The best music I heard in 2021

I listened to somewhere around 250 recordings for the first time this year; these are the ones that stood out the most. The list is by release date to highlight the more recent ones:

  • Floating Points & Pharaoh Sanders – Promises (2021). A gorgeous and unclassifiable sound; after decades of searching, Sanders’ tone on tenor sax has become something unearthly. Also on many best of 2021 lists.
  • Andrew Cyrille – The News (2021). Cyrille is another jazz elder (he is a year older than Sanders) making stellar work as he enters his ninth decade. This is the latest in a series of excellent, spacey recordings for ECM that have featured the guitarist Bill Frisell.
  • Hailu Mergia – Tezeta (2021). A rediscovered treasure dating from 1975, during the golden age of Ethiopian jazz.
  • Daniel Carter – Welcome Adventure! Vol. 1 (2020). The multi-instrumentalist Carter leads a free-jazz supergroup through understated yet complex improvisations. Carter and bassist William Parker played together again on Painter’s Winter, another record on a lot of this year’s best-of lists.
  • Joshua Abrams – Simultonality (2020). The quasi-minimalist drones of Abrams’ Natural Information Society are some of the most interesting sounds in contemporary jazz.
  • Fretwork – The Art Of Fugue (2010). Currently my favorite version of this great Bach work. The six viols create a gorgeous overlapping sound while keeping the different voices distinct. I also appreciated Angela Hewitt‘s 2014 version for piano.
  • Lee Perry – Dub Treasures From The Black Ark: Rare Dubs 1976-1978 (2010). Rest in peace, Scratch. This collection of mostly instrumental pieces is perhaps not the place to start exploring Perry’s huge oeuvre, but it is of very high quality. Another excellent reggae compilation I enjoyed this year is Kingston Allstars Meet Downtown At King Tubby’s 1972-1975 (2004).
  • Anthony Braxton – Charlie Parker Project (1995). Braxton’s work is easier to admire than enjoy; it’s usually too cerebral for me. But this project documents a truly hot jazz band ripping their way through the bebop repertoire with a ferocity that recalls the original radicalism of Parker and his cohort. For the truly devoted, an 11-CD box set of this material was released in 2018.
  • John Coltrane – Live In Seattle (1994). The release of A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle got lots of hype this year but honestly I was underwhelmed. This phase of Coltrane’s group was a transitional and experimental one, and the experiments were often unsuccessful. But it did make me dig out this previous set of recordings from the 1965 Seattle shows, which has lots of unlistenable longueurs but also two wild masterpieces, the standards “Out of This World” and “Body and Soul.”
  • John Zorn – More News For Lulu (1992). A landmark reinterpretation of the jazz tradition that finds fresh things to say about traditional hard-bop tunes. And they are great tunes: many of the originals can be heard on Freddie Redd’s 1960 Shades of Redd, one of the best records in this style. 
  • The Jazz Passengers – Live at the Knitting Factory (1991). Not actually something I heard for the first time this year, but it had been so long that it sounded fresh: virtuosic, humorous, thoroughly enjoyable. This was actually one of the first jazz CDs I ever bought, for no real reason other than the Knitting Factory was famous at the time; in hindsight not a bad choice.
  • Andrew Hill – Eternal Spirit (1989). Perennially under-rated and under-recorded, Hill was one of the greats. Somehow I had missed this one until now, which marked his return to ensemble work after a string of mostly trio and solo records. If it does not quite rise to the heights of his classic 1960s records, or the great ones he made in the early 2000s, it is still very very good.
  • King Tubby – Dub From The Roots (1975). Turns out that a pretty good way to explore dub reggae is just to go through King Tubby’s discography in chronological order. That process led to me to this fine early example of the genre; another good one from the same year is King Tubby Meets Jacob Miller In A Tenement Yard which throws some unusual synth sounds into the mix.
  • Stan Getz – Captain Marvel (1972). The gorgeous Getz tone blends surprisingly well with a cool 70s electric jazz sound.
  • Paul Gonsalves – Meets Earl Hines (1970). A startling late-career masterpiece by these two giants of swing, the furthest thing imaginable from a safe reading of familiar repertoire. I got turned on to this one by Ethan Iverson’s review under its alternate title, It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing. Another excellent Ellington-adjacent item from the same time period is Roland Kirk & Al Hibbler’s A Meeting Of The Times

Previous lists: 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014

Duke Ellington eating ice cream

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