The best jazz CDs of 2021?
Vinyl is the most popular and desirable listening format. Do you agree? When it comes to jazz, that means reissued vinyl of largely dead jazz artists, since the majority of living US jazz musicians can’t afford to press their music to vinyl–a financial fact. You can get vinyl recorded by living jazz artists from Bandcamp, but then there’s shipping. And if you’re fan of the robust UK jazz scene, where vinyl is often pressed, you’ll pay international shipping charges, which are quite high.
Contemporary American jazz continues to thrive on the compact disc format. CDs remain a cheap, plentiful alternative, along with streaming, and who doesn’t own a CD player? The following are ten of the best jazz CDs I heard in 2021. I cover jazz for JazzTimes, DownBeat, and Stereophile magazines, but there is so much great new jazz, those outlets alone can’t allow full coverage of the wealth of titles available.
My tastes tend towards the eclectic, so you won’t find Diana Krall, Chris Botti, or even Jon Batiste among the following titles. But I hope you will explore these musicians and enjoy their work. The best jazz CDs for 2021, in no particular order:
Marc Cary, Life Lessons (Marccary.com)
Multi keyboardist Marc Cary is one of those musicians whose work just makes you feel good the first time you hear it. Cary has been on the New York scene for a long time, blossoming from his early days as pianist for vocalist Abbey Lincoln. He’s also played and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, Betty Carter, Roy Hargrove, Erykah Badu, Meshell Ndegeocello, Stefon Harris, Lauryn Hill, Jackie McLean, and Carmen McRae. As you see, a broad-minded musician.
Life Lessons, one of the best jazz CDs of 2021, pins you to the wall on first listen, and never lets go. It almost feels like a jam session, as the flow is so consistent and the melodies so joyous, but that’s the ruse Cary employs. His gifted trio, bassist Dan Chmielinski and drummer Diego Joaquin Ramirez, reacts kinetically as Cary unfurls his piano and synthesizer brew, rolling from track to track like a well-oiled unit thinking as one.
“And It’s Supposed to Be Love” begins the album, a rugged acoustic bass and drums pocket fortifying grand acoustic piano figures, Cary playing spacious lines and twinkling, ivory tickling ideas that instantly capture the imagination. Flow, flow, flow. “It’s Tricky” ratchets up the tempo and the groove, a sprite-like swing section tipping hard for all it’s worth. Still on acoustic piano here, Cary recalls McCoy Tyner, Roland Hanna, and suggestions of Michel Pettrucciani. Cary brings in Rhodes piano and synthesizer for “It’s Not A Good Day to Die,” sounding like an outtake from George Duke’s uber funk treatise, “The Aura Will Prevail.” Hip hop directed, but with sunny vibes up top, it’s bliss and reassurance rolled into one.
Another low-down funk pocket adorns “Equilibrium,” a gentle groove like dancing through raindrops. “Dreamlike” brings more smoke and fire; “Without Walls” morphs from gospel charged goodness to sci-fi addled synth journeys atop Afro Cuban rhythms; “Phase 2” dives deeper into a maze of synths and effects, buzzing melodies and raging rhythms like war games inside a computer.
The sum effect is blissful and calming, exciting and enervating, a night out with Marc Cary’s mad fingers leading you along unknown terrain, safe in his fat grooves and rich melodies.
Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, Angels Over Oakanda (Avant Groidd Musica)
The brainchild of recently passed Village Voice writer/Black Rock Coalition founder Greg “Ionman” Tate, this steaming, burning, rumbling large ensemble jazz erupts where Lonnie Listen Smith and Charles Mingus collide, where Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way bust up against Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory and Sly’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On. That’s to say that it’s a modern record with equal parts hardcore riffing, plaintive jive talking soliloquies, and enough funky ambient jazz to float the island of Manhattan.
Co-led by Dayton, Ohio bassist Jared Michael Nickerson (Bernie Worrell, The The, Wadada Leo Smith, Katell Keineg, Melvin Van Peebles), Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber is a “forum for New York City’s improvisational musicians to compose, record, and perform an eclectic range of music.”
Opener “Angels Over Oakanda” imagines a ceaseless nocturnal journey, congas and drums percolating, Rhodes piano heaving, horns bracing, voices weaving in and out of its cosmic spell. It’s blissful, ancient, redolent of a pre internet era when analog was everything: phones, music, communication– nothing virtual, nothing less than reality. And it’s stoner music, the all important eternal soul groove repeating, being, crisscrossing, circulating.
The funk flows on “Repatriation of the Midnight Moors,” equal parts spooky horror sendup and robo-beat mélange. “Oakanda Overdrive” leavens funk with George Duke inspired fusion and Isaac Hayes’ romance profundity. “Lisala Over inna-Oakanda” reminds of EryKah Badu jamming with Larry Graham, a parlor dance of soul-errific proportions on one of the best jazz CDs in 2021.
About his lyrics Tate said:
“’The verses pay an abstract homage to the ghost-lineage of American born Black radical artists and activists — from those of the transatlantic-trafficked who sustained their humanity and mind, body-soul throughout that 90-day ‘’Auschwitz on the water’ (per Arthur Jafa) horror-show, to the Maroon communities of Black and Indigenous freedom fighters of Florida who created free nation-states in fugitivity, fighting off the US Army for 30 years (at the height of chattel slavery, and beyond), to the 60’s modern warrior formations of the Freedom Riders, The Black Panther Party, Black Liberation Army, The Black Arts Movement (led by Amiri Baraka), and the Republic of New Africa who helped free Assata Shakur.” Greg Tate R.I.P.
Kevin Sun, 3Bird (Endectomorph Music)
New York City based tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Kevin Sun takes on the impossible and succeeds on 3Bird, resurrecting the ghost of Charlie Parker in a thoroughly modern, 21st century rhythmic matrix. Though Parker seems largely forgotten by both jazz musicians and jazz fans, Bird’s sunlight sounds remain eternal. Sun draws on the magic of Parker, revamping his melodies, improvisations, and compositions, bringing subterfuge and originality by skewing Parker’s material with unusual arrangement twists and contextual scenarios.
As when “exploring the rhythmic implications of the introduction to Scrapple from the Apple”
(“Schaaple from the Appel”), divining “an abstract dance through Parker’s two studio take on
improvisations on Yardbird Suite” (Dovetail), or basing a song (“Sturgis”) on “Parker’s recorded
improvisations on ‘Mohawk.’” Featuring trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, guitarist Max Light, piano and
Rhodes player Christian Li, bassist Walter Stinson, drummer Matt Honor. (Quotes from 3Bird’s liner notes). Clever and exciting, pliable and swinging, Sun’s sextet has a blast pouring out his Bird-inspired tunes on this, one of the best jazz CDs of 2021.
James Francies, Purest Form (Blue Note)
Recently heard accompanying Pat Metheny on his Side-Eye NYC album, keyboardist James Francies is shaking up the jazz world with his enormous talent on this, one of the best jazz CDs over the last year. Joined by the trio of bassist Burniss Travis and drummer Jeremy Dutton, Purest Form features alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, vibraphonist Joel Ross, guitarist Mike Moreno, and vocalists Peyton, Elliott Skinner, and Bilal. A breathtaking performance that imagines jazz as the most exciting music on the planet, Purest Form is like a shooting star that only reanimates, never burns out.
After a moody intro, “Levitate” recalls the turbulent beauty of Return To Forever’s Romantic Warrior, times 50. Over flying drums and plaintive piano, Francies wails and cajoles, spins and fires his synthesizer arsenal like magic arrows of time-twisting, universe-expanding fireballs. The dancing drums and ghostly synth melodies continue on “Transfiguration,” leading to a moment of calm in the ethereal vocals and hip-hop of “Blown Away.” Then it’s off to further flight in “My Favorite Things,” taking Coltrane’s standard on a roller coaster ride seemingly controlled by AI, voice-controlled mechanics, and robotic rhythms. Wilkins’ solo is more shape-shifter than melody enabler, but it suits the rapid fire atmosphere.
Melding modern production with blazing skills, Francies’ music flows from jazz to hip-hop to ambient, the sensuous atmospheres nearly lulling the brain. “Melting” sounds like Nils Frahm by way of an iceberg; “Where We Stand” balances a brisk hip-hop groove with robo-ready, fusion-fried synth and vibraphone melodies; “Eyes Wide Shut” imagines Prince lost in a metal maze, Bilal reciting a wary tale over crashing drums and tritone keyboards.
James Francies sees jazz future on Purest Form, and it’s anything but pretty.
Dave Stryker, As We Are (Strikezone)
Guitarist Dave Stryker possesses an ideal tone, a torrid style, and the kind of traditional technique that helps him both soothe the faithful and entertain the adventurous. Stryker got his start with organist Jack McDuff and tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, that grits ‘n’ gravy goodness has marked his music.
With As We Are, one of the best jazz CDs this year, the bearded guitarist has elevated his playing, his composing, his soloing, and his music. A beautiful concept album, As We Are is performed by pianist/arranger Julian Shore, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade, the ensemble bringing newfound depth and responsiveness to Stryker’s compositions. The string quartet of violinists Sara Caswell and Monica K. Davis, violaist Bennie von Gutzeit, and cellist Marika Hughes further enhance the exceptional compositions.
When Stryker lays into the touching melody of Nick Drake’s “River Man,” it’s a cathartic moment, one of the saddest songs of the past 50 years given grace and extension via Stryker’s gentle, stellar performance. Stryker extends that message with “Hope,” as the guitarist spins a new yet somehow familiar melody. The darkly sparkling “Lanes” recalls Michael Brecker; Brazilian tinted “Saudade” makes like Roberta Flack and Donnie Hathaway’s “Where Is The Love”; “One Thing At A Time” is pensive yet comforting, dulcet strings injecting grace. The title track is all fainting strings and Stryker’s mournful melody, at once memorable and mighty.
Stephanie Nilles, I Pledge Allegiance To The Flag–The White Flag (Sunnyside)
Vocalist and pianist Stephanie Nilles delivers a political, musical, and sociological tour de force on her rabble-rousing call to justice, I Pledge Allegiance To The Flag– The White Flag. Slyly singing and crooning while manipulating her piano with shades of Horowitz and Tatum, Nilles explores the compositions of Charles Mingus to paint a picture of injustice past to correct a hopeful future. The familiar melody of “Fables of Faubus” is both gentle and ghostly, from Nilles’ evocative piano to her spooky vocals.
She also enlivens “East Coasting,” turns “Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me” into a sprawling, gospel-tinged epic, and transforms the beautiful “Peggy’s Blue Skylight” into twinkling mists of memory. NIlles includes “Devil Woman,” “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” “Remember Rockefeller at Attica,” and “Pithecanthropus Erectus,” and a plaintive take on John Coltrane’s “Alabama.”
Dan Wilson, Vessels of Wood and Earth (Mack Avenue)
On guitarist/composer Dan Wilson’s debut album for bassist/composer Christian McBride’s Brother Mister label, the young player casts shades of Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino, and Russell Malone, a high flying, seamlessly propulsive jazz outing that posits straight ahead as eternal, timeless, soul purifying–one of the best jazz CDs of 2021.
Fans of jazz guitar will hear touches of Grant Green and George Benson, Wilson’s chunky,
burning stormers bringing sweat and swing, grace and fire. Supported by drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, bassists McBride and Marco Panascia, and extraordinary pianist Christian Sands, Vessels of Wood and Earth rattles the senses, clean. “Bird of Beauty” is light and sweet, “The Reconstruction Beat” as rhythmically potent as Monk by way of Ben Riley, the title track a 6/8 rumination that posits the listener in a Chicago jazz bar, circa 1972, smoke rising, spirits sanctified, the night’s mood pure possibility.
Taken from a previously unissued live recording caught at Tokyo’s Hibiya Public Hall in 1961, during the Jazz Messengers’ virgin tour of Japan, First Flight to Tokyo chronicles a fresh performance by one of the greatest bands in jazz. The release features the legend-leader with the top Messengers’ line up of Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Timmons, and Jymie Merritt. Songs include Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time,” Thelonious Monk’s “Round About Midnight,” and Messengers’ standards, “Dat Dere” and “Moanin.’” Audio was transferred from the original ¼” tape reels; vinyl edition mastered by Bernie Grundman, vinyl pressed at RTI.
First Flight to Tokyo has many high points, including Blakey’s solos on “Now’s The Time” (one of two different versions) and “Blues March,” Morgan and Shorter’s fireball solos on “Moanin’,” and “Dat Dere”, respectively, and Timmons’ idyllic work, also heard on “Dat Dere.” Due to recording techniques of the time, some tracks or sections of tracks sound soft, or small in stature. Scotched by the lucidity of modern discs, First Flight to Tokyo may need a deeper listen or at least, headphones, to fully value its invention. But the prize, as with all Jazz Messengers albums, is substantial.
Emma-Jean Thackray, Yellow (Movementt)
With Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra as her instigators, and Roy Ayers and The Aura Will Prevail-era George Duke as her nourishment, British multi-instrumentalist, producer, and home-studio wizard Emma-Jean Thackray’s Yellow is a cosmic-jazz funk treatise. Created by sampling her four-piece band’s live performances, then adding her multitracked vocals and further instrumentation, Yellow is one woman’s recontextualization of jazz past, present, and future.
Yellow exists beyond the currently brimful London jazz scene. The album is a comprehensive work from the mind of a gifted individual. “Mercury” infers gloomy vistas via grumbling drums, Rhodes piano, cosmic synths, and looped bass. Four-on-the-floor funk and vocals merge in the disco-hypno “Say Something,” leading to the swinging “About That,” the sassy P-Funkish “Venus,” and the slow-motion stoner atmospherics of “Golden Green.”
Invoking a home invasion, Thackray slowly unfolds a string part that recalls a suffocating victim in “Spectre.” The riveting orchestral fusion rises, twists, and liquefies, with her numbing vocal—“There’s a specter in my house, but he doesn’t see me”—the only symbol of sanctuary. Yellow brings a great talent and concept to fruition on one of the best jazz CDs of 2021.
Alfa Mist, Bring Backs (Anti-)
Jazz funk? Future hip hop? Retro & B? It’s hard to tell these days, but London-based producer, pianist, and MC Alfa Mist has a growing stateside following, positing ’70s funk-jazz hardened by hip-hop as basis and fuel.
Sometimes recalling Lonnie Liston Smith’s Astral Traveling, Bring Backs merges lamenting spoken word, trippy Rhodes keyboard, and flexible funk jams primed by effected trumpet and guitar. Recorded in London with Jamie Leeming (guitar), Kaya Thomas-Dyke (bass and vocals), Jamie Houghton (drums), and Johnny Woodham (trumpet), the album works as a suite, one composition plunging into the next, as portentous moods travel between.
Opener “Teki” comprises chorused guitar, silver-tongued horn lines, and a blistering rhythm bed that forms the album’s direction. “People” briefly upends that mood, as acoustic guitar supports a vocal addressing global apathy in turbulent times. A bumpy hip-hop beat suggests nighttime torpor on “Mind the Gap.” Moist trumpet lines and a bouncy beat regulate “Last Card (Bumper Cars).” “Coasting” resumes the groove from the end of side one (vinyl), Mist’s Rhodes outlining a roundabout melody fused with wah-wah trumpet and drum breaks before brusquely stopping. The Chick Corea-ish intro of “Attune” tips a coma-like silence, before the string-infused sounds of “Once a Year” transition to “Organic Rust,” a J Dilla-inspired beat with strangely effected instrumentation within a bleak present-day vision. Welcome to the future, where comfort will mean everything, Children of Men worthy angst come to life.
Honorable Historic Mentions
Roy Hargrove/Mulgrew Miller In Harmony (Resonance Records)
Sonny Rollins Rollins in Holland (Resonance)
John Coltrane A Love Supreme Live in Seattle (Impulse)
Stacy Kent Songs from Other Places (Exceleration/Token 2021)