In this final post of 2020, we pay tribute to the jazz greats who passed away, during this very eventful year. Included is a playlist of some of their memorable performances.
We already know that 2020 was an exceptionally cruel year. And its effect on the jazz world was especially painful. With many of our music’s greats already at an advanced age (albeit vibrantly, for many) and with a brutal virus spreading around, that hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions, far harder than other segments of the population, we knew it could be a tough year for our heroes. Sadly, at least a quarter of those on our list are said to have been suffering from Covid-19 related symptoms, at the time of their death.
So let us pay tribute to those in the jazz world that we lost in 2020. This is not an exhaustive list and I mean no disrespect or slight to the memory of anyone, who was omitted.
Tony Allen – Drummer/Percussionist – Musical partner of Fela Kuti for many years. Considered to be the father of the “Afrobeat” style of drumming
Ronald “Khalis” Bell – Saxophonist. Founding member of Kool and the Gang
Cándido Camero – Cuban percussionist. A pioneer of Afro-Cuban music
Jeff Clayton – Saxophonist. Co-leader of the Clayton Brothers (with brother, John). Co-leader of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra (with Jeff Hamilton)
Jimmy Cobb – Master Drummer. Known for his work with Miles Davis (Kind of Blue) and Wes Montgomery (Smokin’ at the Half Note)
Freddy Cole – Vocalist and Pianist. Younger brother of Nat “King Cole. An excellent vocal stylist in his own right.
Richie Cole – Saxophonist. Known for “Alto Madness” and his work with Eddie Jefferson and The Manhattan Transfer
Stanley Cowell – Pianist and Record Company Founder. Excellent, if underrated jazz pianist. Known for his work with the Heath Brothers and co-founding Strata East Records
Stanley Crouch – Writer and Critic – Wrote for Jazz Times magazine, for many years. Associated with Wynton Marsalis. Sometimes controversial columnist and author
Manu Dibango – Cameroonian Saxophonist. Best known for his 1972 soul-jazz smash hit, “Soul Makossa”
Andy González – Bassist. He successfully bridged the Afro-Cuban and jazz worlds. Co-founded the legendary Fort Apache Band (with brother Andy) and Libré (with Manny Oquendo)
Henry Grimes – Bassist. One of the leading free-jazz bassists during the 60’s. Returned to a successful career in the 21st Century.
Onaje Allan Gumbs – Pianist/Keyboardist. Worked extensively with Woody Shaw, Phyllis Hyman, and Ronald Shannon Jackson. Also recorded some fine contemporary jazz albums.
Jimmy Heath – Saxophonist/Flutist. Co-founder of the Heath Brothers (with brothers Percy and Albert). Played with everyone from Miles to Hargrove. Exceptional composer/arranger.
Frank Kimbrough – Pianist. Outstanding N.C. born post-bop pianist. Known for his work with Joe Locke and the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra.
Lee Konitz – Saxophonist. A leading influencer for many decades, in the cool-jazz, bebop and avant-garde idioms. Played on Miles Davis’ “Birth of the Cool”.
Mike Longo – Pianist/Keyboardist. Worked with Dizzy Gillespie for years, as well as leading his own group, the Mike Longo trio.
Johnny Mandel – Composer and Arranger. Winner of multiple Oscars and Grammy awards. Composed “Theme from MASH”, “The Shadow of Your Smile”, “Close Enough for Love”.
Ellis Marsalis – Pianist and Educator. A major influence on many on the New Orleans jazz scene. The father of Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis.
Lyle Mays – Keyboardist and Composer. Longtime musical partner of guitarist Pat Metheny.
Jymie Merritt – Bassist. Most notable for being the bass player with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, from 1957 – 1962, one of their most influential periods.
Gary Peacock – Bassist. Well respected and prolifically recorded leader and sideman. Worked notably with Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Albert Ayler, and Paul Bley.
Bucky Pizzarelli – Guitarist. Master of the seven-string guitar. Prolific artist who worked with everyone, from Benny Goodman to Anita Baker. Father of John and Martin Pizzarelli.
Charli Persip – Drummer. In addition to leading his own band, he worked notably with Dizzy Gillespie’s bands of the late 50’s and early 60’s, as well as with Red Garland.
Claudio Roditi – Brazilian Jazz Trumpeter. Worked with Paquito D’Rivera and Dizzy’s United Nations Big Band, in addition to his own impressive career as a leader.
Wallace Roney – Trumpeter. Gained immense popularity in the 90’s, after working alongside Miles Davis and receiving the legend’s blessing. Former husband of the late Geri Allen.
Annie Ross – Vocalist and Actress. The “Ross” in Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, the most influential jazz vocal group of all time. Also, an excellent vocalist, in her own right.
Ira Sullivan – Trumpeter/Flugelhornist/Saxophonist/Composer. Active from the 1950’s – 2010’s. Remembered mostly for his work alongside trumpeter Red Rodney.
McCoy Tyner – Pianist. One of the greatest and most influential pianists of the last four decades of the 20th Century. Pianist in the classic John Coltrane Quartet. A legend.
Eugene Wright – Bassist – “The Senator”. Known primarily for his role as the bass player in the legendary Dave Brubeck Quartet. Was the last surviving member of that group.
We have also included below, a super sized Spotify playlist, that includes a sampling of the music of many of those that we honor. In the case of Jymie Merritt, the best representation of his artistry came from some of his work in the group that he is most closely associated with; the Jazz Messengers. We’ve included “Moanin'”, their signature performance. To hear Merritt at his best, skip to 7:00, near the end of the tune, when he digs into a hard groovin’ bass statement, accompanied only by Blakey and Timmons comp. Sweet!
Enjoy the list and honor the music of those who have joined the ancestors, then remember, that the music can only continue to survive and thrive, if you give love and attention to those who can still hear you give it, our living artists. Let’s strive in 2021, to support those who still play this music despite everything that is against them. Now more than ever, they need to hear your love and support; especially in the legal purchase of their music.
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:
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.