Best Jazz Albums 2021
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The 13 Best Jazz Albums of 2021

Creative, improvised music in the Black American tradition remains in a state of wonder and genre-crossing excitement in the best jazz albums of 2021.

Every area of the arts was (and, perhaps, continues to be) dramatically affected by the pandemic. Performances—and therefore income—were curtailed. Recording sessions proceeded but with more rarity and with limitations. The output of recordings that we got this year was lesser than usual, with plenty of records reflecting individual musicians working in isolation or exploring themes that suggest a certain pandemic tension.

Still, the creative/improvised music in the Black American tradition remains in a state of wonder and genre-crossing excitement. My favorites this year are in three categories. A sweet bulk of mainstream material sits squarely in “the tradition”, though rarely old-fashioned. Musicians still work in and around traditions with long and rich histories: the classic piano trio, a horn or small group of horns atop a modern rhythm section, impressionistic jazz, and daring fusion. There are a stunning half-dozen recordings that embody the rainbow of “New Jazz”, the term I use to indicate modern jazz that combines compositional complexity, a freedom from the dichotomy between free improvising and post-bop rules, and the shuffling in influences from contemporary classical music, folk music, hip-hop, and elsewhere. Also, I loved three recordings of solo performances inspired by pandemic isolation.

Here are my favorite baker’s dozen of the best jazz albums, plus a list of distinguished alternates.

Jon Irabagon – Bird with Streams (Irrabagast)

Jon Irabagon - Bird with Streams

Jon Irabagon is a saxophonist of prodigious technique and antic imagination. In a year of isolation in South Dakota when he was not celebrating the centennial of Charlie Parker with audiences, he headed into the wilderness to play by himself. The result is so much more than Bird tribute. On some tracks, Irabagon plays bebop with swinging, ferocious accuracy, ripping through Parker originals with such relish that the 80-year-old style is reified as bracingly, eternally modern. On others, he uses wild and expressive forms of extended technique to realize Bird’s melodies in dazzling new ways.

At times, though it never rises to the level of a gimmick, he catches the sounds of nature around him, emerging in silences or dueting with him, underlining something of the weight of this music. As ever, Irabagon can be puckish—as when he drops out for specific lengths in his swinging performance, effectively “trading fours” with the mountains. But in so many other respects, this is one of his most serious or focused efforts. Even on his couple of original compositions, the listener is led back to how jazz has lineage even when (especially when?) its practitioners are most daring.

Darius Jones – Raw Demoon Alchemy (A Lone Operation) (Northern Spy)

Darius Jones - Raw Demoon Alchemy

I’m certain that Alto saxophonist Darius Jones hasn’t recorded for a while, even though he has been performing and writing. This live concert recording (made in Portland, Oregon before the pandemic hit, ironically) uncharacteristically finds Jones playing the music of other composers, displaying his vast range of associations and connections. Today, there isn’t a saxophonist with a purer and more astonishing tone, one of authority and humanity. On Georgia Ann Muldrow’s “Figure No. 2”, he plays the simple two-part melodic line in repetitions that grow deeper and more varied (and ultimately more intimate) with each turn.

Not expecting someone like Jones to play a standard like “Beautiful Love”? It is a remarkable thing, with every note Jones chooses being utterly deliberate and exact, some bent to true tonality from a distance, some colored with a growl or other exciting articulations. The melody shines, eventually, stripped of sentimentality. Versions of Ornette Coleman’s “Sadness” and  Roscoe Mitchell’s “Nonaah” are equally classical in approach. Only on Sun Ra’s “Love in Outer Space” does Jones move into overblowing and extended wild technique, only to come back to his most playful theme of the concert.

John PizzarelliBetter Days Ahead, Solo Guitar Takes on Pat Metheny (Ghostlight)

John Pizzarelli - Better Days Ahead

While guitarist Pat Metheny‘s Side-Eye Vol. I-IV NYC is on my honorable mention list, I keep coming back to this solo acoustic guitar recording by a guitarist unassociated with the kind of modern, almost-“fusion” of Metheny. John Pizzarelli, whose famous dad Bucky (and mom) both died of covid, has devoted his career to swing-style guitar mainly on the American songbook repertoire—and as a singer. But like any guitarist of his generation, Pizzarelli grew up on Metheny’s tuneful material. Isolated at a country house, the younger man found ways to play entire band arrangements on his seven-string acoustic guitar with no overdubbing.

The project brings out the very best in Pizzarelli, whose ingenious guitar work is can be easy to slide past when he is crooning in an affable way, and the very best in Metheny’s material, which sometimes seems a bit smoother than it really is when played by the Pat Metheny Group, with its bright synths, wordless vocals, and Brazilian bounce. Pizzarelli gives a recital that is every bit as riveting as those by Irabagon or Jones, with intricacy, emotion, precision, and beauty.

Bill CharlapStreet of Dreams (Blue Note)

Bill Charlap - Street of Dreams

It doesn’t get much more “traditional” than the piano trio of Bill Charlap, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Kenny Washington, who have been playing together for 24 years. But that doesn’t mean that these folks play cliches or aren’t inventing new music in the moment. All you need to hear is their new, revelatory version of “What are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life” to see that the piano trio remains a canvas for hip innovation. Charlap and his rhythm section mix solo piano, swing, elided conversation, and suspense with imagination. They work considerable magic of old standards, Dave Brubeck’s “The Duke”, a bluesy Kenny Burrell tune, all without seeming to rehash the past.

Andrew Cyrille QuartetThe News (ECM)

Andrew Cyrille Quartet - The News

At 82, Andrew Cyrille is proving that drummers have some of the longest and most varied careers in creative music. He is often associated with his most avant-garde gigs (with pianists Cecil Taylor and Andrew Hill, for example), but his taste has always been broad and inclusive. In 2016 he recorded a wonderful quartet debut for ECM called Declaration of Musical Independence with guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Ben Street, and the late Richard Teitelbaum’s keyboards. 

The News brings in the Cuban pianist David Virelles to fill the void, and the result is shimmering and delightful. Yes, with Frisell on guitar and Manfred Eicher producing, the great bands led by drummer Paul Motian are evoked. “Go Happy Lucky” is a Monk-ish off-kilter blues that invites Virelles to go off script in wonderful ways. The title track is playfully “out” and atonal but cracklingly, charmingly so. And several of the ballads (“Baby”, “Incienso”) are mature and fulsome. The concluding track, “With You in Mind”, is introduced by a spoken poem and then sets up Virelles and Frisell to sound like Bill Evans and Jim Hall. It is a record for any age or sensibility.