Jazz was an incredibly important part of my life in 2020. It was something to turn to, focus on, and disappear into. When it was time to start cooking dinner — a typically enjoyable task that assumed a new level of intensity as a result of the regimented nature of life in 2020 — I reached for jazz. When I was up late, typing about who-knows-what and worrying about everyone-knows-what, I reached for jazz.
As I have the past few years, I spent a ton of time following the International Anthem label’s release cycles. You’ll read about one of those albums below, but I’ve already written about two 2020 additions to their catalog, and more IA blurbs are on the way. The fact that they’re scattered across these lists is both a testament to the imprint’s eclecticism and an attempt to hide my IA stan status in plain sight. (Is it working? Probably not.)
I’d also call 2020 the year that I aimed to form a more personal relationship with John Coltrane’s music. It’s always felt like I was barely scratching the surface there, so I decided I’d hold myself to a higher standard and get to know albums like Giant Steps and A Love Supreme in a way that felt less like saying “Hey” from a distance and more like a focused conversation. Later albums, too — I picked up a used copy of Kulu Sé Mama via Steady Sounds’ Instagram and held it up like a map of that unfamiliar territory. I still have a ways to go, but I do feel more connected, both to his work specifically and to the broader idea of spirituality being communicated instrumentally. It’s opened my ears, and I’d guess that the rest of the jazz I heard in 2020 sounded sweeter as a result.
That said, I’m certain that these five albums would have sounded sweet regardless. And truth be told, the bonus list below them still seems woefully incomplete, so I’ll probably keep adding to it as the year comes to a close.
Kahil El’Zabar — Kahil El’Zabar’s America the Beautiful
Pitchfork reviewed this a day before the election, and I was so moved by it — the idiosyncrasy of El’Zabar’s renderings of “America the Beautiful,” the frankness of the album’s dissonant passages, the ebullience of “Express Yourself” — that I put in an order for it right away, knowing it wouldn’t come until at least a few days after the last votes had been cast. The way I saw it, that first spin would either be a celebration of a hopeful new chapter, or a motivating reminder of how much work is left to be done. It ended up feeling like both. This is music that zooms way out, reminding you that history is long, that the difficulties ahead are part of struggles that are bigger than ourselves, and that they connect us to good people who came before.
Greg Foat — Symphonie Pacifique
A top-10 2020 album in terms of play count. I went through a stretch over the summer when I listened to Symphonie Pacifique about once a day, usually at night through headphones, and I’ve internalized it to the point that “Man vs Machine” starts playing in my head every time I hear a synth sound that’s anywhere in the same sonic ballpark. It’s lush, it’s varied, it’s fun, and it welcomes you with open arms. I did end up getting a vinyl copy, but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for that initial run of late-night listens.
Asher Gamedze — Dialectic Soul
Three cheers to the kind folks at Small Friends Records & Books for securing a copy of this with my name on it. Like Kahil El’Zabar’s America the Beautiful, Dialectic Soul offers a blend of savory and sweet, marrying a lyricism that hits my ear like Mingus’ with a capacity for beauty that makes it seem like notes were placed next to one another by divine predestination. Seriously, listen to “Siyabulela” and tell me you can’t picture some melodic higher power guiding the way. It’s astonishingly gorgeous.
Sam Gendel — Satin Doll
This was a game-changer. I’ve since picked up two more Sam Gendel albums — DRM, which came out in October, and Music for Saxofone and Bass Guitar (with Sam Wilkes) from a couple of years ago. All brilliant, all with a similar sideways vantage point into how melody and arranging can function. It’s hard to imagine life without Gendel’s instrumental voice now, and it all started with this collection of woozy renditions of jazz standards.
Jeff Parker — Suite for Max Brown
In addition to being one of the year’s best albums of any genre, Suite for Max Brown was also my overdue introduction into the multi-faceted and wildly rewarding world of Jeff Parker’s past output. I didn’t have to go far (same Bandcamp page!) to find him in the liner notes for recordings by International Anthem labelmates like Makaya McCraven and Rob Mazurek, but I ended up spending even more time with Tortoise’s TNT. That turned out to be another late night headphones-in favorite of 2020. Getting to know that one helped me appreciate Parker’s versatility even more — something that really shines on Suite for Max Brown.
Other jazz albums I enjoyed:
Butcher Brown — #KingButch (more to come on that one)
Bill Frisell — Valentine
Sam Gendel — DRM
Irreversible Entanglements — Who Sent You?
Quin Kirchner — The Shadows and the Light
Rob Mazurek — Dimensional Stardust
Makaya McCraven — Universal Beings E&F Sides
Gil Scott-Heron — We’re New Again: A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven (More to come on this one.)
Shabaka and the Ancestors — We Are Sent Here by History
David Tranchina — The Ogre
Kamasi Washington — Becoming