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The 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2020

Here are six of the key jazz trends of the last 20 years, defined by 20 of the best 2020 recordings that made us see, again, why this music is in midst of such a thrilling patch of creativity.

Jazz in the 21st century is no longer young. Twenty years of a new phase of the music is now in the books, and the defining ideas are established. To my ears, the best-recorded jazz of 2020 was an affirmation of these trends. Despite the disaster that was the last calendar year, it was a time of thrilling music that is no longer properly contained by the somewhat cursed four-letter "j" word.

As ever, there is no way to listen to all the good creative music—even in a year like 2020 when so many of us were confined to our homes for so long. So, all the opinions here are just mine, limited in all the ways I am. But the music is superb, even if my ability to get to all the good stuff was less than perfect. There is excitement about the jazz coming out of the UK these days, though I probably haven't heard the parts of it that would put it on my "best of" list. The creative music coming out of various local scenes (that is, places in the US other than New York) is exciting and some find its way onto this list, but it is equally true that the records here that were made by musicians from Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, or Washington DC tend to intersect with the New York scene.

Here, then, are six of the key trends of the last 20 years, defined by 20 of the best 2020 recordings that made us see, again, why this music is in midst of such a thrilling patch of creativity. The recordings in each category are presented in alphabetical order by artist's name, with no preference. But, for the record, the recording of the year for me was Matthew Shipp's The Piano Equation.

Trumpet by minka 2507 (Pixabay)

TREND 1: Jazz as any kind of popular music may be decades in the past, but jazz now richly embraces hip-hop, funk, jam-band rock, country music, and more with artistic ambition.

Susan Alcorn - Pedernal (Relative Pitch)

By now, creative music folks know Susan Alcorn for her feat in bringing the pedal steel guitar to the downtown music scene, with guitarist Mary Halvorson's Octet, and with other knotty improvising collectives. But Alcorn hasn't entirely forsaken her past playing in country bands on this quintet date which features her playing the kind of chamber-jazz-country-Americana that Bill Frisell has made his brand. Mark Feldman is on violin and Ryan Sawyer is on drums, with Halvorson acting as the second guitar and her Thumbscrew collaborator Michael Formanek on bass. The music is charming and melodic, but Feldman, Alcorn, and Halvorson—each of whom loves to move from playing precise passages to sabotaging the landscape with weirdly-bent-note twists—bring all kinds of wondrous creative improvising. Bakersfield meets the Stone in Greenwich Village, with some of the ethereal beauty and melodic impressionism of an ECM recording mixed in.

Aaron Parks - Little Big II: Dreams of a Mechanical Man (Ropeadope)

For no reason I can discern, 2020 was a big year for this wonderful band's making a long-awaited second recording. Dan Weiss's Starebaby (just below), Craig Taborn's JunkMagic, and Mary Halvorson's vocal project CodeGirl all released notable sophomore recordings in the year. Parks' quartet, which deftly combines new jazz tricky composition, indie-rock sonic attitude, and grooving directness, made Dreams the jazz I most wanted on repeat while I was laundering my facemasks and watching election results. It is on this list, however, because the easy joy of the record can't hide its subtle orchestrations for the quartet (Tommy Crane on drums, Greg Tuohey's guitar, and bassist DJ Grinyard) or its sweeping, emotional improvisations—particularly from the leader, whose piano has become a distinctive voice in the modern style, bridging Hancock, Glasper, and others but having plenty of connection also to great improvising melodists such as Kenny Kirkland and Kenny Barron.

Dan Weiss Starebaby - Natural Selection (Pi)

Dan Weiss is a drummer who is equally interested in raga and Metallica, a master of tabla playing and the kind of thunderous toms that can stand up to over-driven but precise guitar. Starebaby sounds even more varied and interesting on its second outing, with Ben Monder playing with both bombast and delicacy on guitar and twinned pianists/synth masters Matt Mitchell and Craig Taborn getting generous room to play with filigreed interaction as if they were duetting in a non-metal, non-electronica context. In fact, this project sounds less like "jazz meets metal" than like a terrific new jazz project in which the ambitious composition is allowed but not obligated to use metal textures. The result is beyond rather than bound by its genre options.

TREND 2: There remains a strong strain of more mainstream jazz, but the musicians who play it don't preach it as purism—it's just one of the modes they can use to make great music.

Ambrose Akinmusire - on the tender spot of every calloused moment (Blue Note)

One of only two "major label" releases on this list, the trumpeter's latest is a recording for his quartet alone, with two tracks momentarily spotlighting a pair of singers. There are certainly more mainstream jazz recording being made these days (for instance, just dive into the rich catalogs of Smoke Session Records or Positone—which aren't represented on this list, but which are making strong records in the swinging jazz tradition), but tender spot showcases the "new mainstream" of a working band that can and does swing, that uses a touch of electronics, but only a touch, and that moves from mode to mode even within individual tunes, but the band does it all in the manner of a working jazz group that uses rhythmic interplay, fresh improvising, tonal variation, and instrumental virtuosity to generate dynamism. Akinmusire remains a stunning trumpeter who never abandons his blues roots for too long, and pianist Sam Harris has never sounded better than on this recording.

Steve Cardenas - Blue Has a Range (Sunnyside)

Guitarist Steve Cardenas plays with all kinds of folks in all kinds of styles but left to his own devices he just sounds like a classic, bell-toned jazz guitarist who is drunk on delicious harmony and always plays with consummate ears. But that might make him sound a little dull, and his latest—with pianist Jon Cowherd, bassist Ben Allison, and Brian Blade on drums—is witty and fun and playful in the extreme. Cardenas's guitar is happy to add as much Scofield-esque dirt to its sounds as a tune deserves, and his songs contain spikes and pinches, Monk-ian humor as well as Mingus-esque rumble. This is the mainstream because there is swing, Latin, gorgeous ballad playing, and exquisite jazz conversation among players who aren't trying to self-consciously break new ground. There is plenty of room for that when it is done this brilliantly.

James Carney Sextet - Pure Heart (Sunnyside)

Brooklyn-based James Carney has a profile that is not commensurate with his breathtaking but rare recordings. He is a master composer and arranger for mid-sized jazz groups, and his approach includes enough compositional complexity and rhythmic variation to make him part of the new jazz trend. Pure Heart makes his band just a bit smaller than that on his dazzling Greenwood (2007) and Ways and Means (2009), but he gives each player a bit more room to improvise, often in duets or collective group jams. Trumpeter Stephanie Richards, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, and clarinetist Oscar Noriega take full advantage, creating beautiful sections of conversation that bridge structured and free playing. The main event with Carney, however, is always how he creates twisty-turny licks that become groove patterns, hiding odd-meters with the appeal of his grooves. And his piano parts are underrated: he often falls into riveting, rotating parts that relate to the styles of folks like Aaron Parks in the way they allude to Hancock or Tyner or other masters. Another classic Carney disc.

Dave Douglas - Dizzy Atmosphere (Greenleaf)

Trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas practically defines the "new mainstream" in that he spans styles and categories even as he tends to consistently present a trumpet voice that operates in a clarion post-bop area. How marvelous, then, to hear him present a young trumpeter in David Adewumi as his equal in this tribute to the greatest of modern jazz horn players. Douglas balances the program by using veteran drummer Joey Barron along with younger players: Fabian Almazan on piano, guitarist Matt Stevens, and bassist Carmen Rothwell. They interpret the Afro-Cuban "Manteca" and the rare "Pickin' the Cabbage", using contrapuntal rhythm on the former and a jump band puck on the latter. Seven Douglas originals are the heart of recording, however, and they are modern, daring journeys in some cases—but also warm. The band is given lots of room and lots of responsibility, and each member repays what Douglas asks of them.

TREND 3: The new jazz that mixes complex composition with free-ranging improvisation is here to stay, having widened its arsenal to include big band music, vocal music, covers of classic pop, heavy metal, and electronica.

Liberty Ellman - Last Desert (Pi)

The new jazz comes in significant part out of the compositional and strategic ideas developed by Henry Threadgill, and Ellman's experience in Threadgill's bands places his work squarely in the center of this camp. But Ellman's sextet (Jonathan Finlayson's trumpet, Steve Lehman's alto sax, Jose Davila on tuba, and the rhythm section of bassist Stefan Crump and drummer Damion Reid) is tricky and alluring at the same time. As knotty as some of this music may be, it is also beautiful and conventionally swinging at times. Ellman's guitar can whisper like Jim Hall when it wants to, and the ensemble passages are as often catchy as they are challenging. The music demands that you pay careful attention, but not that you tolerate harsh tonalities. There is much to captivate and enough luxury along the way—so that the unusual structures and lack of bluesy resolutions don't seem like a detrimental void. More importantly, each player is such a grand improviser that the stories they choose to tell are captivating even when the composition isn't the main event.

Rudresh Mahanthappa - Hero Trio (Whirlwind)

Rudresh Mahanthappa's small band with bassist François Moutin on bass and drummer Rudy Royston plays with a pungent disregard for tradition while still swinging like absolute mad. This program is the first of the alto saxophonist's career that doesn't include original music, instead interpreting Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Stevie Wonder, Keith Jarrett, Johnny Cash, and a couple of standards. Mahanthappa plays with bite and blues from Bird but also a taste for 21st-century abstraction that has roots in his fascination with Steve Coleman's music from the 1990s. Several of the tunes are given motivic vamp introductions that create a swirling theme against which the well-known tune emerges and to which the band can allow it to return. Moutin and Royston don't overwhelm, but they are powerful—so even "The Windup", which is normally built on a vigorous gospel piano part, works because the rhythm section is so active. "Ring of Fire" is played with small but ingenious rhythmic variations, proving how the new jazz can go anywhere at all.

Ron Miles - Rainbow Sign (Blue Note)

This is the cornet specialist Ron Miles' second recording with the same all-star band, featuring guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist Jason Moran, drummer Brian Blade, and Thomas Morgan on bass. This is new jazz too—compositionally complex and less about blowing solos than creating a single voice—but it is new jazz of the dreamiest, loveliest variety. It's hard to imagine a more cooperative record date, with every musician on simultaneously at the peak of his creative power and fitting into the mood of the entire session. If a composition is lurching and tricky, this mood makes it feel natural and easy nevertheless. If a form is more traditional, the mood imbues the performance with a sensual grace.

Eric Revis Quintet - Slipknots Through a Looking Glass (Pyroclastic)

Bassist and composer Eric Revis has mainstream credentials through his membership in Branford Marsalis's longstanding quartet. But his own recordings, with a sturdy trio and also with larger groups, have tended to be more adventurous and varied, at the edge of the compositional complexity of the new jazz, though usually with plenty of groove. This recording combines his trio and his band with horns into a quintet featuring pianist Kris Davis, saxophonists Bill McHenry and Darius Jones, and drummers Chad Taylor and Justin Faulkner (on a couple of tunes). The mood moves from dark and mysterious ("House of Leaves") to sinuous and slinky ("Earl & the Three-Fifths Compromise" - in a grooving 5/4 time, of course) to strutting and irresistible ("Baby Renfro" with McHenry and Jones punching like the JB horns over a danceable polyrhythm). Jones contributes the uptempo "Shutter" set to a slamming 8/8 snare pattern that explodes out into a wonderful release.

Webber/Morris Big Band - Both Are True (Greenleaf)

Anna Webber and Angela Morris are both saxophonists and composers who work in the new jazz, and they have assembled a classic 18-piece big band that delivers this fresh style to an old format that seems to have been waiting for the transformation. David Murray and Cecil Taylor ran big bands in the old century, but this group is a lightning strike of stunning arrangement. Webber and Morris use the band and its available colors in new and sometimes jarring, sometimes astonishing ways: there are shouts and growls, whispers and hums that Ellington or Oliver Nelson never imagined, even as the lineage of the formation stays intact. The saxophones act like a rhythm section; pulses from "minimalism" are available if necessary; poetry is intoned; blues guitar moves into overdrive as a bold color. As much as I admire all the small bands that have pioneered the new jazz, Webber and Morris' expanded range of options breaks new ground while referencing a grand tradition.

TREND 4:"Free" improvising outside of regular harmonic constraints is now part of every musician's repertoire, to one extent or another—and players associated with free playing have prodigious mainstream technique. So, the distinction no longer has much meaning.

Jeff Cosgrove - History Gets Ahead of the Story (Grizzley Music)

Jeff Cosgrove is a too-little known drummer who lives outside the cities but who plays with heavyweights like Matthew Shipp and William Parker when he can. This recording is built around a set of Parker compositions, interpreted by an organ trio featuring John Medeski on the B3 and reed player Jeff Lederer. Despite both Cosgrove and Parker being naturals at free improvisation, the Parker tunes here are largely bluesy pocket tunes that the band is capable of taking outside—and then bringing right back to heel. Cosgrove joyously grooves the band, particularly on the Parker compositions, but then his original "Ghosts" is a haunting free ballad for organ and clarinet. Medeski and Lederer both come off as slightly overlooked masters, playing with heart and head in tight balance, each being particularly capable of offering wildly different sonorities from track to track. Lederer is on tenor and soprano saxophones, flute, clarinets, masterful in each incarnation. Medeski uses the stops of the organ more creatively than just about anyone, creating buzzing, whistling, and creamy effects. It's only a trio, but the meal is a seven-course feast.

Matthew Shipp - The Piano Equation (Tao Forms)

Much has been made in the last month of the news that pianist Keith Jarrett has suffered from strokes leaving him unable to play. But when it comes to solo piano that is entirely and freely improvised, Matthew Shipp is where it's at. More often than referencing another pianist or any other work, the music on The Piano Equation seems to be pulled directly from the realm where mathematics and magic collide. The title track moves with the inevitability of Bach, with patterns rising and falling, harmonies being consonant, then darker, then resolving, everything revolving in what seems to be a pattern of beauty.

How can this have come to Shipp's fingers in the moment? But its improvised nature is also there in the DNA of the performance, as certain elements keep surprising you, turning your listening down a new alley only to drag you back to the thematic center. This doesn't particularly sound like "jazz", you might say, except that the only pianists who have played with this kind of improvised honesty come from that blues tradition. And despite the classical sheen here, the dissonances and crashing low notes suggest both James P. Johnson and Don Pullen. This is, track for track, a masterpiece.

Chad Taylor Trio - The Daily Biological (Cuneiform)

Chad Taylor is a drummer out of Chicago and his trio is rounded out by DC-based tenor saxophonist Brian Settles and Philadelphia's Neil Podgurski on piano. But wow have they found each other on this date, playing music that is funky, free, powerful, playful, and cliche-absent. The absence of a bass player opens the band up, allowing them to move quickly, and rich solo sections are matched by ensemble playing that crackles. There's free playing here, but it usually comes as a contrast to brilliantly written material, sometimes tricky in time or harmony, sometimes down-home. In many ways this is a recording in the mode of Jeff Cosgrove's record: drummer-led, with a horn and keyboard, flashing its ability to move the ass and befuddle your head, both in a good way. Sorry, bass players.

TREND 5: "Jazz" singing in the style of the 1950s (Ella Fitzgerald, and the like) is still common, but the best singers in the jazz tradition have blissfully liberated themselves and can be more audacious, more modern, more creative.

Thana Alexa - ONA (Independent)

This is the second recording from the Croatian-American singer, and it sits in a dazzling space—not-really-jazz but unclassifiable music that uses jazz players and gorgeous jazz harmonies and melodic style to communicate something beyond boundaries. The band includes the fabulous keyboardist Carmen Staaf, Matt Brewer on bass, Alexa's husband the expert drummer Antonio Sanchez, and guitarist Jordan Peters. Violinist Regina Carter guests on one track, and the singer-songwriter (who Alexa resembles in how she assembles jazz feeling in music that seems not be "jazz" in any narrow way) Becca Stevens sings with her on "He Said, She Said". The tunes are originals but for two, including a dazzling version of "Everybody Wants to Rule the World". Every note here is fantastic—like sunshine, like freedom and celebration, as the songs are filled with a sense of becoming. If jazz simply means finding your voice, then nothing could be more jazz than this.

Kurt Elling - Secrets Are the Best Stories (Edition)

Kurt Elling's latest is a collaboration with pianist Danilo Pérez, featuring Clark Sommers on bass chair, drummer Johnathan Blake and percussionists Rogério Boccato and Román Díaz. Impressionistic and minimalistic, with the musicians often playing quietly and in smaller groupings, this may be our best singer's best recording. The focus is on the lyrics, either by Elling to melodies by Pérez, Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Perez, Django Bates, or Vince Mendoza or by poets such as Robert Pinsky or Robert Bly. The subjects are dead serious: the politics of immigration and racism, yes, but also intimacy, isolation, and introspection. On four tunes it's just Elling and Pérez—each brilliant, and the duo's composition based on Toni Morrison's Beloved, which includes saxophonist Miguel Zenón. It's emotionally jarring and brilliant, using the language of jazz to create something not like much else in that's genre's 100 years of music. Here we have jazz singing that sounds very much in the tradition, vocally, but being used in a project that is ambitiously beyond category.

John Hollenbeck - Songs You Like a Lot (Flexatonic)

This is third in a series of sessions in which John Hollenbeck, the arranger and composer, transforms post-1950 popular songs with the aid of the Frankfurt Radio Big Band and singers Theo Bleckman and Kate McGarry. It may be the best of the three, but why bother choosing? There are songs here, chosen by fans, from Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel, James Taylor, Brian Wilson, and the Bee Gees, every track blossoming into something that sounds almost wholly new. Some tracks maintain the form of the original ("Fire and Rain", "How Deep Is Your Love") and others are, essentially, original compositions build from the pieces of the originals ("God Only Knows", "Pure Imagination"). No other creative musician has managed to recast great rock-era pop tunes as "new standards" with such luminous beauty and significance. No one else has applied a personal musical language to them while still allowing their own merits to shine. These discs are treasures to hold tight and to blow your mind.

Fay Victor's SoundNoiseFUNK - We've Had Enough! (ESP Disk)

If Abby Lincoln were around during the last four years, I think she would sound something like Fay Victor, who is a pure jazz singer who happens to have freed herself of anything that might hold her back from total creativity. This is yet another "second recording" by a wonderful band, with Joe Morris on guitar, Same Newsome's winsome soprano saxophone, and Reggie Nicholson on drums. "What's Gone Wrong?" repeats the title phrase against a layered groove that grooves in a sophisticated way, setting up a simple counter-melody initiated by Victor and picked up by Morris. In contrast, "Ritual" and "I.M. Peach" are wordless and more abstract. But the genius of this date is that so much of it is filled with joy in the face of outrage. Fay and her band are always light on their feet, playing with each other—really playing. Victor improvises with lyrics as well as notes, often addressing politics, but even when she is singing "no air" in a song about climate destruction you are drawn in by the artful play of the band.

TREND 6: Concerns beyond the purely musical, particularly the agency of women in the music and the ability of all creative musicians to be paid fairly for their music, are not resolved but are finally being addressed more directly.

Maria Schneider - Data Lords (ArtistShare)

Maria Schneider is one of the unassailable voices in jazz—a Grammy regular who is nevertheless an uncompromising and whose big band is essentially a New York all-star band. Her latest recording is a double-length affair, with a first-half meant to evoke the dark menace of the big tech companies who are harvesting data from consumers and telling musicians (especially creative musicians whose margins are so much thinner) to fuck off and just make more music if they hope to make any music in the digital economy. The second half evokes the beauty of the natural world, allowing listeners to hear an alternative. And Schneider has the incredible players who can give the instrumental colors to paint both portraits. Guitarist Ben Monder is particularly critical to "The Digital World", using his power and distortion combined with melodic invention. Gary Versace's accordion plays an equivalent key role on "The Natural World", though other voices make huge impressions as well: Ryan Keberle's trombone, saxophonists Steve Wilson and Donny McCaslin, pianist Frank Kimbrough.

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