, and electronic production, we get something like this. Here’s Butcher Brown’s “Sundress”:

As you can hear, the drum grooves follow are more hip hop and funk-influenced vibe that seem to replicate a J. Dilla sort of beat.

We also hear more traditional jazz elements courtesy of a tenor sax. However, in terms of production value, we get to hear a Hammond organ provide a sort of lo fi timbre. A synth player adds an element of a more modern music production sound. Lastly, the electric guitar and bass provide a jazz rock influence to the sound.

Again, the chords of the tune go:

A section: IV | III7 | vi | II7 or Amaj7 | G#7 | C#m7 | F#7

B section:  bVI | V7 | I | I or Cmaj7 | B7 | Emaj7 | Emaj7

To add more sophistication to these chords, you have to make use of extensions by adding 9ths, 11ths, or 13ths.

You can learn more how to work such chords in our piano chord theory tutorial here.

Lastly, you can’t forget the element of improvisation. A lot of the solos you hear over the vamps are improvised or played off the cuff.

Given that predictable and consistent chord progression along with the groove, it’s a fun nu jazz piece to jam around with.

Here is another example from H Zettrio, this time incorporating more traditional piano trio instrumentation with the addition of a synthesizer:

Lastly, we have another outstanding example from Buster Brown’s blend of jazz rock fusion and lo fi hip hop:

Final Thoughts And Suggested Experiment

We hope that you enjoyed this brief exploration of nu jazz.

Now, to actually put that into practice, why not try getting some lo fi hip hop backing tracks over YouTube and experiment with just some simple jazz chord progressions over it?

Here’s one you can use:

It has no bass or chords on top of it, so you can just simply be led by the groove and play some great jazz chord progressions over it. After you have established that, start improvising melodies and solos.

I think that is best way to start getting into nu jazz.

So I guess that would be enough for now. Have fun practicing.

Posted in

Mark A. Galang, OTRP, MAM-MT(c)

Mark Galang is one of our contributors at He loves teaching all styles of music especially jazz, blues, rock, classical, and Christian music. Mark is also a licensed occupational therapist in the Philippines that combines music therapy intervention with occupational therapy.