There need be no more words uttered on the challenges of 2020, but MAN was there a lot of great music that came out. I agonized over all that I left out (I kept a running list this year and there were literally over a hundred things on the list of records I really dug). Some of that is sheer space (I’m already doubling my usual “top 10”), some is nepotism (since I had a hand in the RMI Records releases of new music by Matt Forker and Johnnie Gilmore), some of it is the ill-fitting nature of selecting a track (see Tyshawn Sorey’s wonderful Unfiltered, where the shortest “track” is a half hour long). And I’m certainly not going to include my own Love Right (which I can’t objectively judge anyway, though it would be the thing I’d want representing me in a time capsule), though I thank everyone who has checked that out.
For a sense of how hard it was to narrow this down, indulge me for a moment in looking at the kinds of rabbit holes this process led me down. Just looking at the first album on the list, for example, made me think of the other albums I enjoyed that Kenny played on this year by Joe Farnsworth, Eddie Henderson, and the late Jimmy Heath, and other albums Johnathan Blake played on by Kurt Elling/Danilo Perez (in a drum/percussion tandem with Rogerio Boccato) and Maria Schneider. It also made me think of other elders in the jazz piano community represented this year – Joanne Brackeen, all-too-seldom recorded these days, playing on 3 tracks of Ralph Peterson’s great new record, and the slammin’ new live album by Denny Zeitlin’s trio with Buster Williams and Matt Wilson, who himself put out a wonderful album . . .
You get the idea. I apologize if I left out your favorite album (or worse, YOUR album), but without any further ado and in no particular order:
1 ) Kenny Barron, Dave Holland, and Johnathan Blake “Secret Places” from Without Deception
This album is truly wonderful top to bottom, with Kenny dealing in peak form, and this moody composition by Sumi Tonooka is just one of its highlights.
2 ) Sunny Jain “Wild Wild East” from Wild Wild East
Sunny’s three albums prior to the explosion of his fabulous band Red Baraat are all super-happening, and this solo album on the Folkways label is full of innovative, deep, grooving music that is both thought-provoking and booty-shaking. I got to play this song a few years ago and boy did it come to full fruition here.
3 ) Jen Allen “Begin Again” from Sifting Grace
This is a great sophomore excursion by my friend and trio-mate. Her compositions are wonderful throughout this album (including this hard-swinging tune), as is the playing by her, saxophonist Kris Allen (another friend and collaborator) and the quartet.
4 ) Chris Dingman “Inner Child” from Embrace
There was a lot of cool stuff this year from the Wesleyan Class of 2002 this year (not even including that obscure musical theater guy Lin-Manuel whatshisname). There was a delightful new album from Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl and shortly before the pandemic I got to enjoy seeing/hearing Tim Keiper playing with David Byrne’s American Utopia band on SNL (heck, we almost bought tickets to the expected live performance in the fall). And Tim plays super-grooving drums on his classmate Sir Dingman’s beautiful trio album, Embrace, which represents a small percentage of his 2020 recorded output given the subsequent release of Peace, his 5-CD boxed set of healing music solo vibraphone. Rounding out the trio is Linda May Han Oh, who can also be heard in the Pixar movie Soul and on the oddly slept-on but epic new Pat Metheny album.
5 ) Jimmy Greene “April 4th“ from While Looking Up
Yet another beautiful album from Jimmy, the third since the murder of his daughter, whose birthday is commemorated in this lush, soulful composition featuring the band from his ten year old landmark album, Mission Statement (with Kendrick Scott stepping in on drums). You can also hear Jimmy on the latest live album by Ron Carter’s Foursight group.
6) Robert Cray “This Man” from That’s What I Heard
There were a few great recordings this year by artists I was particularly (and not very popularly for a kid that age) into as a teenager, such as Midnight Oil’s compelling examination of aboriginal rights in their native Australia. But man did I get a lot of mileage this fall out of this simple, angry screed about a corrupt man (hmmm, who could that be?), particularly coming from an artist whose work does not tend to be political (though “Just How Low” from his previous album demonstrates some precedent).
7 ) Wayne Escoffery “AKA Reggie” from The Humble Warrior
Nearly lost in the well-earned hype over the latest Black Art Jazz Collective’s new album is how potent their co-founding saxophonist’s new solo album is. His compositions here are great throughout, so hopefully it’s no diss that I picked this slow, swinging earworm from pianist George Cables (reinforced by seeing a recent livestream, the 2020 version of hanging at a gig, with maestro Cables playing this tune with Wayne’s group at Smoke).
8 ) Ian Carey “Fire In My Head II: This Is Fine” (from Fire In My Head: The Anxiety Suite)
This whole suite is a tour de force, with great playing by Carey and his band and intricate, moving writing throughout. The subject matter has, sadly, become all the more relevant as we have all plunged into new and stressful realities of existence.
9 ) Maria Schneider “Look Up” from Data Lords
Calling a Maria Schneider album “epic” is kind of redundant, so someone needs to come up with a new word, but whatever that word is, her latest double-album is it. I could have picked any of the songs from either the tech side or the nature side, ultimately choosing, from the latter, this feature for trombonist Marshall Gilkes, whose own recent trio album is also an important listen.
10 ) Lionel Loueke “One Finger Snap” from HH
There were a number of noteworthy “pandemic records” made this year, ranging from Force Majeure (the gorgeous stuck-at home duet album by Dezron Douglas and Brandee Younger) to Chris Potter’s lush one-man-band overdub project There Is A Tide. Lionel’s solo tribute to his longtime employer demonstrates his innovative concept through the lens of Herbie Hancock’s compositions. It also comes on the heels of a characteristically lovely earlier-2020 record from Gilfema, his co-led trio with Massimo Biolcati and Ferenc Nemeth.
11 ) Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, and Brian Blade “Moe Honk” from RoundAgain
Insert trope here about old pairs of slippers – what a delight to hear the reunion of the quartet behind the groundbreaking mid-90s MoodSwing album, as potent as ever. Each of the rhythm section members is represented elsewhere this year as well, including (but not limited to) Christian McBride’s moving Movement Revisited album to Brian Blade’s appearance on the wonderfully soulful live album from guitarist Davy Mooney.
12 ) Immanuel Wilkins “Ferguson: An American Tradition” from Omega
I was already planning to include Immanuel’s debut album, a wonderfully energized work and expression of vision on racial justice, and shout out his work on the lovely new Joel Ross album. Then in mid-December I got to hear the saxophonist (livestreamed) at the Village Vanguard with Kenny Barron’s trio and my goodness can this young man throw down – keep your eyes and ears peeled.
13 ) Makaya McCraven “This Can’t Be Real” from We’re New Again
This whole album is a remarkable transfiguration of the last works by the great Gil Scott-Heron by this wonderful drummer/producer – at once new and surprising yet faithful to the spirit and musical substance of the original album.
14 ) Sax & Taps “Piggy Bank for Charity” from Intersplosion: Live at Dizzy’s Club
I suspect this would be one of my favorite jazz-with-tap albums even if that were a more common thing. The co-leaders (saxophonist/flautist Erica von Kleist and tap dancer/percussionist DeWitt Fleming Jr.) coming up with a concept that is hard grooving, musically sophisticated, and devoid of cliché.
15 ) Lakecia Benjamin “Liberia” from Pursuance: the Coltranes
I’ve been paying attention to the work of alto saxophonist Benjamin since hearing her with a college ensemble 15 years ago, and while we don’t get to hear her own compositions here, it is a deep and visionary album saluting and reframing Alice and John Coltrane’s work. The opening track features her going toe to toe with alto royalty Gary Bartz on this 60 year old song that in its original recording also spotlighted the recently-departed piano giant (and frequent Bartz employer) McCoy Tyner.
16 ) Black Thought with Ledisi “American Heartbreak” (single)
I was struggling to pick one of the tunes from Black Thought’s new album, and then last week saw the cinematic adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me – it concludes with this appropriately chilling and thought-provoking song.
17 ) Bobby Watson “Flamenco Sketches” from Keepin’ It Real
Maestro Watson has lost nothing off his fastball, and his lyricism is unsurprisingly intact as well, evidenced by this feature for himself and pianist Victor Gould, the one quartet number on his infectious new album.
18 ) Nicole Zuraitis “The Way Home” from All Wandering Hearts
This whole album, which occupies the middle ground between jazz and singer-songwriter music, is a delight (as is the new holiday single by Nicole and her husband, drummer/composer Dan Pugach) and this song in particular, an ironically-timed ode to making one’s way back home from the road (a reality I hope to see again soon for my road warrior colleagues), has been stuck in my head intermittently for months.
19 ) Ella Fitzgerald “Wee Baby Blues” from The Lost Berlin Tapes
There have been a number of noteworthy historical recordings/unearthings of lost footage this year. There is the Mingus band from 1964 and 1975 (two of my favorite units), a lost concert by Thelonious Monk in Palo Alto, a live date from Sonny Rollins, and a fiery show by George Coleman. But man, hearing Ella sing the blues like this is pure joy.
20 Stanley Cowell “Banana Pudding” from Live at Keystone Korner Baltimore
There are a few documents of recently-departed elders to savor this year (including the aforementioned Jimmy Heath session). The last sessions of Larry Willis came out, as did Rejoice by Hugh Masekela and another important casualty of 2020, drummer Tony Allen. I’ve already written at length about the music and the departure of the great Stanley Cowell, and I’m grateful that this document exists of his quintet with Freddie Hendrix, Bruce Williams, Tom DiCarlo, and Vince Ector, and that he lived to see its release.