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Year in Review

Dan McClenaghan's Best Jazz Recordings of 2021


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The top jazz recordings of 2021, in the order in which they were encountered...

Aki Takase/Christian Weber/Michael Griener—AugeAki Takase / Christian Weber / Michael Griener
Intakt Records

The ever mercurial Japanese-born, Berlin-based pianist Aki Takase presents her take on the piano trio. Teaming with bassist Christian Weber and drummer Michael Griener, she creates Auge, wide open, unpredictable music full of odd grooves and serpentine twists and turns. By turns frenetic and pensive, prickly and fluidly beautiful, she has created one of the top piano trio albums—and one of the top jazz recordings of the year—period.

Marc Copland—JohnMarc Copland
Illusions Mirage

Pianist Marc Copland does the loveliest of tributes. In 2018, he tipped a hat to bassist Gary Peacock, with whom he'd collaborated often and well, with his simply-titled Gary (Illusions Mirage). 2021 found Copland offering up his respects for guitarist John Abercrombie—another oftimes musical running mate—with John, the most purely beautiful music made this year. Listening to both of these albums showcases Marc Copland's ability to make magic.

Franco Ambrosetti—Lost within YouFranco Ambrosetti Band
Lost Within You
Unit Records

With a band that is as "all-star" as it gets (Renee Rosnes: piano; John Scofield: guitar; Uri Caine: piano; Scott Colley: bass; and Jack DeJohnette: drums), trumpeter/flugelhornist, performs a handful familiar tunes with an easy panache. Exquisite sounds that seem new in this band's hands.

Satoko Fujii—HazukiSatoko Fujii
Libra Records

Avant pianist Satoko Fujii, huddled in her apartment in Kobe, Japan, has turned the challenges of Covid-19 to her advantage with a "record at home" mode, keeping up her usual prolific pace of record releases. This is a solo piano outing—intimate, fluid, at times eerie and odd and beautiful, this is another masterpiece of her "alone at the piano" recordings.

Rich Pellegrin—SolitudeRich Pellegrin
OA2 Recordings

Richard Pellegrin has previously recorded with his "two horns and a rhythm section" ensemble, fashioning a distinctive modern jazz sound of well-constructed, forward-leaning compositions. But, with Solitude, the pianist changes gears, a shift to an intimate, contemplative solo piano recording, shaping twenty-five cohesive freely improvised pieces entitled "Improvisation I" through "Improvisation XXV." The disc's title is apt. Recorded in a church on a secluded island in the northwest, the pianist explored his inner world beautifully with his piano.

Dan Dean—Fanfare For The Common ManDan Dean
Fanfare For the Common Man
Origin Classical Records

Dan Dean is well known for his bass playing and producing for Origin Records. He is also an accomplished—a recent development— vocalist. With Fanfare For the Common Man he has convened a choir of heavenly voices—all his own, via a painstaking overdub process— and made one of the most beautiful sets of music this year. It is a visitation of classical music—Bach, Mozart, Aaron Copland—presented with a full, lush sound, like a hundred monks in a five hundred year old cathedral. It may not be jazz, but it is a wondrous accomplishment.

Noah Haidu/Buster Williams/Billy Hart—Slowly: Song For Keith Jarrett Noah Haidu / Buster Williams / Billy Hart
Slowly: For Keith Jarrett
Sunnyside Records

Pianist Noah Haidu teams with a pair of jazz veterans, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Billy Hart, to tip his hat and give a deep bow to one the biggest names in jazz, pianist Keith Jarrett. With a couple of tunes written by Haidu, two more from Hart's pen, another from Buster Williams, along with a Jarrett composition and some jazz standards for which Jarrett is probably best known from his decades of work with his Standards Trio. This trio doesn't try to mimic the Standards Trio's distinctive approach. This is more a celebrations of the spirit of that long-standing and influential group, beautifully done.

Lena Bloch & Feathery—Rose Of LiftaLena Bloch & Feathery
Rose Of Lifta
Fresh Sound Records

In a short time—at this writing saxophonist Lena Bloch has only three albums to her name as a leader—employing a distinctive and personal approach to the "saxophone and a rhythm section sound," Bloch with her group Feathery has risen above most of the rest in her quartet offerings.

Matthew Shipp—TCodebreakerMatthew Shipp
Tao Forms

Pianist Matthew Shipp is no stranger to the year-end "Best Jazz" lists. His personalized approach crosses back and forth over the blurred lines between avant-garde and mainstream. The choice for this year (he usually releases way more than one recording in a twelve month time span) is Codebreaker, another deep dive into his highly charged piano improvisation mode.

Libra Records

Futari is pianist Satoko Fujii and vibraphonist/marimba-ist Taiko Saito. The Japanese artists make music that takes off from what might be expected from a pairing of their respective instruments. Fujii's piano (often prepared) and Saito's vibraphone and marimba push Fujii's "music you've never heard before" approach deeper into the unknown. Taking nothing away from her solo recordings and her work in ensembles large and small, it must be said that Fujii excels in the duo format, releasing numerous CDs with other perfect partners, including trumpeter (and also her husband) Natsuki Tamura, drummers Ramon Lopez and Tatsuya Yoshida and bassist Joe Fonda. It seems that one-on-one is where she finds her soul mates, like Taiko Saito.

Wadada Leo Smith, Jack DeJohnette & Vijay Iyer—A Love Sonnet For Billie HolidayWadada Leo Smith, Jack DeJohnette & Vijay Iyer
A Love Sonnet For Billie Holiday
Tum Records

The always enigmatic trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has made a trio out of members from two different versions of his Golden Quartet, bringing in pianist Vijay Iyer and drummer Jack DeJohnette to make mysteriously beautiful music. Smith's imagination is boundless, his song titles are sometimes confusing and his art is as broad ranging and resistant to commercial concerns as it could possibly be. 2021 has seen him release three box sets of new material and this single CD, A Love Sonnet For Billie Holiday. All of these recordings rise to a rare level of excellence. It has been been a very good year for Wadada Leo Smith.

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