The 10 Best Jazz Albums Of 2020
Jazz lives onstage. It’s a music that requires in-the-moment interaction between players, in front of audiences, to grow, develop, and thrive. And yet, in a year that was effectively without live music for nine months, jazz repeatedly demonstrated its power to astonish and upend expectations. Veteran artists delivered stunning and cohesive statements; new faces broke through, demanding to be heard; traditionalists honored the past while looking to the future; politically and socially engaged artists made the music’s implicit message explicit; and most important of all, the records were simply brilliant. The 10 albums below barely scratch the surface of the great music that came out in 2020.
A few notes to sum up the year, and hint at the year to come:
• Johannesburg is the new London. The South African jazz scene is as vital as that of any city in the world right now, blending classic sounds from hard bop to spiritual jazz to big band with traditional rhythms and songs in African languages. In addition to the records by Nduduzo Makhathini, Ndabo Zulu, and Shabaka & The Ancestors listed below, Asher Gamedze, Thandi Ntuli, Linda Sikhakhane, and Spaza all did great work.
• The archives continued to yield previously forgotten treasures, as unreleased music from Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Pharoah Sanders, Cecil Taylor, and others filled in gaps in jazz history.
• In the absence of live performance opportunities, players embraced live streaming, and in the absence of studios, they learned to collaborate remotely. I’ve already heard at least one album that was culled from streamed performances, and another that was recorded instrument by instrument, track by track, from the performers’ homes and assembled after the fact.
Unfortunately, while some gripping music has been played in empty clubs and beamed to fans at home, it’s become sadly clear that the social aspect of live jazz is in fact crucial. Musicians have been complaining for the music’s entire history that it devalues their artistry to perform as people eat and drink and waiters and waitresses move through the crowd with plates of food and trays of glasses, but people really do want to have dinner and watch a performance. They don’t want to sit on their couches and watch on their laptops as a band plays, no matter how transcendently. Anyway, I don’t. So I firmly hope that live jazz comes back in 2021. In the meantime, here are the 10 best jazz albums of the year.
Tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis has a greater command of his instrument’s language than almost anyone alive — certainly greater than anyone else his age. This was one of three albums he released this year. (He also appeared on records by alto saxophonist Alan Braufman and bassist Max Johnson.) It features pianist Aruán Ortiz, bassist Brad Jones, and drummer Chad Taylor, and while there are some tender ballads, there’s also a lot of seriously forceful free playing in the manner of David Murray’s or David S. Ware’s 1990s albums. The Lewis heard on Molecular is a very old soul, carving out his own place in the lineage of post-Coltrane, post-Shepp, post-Sanders tenor sax.
This live set was recorded at the Blue Note in NYC, just before the city locked down and all live music ceased. But even without that context, it’s a remarkable document of a seemingly studio-centric music being transformed into a vibrant, living thing onstage. The production-heavy work Scott has been doing since 2012’s Stretch Music is reflected here — there are programmed drums and multiple layers of electronics on certain pieces — but the band takes the tunes and pulls them in entirely new directions. And they nod to the first trumpeter to expand jazz in this way, covering “Guinnevere,” a David Crosby song Miles Davis made his own in the Bitches Brew era, 50 years ago.
The second album by British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and a group of up-and-coming South African players is a powerful collection of barefoot-in-the-dirt grooves, churning and thumping along as poet Siyabonga Mthembu encourages listeners to improve themselves and by extension change the world. Like Hutchings’ quartet Sons Of Kemet, it’s heavy on percussion and riff-based tunes, and the solos are exhortatory and passionate, but the electric piano and the presence of multiple horns gives it a spacious, dialogue-focused feeling. This isn’t party music, though you can dance to it; it’s more complex and thoughtful than that, and there’s a message, however oblique, to be absorbed.
This is an extremely ambitious album from trumpeter Ndabo Zulu, created with help from pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, who also played on it. As its title indicates, it’s a tribute to Nandi, a Zulu queen and mother of the famous Shaka. Mbuso Khoza, a South African historian and performer who aims to reclaim African history through traditional performances, sings improvised, poetic praise songs throughout the nearly two-hour piece. The music combines conventional jazz orchestration — though there are two bassists, two drummers, and two percussionists on many tracks — with South African rhythm, in particular incorporating Zulu drumming on some tracks. It has moments of drama, passages of lush beauty, and explosive drum barrages. It’s a long ride, but one well worth taking.
On the third Black Art Jazz Collective album, three of its founding members — saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, and trombonist James Burton III — are backed by a new rhythm section: pianist Victor Gould, bassist Rashaan Carter, and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr. The concept remains what it was on the first two records. This is a band of highly skilled improvisers with a fondness for harmonic complexity, energetic but thoughtful solos, and swing, nodding explicitly to musicians like McCoy Tyner, Woody Shaw, and others who were making high-level acoustic jazz when fusion was much more fashionable and lucrative. But there’s nothing dry or antiseptic about their art. They love this music, and that love comes through on every track.
Pianist Aaron Diehl’s work incorporates the romanticism and grace of classical music, while remaining rooted in swing and the blues. In addition to his solo career, he works with vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, and his stylistic forebears include players like John Lewis (of the Modern Jazz Quartet), Ahmad Jamal, and Mary Lou Williams. On this album, he’s joined by bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Gregory Hutchinson for a set that includes seven original pieces and interpretations of works by Lewis, Sir Roland Hanna, Sergei Prokofiev, and Philip Glass. This is not raucous music, but it’s deeply felt and beautiful, and the trio has a collective language that’s unique on the current jazz scene.
Nduduzo Makhathini - Modes Of Communication: Letters From The Underworlds (Blue Note)
Nduduzo Makhathini is more than just a musician; he’s a healer, a teacher, and a leader of the present-day South African jazz scene, producing albums for others and helping shape the music’s future. This is his eighth album since debuting in 2014, and his first for Blue Note. (He’s the first South African artist ever signed to that label.) It has the depth of McCoy Tyner’s late ’60s and early ’70s work, with a lushness that makes the ensemble sound much larger than it is, plus a deep African feel notable in the music and especially in his wife Omagugu Makhathini’s vocals. I wouldn’t call this spiritual jazz in the usual sense, but spirituality, specifically a unique mix of Christian and African traditions, comes through in every note.
This album is like staring into a deep, dark body of still water. Its Beckettian title is an ideal reflection of the music, which ponders the mysteries of existence and comes up with no easy or reassuring answers. Shipp likes the bottom of the piano’s range, and lurks there often, and when he ventures into the instrument’s upper register, his notes can be as biting as glass tapped with a knife. He’s supported by bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, each of whom get spotlight turns that only emphasize the album’s overall somber mood. Occasionally Monk-ish but also monastic, this is music for a dark, locked-down city. (Full disclosure: My wife designed the album cover.)
Irreversible Entanglements - Who Sent You? (International Anthem)
The second album from this fearsome free jazz quintet, fronted by Moor Mother, is exactly the evolution you’d expect them to have undergone after their debut. That disc was cut live in the studio, at the beginning of the group’s journey; this one came in the wake of extensive touring, which helped them develop a collective voice and sonic identity. The five pieces here have the same fiery intensity of the debut, with subtle dashes of electronic noise and a slightly more polished production boosting the energy, making it sound like it’s coming out of an overheated apartment in the middle of a sweltering summer of protest and rage. But there’s joy here, too. This music is thrillingly alive, and it’s obvious with every note that the players are having a blast making it.
Ambrose Akinmusire - On The Tender Spot Of Every Calloused Moment (Blue Note)
This is a blues album, even though there’s not a clichéd melody or chord progression to be found anywhere on it. This is blues in the sense that it animates the spirit and inspires joy and perseverance by traveling through sorrow and coming out the other side. Akinmusire’s trumpet style is startlingly human in its starkness and frailty; his notes slip and slide, occasionally devolving into leaky squeals, but when he pushes forward with force he’s a fleet, vivid improviser. His longtime bandmates speak his language perfectly while adding their own, equally personal thoughts to the conversation. Though the instruments — trumpet, piano, upright bass, and drums — are as traditional as can be, there’s nothing past tense about this music at all. It is unmistakably the sound of 2020.
Listen to the playlist on Spotify.