The Best In Jazz 2020

Gems, hidden and otherwise, in recorded jazz that piqued our interest

The Best In Jazz 2020 (Art: Blue Note)

I’m grateful for all the Jazz music I get in the mail. 

But since I don’t hear all the new jazz in a given year, this isn’t truly a “best of”. So let’s just call this “12 terrific releases from 2020”.

In no particular order, here are twelve 2020 recordings which make me wish everybody still had CD players so I could give them as gifts:


Christian McBride Big Band For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver (Mack Avenue) 

He can do anything: program The Newport Jazz Festival, host NPR’s Jazz Night in America, or detonate a dance party in a club with two turntables and his electric bass. But on this big band release featuring Joey DeFrancesco on the mighty Hammond B3 Organ and the effervescent guitarist Mark Whitfield, the great bassist wants to instigate grinning, head nodding and foot tapping. Swing used to be an article of faith in Jazz, and considered essential. 

But if other rhythms have been displacing swing in recent decades somebody forgot to give Mr. McBride the memo. It’s a real blessing that he’s been such a force in the Jazz world recently. 




Diego Figueiredo Compilation (Arbors) 

Though he’s made a couple of dozen recordings, his name may be new to you.

But George Benson says he’s “one of the greatest guitarists I’ve seen in my whole life.”

Whether you typically listen to jazz guitar or Brazilian music, this is one you’ll want to hear.    By himself or in duets, trios or more, everything here flows effortlessly and it’s a good introduction to his work. Look also for Figueiredo’s duet recording, Amizade, with clarinet and saxophone player Ken Peplowski from 2019 also on Arbors. 




John Daversa Quintet Cuarantena: With Family at Home (Tiger Turn) 

The trumpet player caused a stir winning three Grammys in 2018 for his big band release American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom which featured artists who are DACA recipients. The resulting kerfuffle was a bit like the one Herbie Hancock caused among fans of Justin Bieber 10 years prior: “Daversa who?” But now they know. 

Ordinarily I prefer hearing a trumpet played without a mute, but Daversa’s tone on this intimate 2020 collection of Boleros is ravishing, with or without the mute. The music, played by Dafnis Prieto, Sammy Figueroa, Carlo De Rosa and particularly Gonzalo Rubalcaba …is a warm bath after a long day. 


VIDEO: The John Daversa Quintet Cuarantena: With Family at Home

Pat Metheny From This Place (Nonesuch)

The guitarist and composer says he’s been working toward making this recording for his “whole life”, according to the liner notes. Given the breadth of his ambition and the acclaim he’s earned, we shouldn’t be surprised he’s released an orchestral recording featuring his working quartet and exceptional guests and collaborators. But we can be grateful he has. 

Enjoy this while we wait for Road to The Sun, to be released March 5, which features classical guitarists Jason Vieux and The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet playing Metheny’s music, and also Metheny himself playing piano. 



Keith Jarrett Budapest Concert (ECM) 

Having such a vast discography in print and new releases like this appearing makes it marginally more bearable to learn that it’s unlikely the great pianist will perform again following a recent stroke. Get this as a CD now, or as a vinyl LP in January not as the bookend to a rich career with many highlights, but for the inspiring variety of fruitful approaches to solo piano Jarrett takes here. As always with the ECM label, the quality of the recording is breathtaking. 



Joe Castro Passion Flower, for Doris Duke (Sunnyside)

The label Sunnyside releases a great deal of exciting, essential music each year: Music it produces, music it licenses and in this case music resulting from passionate curation, painstaking research and loving scholarship. This extraordinary six disc set illuminates the career of pianist Joe Castro, who had the luck to meet and fall in love with Doris Duke, the great philanthropist. Various other musicians contribute music here that makes this box a real find. But it also importantly helps illuminate Castro himself. The second boxed set from Sunnyside devoted to the pianist, each of the six discs offers delights not available anywhere else. 



Maria Schneider Data Lords (Artist Share) 

This most recent release by the singular composer and conductor is about more than the musical notes. It’s about “The digital world and the organic world” and a warning about, as Schneider says “…Data Lords, who are in a race to amass the entire world’s information, hypnotize us with conveniences…”. Seek this recording out for the message, for the gorgeous package with Its lovingly crafted booklet or just for the startlingly beautiful and compelling music. But do seek it out: discover the reason the busy and lavishly talented musicians in the ensemble are so loyal to her and her vision. Hear one of the great composers of the age, who’s music is so often about ideas. Many Best Of 2020 lists will feature this one, and deservedly so. 




Ron Miles Rainbow Sign (Blue Note)

Ron Miles has quietly come to exemplify a whole category he seems to occupy alone now: 

the lyrical cornet player, playing music that’s at once ethereal and song like. 

This Blue Note recording is entirely his music, much of it elegiac, written as his father was dying. The same inspired musicians on this were featured on 2017’s I Am a Man: Bill Frisell, Brian Blade, Jason Moran and Thomas Morgan. Music at once poignant and uplifting. 



Mike Rud Salome’s Dance: Mike Rud Invites Peter Bernstein (Bent River)

Two guitar records can seem a bit prosaic for listeners who aren’t guitarists. But listen to this and you’re hearing two poets with bass and drums. Bernstein also offered a fine release this year, and the less well known Rud’s other recordings are unique and well worth looking for (try the lovely Notes from Montreal). But this collaboration feels special, and swings like nobody’s business. We lost guitarists Jim Hall in 2013 and Ed Bickert last year. Recordings like this help lessen the loss just a bit. 



Luciana Souza and the WDR Big Band / Vince Mendoza Storytellers (Sunnyside)

Biographical details aside (for starters, she’s Hermeto Pascoal’s goddaughter) Souza stands out even among today’s astonishing group of women who sing Jazz. This recording, with Germany’s luminous WDR Big Band Cologne is as compelling as anything she’s done. The music is by Brazilian composers: Jobim, Guinga, Gilberto Gil, and Chico Pinheiro to mention but a few. The exception is the sprightly but powerful “CHORO #3” by Connecticut’s own Vince Mendoza – who could qualify as an honorary Brazilian composer on the strength of this piece alone. 

This is a high-water mark of musical storytelling. 



Sonny Rollins Rollins in Holland (Resonance)

While we wait to see if New York’s Williamsburg Bridge is officially renamedThe Sonny Rollins Bridge for the great saxophonist who practiced on it from 1959-1961, we can enjoy this release consisting of trio recordings made during a visit to The Netherlands in 1967. Though it’s a pickup group, consisting of both live and studio recordings, nobody holds back. Bassist Ruud Jacobs is propulsive and alert, and the great drummer Han Bennink is powerful and resourceful. It’s marvelous to hear the unique Bennink, a lion of the avant-garde, playing with Rollins who’s had a well-deserved reputation throughout his life as a peerless improviser. Kudos to Resonance for its commitment to important and vibrant recordings like this.


VIDEO: Rollins In Holland documentary 

Naama Gheber Dearly Beloved (Cellar Music) 

Most listeners have heard once-in-a-century-talents like Ella, Sarah and Abbey Lincoln, so it’s hard to be a woman who sings Jazz these days. 

Being blessed with arresting pipes and good taste in music like Naama Gheber just isn’t enough now, particularly with arresting singers like Roberta Gambarini and Cecile Mclorin Salvant setting such high standards these days. 

But just after the pandemic darkened stages worldwide, Naama Gheber released this debut recording on Cellar, the label run by Vancouver’s Cory Weeds. I hope this one is heard widely by lovers of songbook tunes and popular song. It’s beautiful and it swings. She proffers the songs like jewels carried forward by her own engaging arrangements. 

She may go on to make more ambitious recordings. But for now, this merely gorgeous one, by a singer with a glorious voice and a swinging band, seems just about right.  



Dayna Stephens Right Now! Live at the Village Vanguard (Core Port)

In February of 2019, the Village Vanguard was not on life support in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but rather packed to the gils with heads eager to experience new school tenor lion Dayna Stephens do his thing on the same stage Coltrane made iconic. On this night he was in performance with a scorching lineup  featuring Aaron Parks on piano, Ben Street on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums. “Playing the Vanguard was so special for me,” Stephens said on his BandCamp page. “The Vanguard was the first place I saw live musicians play, a videotape of the Johnny Griffin Quartet that I saw when I was 13. To lead my own group at the Vanguard is the highest honor that I, and the 13-year-old inside of me, could have ever imagined.” Right Now! is a testament to the magic and reverence of this most sacred space in the jazz world.  – Ron Hart



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David Beckett

A Realtor in Burlington, Vermont, David Beckett has been a friend to Jazz since 1983. David airs a long running Jazz radio show at WWPV FM and serves as a Jazz Director and music librarian at the station. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBeckettVT

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