2020 is the Year of the Jazz Guitar Album

Robert Middleton By

2020 is the Year of the Jazz Guitar Album: 2020 is the Year of the Jazz Guitar Album
One of the categories of jazz I love most is modern jazz guitar. And 2020 has been a banner year with more releases in this category than any year in memory by some of the finest guitarists in the world.

This playlist has now expanded to more than 20 albums. And what makes this an amazing year for jazz guitar is that I rate all of these albums from good to great.

I won't try to give an extensive review of all of these albums but I'll share what, in my experience, makes each of them special. I've divided them into three categories: Modern Guitar Masters, Guitar Journeymen, and The Young Guitar Lions.

Modern Guitar Masters

Several of the greatest jazz guitarists of our time released albums in 2020: Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, Al Di Meola, John Scofield, Terje Rypdal, Wolfgang Muthspiel, Ray Russell and Vic Juris. These artists have been recording since the '70s and '80s. Pat Metheny, From This Place. The cover photo of a tornado sums up the tone of this album: America in all its magnificent and tumultuous splendor. Perhaps the best jazz soundtrack to America in 2020.

Bill Frisell, Valentine. Truly, a love letter of finely-honed standards and originals with a resonance that penetrates. Possibly his most beautiful album. And a welcome balm for 2020.

Al Di Meola, Across The Universe. A Beatles tribute that exceeds expectations. The arrangements and playing are stellar; the tunes are all familiar, but none are pedestrian. A true delight.

John Scofield, Swallow Tales. Low key and charming, with all songs by bandmate Steve Swallow. It feels like an informal jam—two masters having fun without breaking a sweat.

Wolfgang Muthspeil, Angular Blues. This album is both understated and in your face at the same time. Every song catches your attention with sublime beauty and complex drama. A true gem that will transport you.

Terje Rypdal, Conspiracy. We haven't heard a Rypdal album like this in many-a-year. Atmospheric, ferocious, penetrating, and devastating as only Rypdal can deliver it. And never a dull moment.

Ray Russell, Fluid Architecture. Who the hell is this guy? He's a British fusion master who's been recording since 1968. I just discovered him in an AAJ review. A great find, this album has chops, texture, and soul to burn. Magnificent.

Vic Juris, Let's Cool One. Vic passed in 2019 and this was his final album. Vic is the outlier here in that his must is strictly bop- based, but he was one of the masters of the genre. Impeccably recorded and played, it harkens to a simpler, gentler time. Full of joy and life.

Guitar Journeymen

A few great guitarists who have been recording amazing music since the 1990's. Kurt Rosenwinkel, Brad Shepik, and Peter Bernstein.

Kurt Rosenwinkel, Angels Around. Nobody quite wrangles a beautiful melody like Rosenwinkel. A trio tour-de-force of standards and originals that takes flight like a ballerina and charms its way into your heart.

Brad Shepik, Believers. A guitarist who doesn't record enough! This compelling collection spans a wide range of moods and grooves. Whenever one of these songs pops up on my playlist, I ask, "What's that!!??" And then, when I look, I smile broadly. Fan-frickin-tastic.

Peter Bernstein, What Comes Next. To be released in mid-October. The samples are promising!

The Young Guitar Lions

Some of my favorite jazz guitar comes from these up-and-coming artists who have been recording since the 2000's and later: Greg Tuohey, Rob Luft, Nir Felder, Rez Abbasi, Samo Salamon, Steve Cardenas, Mary Halvorson, Miles Okazaki, Liberty Ellman and Lionel Loueke.

Aaron Parks / Grey Tuohey, Little Big II: Dreams of a Mechanical Man. Yes, this is an album by pianist, Aaron Parks, but Touhey's guitar is all over it. Possibly my most listened to album in 2020, it spins a series of compelling, dreamlike melodies that both soothe and enliven.

Rob Luft, Life is the Dancer. This British guitar phenom is the one to watch. On this, his second album, he thills and transfixes with stunning melodies, group dynamics and soaring solos. As deep and as wide as the ocean.

Nir Felder, II. A rising guitar star, he made a phenomenal appearance on Ernesto Cervini's Tetrahedron earlier in the year. On II he goes into the stratosphere with his richly-textured electric tone. Lightning fast runs and catchy melodies keep your rapt attention.

Rez Abbasi, Django-shift. One of the more playful and fun albums in this collection, Abbasi seems as determined to salute Django Reinhardt as to reinvent him for the 21st Century. A virtuoso acoustic guitar/organ trio blowout for the ages.

Samo Salamon, Common Flow. This fiercely independent Solvenian guitarists has played with everyone in an endless variety of styles. This album finds him in a low- key acoustic rhythm guitar support role to the gorgeous trumpet ballads of Igor Matkovic. Pastoral and timeless.

Steve Cardenas, Blue Has a Range. Cardenas has played sideman a lot more times than leader, but this album finds him in a mellow and reflective mood. Nice background music for chilling out.

Mary Halvorson, The Anthony Braxton Project. The avant guitarist of her time plays the music of the avant musician of his time. This is quirky, wonderful stuff. While listening, I thought this might be a great soundtrack to a travelogue about Chernobyl.

Miles Okazaki, The Sky Below. Okazaki is an unusual guitarist who composes angular, quirky melodies with a virtuoso technique. He sounds like nobody else, evoking images and moods outside the ordinary or mundane. Riveting.

Liberty Ellman, Last Desert. Another album on the avant side of things, Ellman's approach is heady, yet pensive. The sax of Steve Lehman and trumpet of Jonathan Finlayson meld to create a world akin to the vibrant life on an ancient lava field.

Lionel Loueke, HH This solo album tribute to Herbie Hancock is due in mid-October. Cantaloup Island is fantastic.

My recommendation: Put all of these albums into a playlist and play them day and night until you experience the kind of wonder that can only come from this quantity and quality of modern jazz guitar.

Which of these albums do you like the best and do you have any others to add to the playlist?
Posted to The Jazz Playground IN THE Music Discoveries GROUP
Read more posts by Robert Middleton

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