The 10 Best Jazz Albums Of 2021
As the second year of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic draws to a close, live music is slowly coming back. Bands are returning to the recording studio. And we’re all — artists, fans, and music industry folks alike — trying to predict what the future may hold. Jazz, a genre familiar with precarity even at the best of times, has been altered in fundamental ways by the events of 2020 and 2021.
The creative responses to pandemic life have been fascinating. It feels like more solo albums have come out in the last two years than at any time since the early ’70s, when the loft jazz scene and the gradual dissolution of the ’60s avant-garde led a lot of artists to make extended, highly individualistic statements. This time, it’s been by necessity, but a lot of the resulting work has been fascinating and emotionally powerful. I would point to albums by saxophonists Sam Gendel, Jaleel Shaw, and JD Allen; trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith; and guitarist Jeff Parker, among others, as examples of genuinely moving music that expand the possibilities of solo instrumental performance.
On the other hand, there’s also been a lot of remote collaboration, which is in some ways even more fascinating, because it represents a fundamental break with the mythology of jazz. Since the music’s earliest days, it’s always been about live interaction. Gather the players in the room, give them the music, and record them engaging with it and each other. In the late 1960s, when Miles Davis and Teo Macero began using the studio as an instrument and abandoning the idea of the “perfect take” in favor of an approach that collaged exciting moments, layered on overdubs and edits, and generally took advantage of all the technology available to pop and rock musicians, it felt like a revolution. And while overdubs and edits are common practice these days, jazz musicians still try to retain the feel of organic interaction as much as possible. Under pandemic conditions, though, many artists, from guitarist John McLaughlin to drummer Nate Smith to the duo of Pino Palladino and Blake Mills, have made albums on which individual musicians contribute their parts remotely and the completed work is assembled after the fact. The majority of jazz musicians still prefer to get together in the studio and make music in the moment, but the embrace of this kind of remote collaboration has often yielded thrilling results in the past, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it become more common in the next few years, particularly among younger players.
Some of the albums below are one-off studio assemblages, while others are documents of working bands. Some are tightly composed, while others are freely improvised. Some stretch the limits of jazz, or push into other musical realms entirely, but all of them point the way toward a very vital future. Let’s hope we all get to experience it together.
This album, which aims to do for Johannesburg what 2017’s We Out Here did for London, was curated by vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu and keyboardist Thandi Ntuli, utilizing dozens of musicians in five days of frantic studio activity. Keyboardist Bokani Dyer’s “Ke Nako,” sung in a mix of Setswana and English by Dyer, Mthembu, and Ntuli, opens the record with joyous, vibrant horn solos that match the uplifting tone of the lyrics. The compilation leaps from gospelized African jazz to noisy art-punk with dramatic spoken samples to dense, funky free improv, and the whole thing gets your heart pumping and your ass in gear.
Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble - Now (International Anthem)
Damon Locks is a multidisciplinary artist deeply tied to the Chicago jazz scene; with Black Monument Ensemble, vocal and instrumental performances are added to collages of samples and electronics. On the group’s second record, the performers include Angel Bat Dawid on clarinet, Ben LaMar Gay on cornet and melodica, Dana Hall on drums, and Arif Smith on percussion, plus a six-member vocal ensemble, three men and three women: Phillip Armstrong, Monique Golding, Tramaine Parker, Richie Parks, Erica Rene, and Eric Tre’von. The lyrics and samples (movie dialogue, political speeches, people shouting at protests, etc.) may remind you of SAULT’s 2020 album Black Is, while the music is part Art Ensemble Of Chicago, part street carnival.
This album took a long time to arrive; I was sent advance music in summer 2019, and it still feels like a possible future. Graves is part of the West Coast Get Down with Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, and others, and a member of fusion legend Stanley Clarke’s band. But he was also a member of Jada Pinkett Smith’s metal band Wicked Wisdom, and this record is somewhere between Return To Forever and Meshuggah. The band shifts seamlessly from choppy, grinding guitar riffs anchored by Graves’ clanging, hyper-Romantic piano to florid melodic outbursts. This is one of the heaviest jazz releases of the year.
Bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver are joined by electric guitarist Ava Mendoza here to blur the lines between free jazz, blues, fusion, and skronk-rock. The bassist and drummer lay down thick, rocking grooves, and Mendoza’s biting tone and use of sound effects like faraway explosions place her somewhere between Sonny Sharrock and Neil Young, but her decision to throw in jazz chords that seem to wax and wane like midnight tides is what signals her own identity most clearly. Parker has worked with guitarists before but never anyone as loud and shred-happy as Mendoza. This record will singe your ear-hairs.
Ivo Perelman - Brass & Ivory Tales (Fundacja Słuchaj)
Brazilian saxophonist Ivo Perelman releases a stunning amount of music in a year. (Full disclosure: Polarity, an album of duets with trumpeter Nate Wooley, came out on my Burning Ambulance Music label this year.) He embraces an aesthetic of totally free improvisation, starting every performance with no thought of where it will end up. This is a nine-CD box of duos with pianists: Dave Burrell, Sylvie Courvoisier, Marilyn Crispell, Agustí Fernández, Vijay Iyer, Aruán Ortiz, Aaron Parks, Angelica Sanchez, and Craig Taborn. Each disc is completely different from the others, but they’re all equally brilliant. Take your time with it; soak it in.
Wadada Leo Smith/Bill Laswell/Milford Graves - Sacred Ceremonies (TUM)
Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith is celebrating 80 this year by putting out something like a half dozen albums across multiple labels. Sacred Ceremonies is a three-disc set recorded about five years ago with bassist Bill Laswell and the late drummer Milford Graves. It consists of one disc each of trumpet-bass and trumpet-drums duos, and one disc of trio material. Graves’ spacious yet ever-shifting drum explorations (“time” is not an issue) are the perfect foundation for Smith’s piercing, laterally focused explorations. The trumpeter leaps from high notes to low smears, and falls silent for long stretches. Laswell is the fulcrum between the other two men.
Henry Threadgill’s group Zooid has been in existence for well over a decade and currently includes Liberty Ellman on acoustic guitar, Jose Davila on tuba and trombone, Christopher Hoffman on cello, and Elliott Humberto Kavee on drums. Their music has a strange, rattling looseness when it gets rolling, but in its quieter moments, it has the pastoral calm of chamber music. This short (five tracks, 37 minutes) album is designed as a concerto, with each track serving as a spotlight turn for one of the members. Things often start out hushed and exploratory, until they move into a kind of jangling, foot-tapping swing that seems loosely inspired by 1920s jazz.
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, & The London Symphony Orchestra - Promises (Luaka Bop)
This album is a nine-track suite, all flowing seamlessly together into a single 46-minute piece, with a single repeated keyboard figure and very nicely arranged (and beautifully produced; listen on headphones) strings providing a platform for Sanders’ gentle but still gritty and passionate saxophone journeys. It really feels like a collaboration between the two men, not Floating Points just using Sanders as a compositional element. There are elements of spiritual jazz here, but there are some keyboard sounds that are straight out of Wish You Were Here-era Pink Floyd, too. The individual tracks are good, but it’s really meant to be heard from beginning to end.
Tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis has never made the same album twice. This one, inspired by agricultural scientist and inventor George Washington Carver, features cornet player Kirk Knuffke, cellist Chris Hoffman, bassist William Parker, and drummer Chad Taylor. The dialogue between Lewis and Knuffke nods to the pairings of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry and the Ayler brothers, Albert and Donald. Add the cello for an early ’70s loft jazz vibe (think Julius Hemphill or Arthur Blythe), and you’ve got one of the most powerful jazz records of the year, combining sharp-edged but old-timey melodies, Pharoah Sanders-eque grit, and frenzied North African trance grooves.
This was an Album Of The Week in May, for good reason. The fourth release from Shabaka Hutchings’ militant parade-jazz quartet, Sons Of Kemet, is just as thematically unified as its predecessor, 2018’s Your Queen Is A Reptile. Like last time, the group, consisting of Hutchings, tuba player Theon Cross, and two drummers, welcomes multiple guests including Moor Mother, Angel Bat Dawid, poet Joshua Idehen, and MC Kojey Radical, who’s heard on the first single, “Hustle,” with gentle backing vocals from Lianne La Havas. There’s more dub in the music on Black To The Future than Your Queen Is A Reptile, and more atmospheric effects in general. The focus is on street-parade rhythms and deep tuba basslines rather than sax solos. Hutchings overdubs a lot, shadowing his sax with clarinet like a Greek chorus commenting on the music as it’s happening, and Idehen delivers scorching verses on the first and last tracks. There’s so much rage and defiance at this album’s heart, it’s as exciting as it is frightening, somewhere between Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues and Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet.