15 Great Jazz Albums of 2020
Jazz may not have the mainstream cultural dominance that it once did, but it remains a thriving, multi-faceted form of music that continues to have so much more to say. Jazz informs so much of the rap and electronic music that does have mainstream cultural dominance today, and it's long popped up in indie rock, metal, punk, and other styles of popular music too. Though jazz never went away, the past few years have seen a serious jazz renaissance that continues to grow, branch out into new innovative territory, and attract new listeners. The world of jazz is so vast and we don't claim to be experts of all of it, but if you're looking to catch up on some of the great jazz albums released in 2020, we put together a list of 15 that we strongly recommend. It's not a definitive best-of, and we probably haven't even heard all of the great jazz albums released this year, but we'd like to think it's a pretty good place to start.
Read on for the list. What were your favorite jazz albums of 2020?
Nubya Garcia - Source
Nubya Garcia was already a household name within the UK jazz scene thanks to playing on modern classics like Ezra Collective's Juan Pablo: The Philosopher, Makaya McCraven's Universal Beings, and Sons of Kemet's Your Queen Is A Reptile; playing in the bands Maisha and Nérija; and releasing a couple well-liked EPs; but with Source -- her first full-length album as a bandleader -- she's made her grandest statement yet. As a London-based musician with immigrant parents from Guyana and Trinidad, Nubya's life has always been rooted in diaspora, and that comes across in the music on Source, which ties spiritual jazz to dub, cumbia, Afrobeat, soul, and more across nine deep, bold songs. Produced by Solange collaborator Kwes and featuring members of Ezra Collective, KOKOROKO, Nérija, and others, Source has an impressive cast, and Nubya knows when to hand the spotlight over to a guest vocalist or another musician and when to take it for one of her stirring sax solos. But no matter who's center stage at any given moment, the vision is all Nubya's, and that vision led to one of the year's most simultaneously dizzying and heartwarming records.
Moses Boyd - Dark Matter
Jazz gets (wrongly) criticized as a style of music that's become something academic, something where the goal is to learn and mirror the traditions of the past. If you still need proof that innovative, modern-sounding jazz comes out today, look no further than drummer/composer Moses Boyd's sophomore solo album Dark Matter. Its futuristic production has more in common with what's currently happening within hip hop and electronic music than with what jazz sounded like half a century ago, and these aren't songs that you need to be a music scholar to appreciate; these are songs you can get up and dance to (as was once commonly the case for jazz). Standout moments come when UK soul singer Poppy Ajudha and Afropop singers Obongjayar and Nonku Phiri take the mic, and many of the instrumental songs hit just as hard. Contributing instrumentalists such as Sons of Kemet’s Theon Cross, Erza Collective’s Joe Armon-Jones, and Nubya Garcia shine throughout the album as much as Moses does with his frenetic rhythms, reminding you that electronic production can go hand in hand with live-band jazz instrumentation. Moses is far from the only person bridging this gap -- recent years have seen Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and others achieve similar feats -- but with Dark Matter, he established himself alongside all of those artists as one of today's greats.
Shabaka and the Ancestors - We Are Sent Here by History
Not a year goes by without something from the consistently fantastic London saxophonist/composer Shabaka Hutchings -- be it Sons of Kemet, The Comet Is Coming, Shabaka and the Ancestors, or one of his various other projects -- and 2020 brought yet another stunning Shabaka-led album, the sophomore album by the Ancestors. It's the group's first release for the legendary Impulse! label -- who also put out the latest Sons of Kemet and Comet Is Coming albums in 2018 and 2019, respectively -- and compared to those two albums, the instrumentation on We Are Sent Here by History is overall more acoustic and traditional. Still, Shabaka and his band have used these time-tested sounds to make something that sounds as futuristic as you'd expect from Shabaka Hutchings. Most of Shabaka's bandmates in the ancestors are from South Africa, and this album owes a lot to the jazz stylings of that country, nodding to greats like Hugh Masekela and Dudu Pukwana while making it entirely their own. It's also a concept album, co-written and featuring vocals/lyrics by South African poet Siyabonga Mthembu, that Shabaka calls a "meditation on the fact of our coming extinction as a species." In a year that will be remembered for a global pandemic and the shortcomings of law enforcement and politicians, these songs couldn't have felt more necessary.
Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brothahood - LIVE
Angel Bat Dawid's new album LIVE -- recorded at JazzFest Berlin on November 1, 2019 -- may technically be live recordings of songs that mostly appeared on her excellent 2019 debut album The Oracle, but no matter how many times you've heard The Oracle, you haven't heard these songs like this. Angel recorded The Oracle almost entirely on her own, handling all the recording, mixing, and instrumentation (except drums on one song) and doing all of it on a cell phone. On LIVE, she's backed by a seven-piece band (Tha Brothahood) who make these songs bigger, louder, and more improvisational, as Angel departs from the more controlled singing of The Oracle and delivers something so much more free-spirited and so much more tremendous. The songs are bold confrontations of racism, with repeated cries of "The Black family is the strongest institution in the world!" and an interpretation of Dr. Margaret Burroughs' 1968 poem "What shall I tell my children who are Black?" ("Here I am in 2019, and I'm still asking the same thing"), and when you hear them delivered in the impassioned, uninhibited way that Angel performed them on November 1, 2019, they sound even more devastating.
Irreversible Entanglements - Who Sent You? / Moor Mother - Circuit City
International Anthem/Don Giovanni
Free jazz collective Irreversible Entanglements released their excellent sophomore album Who Sent You? this year, and six months later the group's poet/MC Camae Ayewa released a new Moor Mother album featuring all of her Irreversible Entanglements bandmates, and the two albums feel like two sides of the same coin, so we've grouped them together for this list. On both albums, the band provides a musical backdrop that feels as stream-of-consciousness as Camae's poetry, starting at point A with no point B in mind, allowing themselves to watch the music unfold as they perform it. It has a nervous energy and a feeling of uncertainty that goes perfectly with Camae's words, which tackle America's centuries-long battle with institutional oppression (Who Sent You?), the housing crisis (Circuit City), police brutality, and other issues that Americans face on a daily basis. It feels like part protest rally, part performance art, part underground jazz club, and it functions not just as thrilling music, but as a call to arms. As Camae asked on Who Sent You?, "At what point do we give a shit, do we stand up and say something?" Judging by the historic moment when all 50 states took to the streets to protest racism and police brutality just two months after that album was released, the answer is now.
Jyoti - Mama, You Can Bet!
Georgia Anne Muldrow is one of our generation's most consistently great psychedelic soul and hip hop artists, and Jyoti is her moniker for releasing jazz. On her first Jyoti release in seven years, she combined the vocal-oriented, multi-genre approach of her usual solo material with Jyoti's real-deal jazz, resulting in the best Jyoti album yet and one of the most fascinating albums of her career. The album includes Charles Mingus remixes that sound like modern-day hip hop, original songs that sound like classic jazz, and plenty of the in-between. She combines electronic instruments with acoustic ones, and hip hop beats with fidgety jazz rhythms, exploring the ways in which all these sounds connect, rather than putting up walls between them. The album recalls anything from Alice Coltrane (who bestowed Georgia's Jyoti nickname upon her) to Flying Lotus (who released Georgia's last proper solo album on his Brainfeeder label), and either artist's fanbase should find something to connect to on Mama, You Can Bet!. It doesn't hop between the retro and the futuristic so much as it blurs the lines between them completely.
Blue Note Re:Imagined
Blue Note Records
One of the reasons jazz continues to be so innovative and exciting is that today's artists are not just regurgitating the same old standards; they're making their own forward-thinking music that rivals the greats of the genre's mid 1900s golden age. Still, that doesn't mean today's artists can't do some creative reinventions of that era too. Enter Blue Note Re:Imagined, a compilation of artists in or adjacent to today's UK jazz scene (like Jorja Smith, Shabaka Hutchings, Ezra Collective, Nubya Garcia, Skinny Pelembe, Emma-Jean Thackray, Poppy Ajudha, Jordan Rakei, Ishmael Ensemble, Blue Lab Beats, Melt Yourself Down, Yazmin Lacey, Alfa Mist, and more) reinventing classic material from the historic Blue Note catalog by Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, Donald Byrd, Dodo Greene, Andrew Hill, and others. These are far from straightforward covers; these musicians turn these classic songs into something they can call their own, often using electronic instruments and production techniques that didn't exist when the original songs were released. The album functions as a who's who of the UK jazz renaissance, and it functions as a meeting point for longtime jazz listeners and the new generation. But even more importantly than all of that, it's compelling music that invites you to keep coming back again and again.
Kamaal Williams - Wu Hen
Keyboardist Kamaal Williams and drummer Yussef Dayes' 2016 album Black Focus remains one of the key albums that fused jazz with contemporary hip hop and electronic music and helped kickstart the current UK jazz renaissance, though instead of following it up, the duo pursued solo careers after its release. The magic of that album continues to inform the music that Kamaal makes on his own, and his second proper solo album Wu Hen continues to push that magic forward. Kamaal also makes electronic music as Henry Wu, and the lines between "Kamaal Williams" and "Henry Wu" continue to blur on Wu Hen. It contains some of the year's most remarkable jazz and some of the year's most remarkable electronic music, not to mention funk, R&B, and more. Orchestral arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson aids three tracks, bringing swelling strings into the mix, while singer Lauren Faith helps turn "Hold On" into something you could picture coming from the OVO camp. There are seemingly no limits to what Kamaal Williams can and will do, and so far, he's proven to be a master of just about each new thing he attempts.
Jeff Parker - Suite for Max Brown
Indie rock fans may know Jeff Parker best as the long-running guitarist of Chicago post-rock group Tortoise, which he's been a member of since 1998's jazz-infused TNT, but that seems to be changing. Suite for Max Brown, his latest jazz album as a bandleader, has become one of the most widely acclaimed albums of the year in any genre, and for good reason. The album is modern jazz fusion at its finest, with hip hop beats, psychedelic rock guitar solos, ambient passages, and more coming together to create Jeff's unique vision of what jazz can sound like in 2020. He's aided by an excellent cast of musicians, including Makaya McCraven, Bright Eyes' Nate Walcott, longtime Tortoise contributor Rob Mazurek, Josh Johnson, Jamire Williams, and others, but the compositions and arrangements are all Jeff's, and he continues to prove himself as a quietly innovative songwriter. There are also covers of John Coltrane and Joe Henderson, both of which Jeff fully makes his own, and actually it was DJing a Coltrane record synced up with an electronic beat at a Chicago club that helped inspire the direction of this album. "That’s what I was going for," he said. "Man vs machine."
Gil Scott-Heron - We’re New Again: A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven
We sadly lost the legendary Gil Scott-Heron in 2011, but not before he released one last album -- I'm New Here, which was his first in 16 years -- in 2010. Even with Gil passing a year after its release, the album continued to find new life, first with a remix album in 2011 by Jamie xx (whose debut album with The xx had influenced I'm New Here), then later that same year when Drake and Rihanna sampled the Jamie xx album on "Take Care," and now once again with this jazz reimagining by Makaya McCraven. With help from a band including frequent collaborators Jeff Parker, Brandee Younger, Junius Paul, and Ben Lamar Gay, Makaya put together a warm, bustling musical backdrop that complements Gil Scott-Heron's words and breathes new life into them. The original album was overcast and minimal, but Makaya's version builds colorful, multi-layered arrangements around Gil's voice, changing the feel entirely. It's not often that one batch of vocal tracks can result in three drastically different, equally great albums, but when those vocals are by a visionary like Gil Scott-Heron, the possibilities appear to be endless.
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah - Axiom
Just as the COVID-19 pandemic began to hit the US, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah made the potentially risky decision to go forward with the first night of a five-night run at NYC's Blue Note Jazz Club. That show, which happened on March 10, ultimately ended up as the last show Christian and his band played before lockdown, and it was immortalized as the live album Axiom. Axiom is Christian's third live album, but first to showcase his "Stretch Music" concept that he introduced the world to on his 2015 album of the same name, and continued to explore on 2017's trip-hop-inspired Centennial Trilogy and 2019's polyrhythmic, Afrobeat-inspired Ancestral Recall. "We are attempting to stretch—not replace—Jazz's rhythmic, melodic and harmonic conventions to encompass as many musical forms/languages/cultures as we can," Christian said of the concept, and that comes across on Axiom in a way that's both similar to and different than Christian's studio albums. On his recent albums, Christian used the studio as an instrument, but on Axiom, you hear a group of musicians expertly feeding off of each other and creating an energy inseparable from the fear and uncertainty that had to have been felt all throughout the Blue Note that night. The live setting makes for something that's more organic than Christian's recent studio work, but no less genre-averse. It shows a different type of mastery than the one we hear on his studio albums, but mastery nonetheless.
Alan Braufman - The Fire Still Burns
Valley of Search
After emerging from hiatus and reuniting with longtime collaborator Cooper-Moore, NYC jazz icon Alan Braufman reissued his 1975 classic Valley of Search in 2018 and performed it live in his hometown with Cooper-More and tenor sax player James Brandon Lewis. It helped introduce Braufman's music to a new generation, and it inspired him to make his first album in 25 years and first with Cooper-Moore since Valley of Search. They recorded it at The National's studio in upstate New York with James Brandon Lewis, as well as drummer Andrew Drury and bassist Ken Filiano, and the result is a fresh, inspired new album that stands tall next to Valley of Search. Earning its title, The Fire Still Burns possesses a real sense of urgency, often echoing the bustle of the Manhattan streets that Braufman lived on in the mid 1970s, but balancing it out with the calming warmth of Cooper-Moore's piano. All these years later, their chemistry is undeniable.
Ambrose Akinmusire - on the tender spot of every calloused moment
Following a pair of albums featuring string sections and prominent guest vocalists, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire dialed back his sound for on the tender spot of every calloused moment, made with just a bassist, drummer, and pianist, and only featuring two brief, minimal guest vocal appearances. It's minimal and often meditative, but when you give it the patience it deserves, it's just as captivating as his more confrontational works. This is no more apparent than on closing track "Hooded procession (read the names outloud)." It acts as a sequel to 2014's "Rollcall for Those Absent," which read the names of Black victims of police brutality, but no one reads anything aloud on "Hooded procession." It's just Ambrose with his Rhodes piano and no backing band. It's not roll call this time; it's a moment of silence.
Keleketla! - Keleketla!
Ninja Tune/Ahead of Our Time
Keleketla! is the new collective led by Ninja Tune founders Coldcut and their self-titled debut album features contributions from Shabaka Hutchings, the late Afrobeat legend Tony Allen, Brooklyn Afrobeat band Antibalas, South Arican rapper (and Black Panther contributor) Yugen Blakrok, South African activist hip hop group Soundz of the South, gqom producer DJ Mabheko, and others. To reference one of its own song titles, it's a multi-cultural, multi-genre "International Love Affair" incorporating jazz, funk, psychedelia, Afrobeat, electronics, hip hop, and more, with standout vocal tracks and trippy instrumental passages, with danceable grooves and textural ambience. It's an energetic, lively album, and it's as fun and festive as it is powerful and political. It's protest music at its core, but these songs have a sense of hope - something we could really use this year.
See also: Keleketla! Remixes ft. Machinedrum, Skee Mask, and more.
Listen or subscribe to a playlist with two songs from each album: