Decade in review: 20 of the best jazz and blues albums of the 2010s

As the 2010s come to an end, it’s time to look back on what was an innovative and exhilarating decade of modern jazz.

The first decade of this millennium saw a resurgence of traditional bebop among then-newcomers like Roy Hargrove and Christian McBride, and that set the stage for a whole new wave of sounds and styles to come. Over the past 10 years, we heard new takes on jazz that bent and twisted the music into compelling new shapes.

The music evolved alongside the culture of the decade, absorbing influences from hip-hop, R&B and Latin music in prominent ways. Artists like Robert Glasper and Snarky Puppy blew audiences away with their outright defiance of genre norms. Others like Roberto Fonseca and Alfredo Rodríguez led a wave of artists who helped the sounds of Cuba break through into a new widespread, mainstream audience. And other newcomers like Gregory Porter, Esperanza Spalding and Cécile McLorin Salvant exploded onto the scene to critical acclaim, popular appeal and industry accolades.

It was a decade in which the artists who thrived were forward-thinking, yet still respectful of jazz’s traditions and long legacy.

Here are 20 of our favourite albums from the 2010s.

Alex Pangman – 33 (2011)

Toronto’s Alex Pangman has many great albums, but the most essential one is her 2011 album 33. This is the vocalist’s fifth recording, and it’s the first she made after her (first) double-lung transplant in 2008. At 33 years of age, she picked a selection of songs all from the year 1933. It’s a great concept, and this recording pulls it off. Peter Hill, Drew Jurecka, Ross Wooldridge and the rest of her Alleycats each have their moment in the spotlight. Standout tracks include I Found a New Baby and I Surrender Dear, the latter featuring guest vocalist Ron Sexsmith.

Jaymz Bee

Christian McBride Big Band – The Good Feeling (2011)

There are good arguments to be made that McBride’s best album this decade might be the hard-swinging 2013 effort People Music or his brilliant and sometimes funky 2015 recording Live at the Village Vanguard, but what sets The Good Feeling apart is its brilliance as a one-off project featuring McBride in his first full recording as a big-band leader. The compositions range from swinging jazz to cinematic blues. Plus, the fact that it won a Grammy for best large jazz ensemble album is nothing to sniff at.

Jaymz Bee

Gregory Porter – Be Good (2012)

It’s hard to choose a favourite Gregory Porter album because they’re all so good, and they’re all pretty different. But Be Good shines bright simply because of the songs. Between singing and writing, it’s hard to say which Porter does better. This record showcases both of those strengths. Porter penned nine of the 12 tracks, and they demonstrate a beautiful understanding of vocal lines and phrasing as well as truly alluring harmonic and lyrical development, making this an easy album with which to fall in love. There are too many highlights to mention, but the title track and Painted on Canvas are particularly worthy of your time.

Heather Bambrick

Robert Glasper Experiment – Black Radio (2012)

The Robert Glasper Experiment is a landmark project in that it serves as a seamless bridge across the artificial divides of genres. It speaks to a grouping of generations of artists who do not define themselves by styles of music, but rather by what resonates. Black Radio represents the early rumblings of a new vanguard of artists who are steeped in the jazz traditions but who also reach far beyond their physicality into the future, ushering in excitement, resonance and promise. It is part of a wave that is responsible for another wonderful re-awakening of jazz music.

John Devenish

Esperanza Spalding – Radio Music Society (2012)

This release earned Esperanza Spalding a couple of Grammy Awards, but more than that, it also firmly entrenched her as not only a powerhouse bassist and vocalist, but a composer and arranger, too. Radio Music Society shows a great depth of stylistic influences and demonstrates some of the trends among younger jazz artists: the blurring of genre-specific lines and the meshing of various styles and sounds. Highlights of the album include the groove-a-licious original composition Crowned & Kissed and her killer arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s I Can’t Help It, featuring Joe Lovano.

Heather Bambrick

John MacLeod & His Rex Hotel Orchestra – Our Second Set (2013)

Cornetist John MacLeod and the Rex Hotel Orchestra released their debut album Our First Set in Toronto in 2009. Four years later, they followed that with Our Second Set. Like the first, it was recorded in the Humber College recording studio and featured a mix of mostly MacLeod originals and his arrangements of other composers’ tunes. This is a band full of standout soloists, with notable performances by clarinetist Bob DeAngelis on Indiana, tenorman Perry White on the Rick Wilkins arrangement of Melancholy Baby and pianist David Braid on the clever mash-up O’ Pato Takes A Train. Ten great tracks by great exponents of “the Toronto sound.”

Glen Woodcock

Preservation Hall Jazz Band – That’s It! (2013)

When you mention the music of New Orleans, some people think it belongs in a museum — a relic of the past. But the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s album That’s It proves nothing could be further from the truth. In 2013, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band marked its 50th anniversary, and this album is the first in its distinguished history devoted entirely to original material. Bandleader Ben Jaffe said the 50th anniversary was “about the next 50 years,” and That’s It! is the perfect example of that. Highlights include fourth-generation New Orleans musician Charlie Gabriel singing beautifully in his baritone style on Come With Me to New Orleans, and Mark Braud’s blistering solo on the title track that demonstrates why he’s one of the most exciting young trumpet players in jazz today.

Ronnie Littlejohn

Snarky Puppy – Family Dinner – Volume 1 (2013)

With this record, Grammy-winning modern fusion group Snarky Puppy satisfied their own fans as well as appreciators of quality vocalists. With grooves from the samba-esque Amour T’es La featuring vocalist Madga Giannikou to the R&B-flavoured Free Your Dreams with Chantae Cann, there is a pretty vast sonic display of the styles and sounds that can be achieved by this super group. Lalah Hathaway’s polyphonic singing on Something even causes a few of the musicians in the band to momentarily pause their playing out of sheer amazement.

Heather Bambrick

Melody Gardot – Currency of Man (2015)

The jazz world was blown away by Melody Gardot’s sophomore Verve album My One and Only Thrill in 2009. For her 2012 recording The Absence, she took a new direction, blending jazz with world music, particularly South American influences. But for her fourth major recording Currency of Man, Gardot went back to soulful jazz, returning to Thrill producer Larry Klein. Currency of Man was critically acclaimed, and Gardot has been compared to Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen with lyrics that are as stunning as her melodies. It’s also her most political album, as she criticizes and questions the state of things without letting a pointed message get in the way of a great song.

Jaymz Bee

Maria Schneider Orchestra – The Thompson Fields (2015)

By the spring of 2015, Maria Schneider had already established herself as one of the great arrangers of the 20th century and had led one of the most praised large ensembles in jazz for many years. The Thompson Fields lives up to that reputation and offers a completely singular experience. Led by the smooth sound of Scott Robinson’s bass clarinet, it’s music that is beautiful, lush and ultimately hard to define. It is the sound of someone marrying how nature can feel to how it can sound.

Brad Barker

Cécile McLorin Salvant – For One to Love (2015)

Finding your unique voice is the most challenging obstacle a jazz artist encounters while trying to reach an audience inundated with rehashed versions of the Great American Songbook. Cécile McLorin Salvant’s For One to Love goes the distance in setting her apart. There’s something in her voice that says, “Don’t pin me down. Don’t hold me to another standard. This is me.” That identity echoes with the silky vocal manoeuvres of Betty Carter — notes sung behind the beat, held beyond bar lines and twisted until the last bit of meaning is squeezed and tasted. For One to Love is one of those recordings that puts miles of space between the imitators and hopefuls and delivers moment after moment of interplay and true connection. It’s just you in a private encounter with the singer and the song — a rarity in a world deluged with clutter. Beauty arrives on its own terms.

Bill King

Emilie-Claire Barlow – Clear Day (2015)

At a moment in her career when this Juno winner could have slowed down and rested on what even at that point had been an incredible career, she went a different route. Instead, Emilie-Claire Barlow put together the most ambitious recording of her career. With the help of the highly reputable 70-piece Metropole Orkest — one of the greatest orchestras in the world — Barlow and her writing partner Steve Webster went about writing and arranging incredible takes on material from Pat Metheny, Coldplay, The Beatles and more. The result was a creative high point and another Juno Award to show for it.

Brad Barker

Laila Biali – Laila Biali (2018)

Laila Biali’s Juno-winning self-titled release is a clear demonstration of her strength as a composer and arranger. It also finds Biali in an area where she thrives — the world of jazz-meets-pop. Many of the tracks on this recording could easily melt into adult contemporary territory, but the arrangements are almost too clever for that genre. Baili’s arrangements of hits by Coldplay and David Bowie demonstrate a respect for the original tunes along with a deep understanding and use of her jazz roots. Her original compositions feature strong sing-along melodies, sophisticated harmony and deep grooves — not to mention terrific production. Highlights include the emotionally charged arrangement of Coldplay’s Yellow, and Biali’s own tune Satellite, which ought to make you smile every time you hear it.

Heather Bambrick

Bettye LaVette – Things Have Changed (2018)

Bettye LaVette waited until the 21st century to become an overnight sensation. First discovered by Motown in the golden era of that 1960s hit factory, LaVette showed her strength as an interpreter with Things Have Changed, bringing the Bob Dylan songbook into a new era. Her way with the groove is funky and modern, and her soulful vocal delivery drives home Dylan’s songs of social conscience. This collection is a winning combination with a lasting impact.

Danny Marks

Dafnis Prieto Big Band – Back to the Sunset (2018)

Once in a while, an album comes along that really makes you sit up and take notice. Drummer extraordinaire Dafnis Prieto clearly shines as a composer and arranger on Back to the Sunset, a big-band tribute to his mentors and inspirational heroes. Elegant, playful and grand, this collection of pieces defines the past while looking ahead to the future. The ample compositions host a parade of extraordinary guests who add their sparkle to the majestic landscape. Back to the Sunset is a beautiful example of Latin jazz in its purest, most original form.

Laura Fernandez

Ry Cooder – The Prodigal Son (2018)

Ry Cooder is a music scholar who soulfully combines world influences into his pastiche of blues. His is nicknamed “chicken skin” for the way it makes your hair stand up on end when you hear it. With The Prodigal Son, he channels a lifetime of experience and the youthful influence of his co-producer son Joachim to create a cinematic atmosphere around songs both old and new — combining the past and future in the present.

Danny Marks

Jon Batiste – Hollywood Africans (2018)

As Jon Batiste’s major-label debut, Hollywood Africans serves as a stunning showcase of the brilliant pianist and vocalist. Recorded in a church in New Orleans and produced by T-Bone Burnett, the album finds Batiste alone at the piano for most of the recording. The opening track Kenner Boogie —named after his hometown in Louisiana — sets the tone beautifully, while other highlights include Saint James Infirmary Blues, Nocturne No. 1 in D Minor and What a Wonderful World.

Ronnie Littlejohn

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis – Una Noche Con Rubén Blades (2018)

JLCO’s resident bassist Carlos Henriquez and the multi-Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and actor Rubén Blades — a master of the Latin story — partnered up for an unforgettable evening of rhythm and song in 2014. A few years later, this live recording with the fabulous award-winning orchestra was finally given the album treatment. It’s a magical evening that can now be treasured forever, and the recording shows that when music resides in the soul, its spirit and authenticity can shine through like a beam of bright moonlight.

Laura Fernandez

James Francies – Flight (2018)

Sometimes it’s good to hear music without knowing what it is or where it comes from — with no expectations or preconceived notions of what it’s supposed to be. That was the case with James Francies, whose dynamic, fresh-sounding music is quite unlike anything that’s been done before. The pianist/keyboardist was signed to Blue Note at the young age of 23, has been praised by The New York Times and has played with Pat Metheny and Chris Potter. His debut Flight is phenomenal, and his melodic sense, technique and influences make it worth watching to see what comes next from this amazing musician.

Brad Barker

Robi Botos – Old Soul (2018)

Robi Botos is Romani, a culture marked by the challenge of striving for, and being wary of, acceptance. It is a culture rich in artistry. The music is exciting and haunting. Fittingly, Old Soul speaks to struggle and adventure. It speaks to experience and history, to the immigrant mystique and the notions of nations and artificial boundaries. The album has a sense of intimacy. It is as much Botos’s soul being bared as it is beautiful music and storytelling. The players on this recording act as one — a true band of old-soul storytellers.

John Devenish