Alice Coltrane – Ptah, the El Daoud. A real classic. Joe Henderson and Pharoah Sanders are not an obvious combination of players, but they are surprisingly complementary here, delivering dark and complex lines over Coltrane’s driving piano. Still, the centerpiece of the album for me is the moody, bluesy “Turiya and Ramakrishna,” on which the horns lay out; it’s one of my favorite pieces of jazz piano trio.
Susan Alcorn – Pedernal. I’ve been catching up on various best-of-2020 lists, many of which featured this album. It has one of the more distinctive sounds of recent jazz bands: an all-string lineup of pedal steel guitar, guitar, violin, bass, drums. The complex tunes pay homage to the pedal steel’s country heritage while still exploring outer space. A truly unique musician, Alcorn is starting to get more of the recognition she deserves.
Webber/Morris Big Band – Both Are True. Another widely praised release of 2020, this is complex and up-to-the-minute contemporary ensemble work. The compositions by Anna Webber and Angela Morris deploy an amazing range of instrumental sounds in carefully chosen combinations, mixing minimalist repetition and improvisational climaxes to excellent effect.
Carla Bley – Andando El Tiempo. Bley has had a long and distinguished career (ably documented by Ethan Iverson), but for my money her recent recordings are among her very best. This is the second in a series documenting an intimate trio with bassist/husband Steve Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard. Although Bley is more known for her large ensemble arrangements, the small-group interplay here is wonderful.
Alice Coltrane – Journey In Satchidananda. Alice gets two, as there’s been a strong need for spiritual jazz lately in my house. The monster bass lines from Cecil McBee tie the whole thing together, and Pharoah Sanders is mostly restrained and even pretty on soprano sax throughout. The interplay between Rashied Ali’s drums and Vishnu Wood’s oud on the closing “Isis and Osiris” is one of many highlights.