2021’s music to remember
A surprisingly good year for listening
Jazz musicians released albums this year to celebrate life after incubation brought on by the pandemic. Six albums stand out with enough depth, surprise and harmony to bear listening to weekly. One is a surprising discovery, recorded in 1961 and only released two weeks ago!
“Negro Spiritual Songbook, Volume 2 (The Message)”
Greg Groover, Jr.’s album, a follow-up to Volume 1, came out in August. Its nine tunes take listeners back and forth through tradition and into the future. Groover, a Bostonian, grew up in the church, and the spirituality embedded in that way of life made its way into his use of the saxophone and leadership of the band on this recording. A tune may sound familiar at first listening, but the 10th time you hear it, you may experience things at a deeper level — namely, a synthesis of spirituality and the secular. The simplicity of the harmonies provides the structure here of improvisatory skill. And at age 28, Groover is just getting started.
At the age of 21, Samara Joy (McLendon) is emerging as a major voice of the next generation of vocalists. Her self-titled album, released in July, showcases her interest in jazz standards, from “Stardust” to “Moonglow,” but twists the tunes so that the strength of her voice demonstrates the relevance of classics for today’s youth. Based in the Bronx but going global, her sounds create a musical refuge, always needed, and especially now.
The ever-formidable Terence Blanchard put this album out in August as a tribute to saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter. The devil-may-care approach to tunes made famous by Shorter in his amazing group, Weather Report, as well as his work with Miles Davis, add to the ways in which this recording can take listeners away from day-to-day stress. Blanchard, famous through his work with Spike Lee on “When the Levees Broke” and this year as the first Black composer to be in the Metropolitan Opera. His adaptation of Charles Blow’s memoir, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” holds nothing back.
“Sounds from the Ancestors”
Composer and saxophonist Kenny Garrett has a new album that draws on gospel, R&B, Coltrane and inner personal resolve to create an original experience. But it’s not eclectic, it’s inclusive; what Garrett does here with his original compositions is to identify what seemingly different streams of music have in common. Linking these sounds to ancestors adds history that is felt and then expressed musically, which may inspire listeners to contemplate their own legacies.
“The Magic of Now”
Pianist Orrin Evans’ album, released in July, brings us the music of a man who has recorded with Christian McBride, The Bad Plus, and now with saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and drummer Bill Stewart. Evans is a generous artist, and others around him are showcased. There is a subtlety to his collaboration, with shadowing evident in the tunes. “The Poor Fisherman” has elements of Archie Shepp (on his recording with pianist Dollar Brand doing “Left Alone”) in the sax solo; “Libra” is upbeat. The musicians are having a good time playing together: That joy is contagious.
“First Flight to Tokyo: The Lost 1961 Recordings”
Released on Dec. 10, this is an essential album by drummer Art Blakey, who appears here with Lee Morgan on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Bobby Timmons on piano and Jymie Merritt on bass. Recorded on Jan. 14, 1961 at Hibiya Public Hall, across from The Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, it’s at the end of Blakey’s first tour of Japan and features stunning versions of Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time,” Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia,” Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” Benny Golson’s “Blues March,” and Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere” and “Moanin’.”