The Glide 20 In Jazz: The Year’s 20 Best Jazz Albums

2020 marked the most jazz reviews ever for Glide. Among the challenges from the pandemic, the inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement, and an Election year, artists made many powerful statements. We also continue to get the unearthing of lost albums from iconic figures, stellar efforts from emerging young players, and strong contributions from reliable veterans, both vocally and instrumentally. This list includes nine NEA Jazz Masters, two artists still in their twenties, only three repeats from last year’s list, and nine recently announced Grammy nominations. It was an especially fertile year for big band/large ensemble albums and overall, the list encompasses major labels to self-released efforts. We salute these artists, knowing the choices were difficult to make as there were many more worthy efforts beyond just these and the others that are listed as honorable mentions.

Chief Christian Scott Atunde AdjuahAxiom (Ropeadope) 

The blend of the electronic and the organic on his studio albums, The Stretch Music concept, certainly piques curiosity about how this septet sounds live.  Axiom leverages the success of his critically acclaimed 2019 Ancestral Recall, and we now have at least the aural answer to the live experience. Note, only two selections appear here from that album but this is indeed a blistering set showcasing his Stretch Music concept that filled his Centennial Trilogy and those dating back to his 2102 self-titled album on Concord— a vision of genre blindness in sound. (Grammy nomination for Best Improvised Solo on “Guinevere”)


Ambrose AkinmusireOn the Tender Spot of That Calloused Moment  (Blue Note)

His are the somber tones of what black life in America means to him refracted through equal measures of jazz and blues with his long-standing quartet. While the mood is requisitely dark, the album comes off as a gorgeous tapestry of sounds.  Akinmusire is a fighter who believes in pride, resilience, and hope. In the wake of George Floyd’s brutal death and the social justice outcries, the album speaks to these moments. Miles once said, “The blues is the mother tongue; everything else is just commentary.” Akinmusire’s got that feeling of the blues. His resonates now as strongly as it ever has from the masters. (Grammy nomination)


Thana AlexaONA  (self-released) 

Throughout ONA, which is the word for “she” in her family’s native Croatian language, Alexa explores through eight unique original compositions and two new arrangements, the complex theme of what it means to be a woman.  While ONA is ostensibly jazz, it weaves in the contemporary soul, world music, and pop. Alexa uses her voice as both a lyrical and experimental instrument, while also using atmospheric sounds, electronics, soundscapes, and textures, partly through her keyboards, all meshing in a unique hybrid sound unlikely any heard elsewhere. At times, it does not even seem like a vocal record.  Settle in for a musical experience beyond classification. Alexa also features an all-female line up of special guest artists of the highest caliber: Regina Carter, Becca Stevens, and many others. Alexa has a Grammy nomination as does Regina Carter for her solo on “Pachamama.”



Artemis –  Artemis  (Blue Note)

The multi-generational, multi-cultural, all-female jazz aggregation of seven of today’s top modern jazz musicians, who have performed live together, made their recording debut. These “already sublime parts,” a septet, are Canadian pianist and musical director Renee Rosnes, Chilean tenor saxophonist /flutist Melissa Adana, Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen, Canadian trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, Japanese bassist Noriko Ueda, drummer Allison Miller, and featured vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant,(born in France) who sings on two selections. These women stay unpredictable, never shunning from putting their own stamp on the music. 


Lakecia BenjaminPursuance: The Coltranes (Ropeadope)

Alto saxophonist/bandleader Benjamin gathered an esteemed roster of jazz royalty on the date, which encompasses some 40 musicians in the credits. Recognizable names include three generations of jazz with Ron Carter, Gary Bartz, Regina Carter, Keyon Harold, Marcus Strickland, Brandee Younger, Dee Bridgewater, Meshell Ndgecello, Steve Wilson, Marc Cary, Jazzmeia Horn, and Reggie Workman, who played with both John and Alice and proved invaluable in recruiting the stellar lineup and serving as a mentor on the project. Benjamin will likely find similar success to fellow altoist Kenny Garrett’s album of a similar name.


George ColemanThe George Coleman Quintet in Baltimore  (Reel to Real)

NEA Jazz Master tenor saxophonist George Coleman delivers an explosive set from Baltimore’s famed ballroom, the Left Bank in 1971. The quintet here features trumpeter Danny Moore bringing the fury in the style of Clifford Brown, pianist Albert Dailey, bassist Larry Ridley, and drummer Harold White.  This band is as an explosive straight-ahead unit as any you’ll hear during this same era. Interestingly, this is Coleman’s first recorded album as a leader, and it burns white-hot.


Chick CoreaPlays (Concord) 

If you’ve been privileged to see an acoustic piano concert by Chick Corea, you can’t help but be struck not only by his creative improvisations but his playfulness, rapport with the adoring audience, and sheer joy of playing his instrument.  All those attributes are on display in this scintillating, breathtaking performance entitled simply Plays as Corea regales on solo piano across two discs and three LPs. Corea, although alone on the stage, came equipped with an extensive musical lineage, interpreting pieces by Domenico Scarlatti, Bill Evans, Frédéric Chopin, and Thelonious Monk, and illustrating the connections between artists, even when separated by centuries.


Orrin Evans and the Captain Black Big BandThe Intangible Between (Smoke Sessions)

This is an inspired big band –one plays with modern sensibilities and a great sense of fun and spirit. While there are moments where the band goes careening on wild free jazz excursions, they are adept in jazz traditions too. This is anything but your father’s big band music. This stretches the boundaries to wonderful places. It’s a provocative mix of traditional and free jazz which can be a transportive listen. (Grammy nomination for Best Large Jazz Ensemble)


Nubya Garcia – Source  (Concord) 

The American debut for London-based saxophonist, composer, and radio host. She joins London peers Yazz AhmedShabaka HutchingsMoses Boyd, and Theon Cross(all of whom have been covered here)  in exporting the scene’s genre cross-over approach. Garcia is accompanied by her working quartet — pianist Joe Armon-Jones, double bassist Daniel Casmir, and drummer Sam Jones — in a program of nine striking originals that reflect the music and culture of her Afro-Caribbean upbringing, and her artistic community in a deeply intuitive, disciplined, and personal take on modern jazz. 


Jimmy GreeneWhile Looking Up (Mack Avenue)

The saxophonist has more reasons to despair than most of us, having lost his daughter to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT in 2012. Yet, Greene, as he’s done with two albums since then, chooses to push the negativity aside, bursting forth with this spiritually, deeply emotive project. hearkening back to his landmark 2009 Mission Statement. Greene reunites with some of the players from that project here, bringing aboard guitarist Lage Lund, bassist Reuben Rogers and vibraphonist Stefon Harris. He reached back to his 2008 The Overcomer’s Suite to work again with drummer Kendrick Scott and all the way back to his debut from over 20 years ago for pianist Aaron Goldberg Every note that Greene plays rings with emotion. His tone alone is worth a concentrated listen.


Jimmy HeathLove Letter (Verve) 

Precious few of us get to live until age 93, even fewer can look back at that point over 76-year career, and even fewer can see a lifelong dream realized just a month before passing. The beloved saxophonist-composer Jimmy Heath certainly makes a grand exit with the final album of his career, the finishing touches to which were applied just a month before his death.  Known for his expertise in rendering ballads, Heath delivers an all-ballads recital on Love Letter. Appropriately for the jazz icon, these sessions involve a star-studded multi-generational cast including NEA Jazz Master pianist Kenny Barron, acclaimed guitarist Russell Malone, soulful vibraphone veteran Monte Croft, New York first-call bassist David Wong, and all-world drummer Lewis Nash


Charles Lloyd 8 – Kindred Spirits: Live from the Lobero (Blue Note)

This is a brilliant document of Charles Lloyd’s 80th Birthday concert, performed in his home venue, the Lobero in Santa Barbara, CA) features his core rhythm tandem of bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland with frequent collaborator pianist Gerald Clayton and guitarist Julian Lage as the quintet on disc one, a strong representation of Lloyd’s deeply spiritual adventurous, ever probing free form style. The second set is a clinic in deep R&B and blues, a nod to Lloyd’s upbringing in Memphis, where instead of playing in his signature spiritual style, he honks with the best of them alongside guest Booker T. Jones on organ, bassist, and Don Was on two tracks, as well as Clayton who joins the ensemble for two closing pieces. 


Christian McBrideThe Movement Revisited (Mack Avenue)

The renowned bassist, bandleader, composer, artistic director, and preeminent jazz spokesperson turned his childhood fascination of Black American history into a 20-year-long Civil Rights project highlighting the icons Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Muhammad Ali, as well as Barack Obama on The Movement, Revisited: A Musical Portrait of Four Icons.  This stunning opus and continually evolving project combine elements of small jazz combos, gospel choir, big band, theater, and dramatic, often starkly riveting, and compelling spoken word through the voices of Sonia Sanchez, Wendell Pierce, Vondie Curtis-Hall, and Dion Graham.


Charles McPhersonJazz Dance Suites (Chazz Mack Music)

This is a vastly different kind of project for McPherson who records his groundbreaking collaboration with the San Diego Ballet, an association that began in 2015.  Joining McPherson and his daughter Camille are top echelon players in Terrell Stafford (trumpet), Lorraine Castellanos (vocals), Jeb Patton and Randy Porter (piano), Billy Drummond (drums), David Wong (bass) and Yotam Silberstein (guitar).  To be fair, the music stretches across a much broader palette than bebop, but you’ll inevitably hear those strains as well. For its highly imaginative compositions and the sterling emotive range of McPherson’s playing, this represents a signature work in McPherson’s storied catalog.


Thelonious MonkPalo Alto (Impulse!) 

In the fall of 1968, a sixteen-year-old high school student, Danny Scher, had a dream to invite the legendary pianist and composer Thelonious Monk and his quartet to perform at his school. In a series of surprising events, and against a backdrop of racial tension and political unrest, the concert happened and was recorded by the school’s janitor, somehow producing remarkable sound clarity. Scher, a jazz fan and natural budding concert promoter was too young at the time to attend Monk’s three-week run at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco.  Yet, he had the gumption to call Monk directly and ask him to perform at his school. Monk and his quartet – Charlie Rouse (tenor sax), Larry Gales (bass), and Ben Riley (drums) – climbed out of the Scher family van, walking past a parking lot full of surprised Palo Alto and East Palo Alto residents, into Palo Alto’s High School’s auditorium and delivered a sparkling, energetic 47-minute set captured here. 


Joel RossWho Are You? (Blue Note) 

Now Ross continues to extend the storied Blue Note label’s legacy of vibraphonists from Milt Jackson to Bobby Hutcherson to Stefon Harris with his second project, Who Are You?  This time out Ross, now 25, co-produced the album with saxophonist Walter Smith III and rendered his mostly original compositions with his Good Vibes band, mostly intact save the new bassist Kanoa Mendenhall who replaces Benjamin Tiberio. Continuing members are Immanuel Wilkins (alto sax), Jeremy Corren (piano), and Jeremy Dutton (drums).  Harpist Brandee Younger appears on five tracks. Ross points to the new bassist and the process of maturation as the key ingredients in arriving at the sound he wanted to shape.


Christian SandsBe Water (Mack Avenue)

Pianist Christian Sands is fascinated with the element of water: this is his inspiration for his third full-length album on Mack Avenue, Be Water, from the tranquil to the powerful, malleable, and unpredictable. The album takes its title from the philosophy of martial arts master and movie star Bruce Lee. The evocative recording finds Sands with his core trio of longtime bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Clarence Penn, with an elite cadre of front line players including guitarist Marvin Sewell, Marcus Strickland (tenor sax, bass clarinet),  Sean Jones (trumpet) and Steve Davis (trombone). On one piece the ensemble is also supplemented by a string quartet. Sands plays acoustic piano on every track, layering in keyboards and voice on the opener, Fender Rhodes on four, and Hammond B-3 on “Drive.  (Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental composition – “Be Water II”)


Maria SchneiderData Lords  (Artist Source)

If there were a #1 album on the list, this is it.  Simply said, put your music where your mouth is. The Grammy-winner composer, bandleader, and recently named NEA Jazz Master has been increasingly outspoken about Google & big data companies, writing articles and appearing on Copyright Office roundtables, and testifying before Congress. Schneider says, “Musicians have been the canary in the coal mine. We were the first to be used and traded for data.” With that passionate point-of-view comes this stunning two album work with disc one decrying and essaying the digital world as disc two paints the contrast of the natural in this superbly done project.  (Grammy nominations for Best Large Jazz Ensemble for “Sputnik”)


Sonny RollinsRollins in Holland  (Resonance) 

Another discovery from Zev Feldman, these previously unreleased sessions find Rollins blowing with abandon accompanied by, for the first time, bassist Ruud Jacobs and drummer Han Bennink. These recordings, both studio and live, spread across 3 LPs and 2 CDs capture Rollins in his prime, with his unmistakable robust tone and wildly energetic improvisation, performing with a trio ten years after his iconic Live at the Village Vanguard, also a trio recording.  In fact, this music comes from a seldom documented period in Rollins’ career. It comes between a studio hiatus that lasted from 1966 (the date of his Impulse! East Broadway Run Down) until 1972. 


Immanuel WilkinsOmega (Blue Note) 

The 22-year-old alto saxophonist and Julliard graduate from greater Philadelphia came to the attention of most with his impressive playing on Joel Ross’ debut Kingfisher. Now with Omega Wilkins makes his own Blue Note debut as leader. Wilkins is not only an astute student of jazz tradition: he knows Black history in America and intently spiritually messages the pain of that experience on many of his compositions herein.  The album is produced by his mentor, Jason Moran, and features Wilkins’ quartet of pianist Micah Thomas, upright bassist Daryl Johns and drummer Kweku Sumbry. The forthrightness and utter command displayed by Wilkins and his quartet is stunning.


Honorable Mentions – It’s difficult to winnow down so many great albums, the most jazz we have ever covered in this publication, to just a cool 20.  Here are some others almost equally well-deserving:

Tony Allen/Hugh MasakelaRejoice,

Jeff Parker & New BreedSuite for Maxine Brown

Gregory PorterAll Rise 

Keith JarrettBudapest Concert,

Nels Cline SingersShare the Wealth

Harold MabernMabern Plays Mabern

Gerald ClaytonHappening: Live at the Village Vanguard

Pancho SanchezTrane’s Delight

Shabaka & The AncestorsWe Are Sent Here By History

The Brecker BrothersLive and Unreleased

Charles Tolliver – Connect,

Gary Bartz/Maisha –Night Dreamer: Direct to Disc Sessions,

Redman, Mehldau, Blade, McBrideRoundAgain,

Bill Evans – Live at Ronnie Scott’s,

Kurt Elling with Danilo PerezSecrets Are the Best Stories 


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