Music

The Best Jazz Albums of 2021

Twelve months’ worth of discoveries, new and old.

A photo collage of several album covers.
Photo illustration by Slate

Six of my 10 favorite jazz albums of 2021 were recorded during the pandemic—one at peak lockdown (Jason Moran’s solo; you can hear the melancholy), the others during the brief spell when the plague seemed vanquished (numbers 2, 5, 6, 7, 9, and maybe I’m projecting, but you can sense the joy of the escape from hibernation). Throughout the various phases of COVID, all of the new releases on the list—and my three favorite reissues, newly discovered treasure troves, or a mix of both—provided hours of soothing charm or savage stimulation.

Best New Recordings

1. David Sanford Big Band, A Prayer for Lester Bowie

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A Prayer for Lester Bowie is the most adventurous big band album I’ve heard in long time, a combination of jazz, avant-garde classical, blues, and R&B, shedding influences from Charles Mingus to Arnold Schoenberg to Sly & the Family Stone. Sanford is a Guggenheim Prize-winning composer of works for chamber and symphony orchestras, but this is something else. The first track, “Full Immersion,” fuses heady modernism with dance-floor funk in a seamless, original way.

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A Prayer for Lester Bowie

By David Sanford Big Band. Greenleaf Music.

2. Newvelle Records, Kimbrough (Newvelle)

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Frank Kimbrough, the longtime pianist in Maria Schneider’s jazz orchestra, was one of the most beloved figures in modern jazz—so much so that, after he died of a sudden heart attack last December, at the age of 64, Newvelle Records corralled 67 musicians in various ensembles to cover 58 of his compositions (and without pay) for this digital-only album, the proceeds funding a Juilliard scholarship in his name. Kimbrough’s strength was in ballads, complex in harmonic structure and mood: sweeping or subtle, tempestuous or reflective, or all those things at once. The musicians—including many of New York’s finest—play as if the songs were standards they’d been playing for years.

Kimbrough

By Newvelle Records.

3. Archie Shepp and Jason Moran, Let My People Go

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The great tenor and soprano saxophonist Archie Shepp, 84, is known mainly for his avant-garde albums. But he has also long probed deep into spirituals and ballads, as he does here in duets with Jason Moran, 46, the most versatile jazz pianist on the scene. A chipped tooth loosened Shepp’s embouchure decades ago, but he has molded it into a tone of rapt passion. He also sings on some of these tracks with a soulful preacher’s insistence.

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Let My People Go

By Archie Shepp and Jason Moran. Archieball.

4. William Parker, Painters Winter

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The bassist-composer William Parker, 69, comes out of the avant-garde, but his range is protean, his style surefooted, hitting the center of notes, infusing each bar with blues, swaying each line with indelible swing. There’s magic here, as he crisscrosses lines with Daniel Carter, who can do anything on trumpet, saxophone, or flute, and drummer Hamid Drake, a master of African and Caribbean rhythms. The music is hot, cool, insistent, and wistful.

Painters Winter

By William Parker. AUM Fidelity.

5. John Zorn, New Masada Quartet (Tzadik)

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Nearly 30 years have passed since John Zorn—composer, alto saxophonist, musical impresario—formed the Masada quartet and wrote hundreds of pieces for them to play, most built on one of the two “Jewish scales” (major with a flat 2nd or minor with a sharp 4th). The original sax-trumpet-bass-drums quartet created some of the most joyous, lilting, frantic, bluesy music of the ’90s. Zorn since adapted Masada tunes for a dozen different ensembles. Now he has a new quartet, with Julian Lage on guitar, Jorge Roeder on bass, and Kenny Wolleson on drums, and out of the box it’s nearly as volcanic as the original.

(New Masada Quartet is not yet available to stream as of publication time.)

6. Julian Lage, Squint

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Speaking of Julian Lage, the 33-year-old guitar wonder seems to have absorbed the entire history of jazz guitar—Charlie Christian, Grant Green, Jim Hall, Pat Metheny, Marc Ribot—and incorporated them into his own distinct sound. His trio mates, Jorge Roeder (the bassist in Zorn’s group) and Dave King (the rollicking drummer from The Bad Plus), add a hardcore layer, which keeps the music from basking too warmly in its glow.

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Squint

By Julian Lage. Blue Note.

7. Miguel Zenon and Luis Perdomo, El Arte del Bolero

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The Puerto Rican-born alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon gets pigeonholed in the “Latin jazz” category, and, yes, he often plays with Latin styles (or, as in this case, Latin American songs from the romantic bolero tradition), he infuses them with a be-bopper’s fluidity and a balladeer’s gorgeous tone. Luis Perdomo comps liltingly on piano, a partnership reminiscent of the duets by Stan Getz and Kenny Barron or Art Pepper and George Cables.

El Arte Del Bolero

by Miguel Zenon and Luis Perdomo. Miel Music.

8. Jason Moran, The Sound Will Tell You

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This is the virtuosic pianist’s third solo album in two decades, and it’s more pensive than usual, recorded during the pandemic. Much of it is inspired by Toni Morrison, the author whose works Moran read the most in quarantine. Some tracks sound like movie music (two of them were actually written for the HBO production of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me). Others evoke ripples of sea and light, romance with only a wisp of sentimentality; it’s melancholy without melodrama, mystery without coyness, a sprightly dance disrupted by dissonant blues.

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9. Bill Charlap Trio, Street of Dreams

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Bill Charlap is 55, but he seems much older, dressing like a banker and playing almost nothing but standards. Yet his piano trio of nearly the past quarter-century (including bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington) plumbs the songs deeply with a casual swing and irresistible cadences. It’s what they used to call “tasty,” in a very good way.

Street of Dreams

By Bill Charlap Trio. Blue Note.

10. Dave Douglas & Joe Lovano’s Sound Prints, Other Worlds

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Sound Prints is a Wayne Shorter tribute-band formed by trumpeter Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano (a riff on Shorter’s album Footprints), but their third album (as the title suggests) roams different realms. Some of Shorter’s spirit is here—the melodic hooks, complex harmonies, high-fly solos, hot and cool swing—but the music is more meditative, sometimes fragmentary, but still riveting. Douglas (who was in the original Masada) blows with endless inventiveness. Lovano is a sinuous improviser with a husky tone. Bassist Linda May Han Oh is preternaturally agile and precise. Drummer Joey Baron (another Masada vet) both keeps and twists time with merrily controlled abandon. Pianist Lawrence Fields adds new layers of rhythm to an already-polyrhythmic unit. Together, this is one of the most exuberant bands out there.

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Other Worlds

By Sound Prints. Greenleaf Music.

Best Historical Discoveries

Charles Mingus, Mingus at Carnegie Hall (Deluxe Edition)

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Mingus was a supreme bassist-composer, the vital link between Duke Ellington and the post-’60s avant-garde, and this 1974 live concert, fronting elder masters and young rebels, is boisterously riveting. An album at the time captured half of the concert, during which they improvised on two Ellington songs. This new “deluxe edition” (2 CDs or 3 LPs) gives us that and the first half, where they cut loose on Mingus’ own classics.

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Nina Simone, The Montreux Years (BMG)

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This two-disc collection of live concerts from the Montreux Festival between 1968-90 is one of the few albums that capture the great and tragic singer-pianist Nina Simone in all her dimensions—heartbreak ballads, jazz, blues, rock, African rhythms, and militant politics. The sound has been wondrously restored.

3. Roy Hargrove and Mulgrew Miller, In Harmony

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Another two-disc recovery from the vaults, this captures trumpeter Roy Hargrove and pianist Mulgrew Miller in 2006-07, playing at their peak in unrehearsed duets, mainly standards, at two live concerts. (They both died too young in the following decade.) Hargrove’s burnished tone and skylark spins, against Miller’s jangled rhythms and indigo harmonies—it’s sheer delight.

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In Harmony

By Roy Hargrove and Mulgrew Miller. Resonance Records.

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