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.
- Redman, Mehldau, McBride, Blade: RoundAgain (Nonesuch)
- 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.
- Eric Reed: For Such a Time as This (Smoke Sessions)
- 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 Royal Bopsters: Party of Four (Motéma)
- 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.
- Kandace Springs: The Women Who Raised Me (Blue Note)
- 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.
- Alexa Tarantino: Clarity (PosiTone)
- 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.
- Gregory Tardy: If Time Could Stand Still (WJ3)
- 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.
- The Brianna Thomas Band: Everybody Knows (Breathline)
- 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.
- Isaiah J. Thompson: Plays the Music of Buddy Montgomery (WJ3)
- 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.
- Kenny Washington: What’s the Hurry? (Lower 9th)
- 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: Keepin’ It Real (Smoke Sessions)
- 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.