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Here are jazz's 12 most important musicians

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Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock — pianist, composer and maker of musical revolutions — is coming to San Francisco this week (May 16-18) for a series of sold-out shows at SFJazz. With his visit in mind, wheels began to turn: Why not create a list of the dozen greatest living jazz musicians? Hancock would be on it; that was a no-brainer. But who else would make the cut?

Why bother with such a list? It's a good way to generate conversation and debate, to shine a light on this ever-changing river of music that has largely fallen out of the mainstream. When I was a kid, you could turn on the television and see Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald or Duke Ellington. Things have changed — and, so, here we have this list, my attempt to stir the pot.

I've decided to focus on musicians who remain active and whose contributions have shaped the work of significant numbers of other musicians, if not the entire jazz landscape. Octogenarian legends who no longer are touring — Ornette Coleman, Horace Silver, Cecil Taylor — are not on the list. Neither is my favorite living musician, pianist McCoy Tyner, whose sound permeates much of jazz, but whose playing lately has been compromised by age and health issues.

Inevitably, my choices have been subjective, even random. There are so many possibilities, as the music is deep and wide and now international. But in the end, this is my list. No smooth jazz. And for one reason or another, it doesn't include Keith Jarrett, Eddie Palmieri, Anthony Braxton, Esperanza Spalding, Vijay Iyer, Roscoe Mitchell, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Eric Harland and 50 other worthy candidates. Next time. Here goes:

1. Herbie Hancock

He is the classiest of musicians, as well as the funkiest, the most impressionist, the most inquisitive and free. From Miles Davis to “Rockit," from “Maiden Voyage" to his Joni Mitchell remakes, pianist Hancock has brought to bear his harmonic and compositional genius. You can accuse him of periods of pandering, but when you step back to look at the 50-year landscape, you see his vision and the way he's gone after new experiences, new technologies and (always) new sounds. Hancock, 74, knows how to grow old. Try “Maiden Voyage," “Mwandishi" and “Head Hunters."

2. Wayne Shorter

Over 50-plus years, the saxophonist-composer has combined deep currents of innovation, oftentimes enigmatic, with popular success. He helped launch musical revolts with Miles Davis' 1960s bands and with the electric fusion group Weather Report. His extended solo on Steely Dan's “Aja," from 1977, is one of the great pop instrumental statements. His canon of tunes — going back to his days with drummer Art Blakey — is unsurpassed. Now in his ninth decade, he composes for symphony orchestras and leads the most celebrated working group in jazz. Here's to Wayne! Try “JuJu," “Native Dancer" and “Beyond the Sound Barrier."

3. Sonny Rollins

If there were a Mount Rushmore of jazz, Rollins' face would be on it. From his first recordings (at age 18 with Bud Powell on Blue Note) to his most recent (from 2012, the year he turned 82, on his brand new “Road Shows, Vol. 3"), the tenor saxophonist's solos erupt with all the joy in the world. An unstoppable rush of creative force, of musical ideas, Rollins is now 83 and hatching plans for a new studio album. Here's to Sonny! Try the above-named recordings or (chosen almost randomly) “Sonny Rollins Plus 4," “Freedom Suite," “East Broadway Run Down."

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