Year in review: 10 of the best jazz albums of 2019

Another year of great music is in the books.

Jazz seemed to be all over the place this year — and that was a blessing. We were treated to ambitious works by exciting newcomers like Curtis Nowosad and Tara Kannangara, remarkable new releases by accomplished veterans like Branford Marsalis and Chick Corea, and even some recently unearthed recordings by late legends like John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Those morphing, multi-generational sounds made up a colourful mosaic of music that had room for everyone. It was a year that was very 21st century in its spirit.

Over the course of 2019, we featured more than 100 new releases on our airwaves. Now, we’ve put together just a small sample of some of that great new music.

“JAZZFM91’s best of 2019 showcases the vibrancy and diversity of the music and the musicians that create it,” says music director Brad Barker. “It was another incredible year of sounds from artists both established and new. Our hosts and I dug deep to come up with a list that showcases the best jazz created by musicians from all over the world and many that come from right here in Canada. Enjoy.”

Here are 10 of our favourite albums from 2019.

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Ted Quinlan – Absolutely Dreaming

Guitarist Ted Quinlan has been a mainstay in the Toronto scene for many years. When someone is as good as he is, for as long as he has been, you start to take it for granted. The talent and touch become expected — which isn’t fair. So when Quinlan released Absolutely Dreaming in late 2019, the expectation was that it would be great, especially considering the other musicians included on it: drummer Ted Warren, pianist Brian Dickinson and bassist Kieran Overs. But rather than simply meet those expectations, Quinlan goes ahead and blows up all preconceived notions. Absolutely Dreaming is rich and fully realized. His compositions are soaring, personal, beautiful and sometimes heartbreaking. All this combined with the band’s sensitivity to Quinlan’s tunes and playing style make it more than just another Ted Quinlan record. Quinlan says the compositions are inspired by his travels, in which case he should be encouraged to travel as much as he can so that he can come back and tell us more stories through his guitar.

Brad Barker

Jazzmeia Horn – Love and Liberation

Whether it’s originals or covers, Jazzmeia Horn’s body of work is as fresh as it is in step with the new jazz vanguards. Her focus on the African-American identity is sensitive and powerful — a true artistic call to action. She balances this with fun and humour. Words her godfather said about Horn’s artistry sum up the vocalist perfectly: “I’m really proud of you, because this music sounds like what Ella [Fitzgerald] or Billie [Holiday] or Abbey [Lincoln] or Nina [Simone] would have evolved into.”

John Devenish

Chick Corea and the Spanish Heart Band – Antidote

This gorgeous album is an ode to Chick Corea’s passion for Spanish music. It’s the music with which he grew up and that has been the signature sound of his recordings. “This new band is a mix of all the wonderful and various aspects of my love and lifetime experience with these rhythms that have been such a big part of my musical heritage,” he said. The album features a fabulous array of artists from Spain, Cuba, Venezuela, the U.S. and more. Guest vocalists include Panama’s Rubén Blades, Brazil’s Maria Bianca and Corea’s wife Gayle Moran Corea. The eight-piece band of brilliant musicians includes flamenco guitarist Niño Josele and saxophonist/flautist Jorge Pardo, who have both worked with the late, great Paco de Lucía.

Laura Fernandez

Eric St-Laurent – Bliss Station

The 13th album by Canadian guitarist, composer and bandleader Eric St-Laurent features his usual trio with bassist Jordan O’Connor and percussionist Michel DeQuavedo. They’ve made a series of brilliant albums in the past, and on this occasion, St-Laurent also plays keys and has added Berlin-based trumpeter Sebastian Studnitzky. The result is a record with both a Toronto sound and a European feel. St-Laurent said it was blissful to create this record in Canada and Germany and to have complete artistic freedom, and fittingly, it’s blissful to listen to as well.

Jaymz Bee

Jane Bunnett and Maqueque – On Firm Ground / Tierra Firme

Jane Bunnett and Maqueque continue to put out top-quality recordings — and deliver them live, as well. This has resulted in a growing international fan base and expanded touring, not to mention Grammy nominations. Their latest album demonstrates an even more polished and sophisticated presentation of musical development and composition. There is a beautiful cohesion that’s a result of strong and consistent ensemble work, and it comes through loud and clear on this record.

Heather Bambrick

John Boutté – A Well Tempered Boutté

One of the first things I do after I book a flight to New Orleans is find out where singer John Boutté is performing when I arrive in town. When this new album arrived in the mail this summer, I couldn’t wait to hear it. In my excitement, I accidentally broke the CD in two while  trying to remove it from the jewel case, and I had to wait a week for another to arrive. It was worth the wait. How could an album of John Boutté singing mostly standards with a jazz trio have turned out to be anything less than magnificent? Most of these songs have been in his live repertoire for years, and they’re a large part of the reason people float out of his shows instead of just walking. Boutté’s job is to sing, to sing jazz, and to sing it with such style and grace that no one ever mistakes him for anything other than a master. This is, above all, a singer’s album, and you’re unlikely to hear a better vocal album this year.

Ronnie Littlejohn

New York Voices – Reminiscing in Tempo

This is a group that’s been singing, writing, performing and recording together for more than 30 years. The latest album from New York Voices finds the group returning to the formula that brought them international attention as well as Grammy-winning recordings with the Count Basie Orchestra and Paquito D’Rivera. On Reminiscing in Tempo, the Voices clearly show the array of musical influences that has molded their unique vocal sound and turned them into one of the most successful and highly regarded vocal groups in the world.

Heather Bambrick

Diana Braithwaite and Chris Whiteley – Gold Cadillac

Diana Braithwaite and Chris Whiteley are Canadian ambassadors of the blues, offering their unique take on the genre while travelling the globe in harmonious good will. Any album by these two is sure to be heartfelt and true to the tradition, as well as groundbreaking in their easygoing way. Gold Cadillac finds the twosome authentically taking on many blues styles. Multi-instrumentalist Whiteley masters every lick on the guitar, harmonica and trumpet, while Braithwaite brings thoughtful wisdom to every lyric. When the two sing together, the blend is indicative of the abiding love they share and the example they set of harmony in more than just music. Gold Cadillac takes the pair a little further down the road they travel together just as it takes the listener to a place where blues meets a whole lot more.

Danny Marks

Tara Kannangara – It’s Not Mine Anymore

Electronic art-pop meets avant-garde jazz in a remarkably ambitious sophomore effort from this young British Columbia artist. With an extraordinary vision and the talent to make it happen, Tara Kannangara reached out into the ether and brought something otherworldly into being. These are gorgeous, captivating soundscapes that’ll pull you into a realm of dreams and then send you rocketing upward with standout guitar, trumpet and vocal performances. It’s a shape-shifting, textural and unpredictable record that’s challenging in a way that keeps rewarding you for spending more and more time with it. You’re unlikely to find anything else that sounds quite like It’s Not Mine Anymore this year — or any other.

Adam Feibel

Various Artists – If You’re Going to the City: A Tribute to Mose Allison

Born in Tippo, Miss., Mose Allison started out as a trumpet player, became a bop piano man in New York and started writing songs — satirical, witty, philosophical and always bluesy. This is a tribute album to Allison, whose songs were covered by many rock and jazz artists. The record features Taj Mahal, Chrissie Hynde, Elvis Costello, Iggy Pop, Fiona Apple and other brilliant performers. Proceeds of the album go to Sweet Relief, a charity that aids musicians with health and living expenses. It’s a brilliant tribute to a great musician.

David Basskin