Here’s my list of 10 favorite albums released in 2021 and why…
Pat Metheny, Side-Eye NYC (V1.IV)
Pat Metheny is prolific. Mr. Metheny’s continuing impact upon popular culture through his music is well documented at this point in his career to be significant in several contexts. As a virtuoso guitarist, his melodic and unique harmonic sensibilities along with his “guitar sound” have become inescapable as a standard among contemporary musicians. Mr. Metheny is equally important as a composer and it’s great to see that there is a “Pat Metheny Real Book” available so that his music will be performed more widely by others. The cool thing about this phase of his career is that Mr. Metheny is literally taking members of the next generations with him on the platform he’s built over the last 50 years or so. This extends beyond the legendary Pat Metheny Group era. I am a longtime fan and have not heard anything but stellar recordings from him to date. This is another among those great albums that highlights the fact that great music is timeless and pliable beyond typical conventions or constraints. Mr. Metheny is proof that art can sell if it’s presented properly. Enjoy.
Kenny Garrett, Sounds from the Ancestors
Kenny Garrett has naturally amassed a legion of alto saxophonists emulating him over the last few decades. And not too unlike other saxophone icons, Mr. Garrett possesses an immediately recognizable sound. A scholar and perpetual student of the music, Mr. Garrett possesses a combined melodic and harmonic sensibility that is both intellectually driven and spiritually derived – true “soul music.”
Hermon Mehari & Alessandro Lanzoni, Arc Fiction
Hermon Mehari and Alessandro Lanzoni have collaborated on a very fine duet album with, Arc Fiction. Mr. Mehari is a Kansas City Jazz scene veteran who in following the lead of one of his Kansas City native mentors, the great alto saxophonist Logan Richardson, has found his creative niche as a musician based in Europe. He’s a global citizen now. This duo album was thoughtful and joyous in its impressions upon my first listens. And the thoughtfulness of these performances further demonstrates a level of artistic and musical maturity that subsequently rewards repeated listens. Superbly done.
Alchemy Sound Project, Afrika Love
Alchemy Sound Project was the brainchild of the brilliant Philadelphia jazz pianist and composer Sumi Tonooka. Ms. Tonooka envisioned an ensemble comprised of artists who were all prolific composers and would contribute work to the collective. Alchemy Sound Project is in essence a “jazz super group.” The ensemble members, who vary slightly on each album, include artists based on both coasts of the United States, and also one who is based in South Africa. Their debut album, Further Explorations was released in 2016 and followed two years later by the sophomore release, Adventures in Time and Space in 2018. With the 2021 release of Afrika Love, Ms. Tonooka’s vision is on solid ground as an enduring ensemble. All three recordings have received acclaim by way of four star reviews from major publications like Downbeat magazine and noted critics. Creative. Progressive. Forward-thinking art music. Check it out.
Johnathan Blake, Homeward Bound
Johnathan Blake is a prodigious musician who is from the fertile Jazz grounding that is the historically rich Philadelphia music scene. Mr. Blake is also the son of the late great Jazz violin innovator, composer, and educator, John Blake, Jr. and has been around elite professional musicians his entire life. In addition to his own projects as a leader he’s a regular touring member and drummer with the bands of such icons as Kenny Barron and Tom Harrell. Homeward Bound is Mr. Blake’s “Blue Note records debut.” And it’s another very fine album by an artist who is steeped in the tradition and inherently a progressive contributor toward bringing the music sensibilities of his generation into the contemporary mix of how Jazz music has evolved in our times. Brilliant.
Arthur White and MERGE, Unify feat. Randy Brecker & Ada Rovatti
Arthur White and MERGE features the legendary trumpeter Randy Brecker and saxophonist Ada Rovatti on their 2021 release, Unify. The music, which is written and arranged by Dr. White, is all extremely engaging and very well done on this project. Another aspect that enhances the organic synergy of the album is the diversity of the ensemble artists. A prodigious tenor saxophonist himself with a muscular tone and tremendous technique, Dr. White effectively and musically includes some of his CalPoly students as recording artists on the album. An educator who models Jazz music at the highest levels and can effectively articulate its concepts pedagogically. Unify is also a very fun album to listen to and the playing is top shelf. Hip fusion and funk. Swing and blues with twists. Latin jazz styles. It’s all here and it’s all done well.
David Binney, Aerial 2
David Binney is one of the leading innovators in Jazz and improvised music over the last 25 years. There are a couple of generations of saxophone players and musicians he has directly influenced. Mr. Binney has demonstrated consistently over the years that he is an artist with a vision and always evolving. Aerial 2 exemplifies this growth in that it continues the expansion of the contemporary platform from which Mr. Binney continues to create. He doesn’t wait for permission or approval to be an artist, he just is. The cool thing about his work is that it’s simply music that will reach audiences that won’t normally listen to Jazz. Yet, it will reach those who do listen to Jazz too. A great thing indeed. Don’t sleep.
Vincent Herring, Preaching to the Choir
Vincent Herring is unapologetic about his Jazz agenda. First, there is that tone! It’s what a Jazz alto saxophone is supposed to sound like and many find their voice listening to and transcribing Mr. Herring’s flights. Second, there is his improvisational language that is very unique but still methodically grounded in the traditions of the music. Third, and not least, there is the constant swinging groove in his music that is timeless to any era but also connected directly to the tap roots of Jazz. There’s a different feeling to the music when a master plays it. His grooves are wider and deeper. His swing is not a mathematical break down of beats or theoretical dissertation on etherial concepts. It could be delivered that way in a master class or clinic, but Mr. Herring simply grabs your attention and moves you with the swinging grooves he perpetuates during each performance. Preaching to the Choir is an album that will be enjoyed repeatedly by anyone who appreciates great soul nourishing music. Join me behind the pulpit in the choir loft and be blessed by this album.
Ralph Peterson, Raise up off Me
Ralph Peterson was a multi-instrumentalist, composer, bandleader, educator, and a drum set disciple of the great Art Blakey who we lost at only 58 years old to cancer in 2021. It’s great that his last album Raise up off Me was ultimately released by what turns out to be the last iteration of Mr. Peterson’s trio, “Triangular.” There is a weight to Mr. Peterson’s music that musically speaks to the fortunes of having lived during an era of cultural challenges and personal triumphs. Each song on this album is a story worth hearing. Rest in power, maestro.
Dan Arcamone, Standards, Vol. 1
Dan Arcamone is a guitarist based on the east coast of the United States. Mr. Arcamone is also prolific in his creativity, improvisational methodology, and inspirational in documenting his musical concepts on professionally produced albums, books, and educational videos. Standards, Vol. 1 is a platform for Mr. Arcamone to express his artistry over Jazz compositions that are relatively well known. This is also a very brilliant way of providing listeners a context to appreciate Mr. Arcamone’s complex musical approach to melody and harmony. Check out his arrangement and atmospheric treatment of the iconic Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge,” it’s genius.
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet & Wynton Marsalis, Democracy! Suite
Wynton Marsalis still takes lots of political “Jazz heat” even today, from what I have observed over the years since his emergence on the global scene in the early ’80s. Like with every human being, some of this critical commentary is warranted and some of it isn’t objectively grounded. But that’s life. Politics and envy aside, Mr. Marsalis has been undeterred and instrumental in bringing Jazz music to a level of cultural prominence that had not been achieved previously. Jazz at Lincoln Center has been a great thing for the music culturally in the United States. As its artistic director, Mr. Marsalis innovates great educational programs and great music events performed by world class artists. The Democracy! Suite is another example of their stellar documents.
Why a favorite albums list in the age of streaming?
A recapitulation of “top lists” at the end of each year is simply part of contemporary culture. “Best of…” lists in Jazz music have been around as long as the music has been created. I’ve been posting my favorite albums lists annually for 15 years. This list is never definitive. As soon as I publish this article, I will undoubtedly think of another great album that I have inadvertently omitted. Nonetheless, with the amount of music that is able to be published and distributed to the world today, editorial and review platforms like Jazz Artistry Now are also vital. Our reviews, articles, feature exhibits, and lists help the arts infrastructure and recording industry in our age.
In this era of digital music downloads and streaming music royalties, all of the team here at Jazz Artistry Now would like to encourage all who read this post to listen to each of the albums on your favorite platform. Listener support helps the artists and labels.
It’s actually pretty cool that technology allows us to listen to music and watch music videos from multiple platforms via multiple personal devices. Some still argue that the fractions of cents paid out as royalties to artists and labels for such plays and streams are not worthy of consideration, or are insulting at the least. But I objectively submit a counter consideration that streaming royalties are not much different than the terrestrial radio airplay royalties of the old model music industry – or, they are at least a brand new and parallel income stream to traditional radio, considering the times. And with the mechanisms in place to collect the various royalty streams, independent artists and labels alike are better equipped to be compensated for residuals due.