Our top 10 albums from a unique and challenging year
10. V/A - Blue Note Re:Imagined
This collection seemed written in the stars for quite some time. We are fortunate to be living through a vibrant jazz scene with one foot in tradition but mutual eyes fixed firmly on the future. Across its 16 tracks, Blue Note Re:Imagined reinforces how bright the future is.
All the leading lights are here: Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings, Ezra Collective and Jordan Rakei all give worthy reinterpretations of some classics. However, it’s in the more unexpected and emerging works that this project truly shines.
Jorja Smith’s take of St Germain club classic Rose Rogue adds some vocal star power, Ishamel Ensemble give an almost trip-hop feel to McCoy Tyner’s Search for Peace and Skinny Pelembe’s sparse, electro inflected take on Andrew Hill’s Illusion (Silly Apparition) is understated in its euphoria. Some saw this as sacrilege, the rest of us just marvelled at its promise.
9. Jyoti - Mama, You Can Bet!
Georgia Anne Muldrow is an artist’s artist. Ask any of the crop of immensely talented emerging neo-soul & jazz vocalists making waves at the moment who their influences are and Muldrow’s name will crop up more often than not. On this album, the third under her Jyoti moniker which she reserves for her more experimental jazz & electronic side, Muldrow proves why she is just such a revered artist.
Moving from hard bop to lounge, the album explorative nature is its most fascinating quality. The name Jyoti was bestowed upon Georgia Anne Muldrow by Alice Coltrane and the disruptive nature of this album seems to flow directly from that lineage.
8. Melody Gardot - Sunset In The Blue
A captivating yet elusive artist, Melody Gardot often feels not of this time. Dedicated to the romance and wonder of classic popular music of days gone by, ‘Sunset In The Blue’ conjures images of Paris in the autumn, Rio in the summer and New York after dark. So far so Gardot, but where this album goes from good to great is the orchestration and the heart.
Strings swell but never overwhelm and where Gardot had previously ventured into bluesy territory on previous album Currency of Man, Sunset In The Blue is a love letter to her jazz roots.
7. Tom Misch & Yussef Dayes - What Kinda Music
A shining example of the forward-thinking collaborative approach of the contemporary jazz scene, What Kinda Music seemed to come at a pivotal point for both it is featured players.
Misch, off the back of his celebrated Beat Tape series, had built an incredible word-of-mouth following but debut album proper Geography was a more song focussed affair, vibe took a backseat to hooks. Dayes, having lit the touch paper for the South London jazz explosion with Yussef Kamaal, had seemingly laid dormant, releasing music and performing sporadically.
This collaboration’s greatest strength is the chemistry between Misch & Dayes, both parties are pushing their abilities and pushing each other. The result is a woozy and atmospheric yet utterly compelling listen.
6. Lianne La Havas - Lianne La Havas
Another of our Lockdown LPs, this album has only improved with more time spent with it. Like all great ‘pop’ records, you like on the first listen but love the more you delve deeper. Lianne La Havas’ third album is a raw, musical listen. Her voice has always been celebrated but her guitar-playing is as much the star here.
It is also clear that La Havas is acutely aware of where music is right now. Sluggish grooves, intricate arrangements and glassy guitar tones punctuate this record to make it feel contemporary, but La Havas is such student of the classics it maintains a timeless quality.
5. Ambrose Akinmusire - on the tender spot of every calloused moment
An extremely cerebral player, Akinmusire walks a line not many others can. While many artists keep one foot in the future and another in the past, throughout his career Akinmusire has felt like he is torn between the two. On his previous album, 2018’s stellar Origami Harvest, contemporary beats and hip-hop influences were at its core, on this album the inverse is the case.
Throughout the deconstructed chaos and tumbling instrumentation, it is Akinmusire’s trumpet that sings the loudest. Not a straightforward record, at times, not an easy listen but a vital record ‘that get’ more intense’ to borrow a phrase.
4. Nubya Garcia – Source
One of our Lockdown LPs, Source felt like the fulfilment of a prophecy. Long touted as one of the leading lights of UK the jazz revival it would not be unfair to guess that some of the old guard may have been willing Nubya Garcia to fail on her debut album. Source, however, is a triumph. Time will tell, but it feels like a classic we will speak about for years to come as an artefact of this vibrant time for UK jazz.
Coming from a generation raised on as much Carnival as they were Coltrane, Garcia’s playing and composition feel, to echo her own words, like the next chapter in Black British music. Source is also a startling example of the power of an acoustic quartet to move your hips as much as your heart & head. A stunning debut.
3. Gil Scott Heron - We're New Again - A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven
Makaya McCraven has been out on the edge for a while. Few artists in the jazz realm can match his pioneering approach to composition and production. With the words & voice of the late, great Gil Scott-Heron to explore, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect magic and that just what We’re New Again delivers, moments of pure magic.
The second reimagining of Heron’s final album (after Jamie XX’s sublime, club-ready We’re New Here) takes the songs from an album Scott-Heron, by his own, admission didn’t have much emotional connection with and uses gospel, jazz, hip-hop and scuzzy blues to bring these words back down into a realm their original creator may have had more in common with.
2. Sault - Untitled (Black Is)
Since 2019, Sault’s music has struck public consciousness, not like a bolt from the blue, but like a stranger in the corner of the room. We are left scratching our heads wondering ‘How long have they been there?’ Untitled (Black Is) arrived as the first of two albums of 2020 to be released by this mysterious collective (arriving off the back of 5 & 7, both released in 2019) and while both are worth your time, Untitled (Black Is) just pips its successor to the post on the strength of its centuries-old yet frustratingly zeitgeisty message.
An abstract a protest album as you will ever hear, Untitled (Black Is) whirrs through jazz, funk, soul and further. The scattershot approach to genre never obscures its heart, elevating the stories of Black rage and Black sorrow channelled into meditative streams of consciousness.
1. Charles Lloyd - 8: Kindred Spirits
Recorded as a celebration of the jazz titan’s 80th birthday in his hometown of Santa Barbara’s Lobro Theatre, Kindred Spirits is a meeting of just that. Lloyd’s band for the night included Booker T. Jones on keys, guitarist Julian Lage, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer Eric Harland and despite not being a regular gigging outfit, the musical chemistry on display across this performance is palpable.
Each musician is given their chance to shine, but it is all anchored by Lloyd’s playing. Merging for the abstract to the stark, his unique rhythmic approach is a testament of his eight decades of experience. A masterful work from a master of the form.