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6 Paths Through Jazz in 2020

In a trying year for the genre, there was still a ton of new music to explore. Here are some possible routes

Moor Mother, Immanuel Wilkins, Joshua Redman, and the duo of Brandee Younger and Dezron Douglas (from left) all released standout jazz records in 2020.

Photographs used in illustration by Bob Sweeney; Heidi Zeiger; Deneka Peniston; and Dana Scruggs

Jazz is a web. Because of the genre’s inherently collaborative, often mix-and-match nature, singling out a supporting player we like on a given record might lead us to dozens of other sessions featuring that same artist in various contexts. Or we might pick up a certain current in the music that crops up elsewhere, unifying albums that seemed to have little else in common. In 2020, when connection of any kind was scarce, these sorts of musical hyperlinks seemed all the more precious, a way to map and marvel at the complex social networks that keep jazz exciting year after year.

Like in pretty much every other corner of the music world, there was a lot to mourn in jazz in 2020: the passing of legends such as Jimmy Cobb, Lee Konitz, Gary Peacock, and Wallace Roney; the closure of beloved venues like New York’s Jazz Standard; the news that piano titan Keith Jarrett (who put out his latest epic live solo set, The Budapest Concert, in October) may never perform in public again. But there was also a lot to celebrate: next-best-thing livestreams from the Village Vanguard and other clubs, plus virtual fests and fund-raising efforts; a new class of deserving NEA Jazz Masters; and of course a sea of new releases.

Here, then, are six paths through the year in jazz on record, with a few examples of what could be found along the way — plus Bandcamp links where applicable — demonstrating a small fraction of just how much there was to explore. You won’t find any kind of rankings below, or a survey that claims to be in any way comprehensive, but hopefully one or more of these avenues leads you to some kind of discovery. Happy listening.

Collective bands, together and apart

Good Days was an event album that wore the designation lightly. It was the first record in nearly 20 years by the Chicago Underground Quartet, a band that’s often emerged in trio and duo formations in the interim. But there’s something magical that happens when original core members Rob Mazurek (on piccolo trumpet here), Chad Taylor (drums and percussion), and Jeff Parker (guitar) come together. On the album’s best tracks, like “Strange Wing” and “Westview,” they seemed to fall into a collective trance as they searched for an organic union of open-ended jazz, heady psychedelia, and limber groove.

Surprisingly, guest musician Josh Johnson, who joined the other three on synth and keyboards, ended up having as much of an effect on the humid, transporting vibe of Good Days as the other three. A curious listener who followed Johnson (also a saxophonist) to Freedom Exercise, his eminently listenable but consistently surprising debut as a leader, found everything from sleek funk accented with fuzzed-out guitar to shimmering sci-fi minimalism. And Johnson also turned up on Suite for Max Brown, Jeff Parker’s 2020 LP that touched on sample-driven beat science, sublimely chilled-out jazz-meets-R&B, and poignant abstracted ballads.

The other two members of the Chicago Underground Quartet also stepped out this year with their own strong statements. Chad Taylor’s The Daily Biological filtered his knotty compositions through a highly malleable sax-bass-drums trio adept at both chamber-like precision and thunderous drive. (You can also hear the drummer on two other excellent 2020 releases: Live in Willisau, a rousing duo session with saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, and Slipknots Through a Looking Glass, an earthy yet exploratory full-length from bassist-composer Eric Revis.) Mazurek, meanwhile, scaled up, reconvening his long-running Exploding Star Orchestra for Dimensional Stardust, a sharply plotted excursion into inspired jazz-meets-classical oddity. Unsurprisingly, the supporting cast included none other than Parker and Taylor.

Another band we heard from for the first time in a long time this year was saxophonist Joshua Redman’s quartet with pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Brian Blade. Some of the most highly respected players in jazz, these four have ventured all across the genre and beyond in the 26 years since their last joint album MoodSwing. Much like that 1994 disc, their new RoundAgain plays like a sampler of everything they do well, from snappy uptempo postbop to searching free-time balladry.

On his own, Christian McBride was thinking big. He honored African American cultural heroes on The Movement Revisited: A Musical Portrait of Four Icons, a grand and stirring suite combining spoken narration with large-ensemble jazz and gospel, and musical ones on For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver, a joyous big-band session modeled on mid-Sixties albums by organist Jimmy Smith, guitarist Wes Montgomery, and arranger Oliver Nelson. Mehldau, meanwhile, stripped his sound to the bare essentials on an unaccompanied quarantine album (more on that later), and Brian Blade lent his consummate sensitivity to compelling albums by trumpeter Ron Miles (Rainbow Sign) and guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel (Angular Blues).

Irreversible Entanglements are a newer group with an equally broad collective reach. Originally assembling in 2015 at a protest against police brutality, the band specializes in urgent free jazz topped by the incisive poetry of vocalist Moor Mother. As fiery as their newest album Who Sent You? could get, it was also extremely funky in spots.

The same was true of Heritage of the Invisible II, a bracing and idiosyncratic aural collage of a duo record by Aquiles Navarro and Tcheser Holmes, Irreversible Entanglements’ respective trumpeter and drummer, that sounded like it was beamed directly from its makers’ subconscious. The band’s saxist Keir Neuringer spotlighted his compositional gifts on Elegies and Litanies, a collaboration with Dutch contemporary-classical group Ensemble Klang, and stretched way out on the unfettered trio disc Dromedaries II; while its bassist Luke Stewart recruited some of Chicago’s finest improvisers for his Exposure Quintet. And all of Irreversible Entanglements also appeared on Circuit City, Moor Mother’s latest genre-exploding solo disc. Offering, another 2020 release that paired Moor Mother with flutist Nicole Mitchell, featured sprawling electro-acoustic soundscapes that sounded nothing like Who Sent You? — or any of the related albums described above.

Sounds of lockdown

A lot of 2020 jazz, just like a lot of 2020 life, took shape in isolation. The results varied widely but all had the feel of artists who thrive on spontaneity grappling with an unexpected reality. Dezron Douglas and Brandee Younger’s outstanding Force Majeure — an album whose very title riffed on the “act of God” clause often found in contracts, which took on new meaning this year — radiated domestic warmth. It collected musical highlights and off-the-cuff conversation from a weekly lockdown livestream broadcast by the bassist and harpist from their Harlem apartment, including their understated yet profoundly moving takes on favorites by the Stylistics (“You Make Me Feel Brand New”), Pharoah Sanders (“The Creator Has a Master Plan”), and Kate Bush (“This Woman’s Work”). Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tom Rainey adopted a similar framework, but their at-home series of fully spontaneous long-form duets — issued in several volumes’ worth of “Stir Crazy Episodes” — yielded very different results: an audio diary of two improvisers committed to composing in the moment with poise and focused intensity.

Other musicians worked in isolation during the pandemic. If a record like Force Majeure felt cozy, Xenakis and the Valedictorian — a series of awesomely strange improv miniatures by saxist Steve Lehman, recorded in his parked car — came off as compressed, and even claustrophobic, like a brisk home workout squeezed in during a lunch break. Pianist Brad Mehldau’s unaccompanied Suite: April 2020, meanwhile, often gave off a wistful feeling. Listening to these pieces written and recorded during the pandemic — plus covers of classics by Neil Young and Billy Joel — you could almost picture an artist who thrives on real-time connection gazing out the window and thinking back to a time, to paraphrase one track title, “before all this.” Chris Potter’s There Is a Tide, a diverse, sometimes danceable one-man-band session featuring the saxophone star on keys, guitar, samples, and more, felt both like a self–pep-talk and an ode to the on-pause joys of group musicmaking. And Sacred Vowels, an album that resulted from an impromptu home recording session by Tim Berne, found the saxophonist — who also launched 9 Donkeys, an archival digital label, during the lockdown — journeying to the very heart of his highly personal sonic language.

Dave Douglas’ Overcome — a warm and reflective sextet album featuring vocalists Fay Victor and Camila Meza — didn’t fit either template: Recorded entirely remotely during the pandemic, it proved that the collective spirit of jazz can withstand a whole lot.

Giants among us

Jazz is a music that’s forever reckoning with its storied past, and the vaults yielded plenty of treasures this year. The revelatory Rollins in Holland featured the now-90-year-old sax icon Sonny Rollins fronting a lean, combustible trio in 1967, while Palo Alto, recorded live the following year, found late piano genius Thelonious Monk displaying his trademark wit and whimsy during a relaxed gig at a California high school. At Bremen 1964 and 1975 presented two of Charles Mingus’ best, most adventurous bands in a pair of German performances; previously unheard studio date Just Coolin’ illuminated a prime era of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers; and Dave Brubeck’s Time OutTakes gave us a look at the sketches that preceded the pianist’s 1959 landmark Time Out, one of the most beloved albums in jazz history. (New/old Brubeck from the archives also came in the form of Lullabies, an easygoing solo set dedicated to his grandchildren and recorded back in 2010.)

We also got to hear the final recordings from masters we lost this year. Saxophone great Jimmy Heath, who died in January at 93, documented his ballad prowess one last time on the gorgeous and timeless Love Letter. Afrobeat drum master Tony Allen, who passed in April at 79, matched his crisp, body-moving beats with the agile lines of the late trumpeter Hugh Masekela on Rejoice. And as part of a lavish four-volume LP-only release themed around the music of New Orleans, the Newvelle label issued the quietly spellbinding final studio album from jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis, who died in April of complications from Covid-19.

Other posthumous releases reminded us of the genius of two bygone pianists: Harold Mabern’s Mabern Plays Mabern, recorded live a year before the Memphis piano ace’s death last year at 83, was pure hardbop gold, while Cecil Taylor‘s Birdland, Neuburg 2011 commemorated the avant-garde titan’s deep musical kinship with percussionist Tony Oxley. And Test and Roy Campbell, a vigorous 1999 live effort, memorialized late trumpeter Campbell, and signified the ongoing strength of New York’s free-jazz underground.

Several 2020 records reaffirmed key jazz legacies. Swirling was a vibrant statement of purpose from the Sun Ra Arkestra, still committed to its founder’s blend of lush big-band swing, soulful vocal chants, and spacey experimentation 27 years after his death. A new single, recorded just before the coronavirus pandemic hit, revived the fervent and enveloping sound of another storied ensemble, the Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra, originally launched close to 50 years ago by late pianist-composer Horace Tapscott. Saxophonist Bobby Zankel and Co.’s Soundpath, a recording of a concert-length big-band piece penned by late avant-jazz trailblazer Muhal Richard Abrams, was a testament to Abrams’ brilliant compositional mind. And altoist Lakecia Benjamin’s majestic Pursuance: The Coltranes featured a star-studded cast reinterpreting pieces by iconic jazz power couple John and Alice, while guitarist Henry Kaiser’s A Love Supreme Electric project gave two classic John suites a woolly psych-rock–style makeover.

And let’s not forget the jazz veterans still going strong, from guitarist Pat Metheny, whose From This Place was a stunningly ambitious quartet-plus-orchestra suite, to Carla Bley, a composer known for her own elaborate creations, who showed just how much poetry she could wring out of her compact drummer-less trio on Life Goes On. Chick Corea surveyed his key musical touchstones, from Bill Evans and Monk to Mozart, Scarlatti, and Stevie Wonder on the charming live solo disc Plays. Norwegian guitar visionary Terje Rypdal continued to explore his signature ambient-fusion soundworld on Conspiracy. Jerry Granelli, drummer on Vince Guaraldi’s immortal Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack, revisited his work with both Guaraldi and Mose Allison on a laid-back and at times slyly outré trio disc. Maria Schneider presented her latest dazzling, decidedly un-retro big-band creations on Data Lords. And saxist Charles Lloyd belatedly celebrated his 80th birthday with a loose and exuberant guest-studded live disc, 8: Kindred Spirits, Live at Lobero, while outside-any-box pianist Matthew Shipp commemorated his 60th with a slew of new discs, including transfixing and deeply personal solo record The Piano Equation.

Trumpeter Charles Tolliver linked up with fellow veterans Buster Williams and Lenny White on the commanding and classy Connect, while elders and old friends Kenny Barron and Dave Holland reaffirmed their long-running bond on Without Deception, a lovely, conversational trio disc featuring Jonathan Blake, a drumming phenom three decades their junior. Polymathic composer John Zorn furthered a 30-plus-year genre-splicing experiment with Beyond Good and Evil and Baphomet, a pair of exemplary discs by his burning death-metal organ trio Simulacrum. Anthony Braxton and Eugene Chadbourne made free-form improv sound like a back-porch jam on their gargantuan eight-disc Duo (Improv) 2017. And a whopping 45 years after his cult-favorite debut Valley of Search, saxophonist Alan Braufman returned with The Fire Still Burns, a mighty follow-up that was even better than its predecessor.

Trading places

For many jazz musicians, including established stars of earlier times, juggling starring and supporting roles is a constant theme. This year’s releases let us follow various players across that divide. Like Joel Ross’ 2019 debut KingMaker, his 2020 follow-up Who Are You? showed off the vibraphonist’s gift for writing and arranging small-group pieces that feel both elegant and thrillingly athletic. And like on that album, the tart-toned alto sax of Immanuel Wilkins was again integral to the group dynamic. Omega, Wilkins’ own highly impressive debut as a leader, was as assured as Ross’, with tender, yearning themes that gave way to explosive crescendos. And Ross himself turned up as a sideman on Being and Becoming, a series of brain-bending and, at times, blisteringly intense pieces by cutting-edge trumpet virtuoso Peter Evans.

Clarinetist-vocalist Angel Bat Dawid’s 2019 debut, The Oracle, was an intimate self-recorded solo gem. By contrast, her 2020 Live LP — documenting her band the Brotherhood’s appearance at a Berlin jazz fest, part of a trip sadly plagued by racism — was a bold and defiant statement of communal strength. At one point on the record, Dawid introduces her bandmate Asher Gamedze as a “drum scientist.” The South African percussionist occupied that role and more on Dialectic Soul, his own debut as a bandleader, which found him leading a lithe band through probing free jazz, powerhouse post-Coltrane swing, and buoyant groove. Bassist Henry Fraser revealed different dimensions of his musical personality on a mini portfolio of releases, anchoring One Foot on the Ground Smoking Mirror Shakedown, from saxist Chris Pitsiokos’ maniacal punk-jazz party band CP Unit; delving into alien abstraction on both the gritty solo effort Briggs and Bust, a duo with saxophonist Sam Weinberg; and even plotting out volatile and hallucinatory art pop on The Full Salon.

Countless other players turned up both as both sidemen and leaders this year. Nubya Garcia, who guested on drummer Moses Boyd’s sleek electro-jazz-meets-Afrobeat set Dark Matter, married a robust old-school tone to a contemporary rhythmic palette on her own debut LP Source. Craig Taborn played piano and synth on Natural Selection, a fresh program of darkly enthralling prog-metal-jazz from drummer Dan Weiss’ Starebaby band, and also unveiled Compass Confusion, a new slice of crystalline avant-jazz futurism from his electronica-infused Junk Magic project, last heard from on record in 2004. Guitarist Mary Halvorson recruited British art-rock luminary Robert Wyatt for Artlessly Falling, the affecting second LP by her sui generis song-based band Code Girl, and played an ensemble role on Pedernal, an equally unclassifiable wonder by pedal-steel player Susan Alcorn that roamed from tight chamber-like themes to mesmerizing abstraction and back.

Fellow guitarists Bill Frisell and Nels Cline were typically ubiquitous this year, even turning up together on Elvis Costello’s Hey Clockface. Along with various supportive and ensemble appearances — check out Frisell on John Zorn’s gemlike acoustic-guitar-trio disc Virtue and Cline on The Animals Took Over, a live disc by drummer Scott Amendola’s unconventional Ornette Coleman tribute the Good Life — each rolled out a handsome Blue Note disc under his own name: Valentine, Frisell’s relaxed trio album heavy on atmosphere, and Share the Wealth, a lovably weird inter-genre fusion effort from Cline’s “Singers” project.

Crate-diggers’ dreams

Hip-hop and jazz have been cross-pollinating for decades, and this year several key alliances strengthened that connection. The Jazz Is Dead label, the ironically named brainchild of producer Adrian Younge and A Tribe Called Quest DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, took the crate-digger’s ethos one step further by issuing new albums from widely sampled artists like vibraphonist Roy Ayers, pianist Doug Carn, and the Brazilian trio Azymuth. Their introductory comp, Jazz Is Dead 001, offered retro-styled jazz/funk/soul ear candy — sometimes placid, sometimes hard-driving and tripped out.

Drummer Kariem Riggins and ace beatsmith Madlib went after a similar blend on Pardon My French, the debut full-length from their long-running imaginary ensemble Jahari Massamba Unit. Whereas the Jazz Is Dead crew summoned an authentic vintage vibe by engaging with their elders, Riggins and Madlib handled everything themselves, creating a brand-new LP that sounds like it could have been fished out of a dusty dollar bin. Drummer-producer-rapper Kassa Overall made genre divisions seem quaint on I Think I’m Good, a dreamlike suite that seamlessly wove together samples, songs, solos, and contributions by everyone from aforementioned vibes wizard Joel Ross to iconic activist Angela Davis. Trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah dug deep into the borderless style he calls “stretch music” on Axiom, a marathon live album (recorded in New York just before the pandemic shut down the city) that showed just how far electric, pop-savvy jazz has come in the 50 years since Bitches Brew. Robert Glasper, who’s played a large part in carving out hybrid musical spaces during the past decade, demonstrated his knack for uniting artists from all corners of the contemporary musical map on the mixtape Fuck Yo Feelings and Dinner Party, the latter a collaboration with fellow jazz-meets–hip-hop luminaries Terrace Martin and Kamasi Washington, plus star producer 9th Wonder. And in another pan-stylistic coup, esteemed saxophonist Archie Shepp joined his MC nephew Raw Poetic and others on the spontaneously conceived studio suite Ocean Bridges.

Self-determination music

Lastly, in a tough year for jazz and just about every other genre, it was inspiring to see artist-run labels embracing a spirit of collective uplift. A browse through the catalogs of Pyroclastic, Tao Forms, and Out of Your Head — thriving imprints headed respectively by pianist Kris Davis, drummer Whit Dickey, and bassist Adam Hopkins — shows how musicians are banding together to showcase one another’s talents: the singular visions of the aforementioned Eric Revis and Craig Taborn, for example; the drumming gifts and rich compositional style of Tani Tabbal; or the challenging creations of Anna Webber and Nick Dunston. Even in the absence of in-person connection, the web of jazz continues to grow.

From Rolling Stone US