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:
In our last set of my favorite jazz albums of 2020, we’ve got a reunion from a group of musicians who made remarkable music a quarter century ago, a very impressive debut album by a promising young pianist and a vocalist who delivers the remarkable album that we’ve been waiting for from them.
In our last set of my favorite jazz albums of 2020, we’ve got a reunion from a group of musicians who made remarkable music a quarter century ago, a very impressive debut album by a promising young pianist and a vocalist who delivers the remarkable album that we’ve been waiting for from them. Let’s take a look.
Once again, the albums are in alphabetical order, by artist name. We will also try hard again, to adhere to the three-sentence rule. So far, we’ve been mostly unsuccessful.
Joshua Redman’s 1994 album MoodSwing remains in my top three all time favorite discs by the prolific saxophone master. Redman was but 25 at the time of the album’s release (his third). He was joined by a trio of young (under 25) musicians, who held promise for what they could bring to jazz’s future: Brad Mehldau on piano, Christian McBride on bass and Brian Blade, on drums. They dropped one exceptionally fine album and disbanded, all going on to fulfill their promise and become four of the most respected musicians in jazz today. Twenty-six years later, Redman reunited the group to deliver RoundAgain. Whereas Redman was the star the first time around, they have all returned as equals, each getting co-billing and contributing as composers. Other than that, absolutely nothing has changed. The four are still as swinging, tight and fiery as they were in 1994. Their work is now, as then, exemplary, and highly recommended.
It happens to me every year. I will have carefully selected the music to be included on this list by around the end of November. But there’s always some artist who will release an album, late in the year, that doesn’t reach my ears until December. Invariably, the music will be excellent and cause me to reconsider my “Best ofs”. This year, that artist is my old friend, Eric Reed. His new album, For Such a Time as This, is hands down, his best in over half a decade. This album was recorded in late June of this year, during the pandemic related lockdown, in Los Angeles. Mr. Reed assembled a hand-picked quartet of local musicians, and away they went. With all going on, this year, from COVID-19 to racism and racial injustice, to our fraught political environment, this became a very personal musical statement, for the pianist. I felt that. But I also felt that because it was so personal, his musicianship and those of his bandmates, moved to a higher level. Well done.
The most welcome sophomore release of the year for me, turned bittersweet, when I learned that one of the members of this wonderful vocal group, Holli Ross, had succumbed to cancer, between the completion of the album and its release. The album itself, is just as great as their stunning 2015 debut. The group’s harmonies are drum tight and joyous, even on the ballads. Guest spots by Christian McBride, Sheila Jordan, and the late Bob Dorough, enliven the proceedings even more. Ms. Ross, you have left us a beautiful memory, Rest in Peace.
This is the album that I’ve been waiting for from Kandace Springs, since she first grabbed my attention on her compelling but uneven debut album Soul Eyes. Perhaps because on The Women Who Raised Me, which is a tribute to the vocalists who influenced her, she finally has an album’s worth of material worthy of her stunning talent. Her honest, soul drenched voice, has never sounded better. With guest appearances by Norah Jones, David Sanborn, Chris Potter, Christian McBride and others, this album has placed her in the upper echelon of young soul-jazz vocalists.
Another on the growingly impressive list of jazz artists, under 30, who a creating a bright future for jazz, Alexa Tarantino is a multi-reed player, who demonstrates stunning proficiency on flutes, and soprano and alto saxophones, on this, her second album. Ms. Tarantino also wrote four of the nine selections, including two of the best performances, “Through”, which features her on flute and “A Race Against Yourself”, on which Tarantino delivers a blistering turn on alto sax. Two albums, in two years, each better than the last. I’m looking forward to hearing what next year will bring.
I’ve been an admirer of this big-toned tenor, ever since his impressive debut for Impulse! Records, 22 years ago. On this date, his first for Willie Jones III’s fine WJ3 label, he wraps that tone around seven originals and one standard. Mr. Tardy is an intelligent soloist and an excellent composer. His name should be far better known than it is. If Time Could Stand Still, is another winner in his catalog, a fine straight-ahead date with excellent solos from Tardy, guest star Alex Norris on trumpet and pianist Keith Brown, son of the piano master, Donald Brown. Keith is new to me and very impressive. I look forward to hearing more from him, in the future.
Oh my! I had no idea that Ms. Brianna Thomas existed until a few tracks from this album appeared in my new release file, a few months ago. Her voice is a marvel. It’s a blend of soul, blues, jazz, and world-weary heartbreak, that gives her a sound like no one else working today. Ms. Thomas delivers a cooking set, that straddles the line between blues and jazz, doing both idioms proud. Any vocalist who can pull off “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie”, “Mississippi Goddam” and the slightly raunchy “My Stove’s in Good Condition”, with equal aplomb, on the same album, is my kind of singer. Nice to meet you, Brianna Thomas. Let’s do this again, soon.
I first heard the young, brilliant pianist, Isaiah J. Thompson, on Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s release A Handful of Keys, which featured several pianists of various ages and experience levels. Though Mr. Thompson was the youngest of the group, he managed to stand out among his seasoned colleagues. On his full album debut as a leader, he tackles the music of the youngest of the Montgomery Brothers, pianist Buddy. Mr. Montgomery wrote some fine and so far, under-recorded tunes, which makes this album quite appropriate. It’s also quite good. Mr. Thompson has impeccable taste as a soloist. He avoids the unnecessary runs and flourishes that plague many keyboardists of his age. This album is an outstanding start for an artist who has a very bright future.
This is the New Orleans native’s debut album, as a leader, at the tender age of 63 (thus the tongue-in-cheek title). He has often been confused with the popular jazz drummer of the same name (they are no relation) and during his 35-year career, Mr. Washington has often been shy about promoting himself and his considerable talents. Like the man himself, this album is not going to get in your face. It is low key, it swings, and it will insidiously wrap itself around your brain. Washington’s intonation and phrasing are excellent, and he has a marvelous way with the standards that make up most of the selections on the album. An excellent debut. Let’s hope a follow-up is forthcoming, soon.
Bobby Watson, who has had a long and storied career, as a musician, bandleader, and educator, has been on a hot streak of late, especially from a recorded perspective. The superb Keepin’ It Real, is the third critically acclaimed Smoke Sessions release that Mr. Watson has been a part of, in the last three years. Here, he just continues to do what he has been doing so well, since his days as musical director of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and then with his own group, Horizon; create catchy and memorable hard bop arrangements and infuse them with his inimitable sound and swing on alto sax. Now that he has retired from the education field, Mr. Watson has spoken of having more time for touring and recording. If he keeps producing music of this quality, the jazz world will be incredibly pleased. [Bobby Watson joined me, to discuss this album and his career, on Conversations with Curtis. Click HERE to view that interview, on You Tube].
A reminder, if you are interested in purchasing any of the music that we’ve discussed 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. And we’ll be featuring many of these albums throughout January 2021 on CurtJazz Radio. 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 be a summary listing of all 30 albums, in our 30 for ’20 list. It will be up on the site, tomorrow.
Thoughts and opinions are welcome, as always, in the comments.
CurtJazz gives his take on the 2019 Best Jazz Instrumental Album nominees; along with a few disappointing snubs and unscientific predictions
BEST JAZZ INSTRUMENTAL ALBUM
In the second of the two biggest jazz categories, we have a race between a great saxophonist who is finally earning a little recognition; two of the finest pianists working today; a respected veteran who is still getting it done and a true legend, admired and respected by all.
The crackle from the moment her alto enters…twenty seconds into the first tune (“In the Trenches”), I had that feeling that this album was going to be a great one. Ms. Tia Fuller has been on the scene for over a decade. She has paid the bills for a while, working with Beyonce’s road band, but whenever she steps into the studio under her own name, she is an unapologetic jazz player. She hadn’t released a project in six years, prior to Diamond Cut. She has been missed. This project is different in many ways, from her previous four albums; for one thing, it is produced by the amazing Terri Lyne Carrington. For another, there’s no piano. Guitarist Adam Rogers handles the chordal duties. And, there are two different bass/drum duos, splitting the work; James Genus and Bill Stewart are one set and the other two, you may have heard of: Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. As for Ms. Fuller’s sound, clearly, the Berklee professor was ready to take everyone to school. She masters what she needs to be in that moment; she is at turns, gritty, soulful and even a bit on the outside. Diamond Cut is a very strong album and Ms. Fuller deserves her first Grammy nomination for it. However, this category also features someone who has been making great music since before Tia was born. Most likely, it will be his night.
This Fred Hersch album has been nominated for two Grammys. The odds of Hersch winning either are fairly long, despite the fact that it is another excellent disc, from one of the finest pianists of our time. What is the problem? Part of it may be timing; Mr. Hersch seems to often run up against a hot project that has caught the attention of the jazz public and media. When this happens, other master musicians, like Hersch, get lost in the noise. Another issue may be his steady excellence. Hersch is not flashy. Even though he wrote an interesting and well received autobiography in 2017, and he has had some fascinating life issues over the past few years, he still generally, flies under the radar. Fred Hersch is so uniformly good, that he is taken for granted. He has been nominated for 14 Grammys. Hopefully, the voters will wise up soon. This year, I don’t think it will be in this category.
The story behind this album’s title, is as interesting as it should be. Apparently, Mr. Mehldau has a dream, in which the late, Oscar winning actor, Seymour Phillip Hoffman, was reading the U.S. Constitution. The tune that Mehldau heard, accompanying Hoffman’s voice, became the inspiration for the title track. Despite the odd title, Seymour Reads the Constitution!, is the most accessible album that I’ve heard from Brad Mehldau, in quite a while. The trio swings hard through a collection of originals, standards, minor jazz classics and Beach Boys tunes (yes, you heard right), with gusto and without condescension. Like Hersch, Mehldau is double nominated for this album (his 9th, without a win, so far). It’s fine work but he’s likely to run into a “Shorter” wall here. In the Best Instrumental Solo category, however, he’s got a good shot.
I can’t believe that the saxophone wunderkind of the 90’s, Joshua Redman, has just turned 50. I can believe that he is still evolving and getting stronger at his craft, more than 25 years after he first floored us jazzheads with his debut album. Though he is the son of a famed avant-gardist, his early years were deeply in the tradition (as I’m sure Warner Bros. wanted it). On this latest album, which garnered his seventh nomination, he pays tribute to his dad, Dewey, and Old and New Dreams, a group that Dewey played in, from the mid 70’s through the mid 80’s. That group, which also included legends Charlie Haden and Don Cherry, itself paid homage to their mentor, the patron saint of avant-garde jazz, Ornette Coleman. Still Dreaming is excellent, start to finish – terrific compositions and it stretches the boundaries of form, without completely breaking them. It is similar to Christian McBride’s New Jawn album, also from last year. I confess that I only gave this album a passing listen upon its release, but now that I’ve returned to it, I truly dig it, a lot. Perhaps it should have been on my Best of 2018 list. However, we are talking Grammy here, folks. Redman has never won one. He is a respected veteran and his star has stretched outside of the insular jazz world at times, over the past quarter century. But, due to the presence of our next nominee, I’m afraid that his wait is likely to extend beyond this weekend.
Wayne Shorter is a true musical legend. He one of the greatest jazz saxophonists and composers of our time. In addition to his work as a leader, he has been an integral part of three of the greatest groups in jazz history. He has created transcendent musical art in every decade since the early 1960s. He has been nominated for a Grammy 21 times and has, so far, won 10, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, in 2015. He is also now 85 years old. So no one would blame Wayne Shorter, if he were to simply sit back, at this point and collect all of the accolades that are due to him, no one would be upset. So what does he do? He creates a symphonic masterpiece and releases it, in an epic three CD (God only knows how many LP) set, that includes a graphic novel. These new and challenging compositions are performed by a symphony orchestra and then live, by his current working quartet! Emanon is a brilliant work of musical art (I confess that I have not yet seen the graphic novel). I hope that Mr. Shorter has more in him and keeps sharing it with us, for at least another 20 years. If, as some have said, this is his final work, then it is a towering valedictory. Will he win this Grammy? Ummm, Yeah.