A complete list of CurtJazz’s 30 favorite jazz albums of 2020. Includes a Spotify playlist sampler
In the three previous posts, I’ve listed and discussed my favorite jazz albums of 2020. Bright musical oases, in this otherwise miserable year.
In this post, we bring all 30 of them together, in one place. In each album title is embedded a link to the album’s page on Amazon. In these extraordinarily difficult times, we encourage you to purchase these albums, if there’s something that you like. Streaming is nice but the financial support that it provides to the artists, is laughable. So we provide the Amazon links as a first alternative. However, many of the artists also have their own websites, through which you can purchase the music directly from them. If you are so inclined, I encourage you to go that route. It can provide maximum remuneration for the artists that you love. We will also feature tracks from each of these albums, throughout January 2021, on CurtJazz Radio. Click HERE to listen now.
We’ve also created another Spotify playlist, featuring selections from a dozen of the 30 albums on the list, to give those of you who have not yet visited the prior posts, an opportunity to sample the artistry represented here. I can’t say it enough. Streaming is nice but buying is better.
Here are my 30 for ’20, in alphabetical order, by artist name:
Our second set of ten of the best jazz albums of 2020, includes a brilliant final musical statement from a true jazz great, a trumpet master, who is still creating incredible music, in his eighth decade; an exciting South African pianist, who is setting the jazz world aflame and a sparkling tribute to some legendary ancestors by a few modern masters.
Our second set of ten discs, includes a brilliant final musical statement from a true jazz great, a trumpet master, who is still creating incredible music, in his eighth decade; an exciting South African pianist, who is setting the jazz world aflame and a sparkling tribute to some legendary ancestors by a few modern masters. Let’s dig in.
Once again, the albums are in alphabetical order, by artist name. We will also try hard again, to adhere to the three-sentence rule (but don’t bet on it!).
Jeff Hamilton is a drummer of impeccable swing and unerring sensibility. He is one of those cats who elevates any of his bandmates by his mere presence behind the kit; not that his mates in this trio, bassist Jon Hamar and pianist Tamir Hendelman, need any help. On this sublime date, which includes a nice mix of originals and standards that have not worn out their welcome, the Hamilton trio produces an album fondly reminiscent of the Oscar Peterson trio, in their prime days. That group also had a master of taste on the skins, the late, great Ed Thigpen. An album absolutely worth your time.
Jimmy Heath, a saxophonist whose stellar career included being on the stand with virtually every jazz great, from Charlie Parker through today’s up and coming stars, who learned at his feet, passed away last January, at age 93. He left us, as a final gift, Love Letter, an achingly beautiful album of ballads that he worked on, until just weeks before his death. With guest appearances by Wynton Marsalis, Cecile McLorin Salvant and Gregory Porter and a stellar group of sidemen, that included Kenny Barron on piano, Russell Malone on guitar and the wonderful and woefully under recorded Monte Croft, on vibes, this a fitting valedictory, to a jazz life, well-lived.
Dr. Eddie Henderson turned 80 years old, last October. From the way he looks on the cover of Shuffle and Deal and the way he sounds on the music inside, it is clear, that the good doctor, has found the Fountain of Youth. His trumpet attack is as blistering and energetic as it was when he was first heard, in Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band, in the early ‘70’s. With Kenny Barron and “Big Chief” Donald Harrison, alongside him as composers and bandmates, Dr. Henderson, has produced his second straight brilliant album for Smoke Sessions records. Age ain’t nothing but a number, doctor. Keep going for as long as you’ve got masterful music, in your soul.
Reality Check is pianist Theo Hill’s third album for PosiTone Records. While the prior two were good piano trio dates, Mr. Hill’s decision to expand to a quartet, with rising star vibraphonist Joel Ross, may have been what was needed to move the group from good to great. The instrumentation will draw natural comparisons, to the MJQ but the young members of this group are far more forward thinking and dare I say, modern, in their approach. And when Mr. Hill switches to Rhodes, he elevates this fine group, even higher.
Christopher Hollyday’s comeback, has been one of the feel-good stories in jazz, in the last few years. Signed by Novus/RCA, as part of the jazz young-lions craze of the early ‘90’s, while still in his teens, the young alto saxophonist was earnest but frankly, not yet ready for prime-time. When his career foundered in 1993, Mr. Hollyday returned to teaching and studying, becoming a highly respected educator in San Diego. He made his first record in 25 years, in 2018, the critically acclaimed Telepathy. This year, he followed up with Dialogue, every bit as good as its immediate predecessor. Itcrackles with the energy and self-assurance of a gifted, mature artist. Christopher Hollyday is back and better than ever. Hopefully, this time, it is to stay.
From the moment that I first heard Nduduzo Makhathini’s Blue Note debut, I knew that I had some homework to do. A pianist, Mr. Makhathini has been a force on the South African jazz scene for several years. Influenced by Americans such as McCoy Tyner and Andrew Hill, as well as by his countrymen, Abdullah Ibrahim and Bheki Mseleku, he has taken the essence of his homeland’s music and melded it with American jazz, in a way that I’ve heard others attempt but no other has succeeded on such a high artistic level. His was one of the truly fresh and exciting voices that I heard in jazz this year and I look forward to hearing more.
Since switching to the vibraphone from the drums, a few years back, it has been fascinating to watch the musical growth of the youngest musical Marsalis brother. On this set, recorded live three years ago, at the famed Little Gems Saloon, Marsalis is more relaxed and in the pocket, than I’ve ever heard him on this instrument. Maybe it’s because he is working with his regular working group or perhaps it is because the set consists of all Jason Marsalis originals. Whatever the reason, he has stepped up his vibraphone artistry, to the next level and this is a very high-quality album.
If you’re like me and a fan of the two classic recordings that Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery made in 1966, you know every note of those gems by heart. And like me, when you heard of this project, you wondered what could McBride’s Big Band bring to the table, on a tribute to those albums (and their arranger, Oliver Nelson), that could be fresh and new. For starters, organist Joey DeFrancesco and guitarist Mark Whitfield, are both season veterans, who greatly admire the legends that they are standing in for but smart (and gifted) enough, not to be reduced to imitation. Second, the song selection includes only four tracks from the original two albums and finally, the arrangers only used Oliver Nelson’s charts on the tunes not on the Jimmy and Wes originals. The result is one hell of a good album. Jimmy, Wes, and Oliver would be pleased.
Cornetist Ron Miles’ prior album I Am a Man, brought him near universal acclaim, in the world of jazz and an opportunity to record for Blue Note Records. While Rainbow Sign employs the same musicians as its predecessor, for me, the writing went much deeper and the arrangements were denser. A couple of the songs even swung, in a relatively traditional sense. Mr. Miles composed the music for this album, while caring for his ailing father, up until the time of dad’s passing. That difficult situation may have infused Miles’ writing process. Whether it did or not, the music here, is the best of Ron Miles’ career.
On his second album for Marc Free’s PosiTone Records, trumpeter Farnell Newton has a decidedly groovier sound, precipitated by the presence of organist Brian Charrette. But this is not an all-out Earland/McDuff soul-jazz fest. In fact, this date sounds to these ears, like a more soulful version of Unity, the classic Larry Young album. Charrette is kept grounded by the hard driving but traditional drumming of the great Rudy Royston, while Newton and saxophonist Brandon Wright are flying high. The tension between the conventional and the greasy is palpable, throughout the project and it is what makes the music special.
A reminder, if you are interested in purchasing any of the music that we discuss in these posts, clicking on the album title, will take you to the album’s page on Amazon.com. There is also a Spotify playlist below, which includes a track from each of the albums discussed here, for you to sample. But please don’t just stream. During these tough times, these musicians can use your support more than ever, so if you like it, buy it.
Our next post will feature the final ten of our 30 for ’20. It will be up, tomorrow.
Thoughts and opinions are welcome, as always, in the comments.
The year wasn’t ALL bad! This is the first of three posts that explore our favorite jazz albums that were released in 2020.
Man, this has been one strange year! (Insert your own “no kidding”, or some variant, here)
Though I was fortunate enough to host a Zoom-based jazz talk show (Conversations with Curtis), thanks to JazzArts Charlotte, I heard less live music, this year than at any time, since my teens. I also somehow managed to hear less recorded music than any year, in recent memory. I feel less comfortable than ever declaring this list to be a “Best Of”, because there is so much out there that I’m still catching up with. So, let’s just say that these are my favorites of what I did hear. These are the albums that I went back to listen to, more than twice, the ones that stayed on the CurtJazz Radio playlist for more than just a few weeks.
There are thirty albums that I want to share with you. To keep the posts to a reasonable size, I have divided them into three groups of ten. For the sake of brevity, I will try not to write more than three sentences about any one album.
Here are the first ten of my favorite 2020 releases, in alphabetical order, by artist name:
Allen releases about one album per year and he also makes about one trip a year to my “Best Of” list. On this enigmatically titled album, Allen continues his searing, powerful explorations guiding his tenor sax through a recommended set of mostly original tunes. It’s insistent, compelling, and absolutely first rate.
The first two outings of pianist/composer/arranger John Beasley’s large ensemble, ostensibly dedicated to the music of Thelonious Monk, made me a respectful admirer. This third volume, which adds compositions by Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Beasley himself to those of Sphere, has made me a full-fledged fan. This set swings harder and takes the energy to the next level and every track is on point. A classic.
For me, this is Lakecia Benjamin’s coming of age album. Her previous albums have hinted at her potential but missed the mark in some way or another. Merging Ms. Benjamin’s millennial energy, creativity, and her wellspring of new ideas, with the canon of John and Alice Coltrane, has given these classics a fresh start that we didn’t realize that they needed, until now.
Peter Bernstein is one of the best and most reliable guitarists working in the world of jazz today. Be it as a first-call sideman or as a leader, Bernstein is a consistent arbiter of taste, intelligence, and swing. On What Comes Next, Mr. Bernstein, once again, does not disappoint, bringing us an outstanding set of first-rate performances.
Stanley Cowell, who was a composer, educator, record-label executive, in addition to being one of the most creative and innovative pianists, in the world of jazz, died on December 18. His work, as a sideman with The Heath Brothers, Charles Tolliver, Max Roach and as a leader, will ensure that legions of jazz fans will continue to talk of and discover his work, for years to come. I’m unsure of whether Live at the Keystone Corner Baltimore, is Mr. Cowell’s final recording. If so, he went out on a triumph. Rest in Power, sir.
I’ve come to expect a certain high-level of artistry from Wayne Escoffery’s recordings. The Humble Warrior is on my “best of” list because he has shown me something completely different in his song selection. Bringing Benjamin Britten’s choral work Missa Brevis in D, into the jazz realm, complete with a dense and challenging arrangement, is one of the most impressive things, from an artistic perspective, that I’ve heard all year.
Though trombonist John Fedchock is one of the best big-band arrangers in the business, I believe that in his small groups, such as this one, is where he really shines. In his small groups, there is a lightness and an attention to detail that his larger charts sometimes miss. His total reinvention of “Star Eyes”, is the standout on the album and one of the best versions of that old warhorse that I’ve ever heard.
Champian teased the release of this album, when she guested on “Conversations with Curtis”, last spring. The album was not released until August. It was worth the wait. Champian Fulton has grown into one of the finest pianist/vocalists in jazz today. She is a consummate interpreter of a lyric and though she clearly has been influenced by several the greats, she sounds like no one, but herself. Did I also mention that her piano playing can swing you into bad health? This tribute to Bird, flies high.
Nubya Garcia has been building to this moment for a few years now, with two well received and exciting Eps, before Source, her first full length album was released this year. If you’re familiar with her EPs, what is here will not be surprising. The 28-year-old British saxophonist has a sound that is influenced by the soulful ancestors, like Henderson and Turrentine, but rooted in the nascent London jazz scene of today. Downbeat has named Ms. Garcia, one of the 25 performers that could shape jazz for decades…I certainly hope that they’re right.
I was unfamiliar with the work of this 24-year-old piano prodigy, until last January, when she was the victim of some vicious and sexist written attacks by a respected online jazz publication (which later claimed that they were hacked). This made me curious enough to explore her music for myself. I found her work to be surprisingly good. She knows her jazz vernacular, she is a strong soloist, who leaves plenty of room for her sidemen and she is a fine composer. Iron Starlet, her second album as a leader, stands favorably alongside of much of the released work of Ms. Han’s contemporaries and her elders, in 2020. Those who criticize her for reasons that have nothing to do with her music, ought to be ashamed of themselves.
There you have the first ten of my “30 for ’20”. And yes, I did break my three sentence rule, when it was absolutely necessary. I’ve included a Spotify playlist, below, with a track from each of the albums discussed in this article, to give y’all a taste. We will release two more posts, with 11 – 20 and 21 – 30, on the list, on successive days. Thoughts and opinions are welcome, as always, in the comments.
We feature reviews of the new projects by veteran saxophonists, Chris Greene; Nick Hempton; Ralph Moore and Justin Robinson
Our first review post of the year, features four new albums
from veteran saxophonists who should all, be better known than they are. Start
to right that wrong, by picking up these projects, which are all recommended.
The native of Evanston, IL has spent most of his career close to home, which means the Chicago jazz scene. Readers of this blog are aware of my fondness for his sound, indicated by multiple appearances of Mr. Greene’s albums on my year end “Best of” lists. On his twelfth album as a leader, Greene gives us more of what his best qualities – that full bodied, gritty, tenor attack and a surprisingly rich tone, when he switches to soprano. Playspacefinds Greene and the CGQ in a deeper soul jazz vein than usual, and I loved every minute of it. “The Crossover Appeal/Uno Mas”, locks into the pocket and doesn’t let go, with Marc Piane’s electric bass setting the stage and Greene getting into a sweaty sax duel with guest star Marquel Jordan. A Latin reading of Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil”, is surprisingly effective, with drummer Steve Corley taking center stage with a relentless groove and a killer solo. “Blues for Dr. Fear”, which appeared in a studio version, on 2017’s Boundary Issues, is back and funkier than ever, with Damian Espinosa’s cool keys weaving around Greene’s tough tenor. Playspace is another winning album from one of the true working groups in jazz today. Looks like we’re not going to get them out of the Windy City, y’all, so we’ll have to make the trip there, to experience in person, what we hear on this disc.
Nick Hempton, who has called New York home since 2004, announces his intention from the first notes of this album. This a truly greasy session, influenced by the organ dates led by Stanley Turrentine, Lou Donaldson, Sonny Stitt and so many of their brethren, in the dives and after-hours clubs of the Big Apple, since the 50’s. He has assembled the perfect cast for the date: Peter Bernstein on guitar, Kyle Kohler on organ, and Fukushi Tainaka on drums. These cats have all logged many hours, backing up similar dates and they inspire Mr. Hempton to lay down the most soulful playing that I’ve ever heard from him. Most of the tracks are Hempton originals but they perfectly capture that long-ago vibe. Mr. Hempton switches between the alto and the tenor without missing a beat and is equally effective on each horn. The standout tracks are the Latin-tinged “I Remember Milady’s”, with Hempton getting a nice assist from Bernstein; “After You’ve Gone”, with Hempton’s alto, recalling ‘Sweet Lou’, during his Blue Note heyday and Koehler evincing a Big John Patton influence; and the nasty title track, which sounds like a lost track from one of those classic Jimmy Smith; Stanley Turrentine; Kenny Burrell dates. Buy this album, pour a glass of your favorite libation and put on your best “funky face”, because Night Owlis the real deal.
Hard to believe but it’s true. Three Score is Ralph Moore’s first album as a leader in nearly 25 years. He hadn’t left the scene during that time; Moore spent the better part of the last twenty years, on the West Coast, playing in Jay Leno’s Tonight Show band. He also was a sideman for Oscar Peterson, Roy Hargrove, Ray Brown, Tom Harrell and many other jazz greats; so, he was here; he just wasn’t leading any dates. He has returned with a stellar album, on the best boutique label in jazz – Willie Jones III’s WJ3. Joined by Eric Reed on piano, Gerald Cannon on bass and Jones on drums, Mr. Moore’s sound, which for me, always landed in the niche between John Coltrane and Joe Henderson, is as captivating as ever. The band of top tier pros doesn’t miss a beat and the compositions, mostly by Moore and Reed, are uniformly excellent. If you’re going to skip around, you must first check out “Another Time”, a Reed original, which opens the proceedings and throws down the hard bop gauntlet; the infectious, toe tapping (and too brief) “Donny” and the reflective title track, which features Mr. Moore’s finest solo on the date. But don’t sleep on the rest of the disc because it’s all choice. Ralph Moore is back, y’all and Three Scoreis one of the best albums that I’ve heard so far, in 2019.
Justin Robinson spent most of the last 15 years, alongside the late, great Roy Hargrove on some of the trumpet master’s finest live shows and recordings. His work with Hargrove, often overshadowed the impressive music that Mr. Robinson released as a leader. At First Light, is his first album in five years and his second for WJ3 Records. He is backed by a solid group of young cats, that he has worked with over the years, with Hargrove and in other settings; Sharp Radway on piano, Ameen Saleem on bass and Jeremy Clemons on drums. Mr. Robinson lists Jackie McLean among his influences and it shows in his sound, as do elements of Bobby Watson. His tone is in your face and hard swinging. Robinson composed six of the project’s eight tunes and there are many standouts: “Lamentations for R and D” starts with a mournful, wandering theme, which leads unexpectedly to a light bossa beat, while Robinson, sticks with the mood that he set in the opening. It’s compelling, and Radway and Clemons are especially good here. The beautiful “Love Thy Father”, allows Robinson to fully access his melodic side. There’s also “Cool Blues”, the Charlie Parker classic, that seems to be a rite of passage for alto players. Mr. Robinson’s take is a very good one, true to the structure of Bird but adding his own flourishes during his solos. It is Parker meets JMac meets Robinson and I liked it a lot. At First Light is another fine release from WJ3 Records. We don’t hear from them often but when we do, it’s consistently first-rate.
There’s a lot more that’s new and good out there, to tell you about. We’ll be dropping more reviews shortly. In the meantime, you can hear tracks from these albums and more on CurtJazz Radio, on Live 365. We’re always on and always FREE.