The 2020 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll

The best new and rediscovered jazz recordings that lit up the dark and unsettling year that just ended, as voted on by 148 jazz critics.

Maria Schneider, whose 2020 double album, Data Lords, recorded with her orchestra, was selected as the best of the year in annual NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll. // Courtesy of the artist, Briene Lermitte

Below are the results of NPR Music's 8th Annual Jazz Critics Poll (my 15th, going back to the poll's beginnings in the Village Voice). These are the jazz albums that lit up a dark, unsettling year. Maria Schneider's Data Lords was the critics choice — no surprise, though relative unknown Sara Serpa's victory in the Vocal category in a year when both Kurt Elling and Gregory Porter released new albums was. A Thelonious Monk concert recorded at the unlikeliest of venues — a Northern California high school auditorium — in 1968 was voted the year's prize rara avis (my catch-all designation for reissues and never-before-issued finds), and the 23-year-old alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins's Omega ran away from the pack in Debut.

We're again including a capsule review of each album in the Top 10 by a critic who voted for that album as the year's best. And as a bonus, we've added capsule reviews of a few solitary No. 1s: albums appearing only on a single ballot, but as that critic's top pick, plus capsules on a pair of albums that finished outside the Top 10 but received an impressive amount of No. 1 votes.

Meanwhile, you can read my thoughts on a year that couldn't end fast enough here, along with my own Top 10. The ballots of all 148 participants are here, through the tireless efforts of my associate Tom Hull.


New Albums

1. Maria Schneider Orchestra
Data Lords
(ArtistShare)
Points: 369
Votes: 53

Maria Schneider's body of work, mostly on the ArtistShare label, is so strong that it is difficult to rank her albums. If Data Lords is not her best, it is her largest (a two-CD set), and a unique departure. Schneider's previous music was sublime impressionism. Data Lords is an outcry against "the dark manifestations of the internet," and vividly renders psychic dislocation and emotional disturbance. Schneider is a more complete artist than we knew. –Thomas Conrad


2. Ambrose Akinmusire
On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment
(Blue Note)
Points: 217.5
Votes: 31

On his latest album, trumpeter/composer Ambrose Akinmusire explores Black life in America through post-bop ruminations and stripped-down blues. The Oakland native and his longtime quartet pay homage to visionaries Roy Hargrove and Roscoe Mitchell in poignant ballads, while defining their own radical voice through introspective blues and frenetic yet accessible improvisation. A stabilizing, meditative resource in the midst of 2020's chaos and strife, this is a record that inspires connection and resilience. –Ivana Ng


3. Eric Revis
Slipknots Through a Looking Glass
(Pyroclastic)
Points: 186.5
Votes: 29

Respect for improv's possibilities, dedication to textural diversity and shrewd deployment of rhythmic gambits — the veteran bassist aligns his elements with a master's touch on this suite-like program. Two saxes, piano, bass and drums never walk the same path twice and find intrigue wherever they travel. Balancing such moves takes a deep grasp on storytelling, and as moments of hushed beauty give way to brawny exclamation, appreciating the music's breadth is as easy as applauding its focus. –Jim Macnie


4. Mary Halvorson's Code Girl
Artlessly Falling (Firehouse 12)
Points: 159
Votes: 28

When the compulsively creative guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson made Code Girl in 2018, it was greeted as a left-field foray into chamber art song. Turns out it was Proof of Concept. For her even bolder follow-up, Artlessly Falling, Halvorson expands the palette — adding a personal hero, art-rock titan Robert Wyatt, and a peer, tenor saxophonist María Grand. Their alchemical bond with the Code Girl formula nudges this music even further into a hallucinatory clarity. –Nate Chinen


5. Charles Lloyd
8: Kindred Spirits (Live From the Lobero) (Blue Note)
Points:
150.5
Votes: 21

Is this a record? Charles Lloyd celebrated his 80th birthday by making this time-shifting live album in 2018, 51 years after his first live album. It finds the tireless tenor sax master boldly reinventing music he recorded as far back as 1965's "Dream Weaver." His stunning combination of grit and grace, torrential abandon and carefully calibrated contemplation requires his much younger band members to listen just as hard as they play. A meeting of kindred spirits, indeed. –George Varga


6. Carla Bley-Andy Sheppard-Steve Swallow
Life Goes On (ECM)
Points: 143
Votes: 22

In 30-plus years of collaboration, pianist Carla Bley, saxophonist Andy Sheppard and bassist Steve Swallow have rarely recorded or toured. Yet there's a depth and subtlety in their communication, illustrating Bley's simile of their musical union as a long and happy marriage. Life Goes On melds introspection, wry humor, social commentary and blues, familiar ingredients that nevertheless continue to reveal richness over repeated listening. The three Bley-composed suites capture the mood of the times, as in "Beautiful Telephones," in which the self-declared Charles Ives admirer incorporates fleeting references to patriotic themes like "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America" before touching on the ultimate hubristic anthem, "My Way." –Elzy Kolb


7. Matthew Shipp Trio
The Unidentifiable (ESP-Disk)
Points: 132
Votes: 26

Calm as a sunrise mantra and ferocious as a knife fight, the music on pianist Matthew Shipp's latest trio album courts the transcendental with an earthly vigor, the mercurial snap and sizzle of bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Baker a source of constant drama and surprise amid the pianist's ethereal interludes and bracing percussive runs. The recording marks Shipp's 60th year, capping a prolific spree of collaborations with a core expression of masterful elegance and verve. –Steve Dollar


8. Ron Miles
Rainbow Sign (Blue Note)
Points: 126.5
Votes: 20

On Rainbow Sign, Ron Miles, burnished-glow cornetist-composer, assembles a stellar ensemble (Jason Moran, Bill Frisell, Thomas Mogan, Brian Blade) to crank out a hook-rich blend of improvisation and structure. The tracks span basic blues, a dark waltz, a spiritual, a riff on Ethiopian pop and more, the players shifting parts and paces seamlessly, sinuously. It's a masterful album. –Fred Kaplan


9. Rudresh Mahanthappa
Hero Trio (Whirlwind)
Points: 120
Votes: 22

It's a gamble for a horn player to record in a trio without a keyboardist or guitarist. You risk detaching the listener from harmony even as you gain new freedom to improvise. Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa rolls the dice and comes up seven, generating such a swarm of piercing, confident notes that the harmonies and melodies of these jazz and pop classics are always present even as they're filled with digressions their composers never imagined. –Geoffrey Himes


10. Jeff Parker
Suite for Max Brown (International Anthem)
Points: 111
Votes: 19

The simple, pre-pandemic video that preceded the January 2020 release of Jeff Parker's Suite for Max Brown perfectly framed the album: people alone and at home, dancing to an edit of the 10-minute title track. This is a joyously introspective record, with stylistic jumps that feel like afternoon epiphanies. A remarkable band, including Parker's teenage daughter singing one song, gives life to the 11 heartfelt, mind-tingling grooves. –Kurt Gottschalk


The Rest Of The Top 50

11. Immanuel Wilkins, Omega (Blue Note) 110 (18)

12. Susan Alcorn Quintet, Pedernal (Relative Pitch) 105.5 (22)

13. Jimmy Heath, Love Letter (Verve) 101.5 (13)
In each of these tracks, the power of Jimmy Heath's playing emerges in its conceptual energy, the soft glow and austere intricacy of his thematic variations. Though regarded as a last testament in the wake of Heath's death at the age of 93 last January, Love Letter sure doesn't feel final; rather as though its leader is summoning a hard jolt of giddy-yap for the next album. Which is the kind of monument we'd all like to leave behind. –Gene Seymour

14. Thumbscrew, The Anthony Braxton Project (Cuneiform) 99 (17)

15. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Axiom (Ropeadope) 98 (14)

16. Keith Jarrett, Budapest Concert (ECM) 88 (14)

17. Nate Wooley, Seven Storey Mountain VI (Pyroclastic) 82 (10)
Each version of this work from trumpeter Nate Wooley follows the same basic compositional arc, altering the instrumentation a bit with each new installment over the last decade. But the goal is always the same: forging a soaring structured improvisation reaching for the ecstatic and concluding with a cathartic denouement. Seven Storey Mountain VI features female voices interpolating the words and melody of the staunchly feminist Peggy Seeger song "Reclaim the Night," but the piece's harrowing journey also felt like a powerful and hopeful sound track for 2020. –Peter Margasak

18. Artemis, Artemis (Blue Note) 78.5 (14)

19. Rob Mazurek Exploding Star Orchestra, Dimensional Stardust (International Anthem) 77 (15)

20. JD Allen, Toys/Die Dreaming (Savant) 76.5 (14)

21. Lakecia Benjamin, Pursuance: The Coltranes (Ropeadope) 75.5 (16)

22. The Nels Cline Singers, Share the Wealth (Blue Note) 73 (13)

23. Shabaka and the Ancestors, We Are Sent Here by History (Impulse) 71 (14)

24. Irreversible Entanglements, Who Sent You? (International Anthem) 70 (9)

25. Sun Ra Arkestra, Swirling (Strut) 69 (11)

26. Pat Metheny, From This Place (Nonesuch) 69 (10)

27. Nubya Garcia, Source (Concord) 65 (10)

28. Jyoti, Mama, You Can Bet! (SomeOthaShip) 65 (9)

29. Angelica Sanchez & Marilyn Crispell, How to Turn the Moon (Pyroclastic) 64.5 (13)

30. James Brandon Lewis Quartet, Molecular (Intakt) 61 (13)

31. Liberty Ellman, Last Desert (Pi) 61 (12)

32. Joshua Redman-Brad Mehldau-Christian McBride-Brian Blade, Round Again (Nonesuch) 60.5 (13)

33. Gregg August, Dialogues on Race: Volume One (Iacuessa) 58.5 (8)

34. Tyshawn Sorey, Unfiltered (self-released) 58 (7)

35. Kenny Barron-Dave Holland Trio Featuring Johnathan Blake, Without Deception (Dare2) 53 (11)

36. Lafayette Gilchrist, Now (Lafayette Gilchrist Music) 52.5 (8)

37. Matt Wilson Quartet, Hug! (Palmetto) 49.5 (9)

38. Matthew Shipp, The Piano Equation (Tao Forms) 48 (9)

39. Webber/Morris Big Band, Both Are True (Greenleaf Music) 48 (9)

40. Chad Taylor Trio, The Daily Biological (Cuneiform) 47.5 (7)

41. Gard Nilssen's Supersonic Orchestra, If You Listen Carefully the Music Is Yours (Odin) 47.5 (6)

42. Junk Magic, Compass Confusion (Pyroclastic) 46.5 (6)

43. Bill Frisell, Valentine (Blue Note) 46 (10)

44. Nduduzo Makhathini, Modes of Communication: Letters From the Underworlds (Blue Note) 43 (6)

45. Ingrid Laubrock, Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt (Intakt) 42 (8)

46. John Beasley, MONK'estra Plays John Beasley (Mack Avenue) 41 (5)

47. Charles Tolliver, Connect (Gearbox) 40.5 (7)

48. John Scofield, Swallow Tales (ECM) 40 (8)

49. James Brandon Lewis & Chad Taylor, Live in Willisau (Intakt) 40 (6)

50. Kurt Elling, Secrets Are the Best Stories (Edition) 38 (7)


Solitary No. 1s

Mark Lomax II & the Urban Art Ensemble, 400 Years Suite (CFG Multimedia)
Lomax is a drummer, who should rank as a top composer but remains little known, teaching in Columbus and self-releasing superb albums, that culminated in 2019's monumental 400: An Afrikan Epic, 12-hours that capture the whole African-American experience and genius. This 80-minute live précis is all highlights, adding string quartet to his own, with William Menefield's dazzling piano and long-time collaborator Edwin Bayard's titanic saxophone. –Tom Hull

Alabaster DePlume, To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1 (International Anthem)
Multi-instrumentalist Alabaster DePlume's debut release for Chicago label International Anthem proved to be an entrancing, soothing antidote to the turmoil of 2020. Pairing his tentative alto saxophone playing style with down-tempo, incantatory melody, DePlume created a balladic suite of soft intimacy, moving from the plaintive entreaties of "Why, Buzzardman, Why" to the deep swing of "Whisky Story Time." A deceptively simple collection of engaging mood music. –Ammar Kalia

Thana Alexa, ONA (self-released)
On her self-produced/self-released ONA, Thana Alexa expands her soundscape where jazz, world music and pop meld with an array of electronics, loops and post-production colors. This collection of eight unique originals and two covers creates meaningful womanhood landscapes — ranging from shouts for status quo upheaval to the joy of sexuality. Scoring two 2021 Grammy nominations, Alexa was 2020's most captivating vocalist — composer of poignant music, explorer of sonic variety and a social-political activist in song. –Dan Ouellette

Moses Boyd, Dark Matter (Exodus)
Nu's the time: Moses Boyd, leading light of London's vibrant Afrofutureshock diaspora, released Dark Matter just before the pandemic erupted and the killing of George Floyd sparked months of protests in the U.S. and elsewhere. Boyd's a sound physicist who brews swirling layers of multiple genres into a kind of 21st century electro-acoustic soul jazz, warmth and groove transposed through funk, dub, reggae, grime, Afrobeat and hiphop influences. With its kaleidoscopic spray of beats and melodies, its percolating undertow of pan-global currents, the brooding rasp and cadences of "Dancing In The Dark," the urgent, flashing-lights vibe of "B.T.B." that foreshadows 2020, cop cars and ambulances circling the dance floor: Dark Matter matters.​ –David Brent Johnson

Lina Allemano's Ohrenschmaus, Rats and Mice (Lumo)
Trumpeter Lina Allemano keeps one foot in her native Canada, another in Germany. Her Berlin-based trio, OHRENSCHMAUS (literally, "ear mouse"), with Norwegian bassist Dan Peter Sundland and German drummer Michael Griener strikes a similarly broad balance between motivic, call-and-response free improvisation and deep funk. Sundland is a revelation on the trio's debut recording, with a tone that blends the grit of an amplified instrument with the roundness of a double bass. –James Hale

Django Bates' Beloved With Norrbotten Big Band, Tenacity (Lost Marble)
British keyboardist-composer-mischief-maker Django Bates boasts artistic attributes hyphenated to the point where observers haven't always known where to put him or appreciate him. Bates' potent, aptly-named Tenacity --celebrating his 60th birthday and Charlie Parker's 100th -- is a fine place to start catching up, as it captures Bates' maverick musicality within big band culture (here, Sweden's Norbotten Big Band), his lyrical/volatile Belovèd piano trio and Bates' delicate balance of aesthetic powers: historical reverence meets its opposite. –Josef Woodard


Rara Avis

1. Thelonious Monk
Palo Alto (1968, Impulse)
Points: 156
Votes:
67

The "discovery" of additional previously unreleased evidence of our ancestral jazz masters is definite cause for celebration. That was surely the case with the September release of this October 27, 1968 high school benefit concert. For $2 a pop an excited auditorium was treated to a stimulating afternoon of Monk favorites. From the opening stroll of "Blue Monk" through an extended "Epistrophy," this is another consequential addition to Monk's prosperous discography; with Larry Gales, Ben Riley and Charlie Rouse. –Willard Jenkins

2. Sonny Rollins
Rollins in Holland (1967, Resonance)
Points: 133
Votes:
60

In a 1985 interview, the legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins told me "the glory isn't in grasping the ring, it's in reaching for it." Rollins in Holland, which gathers three separate Dutch settings by Rollins in 1967 with bassist Ruud Jacobs and drummer Han Bennink, shows Sonny's expansive ambitions and ardent pursuit with bandmates intent on pushing and hurtling cantankerously along with the leader. The late '60s are an under-documented phase of his career, yet this is more than a welcome vintage, it's a solid addition to the Rollins canon. –Martin Johnson

3. Charles Mingus, @ Bremen 1964 & 1975 (Sunnyside) 76 (35)

4. Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, Just Coolin' (1959, Blue Note) 38 (22)

5. Bill Evans, Live at Ronnie Scott's (1968, Resonance) 29 (14)

6. Ella Fitzgerald, Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes (1962, Verve) 23 (16)

7. Horace Tapscott With the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, Ancestral Echoes: The Covina Sessions, 1976 (Dark Tree) 18 (8)

8. Nina Simone, Fodder on My Wings (1982, Verve) 16 (8)

9. Sam Rivers, Ricochet [Sam Rivers Archive Project, Volume 3] (1978, NoBusiness) 15 (9)

10. Paul Desmond, The Complete 1975 Toronto Recordings (Mosaic) 14 (7)


Vocals

1. Sara Serpa, Recognition (Biophilia)
Votes: 13
Soundtrack to a film about Portugal's exploitation of colonial Angola, Recognition finds singer of the moment Serpa laying down wordless long tones, ostinatos and swooping intervals in frictive overdubbed harmony, over a limber, attentive, singular tenor saxophone/piano/concert harp trio: Mark Turner, David Virelles and Zeena Parkins interlock, and improvise details to warm things up. The foursome's initially bewildering sound becomes beguiling. When Serpa sings lyrics on the closing anthem, it's a jolt. –Kevin Whitehead

2. Mary Halvorson's Code Girl, Artlessly Falling (Firehouse 12) 12

3. Kurt Elling, Secrets Are the Best Stories (Edition) 10

4. Gregory Porter, All Rise (Blue Note) 7

5. Cory Smythe, Accelerate Every Voice (Pyroclastic) 5

6. Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brothahood, Live (International Anthem) 5


Debut

1. Immanuel Wilkins, Omega (Blue Note)
Votes: 41
The 23-year-old alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins's stunning debut album works to sonically illustrate the perils of systemic violence geared towards Black America through evocatively titled songs like "Ferguson - An American Tradition" and an homage to Mary Turner, who was killed in 1918 by a white mob while eight months pregnant after a white plantation owner was killed by a disenfranchised Black worker, setting off lynch mobs of angry white citizens in Valdosta, Ga. Despite the rumination on violence, Wilkins' debut offering is sensual, with light touches of free-jazz that don't overwhelm the senses. His music is sensitive and embodies visceral imagination with balanced tonality amongst his band and conscious undertones of searing beauty in the midst of his exploration of such powerful themes. –Jordannah Elizabeth

2. Micah Thomas, Tide (self-released) 9

3. Raphaël Pannier Quartet, Faune (French Paradox) 7


Latin

1. Arturo O'Farrill/The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, Four Questions (Zoho)
Votes: 18
Bandleader Arturo O'Farrill translates the essential inquiry at the heart of W.E.B DuBois' tract, The Souls of Black Folks, into an epic symphonic exploration. How does virtue face down violence? O'Farrill and his orchestra respond with polyrhythmic vivacity and harmonic elation. Yet, the lightly spoken sections — Dr. Cornel West's contribution — invoke the deep suffering that prompted DuBois to write more than a century ago, and O'Farrill to compose today. –Suzanne Lorge

2. Aruán Ortiz With Andrew Cyrille and Mauricio Herrera, Inside Rhythmic Falls (Intakt) 11

3. Gonzalo Rubalcaba & Aymée Nuviola, Viento Y Tiempo: Live at the Blue Note Tokyo (Top Stop Music) 6

3. Diego Urcola Quartet Featuring Paquito D'Rivera, El Duelo (Sunnyside) 6

3. Papo Vázquez Mighty Pirates Troubadours, Chapter 10: Breaking Cover (Picaro) 6

6. Dafnis Prieto Sextet, Transparency (Dafnison Music) 5

6. Manuel Valera New Cuban Express Big Band, José Martí En Nueva York (Greenleaf Music) 5

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