Best Jazz Albums of 2020

Quarantine is especially challenging when it comes to making jazz, which usually means getting together in a little room and cutting loose. But while few albums were recorded during the pandemic so far (none on this list), a nonstop run of impressive jazz releases have been arriving throughout it. This year was uncommonly full of good debuts, providing some relief amid the eerie silence and a bit of hope for when it finally breaks.

1. Immanuel Wilkins, ‘Omega’

On his debut, the 23-year-old alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins announces himself with a suite of 10 compositions that move with such grace, there’s no time to feel overwhelmed by the surfeit of ideas packed into each one. Produced by Jason Moran, “Omega” features Mr. Wilkins’s working quartet of Micah Thomas on piano, Daryl Johns on bass and Kweku Sumbry on drums, gliding and diving with a telepathic synergy through tunes that he composed with the nation’s racial ills in mind, and that thrive thanks to a buoyant, up-to-date sense of swing.

2. Jyoti, ‘Mama, You Can Bet!’

By referring to the music she makes under the name Jyoti as jazz, the vocalist, producer and multi-instrumentalist Georgia Anne Muldrow is opening back up the conversation about what it means to be an improvising musician in the Black American tradition. She revels in the acoustic, bluesy sounds of jazz, while pulling from the toolbox of hip-hop production, suturing together her own live instrumentals with endless overdubs of her voice. The result sounds like a message arriving from a past we haven’t met yet.

3. Charles Lloyd, ‘8: Kindred Spirits’

The slippery, protean flow of Charles Lloyd’s saxophone playing seeps into the rest of his band on this live album, recorded live in Santa Barbara, Calif., on the occasion of his 80th birthday. A mix of longtime associates and new collaborators, the all-star group reworks four highlights from his back catalog, treating them as open questions, letting moments of intensity bubble up organically in unexpected places.

4. Asher Gamedze, ‘Dialectic Soul’

From this young, Cape Town-based drummer and bold political thinker, an album that seems to have almost everything you could ask for — lovely songcraft; farseeing poetry, spoken and sometimes sung; patient, evocative improvising; generations of history coursing through it like a bloodstream — but leaves enough open space to suggest he is not overplaying his hand. Another debut that augurs more brilliance ahead.

5. Exploding Star Orchestra, ‘Dimensional Stardust’

For the latest recording from this loosely configured group of Chicago avant-garde all-stars, the cornetist Rob Mazurek wrote detailed music with a focus on pairs (two cellos, two flutes, two drums), then let the energy of joyful convocation take over. After the recording was made, he cut and spliced and added electronic sounds, ending up with an intoxicating android of an album.

6. Nduduzo Makhathini, ‘Modes of Communication: Letters From the Underworlds’

In a moment when spiritual jazz has become a dangerously buzzy concept, trust a musician who has truly devoted his life to divination practices. On his Blue Note Records debut, the South African pianist Nduduzo Makhathini and his band are doing serious work, drawing on his history in the Zulu tradition of ubungoma, or divine healing. You can hear him mining the soil for information, creating melodies with a centripetal pull, building rhythms that leave a listener no option but to pick up on the momentum.

7. Keith Jarrett, ‘Budapest Concert’

The music world was stricken this fall by the news that Keith Jarrett had suffered a pair of strokes, and is unlikely to play the piano in public again. This solo piano album was recorded in late 2016, just months before what would be his possible final performance; from the title on down, the overtones of his most famous album, “The Köln Concert” (1975), are obvious, though he has moved away from the lengthy, unbroken improvisations of that era and plays here with a more untroubled sense of clarity — especially on the two songs that close the LP.

8. Susan Alcorn, ‘Pedernal’

A well-regarded member of the improvising avant-garde, the pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn makes iconoclastic, ambientish music on an instrument that’s usually not heard on the stylistic fringe. It’s fitting that when she finally put together a combo of her own, it didn’t look like anyone else’s. “Pedernal” features Ms. Alcorn accompanied by Mark Feldman’s violin, Mary Halvorson’s guitar, Michael Formanek’s bass and Ryan Sawyer’s drums; across five original compositions, melody is liable to be traded between the stringed instruments, or to disappear completely into texture.

9. Sun Ra Arkestra, ‘Swirling’

The music and ideas of Sun Ra have become talismanic among younger generations in the years since he died: Look to several albums on this list, like Ms. Muldrow’s, Mr. Mazurek’s and Mr. Gamedze’s. But his musical messages are in especially good hands with his own ensemble, now directed by the 96-year-old saxophonist Marshall Allen. The Arkestra was a vessel built primarily for survival — Ra insisted that space would be a more hospitable home for Black people than Earth, if only the music could get him there — and more than 25 years after his death it continues to thrive. On “Swirling,” the first Arkestra album of newly recorded material in two decades, the band’s loose, sweeping power reanimates classic material from his repertoire, plus a couple of never-before-recorded items.

10. Webber/Morris Big Band, ‘Both Are True’

There’s little terrain that this big band is afraid to step into. Led by Anna Webber and Angela Morris, two rising saxophonist-composers on the Brooklyn scene, the 19-piece ensemble has been performing their compositions for five years but just released its debut. Jazz shibboleths all come in for a questioning here. Passages of long, open harmony are common; sometimes those become lengthy stretches of collective improvisation, musicians conversing at a low simmer, resisting the typical urge to raise the temperature or set a course. Almost one entire tune consists of a testy, nipping conversation between Dustin Carlson’s distorted electric guitar and the rest of the band, punching back at him in big brassy chords.

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