My Favorite Jazz Albums of the Year: 30 for ’20 (Part 2 of 3)

Our second set of ten discs, includes a brilliant final musical statement from a true jazz great, a trumpet master, who is still creating incredible music, in his eighth decade; an exciting South African pianist, who is setting the jazz world aflame and a sparkling tribute to some legendary ancestors by a few modern masters. Let’s dig in.

Once again, the albums are in alphabetical order, by artist name.  We will also try hard again, to adhere to the three-sentence rule (but don’t bet on it!).

  • Jeff Hamilton Trio: Catch Me If You Can (Capri)
    • Jeff Hamilton is a drummer of impeccable swing and unerring sensibility. He is one of those cats who elevates any of his bandmates by his mere presence behind the kit; not that his mates in this trio, bassist Jon Hamar and pianist Tamir Hendelman, need any help. On this sublime date, which includes a nice mix of originals and standards that have not worn out their welcome, the Hamilton trio produces an album fondly reminiscent of the Oscar Peterson trio, in their prime days. That group also had a master of taste on the skins, the late, great Ed Thigpen. An album absolutely worth your time.
  • Jimmy Heath: Love Letter (Verve)
    • Jimmy Heath, a saxophonist whose stellar career included being on the stand with virtually every jazz great, from Charlie Parker through today’s up and coming stars, who learned at his feet, passed away last January, at age 93. He left us, as a final gift, Love Letter, an achingly beautiful album of ballads that he worked on, until just weeks before his death. With guest appearances by Wynton Marsalis, Cecile McLorin Salvant and Gregory Porter and a stellar group of sidemen, that included Kenny Barron on piano, Russell Malone on guitar and the wonderful and woefully under recorded Monte Croft, on vibes, this a fitting valedictory, to a jazz life, well-lived.
  • Eddie Henderson: Shuffle and Deal (Smoke Sessions)
    • Dr. Eddie Henderson turned 80 years old, last October. From the way he looks on the cover of Shuffle and Deal and the way he sounds on the music inside, it is clear, that the good doctor, has found the Fountain of Youth. His trumpet attack is as blistering and energetic as it was when he was first heard, in Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band, in the early ‘70’s. With Kenny Barron and “Big Chief” Donald Harrison, alongside him as composers and bandmates, Dr. Henderson, has produced his second straight brilliant album for Smoke Sessions records. Age ain’t nothing but a number, doctor. Keep going for as long as you’ve got masterful music, in your soul.  
  • Theo Hill: Reality Check (PosiTone)
    • Reality Check is pianist Theo Hill’s third album for PosiTone Records. While the prior two were good piano trio dates, Mr. Hill’s decision to expand to a quartet, with rising star vibraphonist Joel Ross, may have been what was needed to move the group from good to great. The instrumentation will draw natural comparisons, to the MJQ but the young members of this group are far more forward thinking and dare I say, modern, in their approach. And when Mr. Hill switches to Rhodes, he elevates this fine group, even higher.  
  • Christopher Hollyday: Dialogue (Self Release)
    • Christopher Hollyday’s comeback, has been one of the feel-good stories in jazz, in the last few years. Signed by Novus/RCA, as part of the jazz young-lions craze of the early ‘90’s, while still in his teens, the young alto saxophonist was earnest but frankly, not yet ready for prime-time. When his career foundered in 1993, Mr. Hollyday returned to teaching and studying, becoming a highly respected educator in San Diego. He made his first record in 25 years, in 2018, the critically acclaimed Telepathy. This year, he followed up with Dialogue, every bit as good as its immediate predecessor. Itcrackles with the energy and self-assurance of a gifted, mature artist. Christopher Hollyday is back and better than ever. Hopefully, this time, it is to stay.
  • Nduduzo Makhathini: Modes of Communication: Letters from The Underworld (Blue Note)
    • From the moment that I first heard Nduduzo Makhathini’s Blue Note debut, I knew that I had some homework to do. A pianist, Mr. Makhathini has been a force on the South African jazz scene for several years. Influenced by Americans such as McCoy Tyner and Andrew Hill, as well as by his countrymen, Abdullah Ibrahim and Bheki Mseleku, he has taken the essence of his homeland’s music and melded it with American jazz, in a way that I’ve heard others attempt but no other has succeeded on such a high artistic level. His was one of the truly fresh and exciting voices that I heard in jazz this year and I look forward to hearing more.
  • Jason Marsalis: Live (Basin Street)
    • Since switching to the vibraphone from the drums, a few years back, it has been fascinating to watch the musical growth of the youngest musical Marsalis brother. On this set, recorded live three years ago, at the famed Little Gems Saloon, Marsalis is more relaxed and in the pocket, than I’ve ever heard him on this instrument. Maybe it’s because he is working with his regular working group or perhaps it is because the set consists of all Jason Marsalis originals. Whatever the reason, he has stepped up his vibraphone artistry, to the next level and this is a very high-quality album.  
  • Christian McBride Big Band: For Jimmy, Wes, and Oliver (Mack Avenue)
    • If you’re like me and a fan of the two classic recordings that Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery made in 1966, you know every note of those gems by heart. And like me, when you heard of this project, you wondered what could McBride’s Big Band bring to the table, on a tribute to those albums (and their arranger, Oliver Nelson), that could be fresh and new. For starters, organist Joey DeFrancesco and guitarist Mark Whitfield, are both season veterans, who greatly admire the legends that they are standing in for but smart (and gifted) enough, not to be reduced to imitation. Second, the song selection includes only four tracks from the original two albums and finally, the arrangers only used Oliver Nelson’s charts on the tunes not on the Jimmy and Wes originals. The result is one hell of a good album. Jimmy, Wes, and Oliver would be pleased.
  • Ron Miles: Rainbow Sign (Blue Note)
    • Cornetist Ron Miles’ prior album I Am a Man, brought him near universal acclaim, in the world of jazz and an opportunity to record for Blue Note Records. While Rainbow Sign employs the same musicians as its predecessor, for me, the writing went much deeper and the arrangements were denser. A couple of the songs even swung, in a relatively traditional sense. Mr. Miles composed the music for this album, while caring for his ailing father, up until the time of dad’s passing. That difficult situation may have infused Miles’ writing process. Whether it did or not, the music here, is the best of Ron Miles’ career.
  • Farnell Newton: Rippin’ and Runnin’ (PosiTone)
    • On his second album for Marc Free’s PosiTone Records, trumpeter Farnell Newton has a decidedly groovier sound, precipitated by the presence of organist Brian Charrette. But this is not an all-out Earland/McDuff soul-jazz fest. In fact, this date sounds to these ears, like a more soulful version of Unity, the classic Larry Young album. Charrette is kept grounded by the hard driving but traditional drumming of the great Rudy Royston, while Newton and saxophonist Brandon Wright are flying high. The tension between the conventional and the greasy is palpable, throughout the project and it is what makes the music special.

A reminder, if you are interested in purchasing any of the music that we discuss in these posts, clicking on the album title, will take you to the album’s page on Amazon.com. There is also a Spotify playlist below, which includes a track from each of the albums discussed here, for you to sample. But please don’t just stream. During these tough times, these musicians can use your support more than ever, so if you like it, buy it.

Our next post will feature the final ten of our 30 for ’20. It will be up, tomorrow.

 Thoughts and opinions are welcome, as always, in the comments.

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