Music

The Best Jazz Albums of 2020

Plus the best historical releases.

Collage of featured album covers
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by ESP-Disk, French Paradox, Verve, Blue Note, Red Piano, Palmetto, and Mack Avenue.

It’s been a shitstorm of a year, in many ways the worst of my many decades, but it’s been a terrific year for jazz albums, maybe because the music that soothes the savage breast is more soothing when the era is this savage, but I think these recordings—10 new, three newly unearthed from the distant past—will endure. The last four items on the first list are in almost random order.

Best New Recordings

1. Ron Miles, Rainbow Sign

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The Denver-based, burnished-glow trumpeter and composer Ron Miles joins an all-star ensemble (pianist Jason Moran, guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Thomas Morgan, drummer Brian Blade) to crank out the craftiest blend of form and improvisation of the past few years. A basic blues, a dark waltz, a spiritual, a meditative muse, a riff on Ethiopian pop, but listen how the players shift from melody to harmony to counterpart to experimentation, so effortlessly, tunefully, often daringly. (Warning: The album begins with a loud, ugly blare. It lasts about 10 seconds. Get past it. The rest is gold.)

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Rainbow Sign

By Ron Miles. Blue Note.

2. Charles Lloyd, 8: Kindred Spirits

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Recorded live at Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theatre in 2018, on his 80th birthday, the tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd rekindles his long-standing status as the West Coast Coltrane, fusing a hard tone and sheets-of-sound rapture with a swaying swing. A mix of up-tempo rousers and haunting ballads, it’s a gorgeous album with a cooking band (pianist Gerald Clayton, guitarist Julian Lage, bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Eric Harland) launching the master into some of his most gently adventurous flights.

8: Kindred Spirits

By Charles Lloyd. Blue Note.

3. Jimmy Heath, Love Letter

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Recorded a few months before tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath’s death at the age of 93, this is no sentimental farewell but a top-notch romp through a suite of original and standard ballads—one of the last surviving jazzmen who played with Charlie Parker, backed by a rotating crew of master sidemen who aren’t coasting either. The track with Cécile McLorin Salvant singing the Mal Waldron/Billie Holiday tune “Left Alone” is worth the price of admission.

Love Letter

By Jimmy Heath. Verve.

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4. Maria Schneider, Data Lords

Maria Schneider is the most brilliant big-band composer of our time, a master of stacked harmonies but also of propulsive rhythms, which she laces with stirring Americana or a Latin tinge, and the musicians in her “jazz orchestra,” as she calls it—many of whom have been following her lead for a couple of decades—are as tight as they come and fine soloists too. Her latest is inspired by her longtime battle against digital rip-off artists and privacy invasion. Disc 1, titled “The Digital World,” is a bit heavy-handed, but Disc 2, “Our Natural World,” is a wondrous jewel. No one scores inner voices as rich as hers.

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Data Lords

By Maria Schneider. ArtistShare.

5. Aaron Diehl, The Vagabond

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At age 35, Aaron Diehl is the most elegant young pianist on the scene, equally accomplished with Ellington, Gershwin, Philip Glass, jazz standards, and the blues. This trio album spans his waterfront, and it’s all captivating, the more so with each successive hearing.

The Vagabond

By Aaron Diehl. Mack Avenue.

6. Ran Blake and Christine Correa, When Soft Rains Fall

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Ran Blake may be the most eccentric jazz pianist, influenced by an odd mix of Bartok, gospel, Monk, rain-soaked film noir, and dark Alfred Hitchcock. He unleashes ballads in a dreamlike flow. Here, he and singer Christine Correa (a former student of his) cover all the songs on Billie Holiday’s 1958 album Lady in Satin, but unlike that session’s lush orchestral backdrop, it’s just Correa—hitting every note with a smoky indigo blue—backed by Blake’s strangely dissonant chords. It’s mesmerizing.

When Soft Rains Fall

By Ran Blake and Christine Correa. Red Piano.

7. Ben Perowsky, Upstream

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Ben Perowsky (a drummer with roots in rock, pop, jazz, and the avant-garde), Chris Speed (a reedman of supple melodies and sinuous rhythms), and John Medeski (the organist from Medeski Martin & Wood, who fuses soul, swing, and wit in a single bar) join together for a session of casual headiness, covering Jaco Pastorius, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, and their own excursions in cannily original styles.

Upstream

By Ben Perowsky. El Destructo.

8. Matthew Shipp Trio, The Unidentifiable

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Matthew Shipp is one of the most uncompromising jazz pianists, grounded in Monk, Paul Bley, Cecil Taylor, and Sun Ra. This trio album lets you hear strands from all of them, but there’s also a lyricism and a riveting soulfulness that he doesn’t display very often.

The Unidentifiable

By Matthew Shipp Trio. ESP-Disk.

9. Raphaël Pannier Quartet, Faune

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This is an odd debut album by drummer-composer Raphaël Pannier, featuring a slowed-down cover of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” a frenzied zigzag through Wayne Shorter’s “E.S.P.,” one piece each by Ravel, Messiaen, and the Brazilian bandolinist Hamilton de Holanda, and a handful of originals—all fronted by alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón (a mentor of Pannier’s) blowing as lyrically as I’ve heard him. The music floats and sways in a different atmosphere.

Faune

By Raphaël Pannier Quartet. French Paradox.

10. Fred Hersch, Songs From Home

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This is the one album on this list that was recorded during—and in response to—the pandemic. Fred Hersch, one of the most inventive jazz pianists, known for lush harmonies and galvanic rhythms, missed playing in clubs, so he set up some microphones around the piano in his Pennsylvania house and recorded a range of ballads and meditations, among them “After You’ve Gone,” “Wichita Lineman,” “All I Want,” and “Solitude.” Listen to it as a collection of anthems for our era.

Songs From Home

By Fred Hersch. Palmetto.

Best Historical Discoveries

1. Sonny Rollins, Rollins in Holland

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Sonny Rollins is the greatest living jazz improviser, and this treasure from the vaults—one studio session and two live dates from 1967 in the Netherlands—finds him in peak form, taking songs on soaring spaceflights, fueled by the avant-garde drummer Han Bennink and the lushly melodic bassist Ruud Jacobs. Just amazing.

Rollins in Holland

By Sonny Rollins. Resonance.

2. Ella Fitzgerald, The Lost Berlin Tapes

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This concert from 1962, its tapes found in producer Norman Granz’s private archive, captures the Queen of Song at the height of her powers, unfurling ballads like “Angel Eyes” with shivering purity and—though she was never known as a blues singer—the likes of “Good Morning Heartache” and “Cry Me a River” with a belting fervor. Her pianist Paul Smith comps with unusually sharp curves.

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3. Thelonious Monk, Palo Alto

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One of Monk’s last dates, in 1968, at Palo Alto High School, booked by one of its students, recorded by a janitor, the tapes just recently found, this may have the most unusual backstory of any jazz artifact, but it’s no mere curiosity. Monk, though ailing, is in crisp form, and his bandmates—Charlie Rouse on sax, Larry Gales on bass, Ben Riley on drums—play with keen intensity.

Palo Alto

By Thelonious Monk. Impulse!

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