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Jon Garelick

Top 10 jazz albums of 2020

Pianist Carla Bley, Steve Swallow on bass guitar, and saxophonist Andy Sheppard.Caterina Di Perri/ECM Records


The random shuffle of livestreaming WWOZ from New Orleans revealed this gem from veteran trombonist Jeff Albert: fast-walking-bass swing topped with free-bop horn solos; gritty funk grooves (with the essential baritone sax of Dan Oestreicher); and assenting horn choruses and themes of anthemic uplift.

“LIFE GOES ON” Carla Bley/Andy Sheppard/Steve Swallow

The great composer Carla Bley, now 84, delivered this third disc with trio-mates Sheppard (saxophones) and Swallow (bass) and herself on piano. The three suites of tunes are unhurried, lyrical, bluesy, informed by Bley’s sly sense of humor, elegiac and airborne.



An updating of the classic hard bop quintet format — tuneful and rhythmic, with composer/pianist Clayton’s own brand of post-millennial romanticism and inventive tweaks of form. And it’s a killer band: saxophones Logan Richardson and Walter Smith III, bassist Joe Sanders, and drummer Marcus Gilmore.

Jorrit Dijkstra and Pandelis Karayorgis (sitting) of Cutout.

“CUTOUT” Cutout

Cutout is a quintet drawn from the Driff Records crowd, mainstays of Cambridge’s Lilypad performance space (the label is run by the saxophonist and pianist on this disc, Jorrit Dijkstra and Pandelis Karayorgis). “Free jazz” here means writing and “instant arranging,” tantalizing transparent delicacy, as well as hearty brawn, and, yes, swing.

“FOR NOW” Brian Landrus

Landrus’s sumptuous tone on baritone sax, as well as bass clarinet and flute, is at the center of this straight-ahead mix of classics and originals, with a great band: trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, bassist Drew Gress, pianist Fred Hersch, drummer Billy Hart, and a jazz-savvy string quartet.

“HERO TRIO” Rudresh Mahanthappa

A spinoff from Mahanthappa’s 2015 “Bird Calls,” this disc finds the alto saxophonist and composer with the bassist (François Moutin) and drummer (Rudy Royston) from that date, again sinking his formidable chops in hero Charlie Parker, plus Keith Jarrett, Ornette Coleman, Stevie Wonder, and . . . Johnny Cash.


Marilyn Crispell (left) and Angelica SanchezBradley Bambarger (Custom credit)

“HOW TO TURN THE MOON” Angelica Sanchez and Marilyn Crispell

Pianists Sanchez and Crispell interlock with succinct clarity and steely focus on 10 duo pieces, combining an expansive approach to form, tonality, rhythm, and dynamics, alternating lyrical spaciousness and punchy sonic clusters. Think: Debussy, Ives, Cage, Cecil Taylor.

“DATA LORDS” Maria Schneider Orchestra

No one writes better for jazz orchestra than Maria Schneider. This programmatic two-disc set pits “The Digital World” against “Our Natural World,” with the need for human connection as the through-line, and eloquent soloists as the searching protagonists in the deftly drawn orchestral narratives.

“SWALLOW TALES” John Scofield

Here’s Steve Swallow again, being paid tribute by a man who calls him a mentor, guitarist John Scofield, a relationship that goes back to their days at Berklee and the Gary Burton Quartet. Along with drummer Bill Stewart, they make fresh discoveries at every turn of these nine career-spanning Swallow originals.

Immanuel WilkinsHandout (Custom credit)

“OMEGA” Immanuel Wilkins

This debut by 23-year-old saxophonist and composer Wilkins is rich in the range of Black experience (“Ferguson” and “Mary Turner,” both subtitled “An American Tradition,” and “The Dreamer,” for writer and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson), but it’s the virtuoso heft of the playing by Wilkins and his band (with pianist Micah Thomas), and the scope of textures and moods in the writing that will keep you listening.

Jon Garelick can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.