2020 was a helluva year.
Everything that could go wrong did, and then did again. I won't belabor a list (I'm sure you have your own) and yet through a year where, at least metaphorically, we were supposed to see things clearly, somehow journalism became fake news, black and brown lives still didn't matter enough, and climate change took a monumental back seat to a global pandemic that many still think is a hoax.
And yet the bands played on. Great music was imagined, recorded and preformed in front of audiences until COVID19 made live performance impossible. So Jazz went virtual, Zoom became a concert venue, and 2020 remained a year to be reckoned with in Jazz.
Here are fourteen albums, 33third.org's top ten with four honorable mentions, that broke new ground, moved the needle, or were just extraordinarily good in 2020.
Special thanks to all the musicians, listeners, record labels and promoters who supported Currents and Dialogs this year.
Click on artist names to go to their websites, and album titles to hear or purchase their music.
At only 22, Immanuel Wilkins' debut album Omega is a masterwork, an important musical document of our times and most certainly a keyframe to what will be a phenomenal career in Jazz. By chronicling death and rebellion with songs like Ferguson - An American Tradition, or the horrific brutality of lynching with Mary Turner - An American Tradition, Wilkins straddles "the grotesque and sublime" of Black American life, tapping into Jazz's origins as protect music. Omega radiates with poise, clarity and the advanced maturity of compositions like Grace and Mercy that celebrate the promise of this bright young star and his stellar quartet. Brilliantly composed, arranged and played, Omega begs you to stop looking away from the complex set of realities that is the Black experience in America.
Rarely do musicians leap so far forward in the span of a single album. While Thana Alexa's first album Ode to Masters was a thoughtful introduction to her career, ONA is a compelling testament to Alexa's future as a preeminent vocalist in Jazz. After being rejected by enough Jazz record labels, Alexa self-released ONA, crafting musical styles with a keen ear for producing songs that have a remarkably broad appeal. Croatian for "she," ONA's feminist theme gets support from a versatile quartet, and guests Regina Carter, Becca Stevens, Staceann Chin and the ROSA Vocal group, all helping to notch the album two Granny nominations. In front of such artful musicianship, Alexa presents her truth to power moments resolutely, enlightening listeners to be progressive change agents in a time when we need it most.
As Thelonious Monk's preeminent interpreter, John Beasley has made a career reinventing Monks' music for new audiences. MONK'estra Plays John Beasley continues on this theme incorporating other classics, originals and the familiar set of influences that have shaped so many iconoclastic arrangements throughout Beasley’s career. In his hands, Donna Lee blooms into the sophisticated layering of chord changes, mood and the rhythmic dynamics of the clave, while Locomotive relives the majesty of big band arranging with a new found hue. While Monk's tunes get their usual spotless finish, Come Sunday and several new songs shine in their own glorious ways.
Black poets, comics and preachers all improvise in ways that are uniquely familiar to Jazz. Hear Kamau Daáood, Bernie Mac or Dr. Cornell West speak, and you'll immediately know what I mean. Four Questions revolves around that tradition, four famous questions posed by W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, and the integrity of pianist, composer, arrange and Afro-Latin Jazz champion Arturo O'Farrill. The soul of the record is the title track, a sixteen minute opus to Du Bois incorporating West and his oral version of an extended John Coltrane solo. Just one of many songs that frame this complex, musical treatise on the passion of O'Farrill's political convictions.
Art imitating life is on full display with Maria Schneider's Data Lords. As she embarks on a landmark lawsuit against Google, Data Lords tackles the struggles between our natural and digital worlds. Multifaceted, layered with the softness and intensity her work is known for, this epic begins with "The Digital World " and the gorgeously dark A World Lost. Don't Be Evil is a tense melodic metaphor to the hypocrisy of Google's original motto, while the title track Data Lords resembles the stark, angular power big tech has built for itself. Back in "Our Natural World," songs take on a lighter note, guided by the instructive Look Up, the beautiful The Sun Waited for Me and the delightfully mercurial Bluebird. Data Lords shows just how committed Schneider is to building equity for musicians and their audiences even if it means taking on one of the most powerful companies in the world.
Perfectly titled, Dream Circus is Misha Mullov-Abbado's manifesto to having earned a place among the field of extraordinarily creative bassists in contemporaryJazz. A co-production with BBC Radio 3 and their New Generation Artist's program, Dream Circus features Mullov-Abbado's sextet navigating nine dazzling charts that range from swing, to chamber and moreprogressive minded Jazz. Beneath it all is Mullov-Abbado's bass, drifting through fast corners, punctuating complicated tunes like Bear and Blue Deer, and anchoring the entire work with a creative flare that's rare for musicians his age. Finally we're left with Stillness, a somber, meditative tune reminiscent of Jazz's golden years. Great music sounds thrilling several times through and Dream Circus carries that burden proudly. And to think Dream Circus is only Mullov-Abbado's third album.
For weeks I gleefully listened to this album like it was a pop radio station. Addictive melodies coming from extremely well crafted songs have become the signature for guitarist Tom Guarna, and on Spirit Science, he combines this exquisite skill with a brilliant quintet featuring his melodic alto-ego, alto saxophonist Ben Wendel. Like any good snack food, you'll find it impossible to take in just one song, as compositions like The Trion Re, Platonic Solids and The Genesis Pattern will have you double dipping throughout the album. Inspired by geometry, Spirit Science exemplifies the belief that beauty is created by unique proportions of natural forms. Tight, elegant and enduring, Spirit Science is Guarna’s best to date.
Of everything that ended up shaping 2020, it was perhaps most critically an election year of historic proportions. Regina Carter's Swing States capitalizes on this by reimagining classics like Georgia On My Mind, On Wisconsin! and Rocky Mountain High, and then utilizes her gift as an ethnomusicologist with guest monologues speaking to the states she's swinging through. Whether playing with her band or alone on piercing songs like We Shall Overcome, few play the violin better in Jazz than Regina Carter. At this stage of her career, we get to witness her genius in action. And for 2020 that meant Swing States, an album that makes you feel great while getting out the vote.
If Sonny Rollins perfected the Jazz trio, then drummer Antonio Sanchez has perfected its distant electronic cousin. Trio Grande morphs Sanchez's mastery with the talents of guitar savant Gilad Hekselman and fiery saxophonist Will Vinson, shaping an album that sounds much larger than just a trio. Propelled by this winning chemistry, the band churns out music that defies genres, angling instead for a unique energy that shifts from the pensive Oberkampf to the frenetic Gotca, and the driving anthem Northbound. Get ready to lose yourself in an album that showcases players who collaborate beautifully, adding just the right ingredients for a glorious musical journey.
With the song Twilight Is Upon Us, pianist Billy Childs completely personifies the skill and vision he brings to his latest album Acceptance. With sparkling technique, a veteran quartet that pushes this music to another level, and guests like Alicia Olatuja and Elena Pinderhughes, Acceptance shines from beginning to end. Best known for his cinematic like arranging skills, Childs zeros in on the quartet at hand, allowing players like Eric Harland (Leimert Park ), Steve Wilson (Dori ) and Hans Glawischnig (Oceana ) the space to demonstrate their elite skills. Quiet but bold, taking big leaps but always landing its jumps, Acceptance is the next chapter in Child's stunning musical career.
Music from her sensational 2017 release Petite Afrique forms the backdrop of Holy Room, Somi's 2020 live recording. Holy Room maintains the punch of Somi's original compositions but in longer forms via the masterful arranging of John Beasley, and the orchestration of the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. Nominated this year for a Best Jazz Vocal Album Grammy Award, Somi uses songs like The Gentry, Kadiatou the Beautiful and Like Dakar to showcase a dynamic physical and emotional range that continues to make her as one of the best vocalists in Jazz. Holy Room piles on the rise and fall of tension and release as Somi explores race, racism, gentrification and her elegant portrait of Blackness.
Even the name of saxophonist Felipe Salles' band tells you what this work is all about. The New Immigrant Experience is Salles' new album with his Interconnections Ensemble; an album magnifying the lives of DREAMers living in the US. Two years in the making, Salles composed and arranged the double CD, conducting his ensemble through music that featured multi-media work reflecting a variety of immigrant experiences. Powerful, searing, profound and educational, The New Immigrant Experience invites you to embrace how immigrants struggle, but also thrive in ways that have sustained the vitality of the US throughout its complicated history with who gets to be an American.