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.

Orrin Evans – The Magic of Now (Smoke Sessions)

Orrin Evans - The Magic of Now

Pianist Orrin Evans has been just about everywhere lately. He’s got a big band, he recently debuted a Brazilian project with vocals, he was in the Bad Plus for a few years, and then you find him recorded what seems like a straight-ahead quartet session for Smoke Sessions. Inside the alto sax (rising star Immanuel Wilkins) plus rhythm section format, you’ll find further proof that classic jazz and New Jazz aren’t actually too far apart.

The first track, “Mynah/The Eleventh Hour”, is drenched in the vibe of Philly/soul-jazz but has the complex rhythmic structures of something out of Brooklyn circa yesterday. Vincente Archer is given a hip bass line pulled from the Wayne Shorter playbook, and drummer Bill Stewart is essentially improvising for the full 14 minutes like the spritely Tony Williams had been reborn within him. The band and Evans’s compositions offer a variety of pleasures. “Momma Loves” hints are swing and joy in lurching teases, “MAT-Matt” sets up pure four-on-the-floor joy but is wise to interrupt it with little bursts of surprise, and “The Poor Fisherman” is a translucent ballad that leaves tons of room for freedoms by each player.

Dave HollandAnother Land (Edition)

Dave Holland - Another Land

Dave Holland, frankly, doesn’t know how to make a bad record. But Another Land is in the top ranks. Like the Gateway sessions he made for ECM back in the 1970s, this is like a fusion record, featuring electric guitar (then John Abercrombie, here Kevin Eubanks) and whiz-bang drums (then Jack DeJohnette, here Obed Calvaire). All the Holland tells are in place—ear-worm bass lines, motivic melodies, a sense of unquestioned elasticity. There are gorgeous tunes here (including a solo track for Eubanks), fire-juiced fusion tracks that allow Calvaire to indulge in Afro-pop polyrhythms, which open up into glorious jams.

We get treated to 5/4 romps and 6/8 grooves. And, as much as anything, what a treat to hear Kevin Eubanks reaching again for improvisational stars. Eubanks played on some fabulous Holland dates decades ago, and it seems as though we ought to get to enjoy him more. Another Land is often a vehicle that reminds us of Eubanks, even as it seems like a coming-out party for Calvaire. But that’s what Dave Holland always does: make everyone else sound amazing.

Sylvie Courvoisier and Mary HalvorsonSearching for the Disappeared Hour (Pyroclastic)

Searching for the Disappeared Hour

The Swiss pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and the American guitarist Mary Halvorson recorded their first duet album, Crop Circles, in 2016 after a single concert. This new one follows much more playing, and the simpatico is now utter and a wonder. Both are players in the New Jazz world who value strong writing and how it connects to improvisation that is not defined or bounded by sets of chord changes.

The writing here is mostly very tonal and “pretty”, bringing to mind some older chamber jazz as much it does any classical New Music. Halvorson and Courvoisier have said that the classic Bill Evans/Jim Hall duets were a model. But the real action, on the composed pieces and several freely improvised ones, is how expertly the piano and guitar weave around and complement each other. Halvorson’s quirky use of her pitch-bending delay pedal is now at a level of stunning control, and she seems positively lyrical more often than not. Courvoisier plays her percussive instrument with a touch that is paradoxically both light and drum-like.

Vijay IyerUneasy (ECM)

Vijay Iyer - Uneasy

Like several other artists this year, pianist and composer Vijay Iyer turned to longtime colleagues to review a range of his older compositions through a new lens in 2021. This trio is now a group of equals, with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, as august on the scene as the leader. Iyer gives everyone plenty of room to impress, reinterpreting music initially for his sextet, his quartet with Rudresh Mahanthappa, or even his hip-hop-inflected duets with Mike Ladd. The group also plays a Geri Allen composition and the standard “Night and Day”, as played by McCoy Tyner on the classic, Inner Urge.

Tyner haunts more tune than just this one, with his combination of modal swirls, delicious dissonances in the service of melody, and adventurous momentum. Generally, though, Iyer doesn’t use Uneasy to show off as a pianist. Indeed, the star player here is probably Sorey, whose profile as a serious composer in 2021 has eclipsed what he does as a brilliant percussionist. May Han Oh also plays like a star, arresting in how she rises through the trio’s aural space. Not entirely unlike Bill Charlap’s trio, this band works in careful balance.

James Brandon LewisJesup Horse (Tao Forms)

James Brandon Lewis - Jesup Horse

Conceived as a portrait of the African-American scientist and thinker George Washington Carver, this album features James Brandon Lewis’s tenor saxophone paired with cornetist Kirk Knuffke—also an eclectic New York player with Colorado roots—as well as William Parker on bass, frequent duet partner Chad Taylor on drums, and the intriguing addition of the cellist Chris Hoffman, who has been playing with Henry Threadgill’s group.

The result has reach and variation: lyricism, folk forms that echo Ornette Coleman, no fear of harmonic freedom, simple grooves and complex forms in cross-hatching, and expressive individual voices that operate with huge ears from every player. Other saxophonists in creative music are playing with some of the broad expressionist styles that Lewis has mastered. Shabaka Hutchings, the British player who helms Sons of Kemet, and Californian Kamasi Washington both use a big, raw sound that Lewis leans toward. But, of those three, James Brandon Lewis seems the most daring and the least boxed in by one particular association or stylistic vision. Jesup Horse may be his best recording.