Not everyone wins a Grammy or is fortunate enough to land on a Downbeat poll. Taken together, all the awards and "Best of" lists (including this one) can't possibly account for the remarkable diversity of unique listening opportunities Jazz musicians create each year.
And 2020 had tons of them.
Take Russian born, Azat Bayazitov a strong, fluid tenor saxophonist whose album The Doors Are Open wowed many who appreciate good composition and elite musicianship. To get a good sense of his talents, check out On The Other Side Of The Bridge, a love letter to his new home town, New York City. Who knew avant-edge New Orleanian trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah had "Reinventing a classic Simon & Garfunkel song!" on his Jazz bucket list. On his recent live album AXIOM, Guinevere simmers for a while before boiling over into a luscious Afro-Latin groove reminiscent of Mile Davis’ timeless Bitches Brew album. Meanwhile saxophonist Tim Garland's historical exercise this year was revisiting Focus, one of Stan Getz favorite albums recorded in 1961 with strings. Titled ReFocus this time around, Garland’s playing adds an angular curiosity on songs like The Autumn Gate, which pairs perfectly with his symphonic treatment.
Big bands are back in a big way. The Caption Black Big Band led by pianist Orrin Evans recorded The Intangible Between, and a wonderfully sentimental version of A Time for Love. On the other side of the spectrum was Arturo O'Farrill and his Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. Inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois' 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, the album's title track Four Questions features Dr. Cornell West speaking as lyrically as any good soloist might in Jazz. Somewhere in the middle is MONK'estra Plays John Beasley, another outstanding collection of supremely crafted jewels arranged by pianist John Beasley. Along with the usual brilliant Monk covers you'll find several tasty original compositions and the star of the album, an effervescent, latin tinged version of Charlie Parker's Donna Lee.
Taking a break from leading his large ensemble, Doug Beavers recorded Sol, easily one of the most accessible Jazz albums of the year. Shouting out to salsa, Latin Jazz, R&B, pop and soul, Beavers penned several hybrid tunes like Sonic, a sultry guajira that slows to a bluesy montuno sprinkled with soneros from vocalist Jeremy Bosch. Similarly addictive but in an entirely different way is The Trion Re, one of many compelling songs from Tom Guana's album Spirit Science.
Ascending on her own terms is spoken word artist Lisa Marie Simmons whose album NoteSpeak vividly breaks down love, culture, politics and, in the case of her song Chip an eloquent study of the racism she experienced while living in Italy. One of my sleeper albums this year was Closeness by bassist/vocalist Ellen Andrea Wang. Her song Erasmus starts simply enough, rousing attention with a nice bass line and some atmospheric interplay between drums and electric guitar. By its apex, Erasmus has Wang anchoring the song while drummer Jon Fält and guitarist Rob Luft wailings away loike it was a classic Doors album - definitely a must hear for 2020. The Toronto Canada based quartet Peripheral Vision did their best to bend the rules with their double CD Irrational Revelation and Mutual Humiliation. Odd titles can make for wonderfully eccentric music and with their The Fish Who Can’t Do Math that's exactly what you get - another fascinating combination of acoustic precision and nimble electronics.
Vocalists are often the most fearless artists, relying solely on the quality of their cadence to connect with an audience and energize a performance. Holy Room: Live with Frankfurt Radio Big Band, is the latest work from Somi, one of the premier vocalists in Jazz. Taking cues from her previous album Petite Afrique, Somi employs John Beasley's thoughtful arranging and the artistry of the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. Already stunning compositions like The Gentry expand into new dimensions as Somi extends her vocals adding to the political potency of each song. Equally dynamic is Thana Alexa's powerful new album ONA. Pachamama featuring violinist Regina Carter, is an eleven minute journey through Alexa's ability to write, collaborate, sing and produce and at a really high level.
Pocket Poem is guitarist Anthony Pirog's answer to prose poetry, a collection of musical sketches that work equally well alone or strung together to make a delightfully offbeat album. The way Adonna the Painter meanders through dreamscapes is a perfect example of album's curious trademark. Albums are often the sum of a musician's experiences. For guitarist Alvaro Rojas, Gran Kasa maps out the remarkable array of musical styles he's already folded into his career. The title track somehow navigates searing violins, electric guitars, and latin percussion, and it all works extraordinarily well.
As does Acceptance, the latest album from pianist Billy Childs. Leimert Park finds four seasoned musicians working to make an intricate tune sound remarkably complicated and yet completely effortless. Check out Eric Harlan's drum solo. It shows why he's one of the best in the business. Also on that list is Antonio Sanchez, who's latest work Trio Grande squarely puts him back into the spotlight of artists changing Jazz in real time. Gocta rings like a sophisticated rock anthem with saxophonist Will Vinson cutting through the delightful daze of Sanchez's rhythms and electric guitarist Gilad Hekselman's psychedelics. With a sextet at hand, and a level of physical independence that's rare among drummers, Danfis Prieto is back with his new album Transparency, and Cry With Me, his phrenetic appeal to the chaotic nature of our times.
Expectations can ruin a listening experience. New artists tend to rise and fall with the mercurial requirements audiences dangle in front of them. But occasionally when artists transcend expectations, it's the audience that has to pivot, leaning into updated or entirely new sonic realities greatness has thrown their way. Bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado's new album Dream Circus is that kind of great. Every song over achieves with tunes like Bear being as thrilling as they are harmonically educational. Conversely expectations can transform an artist. For saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, being only 22 didn't stop him from gaining such wide acclaim or producing his debut recording Omega, one of the best albums of the year. Among a series of compositions that will leave you speechless is Ferguson - An American Tradition, just one example of Omega’s ability to transcend in ways that so succinctly captures the beauty and brutality of being Black in the US.