Year in review: 25 of the best jazz albums of 2020

The jazz clubs all closed, and so did everything else. But thankfully, the music never stopped.

This was a challenging year for most people. Yet jazz artists from around the world went on to release an impressive amount of great music — for some, the best of their careers. That music brought us a sense of excitement and hope at a time when we needed it most.

One day, these musicians will be seeing us in the audience once again, finally able to soak in the sounds of live music. Until then, we have these standout records (along with so many others) to bring the joys of life to our best and worst days.

Here are 25 of our favourite albums from 2020.


Nubya Garcia – Source

This is a splendid debut album from saxophonist Nubya Garcia. We’re introduced to her distinct sound and feel, which is luminous and earthy. Garcia’s jazz is wonderfully multifaceted. She brings forth her roots, combining Afro-diasporic sounds and soul to create something truly special. Raina Hersh


Artemis – Artemis

In Greek mythology, Artemis was Zeus’s daughter and Apollo’s twin. She was the goddess of hunting and wild nature. She was a deity that demanded attention to the power of femininity and its wonders and grace. Collectively, this new group is very much like Artemis the deity. The all-women group is an artistic powerhouse that exploded into the world of jazz with a stellar, multigenerational lineup. The music celebrates their namesake, with originals and covers both steeped in the powerful mythology of the goddess. John Devenish


Gregory Porter – All Rise

This is one of those albums that feels like it’s exactly what you need, right when you need it. All Rise is Porter’s first full album of originals in four years, and it was well worth the wait. Gregory Porter tells some important stories on this album. He’s present in his reflections, with lovely lyrics and memorable melodies. Raina Hersh


Laila Biali – Out of Dust

Once again, Laila Biali proves she might very well be the queen of jazz-pop compositions and fresh, innovative arrangements. She follows up her Juno-winning recording with a project that has her delving even further into the signature sound that has seen her success expand well beyond Canadian borders, helping her on her way to becoming a household name. Here, Biali invites listeners into a more personal side of her musical world, with compositions that were inspired by love, loss, struggle, emancipation, celebration and more. Heather Bambrick


Christian Sands – Be Water

One of the most interesting developments for jazz in the 21st century is where young and talented musicians are taking the music. Artists who reinterpret the Great American Songbook are getting fewer and farther between. To that point, here comes Christian Sands’ third recording for the Mack Avenue label, with which he firmly establishes a sound uniquely his own. Inspired by Bruce Lee and the art of discipline, the music flows (like water) and takes on the shape of wherever the composition takes it. It’s a special recording from an important artist. Brad Barker


Takuya Kuroda – Fly Moon Die Soon

Takuya Kuroda is at the top of his game on this record. His trumpeting is so strong and he mixes in some beats that you can’t help but move along to. This is a great album to listen to when you want to be taken to another world. It’s funky, it’s soulful, and it packs a great groove. Raina Hersh


The Joe Bowden Project –
ROOTS – Tales of the Urban Yoda

It was one of Joe Bowden’s students at Humber College who dubbed him the “Urban Yoda” because of his wisdom and sense of peace. On his latest recording, he also brings a sense of funk. The nine original compositions all find deep grooves for the other musicians: Robi Botos, Luis Deniz and Andrew McAnsh, to name a few. Here, Bowden is looking back on the musicians that inspired that groove — including the Crusaders, James Brown and Chaka Chan — and with that, he has added his own imprint on what jazz and funk can feel like when put together in a perfect mix. Brad Barker


The Nimmons Tribute –
To the Nth

This celebration of one of Canada’s greatest jazz legends features some of Toronto’s leading players on new arrangements by Sean Nimmons-Patterson, grandson of the album’s honouree. Now 96, Nimmons is certainly someone worth celebrating. This is a phenomenal album, and there’s even more where it came from. Jaymz Bee


Pat Collins Trio –
Time Well Spent

Time Well Spent is a good way to describe the feeling after spending some moments listening to this recording. Pat Collins, a first-call musician for both the studio and the stage, enlists the talents of two of the best — Tom Szczesniak and Reg Schwager — to form a powerhouse trio. Together, they have a synergy that is just stunning, each player demonstrating his mastery while achieving a brilliant connection to his musical mates. Time Well Spent is poignant and gorgeous. Heather Bambrick


Fred Hersch –
Songs From Home

What do you do when you’re about to mark your 65th birthday while in the middle of a pandemic-induced lockdown? If you’re Fred Hersch, you record an album in your home studio, featuring your personal takes on some of the more stunning pieces of popular music along with inspired compositions of your own. Songs from Home will bring you to smiles, chills, and tears. This is a clear demonstration of Hersch’s musical sensitivity, imagination and robust creativity. Heather Bambrick


Shuffle Demons –
Crazy Time

The Shuffle Demons burst onto the scene in 1986 with a breakout tune and video for Spadina Bus. What was it — jazz, hip-hop, street music? The answer was yes. Fast forward 34 years, and here’s the Shuffle Demons’ ninth album, Crazy Time. The title is in perfect sync with 2020, and the recording has all the funky things we love about the group. Their first album in seven years, it sounds like a musical monster that has finally been unleashed. Brad Barker


Kandace Springs –
The Women Who Raised Me

With maturity comes respect for those who came before you. It comes with recognition and understanding of the fact that so much of who and what you are is standing on the shoulders of the giants of the days before yours. The Women Who Raised Me portrays the women who were spiritually, musically and creatively influential to Kandace Springs. Her texture, tone and interpretation are brimming with elements gleaned from the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Krall, Carmen McCrae, Norah Jones, Nina Simone, Bonnie Raitt and more. It’s a broad and varied palette, and Springs is the perfect brush. John Devenish


Derrick Hodge –
Color of Noize

The first thing you need to know about Derrick Hodge is that for many years, he has been the go-to bass player for some of the biggest names in music; Robert Glasper, Terence Blanchard, Common and Quincy Jones have all required his services. On his third recording for Blue Note, Hodge lays it all out with sounds that take us to places we didn’t know existed. There is a freedom to the record — no boundaries, no limitations. For Color of Noize, the musicians were told to trust their artistry. “Ultimately this is y’all music,” Hodge says. “Take it, and run with it.” Brad Barker


Pat Metheny –
From This Place

The loss of Lyle Mays weighed heavily on Pat Metheny and his fans this past year. It’s still unknown whether the lineup on From This Place will become the new Pat Metheny Group, but the guitarist finally got this touring band into the studio for a cinematic and sprawling recording. From This Place has many of the tones and textures you’d expect from a Pat Metheny Group recording, while also starting to take Metheny’s music in an exciting new direction. Brad Barker


GoGo Penguin –
GoGo Penguin

Sometimes called “the Radiohead of British jazz,” GoGo Penguin occupy a unique realm at the nexus of jazz, classical, rock, electronic and experimental music. This fourth album by the U.K. trio is perhaps an even bolder exploration than ever. Luminous and atmospheric, this album transports us into starry skies, into the inky darkness of outer space, into the mysterious centre of a tesseract, into the vast, unknowable boundlessness of the universe. It’s an extraordinary journey that takes place right between our ears. Adam Feibel


Ernesto Cervini –
Tetrahedron

Toronto-based drummer Ernesto Cervini won a Juno Award this year for his Turboprop release, and he may just win another next year. The debut by his chordless trio Tetrahedron is exciting, bold and distinctly modern. Along with the talents of bassist Rich Brown and saxophonist Luis Deniz, guitarist Nir Felder adds his Stratocaster to the mix to give the trio that extra push. Their take on tunes by John Coltrane and Vince Mendoza are strikingly fresh, and Cervini’s original compositions are razor sharp. Adam Feibel


Dione Taylor – Spirits in the Water

Dione Taylor hits the sweet spot with her own brand of music she calls the “Prairie blues.” Aided by young producer Joel Schwartz, the songs and sounds of Spirits in the Water are authentic and engaging. Dione Taylor really hit the mark with this one, and she has international acclaim to show for it. Danny Marks


Peripheral Vision –
Irrational Revelation and Mutual Humiliation

This ambitious undertaking by Toronto quartet Peripheral Vision is an 88-minute odyssey. Producer Jean Martin harnesses the band’s spirited spontaneity and injects it with additional layers that help the group reach new heights. Beyond the music’s own merits, the band also uses the record to advocate for racial justice and Indigenous reconciliation — an artistic statement that’s resonant at any time, but particularly in the year that unfolded. Adam Feibel


Brenda Brown – Life Among Giants

The debut album by Hamilton, Ont.-based vocalist Brenda Brown presents 11 great tracks, with arrangements by conductor Ross Wooldridge. From the full orchestral sounds of Paul Anka’s Put Your Head on My Shoulder to a swinging big band treatment of I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, Life Among Giants is a first effort worthy of praise. Glen Woodcock


Ambrose Akinmusire – On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment

The irony of the callous is that it’s built as protection and appears to be armour, but if disturbed, it radiates a searing pain — it becomes the tenderest of spots. The spirit and soul do this, too, and this album by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire speaks to that exposure and rawness of pain. On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment “navigates what it means to simply exist as a Black person in America.” The record is a voice speaking out, crying out above the fray. John Devenish


Keith Jarrett – Budapest Concert

Keith Jarrett’s last solo tour began in 2014 at Carnegie Hall and ended there in 2017. Along the way, he appeared in Toronto and Montreal and, in April 2016, in Budapest. That concert was been released this year on a two-disc set on ECM. It’s intense, focused music, divided into 12 numbered parts. All of Jarrett’s talent and technique is on display here, beautifully recorded. The sad news that he recently suffered two strokes means that this will likely be his final live release — although more is surely in the vaults awaiting release — which makes Budapest Concert a recording to treasure. David Basskin


Bill Frisell – Valentine

The players on this record come from different creative places, but as a trio they intersect to perform as one voice. Bill Frisell, Thomas Morgan, and Rudy Royston have that uncanny, sibling-like ability to finish each other’s thoughts, sentences or ideas. It’s what makes Valentine so special and unique. Each player, able to hold their own as a lead, finds the thread linking him to the others. Valentine may be as close to the spirit of love, and how it brings people together, as it gets. John Devenish


Advocats Big Band – In Full Swing

Although the Advocats have been entertaining Toronto fans for almost three decades, this is their first full album. With vocals by Nina Richmond, In Full Swing features great arrangements and performances of swing-era classics such as Satin Doll and Drummin’ Man, mixed with contemporary tunes such as SkyfallGlen Woodcock


Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra – Four Questions

Arturo O’Farrill has been a heavyweight in Latin jazz for decades, known for his profound explorations of the sociopolitics of life. The theme of this record centres around the four questions posed by civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. O’Farrill explores these themes through intense rhythms, exciting contrasts and subtle shifts. The music is as deep as its subject matter. The beautiful musicianship and the intricacy of the arrangements make this a thoroughly enjoyable listen. Laura Fernandez


Alex Goodman – Impressions in Blue and Red

Alex Goodman took the term “double album” more literally than most, as the guitarist enlisted two entirely different quartets for each half of this ambitious recording. Impressions in Blue and Red is an exploration of synesthesia, with Goodman tapping into the colours and moods of sound on his own and with his bands. It’s an intriguing and thought-provoking record that’s likely to have you pondering its meanings and associations long after hearing it. Adam Feibel


Recommended Links