The year 2020 was a fine one for listening to prerecorded music, at home. Live jazz got off to a promising start in mid-January, when the blazing electric trio Harriet Tubman took to the stage at Dazzle. It seemed that the year was wide open.
By March, gigs were dissolving. You know.
Fortunately, artists and labels had enough music stored away to make for a compelling year in terms of new and archival releases. It’s never easy to pare down 12 months worth of innovations to a top 10 list. This year, especially, I could’ve just as easily come up with a top 30 if not 50.
Here are my picks for the finest of the year, which will be absorbed into the 2020 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, available soon at npr.org.
I hope to see you at Dazzle, Nocturne and Red Rocks in 2021.
Ron Miles, “Rainbow Sign” (Blue Note)
“It’s not like they were looking to sign some old guy from the middle of the country,” Denver cornetist Miles told me of his major-label debut. But Blue Note’s Don Was liked what he heard: This album was produced with an all-star band before there was any kind of record deal. The result is Miles’ most inspired soloing ever, and compositions that spaciously evoke a deeply felt creative life. This is one that reveals something new every time you listen.
Maria Schneider, “Data Lords” (ArtistShare)
If you seek state-of-the-art orchestral beauty punctuated by expressive soloing, this set of meditations on technology and nature is for you.
Tani Tabbal Trio, “Now Then” (Tao Forms)
This year’s most gratifying sax-drums-bass trio date, courtesy of the invaluable veteran percussionist.
Charles Lloyd, “8: Kindred Spirits” (Blue Note)
This saxophonist, well into his ninth decade, continues to thrive as the kind of genius who can balance technique and emotion.
Rob Mazurek, “Dimensional Stardust” (International Anthem/Nonesuch)
Brilliant astral traveling with next-generation Chicago luminaries and Mazurek’s sci-fi trumpet.
Rudresh Mahanthappa, “Hero Trio” (Whirlwind Recordings)
Another winner from the Boulder-raised saxophonist, delivering jumping interpretations of Stevie Wonder and Johnny Cash classics and numerous standards as well.
Susan Alcorn Quintet, “Pedernal” (Relative Pitch Records)
Mesmerizing, Americana-laced instrumental experiences supplied by this superb pedal steel guitarist, with a few twists contributed by guitarist Mary Halvorson.
Matthew Shipp Trio, “The Unidentifiable” (ESP Disk)
Shipp proves himself to be one among a handful of living piano masters every time out. This date is packed with inspired mystery.
Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brothahood, “Live” (International Anthem)
The title is the only conventional thing about this genuine, Nina Simone-evoking collection. Dawid, who sings, plays clarinet and keyboards, serves as a creative force who seems destined for legend status.
Nate Wooley, “Seven Storey Mountain VI” (Pyroclastic Records)
Trumpeter Wooley, who spent years in Denver, has become a leader in American creative music. This single 45-minute sea of sound is as challenging as it is outright beautiful, almost to the point of being overwhelming. This release provided some of the most cathartic music I heard in this difficult year.
Reissues and archival material:
Sun Ra, “Egypt 1971” (Strut/Art Yard); Sonny Rollins, “Rollins In Holland” (Resonance Records); and Thelonious Monk, “Palo Alto” (Impulse!).
And more jazz: The Patrick Lee Jazz Trio performs “A Charlie Brown Christmas” online Dec. 8. Tickets: ovationwest. org. … “Bird Calls” is an all-star virtual show benefiting the COVID-19 Musicians’ Emergency Fund on Dec. 10. Information at fans.live/livestream. … The Annie Booth Quartet plays online from Dazzle Dec. 19 and 20. … Nocturne presents the “Swingin’ Holiday Songbook” on Dec. 22.
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