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.

Johnathan BlakeHomeward Bound (Blue Note)

Johnathan Blake - Homeward Bound

Drummer Johnathan Blake leads a sharp, young quintet on his Blue Note debut, with bassist Dezron Douglas, pianist David Virelles, and labelmates Joel Ross on vibes and saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins on alto saxophone. Blake is the oldest, but everyone in the group is a star. Blake has given them brilliant material that makes this one of the finest outings for each of these musicians.

Blake’s compositions and arrangements are utterly of the moment. They beautifully straddle complex New Jazz metric shifts, harmonic freedom, and a pan-stylistic reach with the kind of jazz soulfulness that folks associate with those old, funky Blue Note recordings of 50 years ago. Each band member exhibits a similar range, which can also be thought of as a refusal to embrace a single camp in what used to be the silly jazz wars. As much as any other recording on this list, Homeward Bound is capable of arresting your imagination but still seeming palatable to non-jazz ears. That’s an accomplishment.

Maria GrandReciprocity (Biophilia)

Maria Grand - Reciprocity

Swiss saxophonist Maria Grand has a decade of working in New York City on the New Jazz scene, boasting an enigmatic, searching tone. She can use a silvery sheen to slide her melody lines at you, but she has also developed a brawnier tone that links her back to other saxophone traditions. Her lines sometimes wander in a linear manner that evokes Sonny Rollins. At other times, they circle in small cells of melody that belie her long tenure in Steve Coleman’s band and work with musicians such as Vijay Iyer. 

Reciprocity‘s acoustic bass, drums, and tenor saxophone format directly evoke the great Rollins trios. Other times, Grand taps other traditions. “Canto Mana” by the Venezuelan singer Jesus Hidalgo suggests the kind of adaptations of pop tunes that we might associate with Miles Davis. The elastic and soulful groove of the bass and drums, along with Grand’s unmannered singing, really honor the song and bring feeling from simplicity. Grand uses vocals more prominently on a couple of other compositions. The most effective is the harmonized group vocal chant of “Now, Take, Your, Day”, which sets up a simple theme for the trio over a funk groove. On Reciprocity, Grand’s potential is widely realized.

Adam O’FarrillVisions of Your Other (Biophilia)

Adam O'Farrill - Visions of Your Other

Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill calls this piano/guitar-less quartet Stranger Days after the title of its first recording, which was a stunner. Visions of Your Other is just as good, with what amounts to four melody instruments (yes, I’m counting drummer/brother Zack O’Farrill in that category) interweaving in ingenious arrangements that make the absence of a chording instrument irrelevant. As before, the composer takes inspiration from films, using his music to illustrate dramatic conflicts. But, simply as sonic entertainment, Visions of Your Other is fetching.

For example, on “Kurosawa at Berghain”, O’Farrill places his trumpet an octave below the tenor saxophone of Xavier Del Castillo, rubbing up against each other to create to the aural illusion that there is a flute somewhere on the track. In the meantime, bassist Walter Stinson and Zack O’Farrill play in strutting, skittering patterns that invite the soloists to frolic, to dance. There is plenty going on, and each player knows how to improvise in a way that tells a story. For all the tricky business in the composition, placing it into my New Jazz box, the fun factor is always in place.

Notable Runners-Up

Among the New Jazz albums, Snark Horse from pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Kate Gentile is ingenious. Many concise, single-measure melodies are presented as fodder for improvisation by the duo and a group of WOW guests. Also, Ann Webber’s Idiom(with Mitchell and drummer John Hollenbeck as her trio, as well as an extended piece for a large ensemble) will spin your head, showing Webber to be a woodwind virtuoso as well as a composer with a million different gears. Additionally, the master Henry Threadgill took his Zooid band into the studio for Poof, additional proof that no one could copy his style, but few modern players would sound the same were it not for him.

I don’t have any recordings by vocalists on my top list, but I adored the new Flor from Gretchen Parlato. She harnesses Brazilian rhythms and intriguing melody to create a truly modern vocal sound that is certainly “jazz” but not ever a mere extension of the Billie/Ella/Sarah tradition. More, please.

Keyboard wizard James Francies was everywhere this year (including being part of the Pat Metheny Side-Eye project). Still, I was entranced with his playing on saxophonist Chris Potter‘s trio album Sunrise Reprise and his own Purest FormWhen Potter is overdubbing woodwinds beside Francies buzzing, orchestral synths, the only words that come to mind are “Weather Report”. His work as a leader was similarly layered and intense.

Two quartets really sang: a band of lesser-knowns called Nortonk released the first album of trumpet/sax/bass/drums music that crackled almost as well as the O’Farrill recording, and the cooperative quartet East Axis put out Cool With That, a recording where saxophonist Allen Lowe stakes a claim to Dewey Redman lineage and pianist Matthew Shipp continues to shine.

I spent hours absorbing the fourth recording from Sons of Kemet, Black to the FutureSaxophonist Shabaka Hutchings is from England with parents from Barbados. His bands connect to African and Afro-Caribbean grooves to vocals, politics, and the “spiritual jazz” era from 50 years ago. The vocal and percussive performances are compelling in every respect.

Finally, a word about what is sure to consider the “jazz” album of the year by many, Promises, featuring saxophonist Pharoah Sanders in collaboration with the British electronic musician Sam Shepherd (known as “Floating Points”) and the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s a fascinating document—big in that it has many “movements” and a sweeping conception, and exceptionally small in that it is the unraveling and elaboration of a single musical phrase, repeated across every track. The recording is a unique combination of textures, and it dares to use Sanders in a wholly new way. Many critics hear in it the “spiritual jazz” of Alice Coltrane—and that may seem to be the hippest thing happening in a year when Kamasi Washington was quiet.

To my taste, the music is less connected to the tradition of American creative music than to ambient or trance music. That isn’t meant to be a put-down or a dismissal but, perhaps, an explanation of why Promises doesn’t belong on a list next to Orrin Evans, Dave Holland, and James Brandon Lewis. Others may argue that the recording is very much linked to music by Sylvie Courvoisier and Maria Grand. Either way, it’s an intriguing listen—even if I doubt I will return to it out of anything more than continued curiosity.