Again this year we find ourselves navigating the uncertainly of a global pandemic.
Only recently have some Jazz musicians returned to any sense of normality, but now Omicron is positioned to change that too. Still it was another banner year for Jazz - a testament to the enduring resilience of Jazz and the ecology that supports it. Remarkably almost every corner of the art form found a new way to transform itself.
Big bands got quirky, chamber ensembles bent the rules, fusion and funk went hard core, and a variety of vocalists got down to basics or abandoned them entirely, bringing a new level of intimacy to their artistic work. Meanwhile independent record labels stood their ground, many out preforming larger labels releasing some of the best music of the year. Artists continued to hone their creativity, polishing virtual platforms in order to play, collaborate, teach or simply stay connected with their audiences.
Many also braved the strong winds of these turbulent times, creating music that navigates the cultural, historical, and political issues key to their work, personal identities and the communities that sustain them. These unapologetic narratives extended to virtual workshops, academic programming, festivals and conferences dedicated to questioning how Jazz handles diversity, equity and inclusion.
To celebrate the best and brightest of the bunch I got to share with you this year, here's 33third.org's top ten albums that broke new ground, moved the needle, tackled tough territory in elegant ways, or were just extraordinarily good in 2021.
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.
Tapping into several major genres that have shaped American popular music, The Baylor Project's offering for 2021 is a striking tribute to the chaos and wonder of 2020. Top notch musicianship, a vivid collage of contrasting styles, and a firm commitment to singing their truth, The Baylor Project continues to shape Jazz into an entirely new form of popular music. Using an inclusive methodology, Generations testifies, swings, and reinvents Jazz classics, while honoring the glory, wonder and systemic oppression of being Black in the United States. Special guests Dianne Reeves, Jazzmeia Horn, Kenny Garrett, and Sullivan Fortner, electrify an album whose collective integrity comes from years of playing Jazz, gospel, R&B, and the blues. Courageous and controversial, Generations is a beacon for Jazz and a foil for those who preach it's imminent demise.
For many Ain't Got Long might not even qualify as a "Jazz" album. Built on the brilliant arranging of Jonathan Goldsmith, this idiosyncratic ensemble takes chamber music to new heights, shaping pop tunes, field recordings and classic compositions from the American song book into sonic sculptures that, through their superior creative ambition, are quintessentially Jazz. Gems like Ain't Got Long, River and What'll I Do are forged into bleak but beautiful cinematic landscapes, compositions that cut to the emotional bone while soaring with musical dynamics that will shift the paradigm of what sustains you musically. Searing, layered with textures that delight, shock and transform, Ain't Got Long is a template for the rebirth classical orchestration can have on music seeking to create inquisitive dialogs between form, function and the ebullient spontaneity of Jazz.
Remove the South Bronx from musical history and huge sections of salsa and Latin Jazz would cease to exist. Knowing this, Jazz at Lincoln Center bassist Carlos Henriquez has penned a spectacular work celebrating his seminal neighborhood and the childhood memories, deplorable conditions, community heroes, and legendary artists that shaped its unique history and the exceptional music it gave birth to. The South Bronx Story radiates with the energy of a composer experienced at orchestrating the talents of his ensemble into a unified sense of purpose. From the fire within tunes like Black (Benji), Hip Hop Con Clave and Soy Humano, to the soulful Guajeo De Papi and the moving Mama Lorraine, the album bares the gifts of its contributors with superb solo work by saxophonist Melissa Aldana, trumpeters Terell Stafford and Michael Rodriguez, pianist Robert Rodriguez and flutist/vocalist Jeremy Bosch.
For years trumpeter Theo Croker has been circling around a sound that always seemed on the brink of changing one of the major precepts of Jazz. Edgy, astral, balancing the energy of progressive rock with something George Clinton would appreciate, Croker has always aimed to infuse Jazz with something it rarely does well: an update to the staid conventions of how other genres of Black music infuse the art form. This delicate alchemy has been perfected in BLK2LIFE || A FUTURE PAST, an ode to the nature in which Black culture has shaped music throughout the world. Self-produced, featuring contributions from a variety of artists as Wyclef Jean, Charlotte Dos Santos, Iman Omari, Malaya, Kassa Overall and Gary Bartz, BLK2LIFE || A FUTURE PAS, swerves through cliches, landing big beats, strong bass lines, atmospherics, spoken word, rap and deft instrumental play that currently define the mystical universe of this genius.
Paired with fellow musician, conductor and arranger Magnus Lindgren, John Beasley sets off to honor another storied Jazz legend with Bird Lives. While not with the MONK'estra ensemble, the Ferrari Beasley usually drives, the SWR Big Band does well to fuel the imaginations of these master arrangers. Tunes take on familiar hues even while Magnus and Beasley tweak the saturation points, adding a list of high profile guest artists to add even more color to the sensational sonic palette Charlie Parker institutionalized in Jazz. Donna Lee and Scrapple from the Apple stand out as the most playful adaptations, infused with Latin rhythms, horn choruses and just the right amount of strings. Even with the continued resurgence of big bands and large ensemble work, Bird Lives is a notch above the rest, honoring Charlie Parker with the kind of ingenuity he'd be at home with.
Story telling, and the political history of place, go hand in hand with Jazz. For Mexican drummer Gustavo Cortinas this tradition unfolds in his masterwork Desafio Candente; a sweeping account of how colonialism and capitalism have shaped Latin America. Influenced by the work of author Eduardo Galeano and his book “The Open Veins of Latin America,” Cortinas double album incorporates thirteen guest speakers and twenty one musicians from eleven countries. Spoken word, indigenous instrumentation and the rhythmic and melodic foundations from various Latin cultures shape music detailing how genocide, slavery and systemic oppression have shaped political and economic realities throughout the Americas. Lyrical, transversing such expanses of sound, Desafio Candente is a remarkable journey through landscapes and struggles that continues to this day.
Ambitious projects are second nature to this remarkably gifted artist. Tackling issues while delivering enterprising musical experiences make Somi more than just a world-class vocalist. As a catalyst, her work hybridizes musical transitions while unpacking important cultural and political topics. Joined by vocalists Msaki, Seun Kuti, Gregory Porter, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and activists Thandiswa Mazwai and Angelique Kidjo, Zenzile: The Reimagination of Miriam Makeba acts as tribute and open book to the splendor of African music and it's connection to Jazz. Sounding very much like the musical (Dreaming Zenzile) it will evolve into, Zenzile delivers a sumptuous combination of music popularized throughout Makeba's career. Supple arrangements blend the African, popular, symphonic and Jazz influence that have become the foundation for this international star and the legend she's celebrating.
Harnessing the collective power of saxophonists Shabaka Hutchings, Jason Yarde, Colin Webster and Denys Baptiste, poet Anthony Joseph's The Rich Are Only Defeated When Running For Their Lives easily proved to be the best spoken word album in Jazz for 2021. Celestial horn play becomes the muscular call and response to Joseph's verve and skill. Building powerful stories by matching words and wit to the spirit and cadence of each composition, Joseph brilliantly details the rich existence and political reality Black immigrant communities face in England. Paying respect to poet Kamau Brathwaite, Kamau is masterful story-telling, melodies pushing the narrative, as Joseph polishes history and metaphor to their bountiful limits. Swing Praxis is as fiery, as Language (dedicated to fellow poet Anthony McNeil) is loving, with Jospeh always finding the perfect authority to bring each song to life.