2020 was a tough year for a lot of jazz artists. Jazz clubs shut their doors and live performance, the driving force of the genre, came to a grinding halt. Despite this, the music carried on through the release of an impressive number of new albums. For jazz fans, this was a saving grace in a year marked by tragedy, isolation and social unrest.
The day will come when jazz musicians and fans can gather together in a club or concert hall and once again experience the impromptu beauty of this music. Let’s hope that day comes in 2021. Until then, we have an impressive array of new music to enjoy.
Here are just a few of my favorite albums from 2020.
Keith Jarrett — “Part I” — “Budapest Concert (Live)”
The release of this 2016 live recording came in the same year that Keith Jarrett announced that his performance days are likely over due to his suffering two strokes. This sad news makes me even more thankful that we have this recording. This track is just part one of a 12 part series that puts Jarrett’s technique and improvisational genius on full display.
ARTEMIS — “If It’s Magic” — “ARTEMIS”
This is the self-titled debut album of an all-women septet of jazz giants that spans generations. The record carries all of the power and grace that its goddess namesake commands. My favorite cut is this Stevie Wonder composition featuring vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant.
GoGo Penguin — “F Maj Pixie” — “GoGo Penguin
GoGo Penguin have been called “the Radiohead of British jazz” because of their willingness to experiment with multiple genres of music. Their electronic music influences are prevalent throughout this album, including this track. It has a repetitiveness that just makes me happy.
Pat Metheny — “Wide and Far” — “From This Place”
Pat Metheny took his current live band featuring pianist Gwilym Simcock, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Antonio Sánchez into the studio for this record. A lot of the sounds are just what any Pat Metheny Group fan would expect to hear, but Metheny’s compositional style goes into some fascinating new directions on this album.
Kandace Springs — “Strange Fruit” — “The Women Who Raised Me”
Kandace Springs endeavored to make a record in “tribute to the female vocalists who most impacted her music, stylings and journey.” She does so elegantly with songs associated with artists such as Nina Simone, Lauryn Hill and Norah Jones. However, her rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” proved to be especially poignant in 2020.
Shuffle Demons — “Cat Walk” — “Crazy Time”
This is the first album in seven years from this Toronto based jazz, funk, hip-hop, street music, kinda everything band. It’s every bit as fun as everything else they’ve done since coming onto the scene in 1986. It’s a crazy time. Have some fun!
Fred Hersch — “Get Out Of Town” — “Songs From Home”
Pianist Fred Hersch made the most of his solitude in 2020. About to celebrate his 65th birthday, he recorded this solo piano album in his home studio and captured his musical sensitivity and creativity in a deeply personal way that will bring tears to your eyes.
Pat Collins Trio — “Still Crazy After All These Years” — “Time Well Spent”
Bassist Pat Collins, guitarist Reg Schwager and accordionist Tom Szczesniak are three of Toronto’s most sought after musicians. The textures on display on this record are absolutely gorgeous. On this classic Paul Simon composition, Collins demonstrates that there are few others who can use the bass as a melodic instrument the way he does.
The Nimmons Tribute — “Night Crawler” — “Volume 1 — To The Nth”
Phil Nimmons is a Canadian jazz legend and this album, loaded with some of Toronto’s best musicians, is a worthy tribute. Sean Nimmons-Patterson arranged each piece to honor his 96-year-old grandfather. This being volume one, it would seem we have a lot more to look forward to.
The Joe Bowden Project — “Doodlin’” — “ROOTS — Tales of the Urban Yoda”
“Urban Yoda,” a nickname given to Joe Bowden by one of his students because of “his wisdom and sense of peace,” gave us a record that shows us just how good jazz and funk can feel together. Drawing influences from James Brown, Chaka Khan and The Crusaders, Bowden recorded nine original compositions that create an album with a deep groove.
Chien Chien Lu — “Mo’ Better Blues” — “The Path”
This is the debut album from vibraphonist Chien Chien Lu. She brings top-notch improvisational creativity to classic tunes like “Blue in Green” and exciting original compositions like “Blind Faith.” Bill Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues” is just a great tune that can make anyone feel good.
Chick Corea — “Chopin: Prelude Op. 28 #4” — “Plays”
This double album comprises selections from various recent solo concerts. It comes off as a piano recital, a gathering of friends and a masterclass all wrapped into one. As such, one must listen to this record from start to finish in order to truly appreciate it. However, Chick Corea’s interpretation of this Chopin piece shows us how far boundaries can be pushed when one of the great works is put into the hands of a world class performer.
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