My Favorite Jazz Albums of the Year: 30 for ’20 (Part 1 of 3)

Man, this has been one strange year! (Insert your own “no kidding”, or some variant, here)

Though I was fortunate enough to host a Zoom-based jazz talk show (Conversations with Curtis), thanks to JazzArts Charlotte, I heard less live music, this year than at any time, since my teens. I also somehow managed to hear less recorded music than any year, in recent memory. I feel less comfortable than ever declaring this list to be a “Best Of”, because there is so much out there that I’m still catching up with. So, let’s just say that these are my favorites of what I did hear. These are the albums that I went back to listen to, more than twice, the ones that stayed on the CurtJazz Radio playlist for more than just a few weeks.

There are thirty albums that I want to share with you. To keep the posts to a reasonable size, I have divided them into three groups of ten. For the sake of brevity, I will try not to write more than three sentences about any one album.

Here are the first ten of my favorite 2020 releases, in alphabetical order, by artist name:

  • J.D. Allen: Toys/Die Dreaming (Savant)
    • Allen releases about one album per year and he also makes about one trip a year to my “Best Of” list. On this enigmatically titled album, Allen continues his searing, powerful explorations guiding his tenor sax through a recommended set of mostly original tunes. It’s insistent, compelling, and absolutely first rate.
  • John Beasley: MONKestra Plays Beasley (Mack Avenue)
    • The first two outings of pianist/composer/arranger John Beasley’s large ensemble, ostensibly dedicated to the music of Thelonious Monk, made me a respectful admirer. This third volume, which adds compositions by Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Beasley himself to those of Sphere, has made me a full-fledged fan. This set swings harder and takes the energy to the next level and every track is on point. A classic.
  • Lakecia Benjamin: Pursuance: The Coltranes (Ropeadope)
    • For me, this is Lakecia Benjamin’s coming of age album. Her previous albums have hinted at her potential but missed the mark in some way or another. Merging Ms. Benjamin’s millennial energy, creativity, and her wellspring of new ideas, with the canon of John and Alice Coltrane, has given these classics a fresh start that we didn’t realize that they needed, until now.
  • Peter Bernstein: What Comes Next (Smoke Sessions)
    • Peter Bernstein is one of the best and most reliable guitarists working in the world of jazz today. Be it as a first-call sideman or as a leader, Bernstein is a consistent arbiter of taste, intelligence, and swing. On What Comes Next, Mr. Bernstein, once again, does not disappoint, bringing us an outstanding set of first-rate performances.
  • Stanley Cowell: Live at Keystone Korner Baltimore (SteepleChase)
    • Stanley Cowell, who was a composer, educator, record-label executive, in addition to being one of the most creative and innovative pianists, in the world of jazz, died on December 18. His work, as a sideman with The Heath Brothers, Charles Tolliver, Max Roach and as a leader, will ensure that legions of jazz fans will continue to talk of and discover his work, for years to come. I’m unsure of whether Live at the Keystone Corner Baltimore, is Mr. Cowell’s final recording. If so, he went out on a triumph. Rest in Power, sir.
  • Wayne Escoffery: The Humble Warrior (Smoke Sessions)
    • I’ve come to expect a certain high-level of artistry from Wayne Escoffery’s recordings. The Humble Warrior is on my “best of” list because he has shown me something completely different in his song selection. Bringing Benjamin Britten’s choral work Missa Brevis in D, into the jazz realm, complete with a dense and challenging arrangement, is one of the most impressive things, from an artistic perspective, that I’ve heard all year.
  • John Fedchock NY Sextet: Into the Shadows (Summit)
    • Though trombonist John Fedchock is one of the best big-band arrangers in the business, I believe that in his small groups, such as this one, is where he really shines. In his small groups, there is a lightness and an attention to detail that his larger charts sometimes miss. His total reinvention of “Star Eyes”, is the standout on the album and one of the best versions of that old warhorse that I’ve ever heard.
  • Champian Fulton: Birdsong (Self-Release)
    • Champian teased the release of this album, when she guested on “Conversations with Curtis”, last spring. The album was not released until August. It was worth the wait. Champian Fulton has grown into one of the finest pianist/vocalists in jazz today. She is a consummate interpreter of a lyric and though she clearly has been influenced by several the greats, she sounds like no one, but herself. Did I also mention that her piano playing can swing you into bad health? This tribute to Bird, flies high.
  • Nubya Garcia: Source (Concord)
    • Nubya Garcia has been building to this moment for a few years now, with two well received and exciting Eps, before Source, her first full length album was released this year. If you’re familiar with her EPs, what is here will not be surprising. The 28-year-old British saxophonist has a sound that is influenced by the soulful ancestors, like Henderson and Turrentine, but rooted in the nascent London jazz scene of today. Downbeat has named Ms. Garcia, one of the 25 performers that could shape jazz for decades…I certainly hope that they’re right.
  • Connie Han: Iron Starlet (Mack Avenue)
    • I was unfamiliar with the work of this 24-year-old piano prodigy, until last January, when she was the victim of some vicious and sexist written attacks by a respected online jazz publication (which later claimed that they were hacked). This made me curious enough to explore her music for myself. I found her work to be surprisingly good. She knows her jazz vernacular, she is a strong soloist, who leaves plenty of room for her sidemen and she is a fine composer. Iron Starlet, her second album as a leader, stands favorably alongside of much of the released work of Ms. Han’s contemporaries and her elders, in 2020. Those who criticize her for reasons that have nothing to do with her music, ought to be ashamed of themselves.

There you have the first ten of my “30 for ’20”. And yes, I did break my three sentence rule, when it was absolutely necessary. I’ve included a Spotify playlist, below, with a track from each of the albums discussed in this article, to give y’all a taste. We will release two more posts, with 11 – 20 and 21 – 30, on the list, on successive days. Thoughts and opinions are welcome, as always, in the comments.

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