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.

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.