On the Turntable — The “Best Of the ‘Best Of’” in 2021 jazz recordings

January 5th, 2022

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Ches Smith and We All Break

 

Ches Smith and We All Break’s Path of Seven Colors [Pyroclastic Records] – a record described by the label as a “meeting of Haitan Voudou and modern improvised music” – is among the recordings consistently listed by jazz critics as a top album of 2021

 

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…..December has once again produced a large number of year-end “Best Of” lists, and the goal of this post is to present those jazz albums oft mentioned by the critics.

…..While these 21 albums hardly constitute a comprehensive assessment of the “Best Of the ‘Best Of’” lists, it does provide some guidance about 2021 recordings critics seemed to agree about, and suggest we  check out more thoroughly.

…..The recordings are listed in no particular order, and may include a link to an artist or record company website, as well as to a critic’s more complete review of the album.  Readers will also discover that a song from each album is available for listening.  The lists utilized to compile this one are found at the conclusion of this post.

…..There are riches to discover in this music…Enjoy!

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Floating Points/Pharoah Sanders

Floating Points/Pharoah Sanders & the London Symphony Orchestra/ [Luaka Bop]

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“Why fight it: This year’s big talker in the experimental-music world ended up being just as powerful as we’d hoped. Not really jazz, not exactly classical, definitely not electronic music per se, “Promises” is the first-ever collaboration between Pharoah Sanders, the octogenarian spiritual-jazz eminence, and Floating Points, nee Sam Shepherd, a 30-something British composer and polymath. They each use music to get at questions of healing — Shepherd typically as a solo musician, Sanders as a communitarian — and although “Promises” was recorded before the coronavirus pandemic began, it arrived a year into lockdown, just when we needed it most.”

-Giovanni Russonello/New York Times

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“The all-star collaboration between a producer, a saxophonist, and a symphony is a celestial event. But it’s Pharoah Sanders’ playing that holds it all together, a clear late-career masterpiece.”

-Mark Richardson/Pitchfork

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“Movement 1”

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Charles Lloyd

Charles Lloyd and the Marvels

Tone Poem/ [Blue Note]

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“The absence of vocals  places Lloyd and his ensemble centre stage for a more detailed update on their direction of travel. What becomes clear – if it was not clear already – is the addition of the guitar ‘choir’ provides unexpected depth and resonance to the time honoured configuration of sax plus piano, bass and drums… “

-Stuart Nicholson/Jazzwise

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“Peace”

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Sons of Kemet/Impulse Records

Sons of Kemet

Black To The Future/ [Impulse!]

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“Led by English sax sensation Shabaka Hutchings, the tuba-anchored Sons of Kemet and an array of guest vocalists fuse jazz, calypso, funk, hip-hop, dub-reggae and trap. Their songs address oppression and liberation, individual struggle and collective triumph, with grit and grace, breathtaking agility and earthy conviction.”

-George Varga/San Diego Union Tribune

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“Rap meets tuba-driven, combustible, exploratory jazz? Finally! And it’s quite a trip. London’s Shabaka Hutchings leads the charge, and anything with his name in the credits is worth your time.”

-Bret Saunders/Denver Post

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“Think of Home”

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John Pizzarelli

 

John Pizzarelli

Better Days Ahead/Solo Guitar Takes On Pat Metheny [Ghostlight]

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[Playing the compositions of Pat Metheny] “brings out the very best in Pizzarelli, [who] gives a [riveting] recital…with intricacy, emotion, precision, and beauty.”

-Will Layman/Pop Matters

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“Better Days Ahead”

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Veronica Swift

 

Veronica Swift

This Bitter Earth/[Mack Avenue]

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“Swift digs deep into the American songbook to reveal new, often surprising truths…Swift is a supernova.  And the players who help manifest her vision make This Bitter Earth a musical bounty of depth and breadth.”

  -Cree McCree/Downbeat

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“How Lovely To Be a Woman”.

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Wollny Parisien Lefebvre Lillinger

 

Wollney/Parisien/Lefebvre/Lillinger

XXXX/[ACT]

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“Mysterious and magical.  A wildly colorful and dramatic recording that partakes of a weird, wide and evidently processed instrumental palette – one that serves the fluid, propulsive interactions of these highly responsive, imaginative and daring musicians.”

– Howard Mandel/Downbeat

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“Too Bright in Here”.

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Jason Moran and Archie Shepp

 

Archie Shepp & Jason Moran

Let My People Go/[Archieball]

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“These live sets between the saxophonist and pianist capture a dialogue between two highly skilled and empathetic collaborators, whose reverence for space matches their regard for the music itself.”

-Madison Bloom/Pitchfork

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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.”

-Fred Kaplan/Slate

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“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”.

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Kenny Garrett

 

Kenny Garrett

Sounds From the Ancestors/[Mack Avenue]

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“Always a highly percussive saxophonist, Garrett has found an exceptional partner in drummer Ronald Bruner.  Their connection pushes Garrett to some intense heights, and when the rhythm section expands to include Lenny White and Rudy Bird on additional snare drums for “Soldiers Of the Fields/Soldats des Champs,” Sounds From the Ancestors moves into rarefied territory.” 

– James Hale/Downbeat

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“Soldiers of the Fields/Soldats de Champs”

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Pat Metheny

 

Pat Metheny

Side-Eye NYC V1.IV/[Modern Recordings]

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“Guitarist Pat Metheny, one of contemporary jazz’s boldest updaters of traditions from freebop to country music and hard rock, picked the classic 1960s funky guitar/Hammond organ/drums trio format for his Side-Eye project – here featuring young multi-genre keys player James Francies, and fiery drummer Marcus Gilmore. This enthralling live recording mixes classic Metheny evergreens and new works.”

  -John Fordham/The Guardian

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“Our received notions of Pat Metheny is that there is not one, but two Pat Methenys. There’s the Pat Metheny that loves jamming, be it on his memorable 80/81, or with his trio on albums such as Trio 99 > 00, Trio > Live and Pat Metheny Dave Holland Roy Haynes, and there’s the Pat Metheny formerly of the Pat Metheny Group and now custodian of its sound, as on 2020’s From This Place. Having set the bar incredibly high with the latter album (and more recently with Road to the Sun), an album of acclaimed classical compositions and arrangements, his current project/band Side Eye features young musicians making waves on the current NYC jazz scene.”

-Stuart Nicholson/Jazzwise

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“Timeline”.

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Esperanza Spalding/Concord Records

Esperanza Spalding

Songwrights Apothecary Lab/[Modern Recordings]

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Songwrights Apothecary Lab takes the form of an album here, but it began as more than that.  Esperanza Spalding, the bassist, vocalist and self-described “songwright,” held residencies in New York and her native Oregon during the pandemic, bringing together a mix of healers and artists in search of new and therapeutic methods of making music. Each of the LP’s 12 tracks is a “formwela,” blending lyrical and wordless vocals, instrumental textures and hooks that condense out of thin air.”

  -Giovanni Russonello/New York Times

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“Formwela 4”.

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Julian Lage/Blue Note Records

Julian Lage

Squint/[Blue Note]

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“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.”

  -Fred Kaplan/Slate

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“Emily”.

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Ches Smith

 

Ches Smith and We All Break

Path of Seven Colors/[Pyroclastic]

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“Smith, leading a band that also features Puerto Rican saxophone dynamo Miguel Zenon, is a skilled aural alchemist. His exuberant blend of traditional Haitian singing, propulsive percussion, intricate jazz improvisations and various Afro-Cuban traditions is a marvel of craft, wit and in-the-moment creation. What results is a stunning stylistic fusion that few listeners — or musicians — are likely to have experienced before.”

  –George Varga/San Diego Union Tribune

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“Here’s the Light”.

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Vijay Iyer/ECM Records

 

Vijay Iyer/Linda May Han Oh/Tyshawn Sorey

Uneasy/[ECM]

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“From its tribute to police brutality victim Eric Garner (“Combat Breathing”) to its lament for the Flint water crisis (“Children of Flint”), much of the music on Uneasy was written in response to unrest and injustice, and you can hear pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey’s passion for the subject matter coming through in their fiery performances on this album. But even if you went in blind, not knowing any of the album’s backstory or any of its song titles, Uneasy would be recognizable as some of the year’s finest jazz compositions. It’s one of the more traditional sounding albums on this list, with warm, acoustic instrumentation that pulls from ’60s post-bop, and it feels as timeless as many of the greats of that era.”

  -Andrew Sacher/Brooklyn Vegan

 

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“Children of Flint”.

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Kimbrough

Kimbrough

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.”

  -Andrew Sacher/Brooklyn Vegan

 

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“Falling Waltz” (performed by pianist Helen Sung).

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Bill Charlap/Blue Note Records

 

Bill Charlap Trio

Street of Dreams/[Blue Note]

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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.”

  -Fred Kaplan/Slate

 

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“Day Dream”.

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Theo Crocker/Sony Masterworks

 

Theo Croker

Blk2Life//A Future Past/[Sony]

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“Croker’s sixth album aims to send ‘coded frequencies to activate our sleeping, ancestral DNA’ that bubbles up throughout this ode to Blackness.  It’s a daring work of psychedelic jazz in which Croker, playing trumpet and flugelhorn, brings together forebearers like saxophonist Gary Bartz and rapper Wyclef Jean with futurists like U.K. blues singer/songwriter Malaya.  Largely shaped by Todd Carder’s production, Croker’s horns occupy various sonic positions on these 13 tracks.”

  -Carlo Wolff/Downbeat

 

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“Where Will You Go”.

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David Sanford/Greenleaf Music

 

David Sanford Big Band, Featuring Hugh Ragin

A Prayer For Lester Bowie/[Greenleaf Music]

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“Sanford seemed to come to jazz from nowhere, but from a different direction, and I was all set to vote for him in Debut as well. Turns out he’s a reasonably well-established classical composer in his mid-60s, an escapee from the financial services industry, a Mount Holyoke College faculty member, and a former Guggenheim Fellow. He isn’t slumming in writing for a jazz orchestra; he has what comes across as a natural affinity for it…He likes to start small and end big, with diverse chapters along the way.”

  -Francis Davis/Artfuse

 

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“A Prayer For Lester Bowie”.

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Sound Prints/Greenleaf Music

 

Soundprints

Other Worlds/[Greenleaf Music]

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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 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 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.”

-Fred Kaplan/Slate

 

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“Life On Earth”.

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Makaya McCraven/Blue Note Records

 

Makaya McCraven

Deciphering The Message/[Blue Note]

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“McCraven has taken 13 classics from the Blue Note catalog and updated and remixed them, making them fit right in with today’s hip hop, electronic music, and forward-thinking styles of jazz, without losing the enduring power of the originals. Like Madlib and J Dilla and other likeminded artists before him, Makaya is bridging the gap between classic Blue Note and modern music, proving the endurance of the classics to the new generation and proving to the old guard that today’s jazz musicians have something to say.”

-Andrew Sacher/Brooklyn Vegan

 

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“Autumn in New York”.

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Brandee Younger/Impulse Records

 

Brandee Younger

Somewhere Different/[Impulse!]

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“From the inventive comping in the striking album opener ‘Reclamation’ to the heavy ostinato of the final track, ‘Tickled Pink’, which irrevocably calls to mind ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’ from Pharoah’s iconic Karma, Brandee Younger’s major label debut on Impulse! Records is a work of enormous imagination and mesmerising artistry…”

-Peter Quinn/Jazzwise

 

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“Spirit U Will”.

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James Brandon Lewis / Red Lily Quintet
Jesup Wagon /[TAO Forms]

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“There’s no way a 2021 Best of Jazz column doesn’t include Lewis’s name. The tenor saxophonist has established himself as a preeminent voice in the scene, and rightly lauded as a star in jazz’s lineage of tenor saxophonists. Lewis’s talent for matching a thrilling intensity with sharp melodicism is a potent combination, recalling tenor saxophonists from the prior century, when hard bop was transitioning to looser structures, expansive instrumentation, and unrestrained volatility. That era is especially relevant to Jesup Wagon.”

Dave Sumner, Bandcamp

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“The emerging tenor saxophonist and composer leads a thrilling band, featuring cornetist Kirk Knuffke. Lewis has his free jazz history down, and at times he sounds like Albert Ayler might in the 21st century.”

-Bret Saunders/Denver Post

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Click here to be taken to the Bandcamp website to listen to “Lowlands of Sorrow”

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The lists and reviews utilized for this feature can be accessed by clicking on the links below:

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Bandcamp

Pitchfork

New York Times

Jazzwise

Denver Post

San Diego Union-Tribune

Pop Matters

Downbeat

The Guardian

Jazzwise

Slate

Brooklyn Vegan

Artfuse

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Click here to read last year’s column, “The Best of ‘The Best of’ in 2020 Jazz Recordings”

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