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 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.