The Best 22 Jazz Albums of 2020: Videos, CD covers, Reviews

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The Covid-19 pandemic halted live performance, the lifeblood of the genre, but a run of powerful albums — and standout debuts — provided respite, and hope.

Quarantine is especially challenging when it comes to making jazz, which usually means getting together in a little room and cutting loose. But while few albums were recorded during the pandemic so far (none on this list), a nonstop run of impressive jazz releases have been arriving throughout it. This year was uncommonly full of good debuts, providing some relief amid the eerie silence and a bit of hope for when it finally breaks.

George Kahn Quartet – DreamCatcher

Pat Kelley and I started doing live shows in Los Angeles about 3 years ago, and I just fell in love sith the sound and interaction we developed. Pat is also a composer/arranger/producer, so we really joined forces on this project, and it was great to have his talent and feedback, from the choice of songs to the final mastering. We co-wrote “DreamCatcher”, and Pat arranged a couple of the songs (You And The Night And The Music was his idea, for one). I think what I love most about DreamCatcher is that it is just so LISTENABLE. It puts a smile on my face every time I play it.

GKQ Front Cover.jpg

Sonny Rollins – Rollins in Holland

In the 1960s, the unquenchably inventive tenor sax improviser Sonny Rollins often toured without a band, hooking up with local players in whatever town invited him. These previously unreleased 1967 recordings in the Netherlands mark the 36-year-old Rollins’s first meetings with the young Dutch bass and drums pairing of Ruud Jacobs and emerging avant-garde drummer Han Bennink. The audio quality is variable, but nothing can obscure how spontaneously communicative these takes are – tit-for-tat exchanges and long, zigzagging tenor odysseys shared between musicians whose listening powers match their instrumental panache.

Sonny Rollins Rollins in Holland | Resonance Records

Keith Jarrett – Budapest Concert

The music world was stricken this fall by the news that Keith Jarrett had suffered a pair of strokes, and is unlikely to play the piano in public again. This solo piano album was recorded in late 2016, just months before what would be his possible final performance; from the title on down, the overtones of his most famous album, “The Köln Concert” (1975), are obvious, though he has moved away from the lengthy, unbroken improvisations of that era and plays here with a more untroubled sense of clarity — especially on the two songs that close the LP.

ECM Records | Shop

Ignasi Terraza & Randy Greer – Around the Christmas Tree

This album is our third one collaborating with singer Randy Greer made around Christmas music. After the success of our first album “Chrismtas swings in Barcelona” we have keep doing Christmas concerts for years during this season. This time we decided to renew the repertoire adding originals and  new arrangements of classic carols.

Joshua Redman – RoundAgain

American sax star Joshua Redman’s 1994 quartet with pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade was one of the standout lineups of that decade – but short-lived, because all the members were on the brink of breakouts into their own fertile careers. They reunited in 2019 to record RoundAgain, with decades of experience recharging their old synchronicity. Redman’s and Mehldau’s inventiveness across multi-chorus solos, underpinned by McBride’s and Blade’s headlong energy, matches a captivating balance of rootsy soul figures, graceful waltzes, and flat-out postbop flights.

Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride & Brian Blade - RoundAgain -  Amazon.com Music

Chick Corea – Plays

It’s fair to say that Keith Jarrett raised the solo piano concert to an art form in its own right as much by force of his personality as his widely acclaimed virtuosity. Audiences quickly learned to take a vow of silence when entering the concert hall and dared not cough, take a photograph or scratch their armpits lest they interrupt the pianist’s concentration and suffer his withering ire. His concerts quickly assumed an aura that lifted them from a mere piano recital to an artistic/aesthetic/ cultural event. On Plays, a double CD set comprising some 25 selections from recent solo concerts, Chick Corea has opted to present his virtuosity in a way that’s the polar opposite of Jarrett, yet he has achieved the same ends. His studied informality, humour and ease with his audience makes for a totally absorbing listening experience that is part recital, part masterclass and part informal get together in his front room.

Yellowjackets & WDR Big Band – Jackets XL

As a tight, longstanding jazz ensemble, Yellowjackets has explored a universe all its own of electro-acoustic soundscapes in its nearly four-decade history. For ‘Jackets XL’, its 25th album and fourth for Mack Avenue, the band continues to stretch and reinvent itself with an exciting, full-bodied collaboration with the superb WDR Big Band of Cologne, Germany. Since the band’s eponymous 1981 debut album, Yellowjackets has consistently forged ahead with innovative and challenging artistic statements. ‘Jackets XL’ continues this fine body of work. The project combines the shapeshifting, multiple GRAMMY® Award-winning quartet with the renowned big band, re-imagining well-known band originals with dynamic new arrangements that feature twists and turns, textures and colors, moving harmonies and bold solos.

Challenge Records International - Jackets XL - Yellowjackets | WDR Big Band  *

Helle Henning – As Long As We Both Know

I really love the simplicity of both the songs and the playing on my new album, also the fact that even though its a jazz album there is almost no solos and that makes each song stay stronger. For me it feels like nothing has been forced to go in a certain direction and that we all simply were following the flow of the music. The musicians on the record was selected because each of them sounds and plays amazing and delicate in their own personal way. They also made a trio record together which has got just the vibe me and Nikolaj Hess were searching for.

Roberto Cipelli with Paolo Fresu – L’equilibrio di Nash

“Nash Equilibrium” is a series of strategies in game theory for which in an equilibrium situation one player makes a bold and sudden move to which the other responds with an equally courageous one, in order to maintain balance: a accurate metaphor of interplay between musicians improvising on stage. And “Nash’s equilibrium” is the title of Roberto Cipelli’s album with Paolo Fresu to be released on October 16th for TUK Music. The album is the culmination of a relationship that has lasted for 36 years within the historic Fresu quintet, a collaboration steeped in deep and lasting friendship and which finally led them to record an album for two voices. The idea of ​​the work is inspired by listening to Chet Baker’s “Diane” with Paul Bley, a 1986 album with which the duo shares the presence of “Little Girl Blue” and a propensity for melody and lyricism, but from which at the same time the project diverges significantly.

Roberto Cipelli, Paolo Fresu - L'equilibrio di Nash (2020) Hi-Res

Dayna Stephens – Right Now! Live at the Village Vanguard

Dayna Stephens, ranked first-place Rising Star Tenor Saxophonist in the 2019 Downbeat Critics Poll, is proud to follow up his acclaimed 2020 trio release Liberty with his 10th album as a leader, Right Now! The Dayna Stephens Quartet Live at the Village Vanguard. Recorded at the historic New York club in February 2019, Right Now! finds Stephens fronting a brilliant quartet with Aaron Parks on piano, Ben Street on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums. “Playing the Vanguard was so special for me,” says Stephens. “The Vanguard was the first place I saw live musicians play, a videotape of the Johnny Griffin Quartet that I saw when I was 13. To lead my own group at the Vanguard is the highest honor that I, and the 13-year-old inside of me, could have ever imagined.”

Right Now! Live at the Village Vanguard | Dayna Stephens

Pat Metheny – From This Place

Being both a bestselling jazz-fusion superstar and an experimental collaborator with John Zorn and Ornette Coleman takes rare agility, but guitarist Pat Metheny has managed both. Metheny’s 2020 album, performed by his current live band (UK pianist Gwilym Simcock, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Antonio Sánchez) with guest appearances from vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello and harmonica virtuoso Gregoire Maret, showcases his famously cinematic compositional muse, shrewdly balanced with the group’s off-the-leash inventiveness, and for the most part subtly applied synthesised orchestral effects.

Charles Lloyd – ‘8: Kindred Spirits’

The slippery, protean flow of Charles Lloyd’s saxophone playing seeps into the rest of his band on this live album, recorded live in Santa Barbara, Calif., on the occasion of his 80th birthday. A mix of longtime associates and new collaborators, the all-star group reworks four highlights from his back catalog, treating them as open questions, letting moments of intensity bubble up organically in unexpected places.

Carla Bley – Life Goes On

The third of a sequence of moving trio recordings by the jazz-composing legend and pianist Carla Bley, with bassist Steve Swallow and UK saxophonist Andy Sheppard – a typically whimsical confection of slinky blues, impish tangos, Monk-like figures and oblique takedowns of patriotic anthems, linked by all-but-psychic ensemble improv. The title reflects on the octogenarian Bley’s recent recovery from brain surgery – but though these exquisite pieces understatedly span feelings from sensuality to late-life realism, nothing in this terrific trio’s long history has ever had a hint of sentimentality about it.

Antonio Adolfo – BruMa: Celebrating Milton Nascimento

I like very much the group of musicians who performed with me. They are the BEST!!! Of course, I love the songs by Milton and the way we did in the recording, different from any other interpretation of those songs. I’ve worked with Milton in 1968,. Since then I fell in love with his compositions and his voice, his arrangements, his playing and musical world. He is a genius. It is such a challenge to create an album with his music and keep creative, since his interpretations were (and are) so strong.

John Scofield/Steve Swallow – Swallow Tales

The partnership between guitarist John Scofield and electric bassist Steve Swallow goes back a long way, and they both have instantly recognisable identities on their respective versions of a guitar. Scofield plays jazz with a biting, sometimes dissonant bluesiness owing as much to Jimi Hendrix as to his teacher Jim Hall, and Swallow’s airily lyrical phrasing infuses his basslines and his composing. Accompanied by Bill Stewart on drums on nine Swallow pieces, the pair often take off in gleefully driving extended solos – Scofield in particular sounds as if he’s having a ball from the off.

Willie Applewhite – Uptown Jazz Tentet – What’s Next

The Uptown Jazz Tentet is a band that is very important to me.  It is co-led by me, fellow trombonist James Burton III and trumpeter Brandon Lee.  What’s Next is our second album. What I love most about it is the overall aesthetic of the record, from the writing, playing, and the feeling of joy and comradery that the work emotes. Today, I am in a period of writing.  No complete new compositions yet, but hopefully soon.

Tigran Hamasyan – The Call Within

On his third trio album, the 33-year-old Armenian-born, LA-based pianist-composer Tigran Hamasyan intensifies the uniquely personal soundworld he developed on previous Nonesuch trio releases 2013’s Shadow Theatre and 2015’s Mockroot. The Call Within marks a more daring interplay of extremes where the slamming intensity of high energy contemporary groove-metal meets the celestial-bound melodies and metrically-complex folk music traditions largely sourced from his Armenian heritage. Yet the deep connections he’s made in his exploration of ancient and contemporary culture have inspired the organic integration of musical elements on this recording. If we had to talk sub-genres, it would be more contemporary art folk-prog than post-rock jazz fusion. Tigran’s prayer-like vocal on the opener ‘Levitation 21’ – slightly reminiscent of the ethereal folk-pop of the ‘Cocteau Twins’ Liz Frazer – is gatecrashed by a sudden explosion of amphetamine-fuelled, staccato prog-metal bass and drums and looping guitar-like piano riffs.

Elisabeth Coudoux Emiszatett – Physis

My new Album shows situations, spaces, energy and ideas from actual creativity while the sound is moving.

Kurt Elling – Secrets Are The Best Stories

For its lyrical depth, emotional sincerity, and stellar performances, Secrets Are The Best Stories must be considered one of the most compelling entries in Kurt Elling’s acclaimed discography. Elling partners here for the first time with Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez, and the sense of a shared aesthetic sensibility is keenly felt throughout. Based on the classic Jaco Pastorius composition, ‘Continuum’, ‘A Certain Continuum’ returns us to the 2018 Rilke-inspired collaboration with Branford Marsalis, The Questions. Indeed, Elling’s lyrics give a conscious nod to the themes of the earlier album (“Questions linger on until the end”).

Nils Wogram – Bright Lights

What I was trying to achieve was music that feels freah and organic. Music that is fun to listen to and inspires my fans. I also wanted to have references to other solo trombone recordings but still make it my own. Things that I like about that album: the pure sound of the trombone, the harmonics you can hear with the multiphonics (voice and trombone simultaneously), the call and respose vibe and the groove moments.

Sun Ra Arkestra – Swirling

The music and ideas of Sun Ra have become talismanic among younger generations in the years since he died: Look to several albums on this list, like Ms. Muldrow’s, Mr. Mazurek’s and Mr. Gamedze’s. But his musical messages are in especially good hands with his own ensemble, now directed by the 96-year-old saxophonist Marshall Allen. The Arkestra was a vessel built primarily for survival — Ra insisted that space would be a more hospitable home for Black people than Earth, if only the music could get him there — and more than 25 years after his death it continues to thrive. On “Swirling,” the first Arkestra album of newly recorded material in two decades, the band’s loose, sweeping power reanimates classic material from his repertoire, plus a couple of never-before-recorded items.

Swirling | Sun Ra Arkestra

Nubya Garcia – Source

Saxophonist Nubya Garcia has taken the London jazz scene by storm in the last few years. She has a gift for self-expression and for channeling raw energy in her playing. Her debut album, which follows two EPs and albums with Maisha and the septet Nérija, is a sonic self-portrait that reflects her Afro-Carribean heritage and her expanding musical horizons. ‘Pace’ is a powerful opener with a heavy backbeat feel and the first of many high octane solos from Garcia, all wrenching holds and false-fingered cries. ‘The Message Continues’ reminds me of a Noname track with its skiffling drumbeat, while the title track’s skanking groove and dub production is a throwback to Garcia’s North London childhood, when reggae was often blasting in the house. Elsewhere the album is more meditative, with ethereal backing vocals sung by Ms Maurice and Cassie Kinoshi (two of Garcia’s bandmades from Nérija) plus KOKOROKO trombonist Richie Seivwright, and a haunting feature for Chicagoan singer Akenya.

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