TDF Jazz albums of the year 2020
Our three favourite jazz albums of 2020 are covered in The Digital Fix Albums of 2020 (Kruder & Dorfmeister's 1995, Shabaka and the Ancestors' We Are Sent Here by History and Tigran Hamasyan's The Call Within), but while the young British jazz scene featuring Moses Boyd, Kokoroko, Nerija, Seed Ensemble, Nubya Garcia and the Ezra Collective didn't make as much of an impact as the previous year, 2020 was nonetheless an exceptional year in for established jazz musicians like Gary Bartz, Pat Metheny, Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman as well as for other young rising stars like Immanuel Wilkins, Ellen Andrea Wang, Rob Luft and James Copus.
It seems to me that rising young British jazz guitar player Rob Luft has been popping up almost everywhere this year, most recently on Lost Ships with Elina Duni for ECM, not to mention releasing a fine solo album of his own, Life Is The Dancer, but possibly his finest contribution has been on Norwegian bass player and vocalist Ellen Andrea Wang's Closeness. Wang and drummer Jon Fält lock down a solid rhythm on the opening track 'Erasmus' for Luft to let fly soaring harmonics and that sets the tone for a consistently strong album that has a wonderful blend of spirituals, covers and original material including an interesting run-though of Pat Metheny's 'This Is Not America'.
Immanuel WIlkins played an integral part in the success of vibes player Joel Ross's 2019 debut KingMaker, but it scarcely indicated the ability, range and virtuosity the alto saxophone player from Philadelphia would show as bandleader for his Blue Note debut recording. Produced by Jason Moran, Omega showcases a wonderful sense of composition, beautiful melodies and a strong underlying thematic purpose, with pianist Micah Thomas making a notable contribution to the quartet line-up. Like many other black artists, 2020 proved to be a time for anger and reflection, as well as a celebration of kinship and these issues are all channelled into the warm emotional content of the playing and the sentiments expressed in the titles of each of the songs.
There's certainly been no lessening in quality from Pat Metheny's more recent Unity Band releases, but From This Place feels nonetheless like a welcome return to the sweet melodies and orchestral sweep of his 1993 album Secret Story. From This Place opens in a grand manner with the thirteen and a half minute 'America Undefined' that does indeed seem to try to capture the broad epic sweep of the American landscape and history, an ambition that nonetheless now feels far removed from the more political view of the nation that has developed in the meantime over the last year. That takes nothing away from the brilliance or musicianship on display, and as a whole the album is similarly rich in its arrangements, incredibly recorded by his current live band without rehearsal, with orchestrations added to elevate it to another level.
You could say that there's nothing particularly new or surprising to be found in the new album featuring the original quartet reformation that recorded Joshua Redman's breakthrough 1994 album MoodSwing, but when you are talking about a line-up like Joshua Redman on saxophone, Brad Mehldau on piano, Christian McBride on bass and Brian Blade on drums, there's certainly nothing run-of-the-mill or complacent about it. Each of those musicians has become major stars of the jazz scene in their own right, and despite the diverse paths they've taken, the unit slot together again effortlessly 25 years on. Almost too effortlessly and smoothly perhaps, but it's still an absolute delight to hear musicians of this calibre playing together on a strong set of material.
Lying somewhere on the electronica and dance side of the broad church of jazz, the collaboration of Mumbai-based producer Sanaya Ardeshir, aka Sandunes, with the solo bandleader and in-demand London-based session drummer Richard Spaven proved to be a wonderful mix-and-match of styles. Sandunes's swirling electronic melodies are anchored by Spaven's rock-solid jazz and hip-hop inspired drumming in a collection of seven tracks that is billed as an EP, but the accomplishment and quality of each of the tracks makes this feel like a complete and fulfilling album experience.
For pianist Billy Childs, Acceptance is in some respects a kind of summation of his life and career to date, which is not a bad way to approach an album thematically. Taking in the Brazilian rhythms learned in collaboration with Dori Cayammi in the joyous opener 'Dori', Childs also looks back on other important learning experiences with musicians in the Los Angeles Leimert Park scene of the 90s, and has some time for reflection on the loss of close friends in 'Acceptance' and 'Twilight Is Upon Us'. With Childs on piano and Fender Rhodes, he's backed by a strong band that includes Steve Wilson on sax, Eric Harland on drums, Hans Glawischnig on bass with other well-chosen collaborations and vocalists.
Whether you listen to jazz or not, chances are you may have heard James Copus somewhere along the line as a sideman playing for Joss Stone, Boy George, Olly Murs and Jorja Smith, but the ability shown in this impressive debut album from the 25-year-old trumpet and flugelhorn player still comes as a surprise. Watching him recently playing Freddie Hubbard solos at Ronnie Scott's for Matt Roberts Bigish Band's celebration of Red Clay, it all fell into place. Hubbard might well be a big influence, Kenny Wheeler too, but there's also a bright contemporary feel to Dusk, partly through the choice of players in his band, the lush melodic arrangements, the willingness to extend the post-bop vocabulary, but mainly in the sheer joyfulness that is evident throughout the whole venture.
Viewed from the UK, the jazz scene tends to be focussed on British artists and American traditions, with any European music making it over being mostly Scandinavian, but there are some worthwhile experiments being done with the genre elsewhere. One such artist is the flautist Magic Malik (Malik Mezzadri), a French musician born in Guadaloupe who thrives on collaboration in a continuous search for new ways of musical expression. His XP "Experience" projects are particularly fascinating ventures into avant-garde jazz, gathering pools of diverse young musicians to experiment with new and perhaps more truthful ways of composition that comes through improvisation and self-exploration, brought to fruition through collaboration with other like-minded musicians. The resulting sound of Fanfare XP Vol 2 is genuinely unique and wonderful.
Although he has never been far away, developing an impressive roster of British bands from the Manchester scene on his Gonwanda label (Portico Quartet, Gogo Penguin, Mammal Hands), Salute to the Sun is Matthew Halsall's first album as bandleader in five years. It perhaps doesn't sound like much of a departure from his familiar blend of ethereal, Eastern-mystic, spiritual jazz, but with its tabla like percussion, bells, chimes and lush harp playing from Maddie Herbert, the soothing healing qualities of Salute to the Sun's hypnotic rhythms and could hardly come at a time when they are more needed. The extended timings of the seven tracks give the music time to breathe and for Matt Cliffe to add saxophone and flute solos to Halsall's plaintive and soulful trumpet playing.
This year's on-line edition of the EFG London Jazz Festival did its best to shine some light on jazz from other European artists that don't otherwise get much coverage or exposure outside of their home countries. From Switzerland we got a look at harpist Julie Campiche, but one of the most enjoyable albums this year was released by the drummer from Campiche's band, Clemens Kuratle and his own line-up Murmullo. The quintet's second album Lies has a stronger compositional arrangement than their debut, inevitably built around rhythms that allow the other musicians in the band to explore mood and progression, most notably the guitar work of Franz Hellmueller on the impressive title track 'Lies'. With six tracks and only 34 minutes long, it's a beautifully understated collection that feels perfect at this length, yet leaves you longing to hear more.