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Peter J. Hoetjes' Best Releases of 2020


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It's been an unusual year for the music industry within any genre. The first few months of 2020 were fairly typical, followed by months of uncertainty prompted by fear and misinformation. As the year closes however, jazz musicians are hopefully able to glimpse the sun rising on the distant horizon.

If 2019 was a year dominated by unearthed or re-released recordings from decades past, its successor was the hardscrabble year, one where those whose business sense and adaptability gave them the edge needed to survive. There were also plenty of little surprises. Collaborations between artists located in the same city, or who met on the internet. New work from aging veterans of the hard bop era. While a handful of those vintage discoveries made this list, it seemed as though the industry was less fixated on them this year.

This list contains the best that 2020 had to offer. These artists persevered through circumstances unfairly stacked against them, proving their spirits tough and their creativity resilient.

Eddie Henderson
Shuffle And Deal
Smoke Sessions Records

It seems as though Eddie Henderson's half-century long career has culminated with a permanent residence in The Cookers supergroup. Even so, the trumpeter hasn't stopped recording music under his own name. For Shuffle and Deal, he re-enlists the same sidemen as his previous effort, albeit with bassist Gerald Cannon subbing for Essiet Essiet. Those expecting straightforward jazz from a master of the genre are guaranteed to be pleased. Henderson doesn't do anything especially revolutionary here, but that isn't really the point, is it?

Michel Legrand
LeGrand Jazz

Impex's remastering and vinyl reissue of Legrand Jazz earlier this year came and went with little fanfare. Those who are unfamiliar with the album are in for a treat. In the late fifties, Michel Legrand had yet to establish himself as one of the great twentieth century composers. He traveled from his native France to New York City, aspiring to assemble the most talented young jazz musicians in the world. Miles Davis. Art Farmer. Donald Byrd. John Coltrane. Bill Evans. Phil Woods. Hank Jones. He got them all and more, spreading the massive lineup through multiple bands and recording sessions. Legrand Jazz's greatest downfall is one which occurs in retrospect; it's easy to allow expectations to run rampant. Don't. The album is like a photograph of a bygone era, and those who approach it as such are rewarded with one very entertaining ride.

Jimmy Heath
Love Letter
Verve Music Group

Jimmy Heath was one of those musicians who effortlessly tempered that soft-spoken, old-school cool with a sense of keen intelligence. Those traits tend to show in his work. Although he sadly passed away at the beginning of the year, the saxophonist left behind the sort of catalogue most jazzmen only dream of accumulating. Love Letters is the final album to be recorded by the legendary saxophonist, and it is an absolutely gorgeous collection of ballads. Bereft of any pretensions, these eight songs illustrate the wisdom of age -not only in technical experience, but the emotional variety as well. The only criticism that could possibly be leveled at this masterwork is that there is too little of it. Then again, it's almost always best to leave them wanting more. Now that he is sadly gone, it is clear that Jimmy Heath has done just that.

Charles Lloyd
Blue Note Records

Keeping this list musically diverse is Charles Lloyd, whose unrestrained saxophone graced the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara in 2018. It took two years to pack it up and press it, but 8 was well worth the wait. He tends to occasionally jump over the fence, but the kinetic arrangement is still accessible, largely due to the incredible support from his band, which includes Julian Lage and Gerald Clayton. The two share a tight rapport, bringing stability to Lloyd's compositions.

Sonny Rollins
Rollins In Holland
Resonance Records

The Dutch have a noble and honorable history of supporting jazz, which has continued through to the present day. Rollins In Holland combines a studio date with two separate live performances. Both shows were recorded during the same month and with the same sidemen, so there is no disparity between sets. However, the first 'set' consists of just two songs. Even so, the two-disc (3 LP) set is over two hours long and brings to life a Sonny Rollins at perhaps his best. From an audio standpoint, the live recordings certainly sound like something recorded with equipment from that era, but not distractingly so. Han Bennink's drums are heard clearly behind the saxophonist, and Ruud Jacobs' bass has little of the muddiness present on many live concerts from the twentieth century.

Kandace Springs
The Women Who Raised Me
Blue Note Records

Kandace Springs is one of the twenty-first century's finest emerging jazz vocalists. The Women Who Raised Me is a tribute to songs written by her childhood inspirations. In some cases, it even includes them; Norah Jones guests on one track, "Angel Eyes," best known as a vehicle for Ella Fitzgerald. David Sanborn also makes an appearance, along with Chris Potter. Clearly Springs has made friends in high places, and this album evokes curiosity as to the path she will take as the twenties march on.

Michael O'Neill Quartet
And Then It Rained
Jazzmo Records

San Francisco based saxophonist Michael O'Neill brings a pleasant tone and a thematic approach to just under a dozen new compositions for And Then It Rained. His quartet attempts to capture certain moods on songs such as "Early Spring" or "Cloudscape." This is in addition to the thematic expressions present in "Port of Spain" and "The Dreams We Left Behind," all of which give the album a slightly impressionistic bent. While many artist's work this year was focused upon the idea of stretching boundaries or making often pseudo-dramatic statements, O'Neill and company produced something easily consumed by the entire family, yet with enough complexity to offer the solitary listener a worthwhile experience.

Aaron Diehl
The Vagabond
Mack Avenue Records

It took Aaron Diehl five years to produce a follow up to Space Time Continuum (2015, Mack Avenue Records), and nothing in that album would have led people to anticipate The Vagabond. Paring his group down to a trio, Diehl tends to play softly, forcing bassist and drummer to tailor their contributions accordingly. As such, one tends to notice the quieter details of their performances. There are no brash drum solos to be had here. Still, The Vagabond' is something of a compositional masterpiece, and deserves to be recognized as such. It's probably not everyday listening, but should be enjoyed at least once with undivided attention. The album ends on a high note -"Piano Etude No. 16" is a triumphant bit of writing by the pianist.

Keith Jarrett
The Budapest Concert
ECM Records

Solo piano albums aren't for everybody. They're sort of a connoisseur thing, but the great ones are a wonder to behold. Keith Jarrett sets up a thematic approach with Budapest Concert, recorded live at the Bela Bartók National Concert Hall. The first two-thirds of the album consists of twelve "Parts," during which Jarrett seems more intent on setting up the mood of his compositions than with playing to rile up the crowd. It's a powerhouse performance, in a subdued sort of way.

Art Pepper
Widow's Taste Records

Released on Christmas Eve, the eleventh installment of Laurie Pepper's Widow's Taste label once again reunited listeners with a mid-comeback era Art Pepper. The altoist had already performed some of his most legendary concerts and shows of that small window of time, but Atlanta offers a fun thirteen minute rendition of his own chef d'oeuvre, "Patricia." These albums are more than your garden variety unreleased recordings -they are historical articles, lending greater context to an artist's body of work which was cut awfully short.



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