Best Jazz Albums of 2021

Even the big albums made by jazz musicians this year had an intense sense of closeness: large-scale problems being solved in one chamber, with limited tools and only a few compatriots. No surprise there, I guess. Twelve months ago, the year started with promises, but we are barely back to the comforts of yesteryear. Rather than breaking out, we spent 2021 getting used to a sense of worry, making the most of being alone most of the time. The best improvised music of the year understood this and met us there.

Why Struggle: This year’s great talker in the experimental music world ended up being as powerful as we had hoped. Not really jazz, not exactly classical, certainly not electronic music per se, “Promises” is the very first collaboration between Pharoah Sanders, the octogenarian eminence of spiritual jazz, and Floating Points, born Sam Shepherd, a British composer. about thirty years old. universal spirit. They each use the music to address healing issues – Shepherd typically as a solo musician, Sanders as a community – and although “Promises” was recorded before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, it arrived a year later. lockdown, just when we needed it most.

Pianist, visual artist, curator, writer and driving force in jazz, Jason Moran has quietly released albums on his Bandcamp in recent years, after ending a long relationship with Blue Note Records. He doesn’t have a publicist and barely promotes himself beyond his personal social media feeds, but these posts are worth researching. Moran recorded “The Sound Will Tell You” alone in January, while mounting an exhibition of dark blue works on paper at Luhring Augustine in Tribeca. It is an intimate and tender piano disc, rich in harmonies, strongly inspired by the writings of Toni Morrison, sometimes blurred by electronic effects but always clear in its melodic intention. (Listen to “The sound will tell you” on Band camp.)

Tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis tends to blow his horn hard, but he likes to save a little more breath in the back of his lungs, so that his notes don’t necessarily fade away, but sometimes get louder and louder with it. the weather. It’s a way to diffuse patience and urgency at the same time, and to remind yourself that he’s in control. After years of growing buzz, Lewis cashed in his chips with “Jesup Wagon”. The album’s seven original compositions – composed for an unorthodox quintet, with the life of George Washington Carver in mind – are built around gaping, polyphonic melodies (Lewis’s saxophone intertwined with Kirk Knuffke’s cornet) and layers of rhythms stacked underneath (William Parker’s bass and guimbri, Christopher Hoffman’s cello, and Chad Taylor’s drums and mbira).

Sparkling and haunting, the debut album by this New York-based, Mexican-born vibraphonist and marimba player mixes composed material with tracks that were improvised in the studio. Some are retouched with echo and jamming effects, but none are particularly lush or layered. Moving away from the standard language of the jazz vibraphone, Patricia Brennan has created something like a landscape of vapor, full of wandering melodies lost in the fog.

Weaving, pulsation, fine-grained complexity, intense concentration: they are all at play in the entangled compositions of trumpeter Adam O’Farrill. On “Visions of Your Other”, their third album with their quartet Stranger Days (with Xavier Del Castillo on tenor saxophone, Walter Stinson on bass and Zack O’Farrill on drums), the group slips into the music like a costume. perfectly cut. .

Sam Gendel, a saxophonist, and Sam Wilkes, a bass player, are millennial buddies who also seem interested in using music for the purpose of comfort and disturbance. In 2018, they released “Music for Saxofone and Bass Guitar”, a stealthy little album that could have sprung from a vat where time, space, genre and the titular instruments themselves had all melted into. a red head. Recorded live on tape and released on Bandcamp, it has become an underground obsession. Their follow-up LP, “More Songs”, has nine more tracks in a similar vein, and it’s at least as hypnotic as the first.

Bassist, composer and organizer William Parker’s five-decade career sends a galvanizing message: Yes, you can do it all. You can play in and out of any style of improvisation you choose; you can lead and you can follow; you can play bass like a heavy rhythmic instrument while coaxing grace and lyrics. “Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World” is not a new LP, but actually 10, each featuring Parker’s original music recorded with a different collaborator or band. So it functions as a measure of his enormous fan base and a clue of his network on the downtown vanguard – a scene that would hardly be the same without him.

Sara Serpa, a Portuguese singer whose voice is both small and daring, has spent the last few years delving into the shocking story of Portugal’s colonial misadventures on the African continent, and responding with music. On “Intimate Strangers,” she collaborates with Emmanuel Iduma, a Nigerian memorial and critic, who has written in evocative detail about the experiences of migrant workers on the continent today. Through him, Serpa found a way to explore the current legacy of colonialism, while usefully shifting his own perspective. But the music remains distinctly that of Serpa: cool, vocal-oriented, abstract and yet immediately beautiful.

Nearly 80, Wadada Leo Smith retains one of the most complete and striking trumpet sounds. But playing alongside him is also coming into contact with silence, as if there could be energy coming from his horn which has not yet become a sound but which still needs space to to breathe. Saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Douglas R. Ewart – who, like Smith, moved to Chicago in the 1960s and became an early member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians – brings an equally restful approach. improvisation. Working with young Chicago drummer Mike Reed, Smith and Ewart have created an album of breadth and vision that lives up to its name. (Listen to “Sun Beans of Shimmering Light” on Band camp.)

“Songwrights Apothecary Lab” takes the form of an album here, but it started out like more than that (and it’s likely to continue as well). Esperanza Spalding, the self-proclaimed bassist, singer and “songwriter,” performed residencies in New York City and her native Oregon during the pandemic, bringing together a mix of healers and artists in search of new and therapeutic ways to do so. music. Each of the 12 tracks on the LP is a ‘formwela’, mixing lyrical and wordless vocals, instrumental textures and hooks that condense out of thin air.

Ada J. Kenney