Just like a lot of us, 2021 was a down year for me. Health issues, hand surgery that kept me from taking advantage of spring gardening, a mountain bike crash later in the summer that sidelined me for 6 weeks, and the continuing shit-show of covid was plenty enough to make the last 12 months a sad and exhausting continuation of the previous 12. And I can’t keep shaking the feeling that 2021 was a down year for music, and especially jazz, as well. Maybe it’s an accurate assessment, maybe it’s tempered by where my head was at for most of the year, maybe it’s a bit of both. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of really good, solid jazz albums this year, but very few piqued my interest enough for me to go back to them more than a few times. Granted, I did not hear everything (that’s impossible), and I missed out on a number of albums by high profile folks that I would likely like, but for the most part, jazz albums for me this year were a one-and-done affair. Very little interested me, and I barely sought out records by a few of my favorite artists.
I did finally turn to the dark side this year and got with Spotify. It became increasingly hard to ignore it when I was assigned albums to review that I didn’t even get a digital download for and had to turn to Spotify to hear them. No other factoid makes a better heuristic of where my ears were at this year more than this: I was in the top 4% of Taylor Swift’s listeners on Spotify this year—all I need to know.
As was the case with recent years, this was a big year for “historical” or “archival” jazz records, most of which seemed superfluous and/or overhyped. The “new” Love Supreme. Fine. Whatever. The most interesting part for me was the two basses, when you could hear them. Holy Grail? Find of the century? Hardly. Yes, the Lee Morgan Lighthouse sets were good, but did I need 8 discs of them, or however many it was? Nope. A handful of historical albums, however, were important. Roy Brooks’ live date Understanding from 1970 with Woody Shaw is incendiary. Hal Galper’s live recording from Berlin with the Breckers was special as well. I wrote about the reissuing of the Black Jazz Records catalog for Passion of the Weiss, which is an important project. The #1 historical release for me, however, was Mosaic’s set of Paul Desmond’s Complete Toronto 1975 recordings. Is it for everybody, or essential, or whatever? Nope. It’s probably overkill and borders on niche for most people, but for me it is perfection.
I could count the number of new albums that I really really liked across all genres and listened to repeatedly and that I found intriguing and fresh on about two hands. And only half were jazz or jazz adjacent, which is oddly surprising given that is what I’m generally about.
My favorite album, by a fair margin:
Pom Pom Squad, Death of a Cheerleader — Angsty guitar post-punk/grunge pop rock with female vocals? Yes please. Swoon. 21-year-old-me indie rock Portland record store clerk hipster would be proud that 41-year-old-me can still rock out when he wants.
The rest, in alphabetical order by first name/band name:
Floating Points/Pharoah Sanders/London Symphony Orchestra, Promises — I don’t give a shit about all the reasons people hate this album. It’s pretty. And in a shit year, I needed something pretty to relax to. Based on how many diverse “best of 2021” albums lists this tops, a lot of people needed this as well.
Injury Reserve, By the Time I Get to Phoenix — I’m still working my way through this brilliant avant-garde rap album, especially the production. Dashiell Lewis’s interview with the group on Passion of the Weiss is a one-way direct flight into Parker Corey and Ritchie with a T’s aesthetic and standpoint.
James Brandon Lewis, Jesup Wagon — This one seemed to get universal critical acclaim, and for good reason. I reviewed it in the June issue of Point of Departure.
Jon Lundbom/Bryan Murray, Beats by Balto! Vol. 2 — I reviewed this in the December issue of Point of Departure. Avant-garde jazz meets hip hop production.
L’Orange, The World Is Still Chaos But I Feel Better — L’Orange is one of my favorite producers, and this one helped me to try and feel better.
Orquesta Akokan, 16 Rayos — A blazing album by the Cuba-based mambo group. Absolutely bangs. Get the vinyl—the pressing is great and sounds like it was pressed in the 50s, which only adds to the effect.
Roscoe Mitchell/Sandy Ewen/Damon Smith/Weasel Walter, A Rail Road Spike Forms the Voice — I reviewed this towering monument of free improvisation, along with two other releases from Roscoe Mitchell, in the December issue of Point of Departure.
Sons of Kemet, Black to the Future — Shabaka Hutchings can do no wrong.
Tyler the Creator, Call Me If You Get Lost — Tyler Baudelaire is a genius.
Shout outs (in no particular order): Indigo Sparke, Petter Eldh, Archie Shepp/Jason Moran, Maria Grand, Mach-Hommy, Jon Irabagon, Punkt.Vrt.Plastik, Artifacts, Makaya McCraven, JPEGMAFIA, Hafez Modirzadeh, Vince Staples, Armand Hammer, Borderlands Trio, Barry Altschul, Mary Halvorson/Sylvie Courvosier, Vijay Iyer, Pedro Melo Alves