The 10 best jazz albums of 2020

Alongside archive recordings from Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, and inventive new releases by Maria Schneider and Carla Bley, 2020 had plenty of spectacular fusions


Pat Metheny – From This Place

Being both a bestselling jazz-fusion superstar and an experimental collaborator with John Zorn and Ornette Coleman takes rare agility, but guitarist Pat Metheny has managed both. Metheny’s 2020 album, performed by his current live band (UK pianist Gwilym Simcock, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Antonio Sánchez) with guest appearances from vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello and harmonica virtuoso Gregoire Maret, showcases his famously cinematic compositional muse, shrewdly balanced with the group’s off-the-leash inventiveness, and for the most part subtly applied synthesised orchestral effects. Read the full review.

John Coltrane In Detroit in 1966.
John Coltrane In Detroit in 1966. Photograph: Leni Sinclair/Getty Images


John Coltrane – Giant Steps: 60th Anniversary Deluxe Edition

Recorded in 1959 – a year of landmark jazz releases including Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue – John Coltrane’s Giant Steps set a scorching new standard of expressiveness on a saxophone. The album’s 60th anniversary was celebrated by Rhino’s luxurious, outtakes-packed release, detailing Coltrane’s quest for a spiritual new music – built here from a fusion of massively enhanced bebop harmonies over relatively orthodox swing, as the great Coltrane quartet including McCoy Tyner was still 18 months away. Thrilling accounts of the title track, Mr PC and Countdown join the exquisite ballad Naima, enriched for close listeners by the alternative takes. Read the full review.


Joshua Redman – RoundAgain

American sax star Joshua Redman’s 1994 quartet with pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade was one of the standout lineups of that decade – but short-lived, because all the members were on the brink of breakouts into their own fertile careers. They reunited in 2019 to record RoundAgain, with decades of experience recharging their old synchronicity. Redman’s and Mehldau’s inventiveness across multi-chorus solos, underpinned by McBride’s and Blade’s headlong energy, matches a captivating balance of rootsy soul figures, graceful waltzes, and flat-out postbop flights.

Ezra Collective, who feature on Blue Note Re:Imagined.
Ezra Collective, who feature on Blue Note Re:Imagined. Photograph: Dan Medhurst


Blue Note Re:Imagined

Not exactly a landmark in the kind of out-of-nowhere improv phrasing that makes you jump out of your skin, but a fascinating snapshot of young jazz-fascinated UK R&B, grime, hip-hop and electronics. Sixteen tracks span a song-centred account of St Germain’s loop-driven Rose Rouge from vocalist Jorja Smith, Ezra Collective’s cool distillation of Wayne Shorter’s Footprints, powerful saxophonist Nubya Garcia’s version of Joe Henderson’s A Shade of Jade, Melt Yourself Down’s blitz on Henderson’s Caribbean Fire Dance, and more. Read the full review.


Sonny Rollins – Rollins in Holland

In the 1960s, the unquenchably inventive tenor sax improviser Sonny Rollins often toured without a band, hooking up with local players in whatever town invited him. These previously unreleased 1967 recordings in the Netherlands mark the 36-year-old Rollins’s first meetings with the young Dutch bass and drums pairing of Ruud Jacobs and emerging avant-garde drummer Han Bennink. The audio quality is variable, but nothing can obscure how spontaneously communicative these takes are – tit-for-tat exchanges and long, zigzagging tenor odysseys shared between musicians whose listening powers match their instrumental panache. Read the full review.


Laura Jurd’s Dinosaur – To the Earth

Third release by Laura Jurd’s Dinosaur quartet – the most compatible vehicle for the prolific young British trumpeter/composer’s inquisitively evolving fusion of jazz and folk materials, global influences, and sophisticated absorption of 20th-century classical music. Jurd always seems blissfully and refreshingly indifferent to transient fashions, though invitingly songlike qualities remain even in her most exploratory music. Barely 40 minutes long, To the Earth nonetheless fizzes with surprises, and Dinosaur’s most explicit nods to the jazz tradition – from piano soulmate Elliot Galvin’s Monkish dissonances, to voicelike early-jazz dirges, and breezy Scandinavian jigs. Read the full review.


John Scofield/Steve Swallow – Swallow Tales

The partnership between guitarist John Scofield and electric bassist Steve Swallow goes back a long way, and they both have instantly recognisable identities on their respective versions of a guitar. Scofield plays jazz with a biting, sometimes dissonant bluesiness owing as much to Jimi Hendrix as to his teacher Jim Hall, and Swallow’s airily lyrical phrasing infuses his basslines and his composing. Accompanied by Bill Stewart on drums on nine Swallow pieces, the pair often take off in gleefully driving extended solos – Scofield in particular sounds as if he’s having a ball from the off.

Carla Bley.
Recovered ... Carla Bley. Photograph: PR


Carla Bley – Life Goes On

The third of a sequence of moving trio recordings by the jazz-composing legend and pianist Carla Bley, with bassist Steve Swallow and UK saxophonist Andy Sheppard – a typically whimsical confection of slinky blues, impish tangos, Monk-like figures and oblique takedowns of patriotic anthems, linked by all-but-psychic ensemble improv. The title reflects on the octogenarian Bley’s recent recovery from brain surgery – but though these exquisite pieces understatedly span feelings from sensuality to late-life realism, nothing in this terrific trio’s long history has ever had a hint of sentimentality about it. Read the full review.


Django Bates/Norrbotten Big Band – Tenacity

A double celebration from the inimitable UK composer/pianist Django Bates – his own 60th birthday, and the centenary of the birth of Charlie “Bird” Parker, probably Bates’s biggest jazz hero, though one whose legacy he has explored and developed in the most wilfully devious ways. Tenacity, recorded with Sweden’s loose-limbed and free-thinking Norrbotten Big Band, reworks Parker classics such as Donna Lee (as a mix of bebop, free jazz, and South African township riffs), My Little Suede Shoes, and Ah Leu Cha, alongside four characteristically capricious Bates originals. Read the full review.


Maria Schneider Orchestra – Data Lords

The sensibilities of the great American composer, bandleader and musicians’-rights campaigner Maria Schneider have usually been turned outwards – toward depicting spacious landscapes and the sounds and movement of the natural world, in jazz parallels to Aaron Copland’s American vistas. For 2020’s Data Lords double-album, Schneider enters a darker realm, themed on corporate tech’s erosion of private spaces and artistic independence, expressed in more rugged, metallic tones, fierce horn solos, and connections with the music of David Bowie, her most famous fan. But the old pastoral Schneider is still delicately and playfully present in the later passages of this rich and eloquent session. Read the full review.

• What were your favourite jazz releases of 2020? Share your tips in the comments.


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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