Year in review: 25 of the best jazz albums of 2021

The creative response to the past year was quite extraordinary — a lineup of music that was bursting with strength and vitality. When you listen to many of the jazz albums that were released in 2021, there’s a noticeable feeling of defiance and perseverance. The music rose to the moment.

Throughout the year, jazz musicians crossed time and space in the making of their art. Regions, eras and genres didn’t serve as borders or barriers, but as roadmaps for richer, fuller musical exploration. There were journeys to a variety of distant parts of the world and amalgams of multiple decades of music history. In the greatest works, you could sense the innovation and tradition squeezed into, and out of, every note.

Here are 25 of our favourite albums from 2021.


Jon Batiste – We Are

As an album, We Are feels more like a novel to be read — or, in this case, heard — from beginning to end, top to bottom. It’s a musical snapshot of our times as well as a glimpse into Batiste’s heritage. The list of guests includes both his father and grandfather, along with Mavis Staples, Zadie Smith, Trombone Shorty, PJ Morton and more. It’s nearly impossible to choose a favourite track from this record — it changes daily. We Are is a simply outstanding album that helped Jon Batiste earn an incredible 11 Grammy nominations in one year — a feat that has only been exceeded twice in history. Ronnie Littlejohn


Kurt Elling – SuperBlue

Kurt Elling’s secret spice comes from taking chances and catching fans off guard, immediately grabbing your attention. And just when you think you know Elling, he does something different. This foray into funk and infectious beats is guided by the expert creative companionship of guitarist Charlie Hunter, keyboardist DJ Harrison and drummer Corey Fonville, who provide the enticing backgrounds as Elling visits new musical territory. He’s no tourist, either — Elling beautifully acclimatizes with a soundscape of hip hop, R&B, gospel and funk. John Devenish


Brandee Younger – Somewhere Different

Harpist Brandee Younger’s major-label debut is a seamless fusion of classical music, R&B, hip hop, jazz and funk that shows great imagination and artistry. On top of that, there are some serious feel-good vibes in these compositions. Somewhere Different features bassist Ron Carter along with guest vocals from TarriAna “Tank” Ball from Tank and the Bangas. Once you’re hooked, you might also want to dig into some of Younger’s earlier collaborations with drummer Makaya McCraven. Dani Elwell


Kenny Garrett – Sounds From the Ancestors

The resonance is palpable. This album reaches back. It is made from the gripping beauty and richness of African diasporic foundations, such as the cultural gems of the Yoruban people. Garrett is looking back and seeing ahead at the same time with a contemporary creative attitude. He focuses his lens on the messages, spirituality and lessons of the music and its origins. The tracks conjure images that are woven with the struggle and passion of the past, reflecting on the expressions of lost greats like Roy Hargrove and John Coltrane as well as the African diasporic musical elements of the Caribbean and beyond. John Devenish


Gretchen Parlato – Flor

Gretchen Parlato is back and she came to play. Her latest album Flor — which means “flower” in Portuguese — honours the Brazilian music that she loves. The album is an exploration of the many ways in which motherhood has reconnected Parlato to her own inner child. The playful rhythms immediately stand out, and they’re a perfect springboard for Parlato’s acrobatic vocals. Her lyrics are powerful and her melodies memorable. Raina Hersh


Veronica Swift – This Bitter Earth

At only 27 years old, vocalist Veronica Swift has a seasoned maturity beyond her years. Hers is a talent that belies her young age, and she showcases that talent in a big way on This Bitter Earth. Not only do her tone and delivery of the 13 songs on the record show taste and refinement, but her overall approach is very much in keeping with the expected integrity when it comes to this style of singing. Veronica Swift is, as they say, the real deal. Heather Bambrick


Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga – Love for Sale

Tony Bennett is 95 years old and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, but you’d never know it from this wonderful collaboration with Lady Gaga. This album of Cole Porter music was nominated for six Grammy awards, including album of the year and song of the year for I’ve Got You Under My Skin. Bennett would have to be the sentimental favourite to win, but that shouldn’t matter. He deserves any and all accolades for the pure joy he and Lady Gaga deliver to the listener throughout Love for Sale. This album is a real gem. Glen Woodcock


Terence Blanchard – Absence

Known for his strength as a composer, Terence Blanchard pays tribute to another jazz great who’s similarly lauded for both his playing and composing skills: Wayne Shorter. Absence features a handful of Shorter’s works reinterpreted by Blanchard’s E-Collective ensemble, as well as tunes written in Shorter’s honour by the band members. Blanchard also shows his penchant for working with strings by bringing the neo-classical Turtle Island String Quartet in on this project, creating some lovely textures between the two groups. This is a beautiful and powerful soundscape. Heather Bambrick


Jazzmeia Horn and Her Noble Force – Dear Love

Jazzmeia Horn’s latest album is a delightful showcase of her skill, musicality and personality. Dear Love is her first recording with a big band, which she has aptly called her Noble Force. Throughout, Jazzmeia highlights her love of language by combining beautiful vocal arrangements with meaningfully crafted lyrics and spoken-word segments. These intimate moments are contrasted with the big band sound, creating something really special. Horn has a knack for playing with your ears, and each song has a little something unexpected. Raina Hersh


Jesse Ryan – Bridges

Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Jesse Ryan was surrounded by music both in his family and his community. He blends those sounds into his own music on his debut recording Bridges (technically released at the tail end of 2020, but which really had its moment this past year). The sax player and composer delivers a unique and fresh-sounding album that jumps right out of the speakers. With great musicians backing him up and the help of co-producer Larnell Lewis to realize his vision, Bridges shows a new talent that is already fully formed.We’re looking forward to what comes next. Brad Barker


Amanda Tosoff – Earth Voices

Five years after her Juno-nominated album Words, Amanda Tosoff delivers her latest blend of powerful words and beautiful music, this time with seven different vocalists. Felicity Wililams is in fine form, as always. Michelle Willis never disappoints, and she harmonizes splendidly with Alex Samaras. Lydia Persaud turns in a prize-worthy performance, and Robin Dann also nails it. Then there are the legends-in-the-making — Laila Biali and Emilie-Claire Barlow — who deliver their own incredible performances. With quality musicianship and a strong vision, Earth Voices is a marvelously poetic adventure that warrants repeated listening. Jaymz Bee


BADBADNOTGOOD – Talk Memory

On their fifth studio album, the Toronto trio skirts the outer barriers of jazz while harnessing the power and possibilities of sound architecture. With piano, bass and drums at the core, they also embrace the flow and drip of both synthesizers and acoustic instruments that melt and meld into a sweeping canvas saturated with colour and mood. With BADBADNOTGOOD, rhythm follows no set trail — only impulse and urgency. It’s hip hop on the jazz side of town. Bill King


Arturo O’Farrill – Virtual Birdland

Arturo O’Farrill has long been a luminary figure in the universe of Latin jazz. His project Virtual Birdland is a triumph of musicianship, a technological feat, and a powerful statement about our times. During lockdown, O’Farrill brought together his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra from their living rooms, bedrooms and closets to create a beautiful and seamless musical travelogue. It is a labour of love in support of music and what it means to us all. Laura Fernandez


Theo Croker – BLK2LIFE || A Future Past

Trumpeter, composer and producer Theo Croker’s sixth full-length album is inspired by “the forgotten hero’s journey towards self-actualization within the universal origins of Blackness.” On this sonically trippy outing, that theme manifests in many forms of Black music drawing from jazz, electronic, dub, reggae and contemporary R&B. As some have said, BLK2LIFE || A Future Past may be regarded as the latest in the lineage of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, Sly and the Family Stone’s Fresh, and Freddie Hubbard’s Red ClayWalter Venafro


Mike Freedman – Into the Daybreak

Guitarist Mike Freedman has been a staple on the Toronto scene for decades. The Berklee grad is known for the ease with which he can take on any style required of him, making him a go-to sideperson. After more than 30 years, he finally released his first album as a leader — and the results were well worth the wait. The playing is stellar, with pianist Jeremy Ledbetter, drummer Max Senitt and bassist Kobi Hass anchoring the recording. But the true star here is the material. Freedman wrote nine tunes for the album that have shades of Latin jazz, blues and ambient music, each sounding distinctly like a Mike Freedman original: melodic, and with a story to tell. Brad Barker


Julian Lage – Squint

Prodigious guitarist Julian Lage showcases his remarkable songwriting skills and his improvisational talents with relatively new collaborators in bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Dave King. Squint is a collection of 11 tracks, nine of which are originals informed by the hours he spent listening to recordings by the likes of Ornette Coleman and Jim Hall. Squint is a great outing by a guitarist with a unique voice, playing with sympatico musicians. Walter Venafro


Chick Corea Akoustic Band – LIVE

There is an energy you can feel amongst both the audience and Chick Corea’s acoustic trio in this performance captured live in Florida in 2018. The late pianist first formed the Chick Corea Elektric Band with bassist John Patitucci and drummer Dave Weckl in 1985, and here they recapture the magic in an acoustic setting. The three know each other so well, and you can hear it in the quiet interplay between them. Subtle and unspoken, the trio breathes as one. With Chick Corea’s unexpected passing in February, this recording is a gift to savour for a long time. Brad Barker


Joey DeFrancesco – More Music

One steaming summer a few years ago, Hugh’s Room Live in Toronto was packed to hear the big man on the B3. Joey DeFrancesco’s latest album More Music shows off all of his talents: He wrote and arranged many of the tunes and played the organ, piano, keyboards, trumpet and tenor sax — and he sings, too! Every bit of it is sensational. Go dig it. David Basskin


Pat Metheny – Side-Eye NYC

Pat Metheny’s virtuosic playing is a given. What really shines on this live recording is his ear for the talent playing alongside him: the incredibly gifted James Francies on keys, organ, and samples, and Marcus Gilmore on drums. There’s such harmonic chemistry and spontaneity between Francies and Metheny on tracks like Better Days Ahead, Zenith Blue, and the classic Bright Size Life. It’s bewildering that even as a trio, they manage to sound larger than the room itself. Javon Anderson


Sons of Kemet – Black to the Future

For a decade now, this British unit has been shaking the streets and night haunts of London with a blend of dance rhythms, Anthony Braxton-style free jazz and to-the-bone spoken word, all with a Caribbean flavour and persistent roar of torrential energy and anxiety. It’s as if John Coltrane’s India found a dance partner. Bill King


Renee Rosnes – Kinds of Love

Here, Renee Rosnes continues to prove why she’s one of today’s leading voices in jazz. Following the critically acclaimed debut by her supergroup Artemis, the pianist and composer returns with yet another stellar work under her name. Featuring a quintet that includes bassist Christian McBride and saxophonist Chris Potter, Kinds of Love is instrumentally masterful, harmonically rich and highly listenable, all while offering plenty of variety across these nine original compositions. Whether they’re playing slowly and serenely or swinging at top speed, the music is velvety smooth and full of life. Adam Feibel


Lorne Lofsky – This Song is New

Lorne Lofsky is one of Canada’s most respected guitar players. So when he released his first recording as a leader in nearly 25 years, the music community took notice. This Song is New features bassist Kieran Overs, drummer Barry Romberg and long-time collaborator Kirk MacDonald on sax. Why so long between recordings? “I’ve been concentrating on playing for most of my life, but every once in a while, I kind of go on this little ‘mini binge’ and I feel inspired to write something,” Lorne says. The five originals and two standards sparkle in the hands of these musicians, who are clearly having a great time. Brad Barker


Erin Propp & Larry Roy – We Want All the Same Things

Traditionally, when we think of “fusion” we likely consider a combination of jazz and rock elements meeting together in a unique musical genre, creating a particular sound. But more and more artists are fusing a variety of idioms with jazz. For Erin Propp and Larry Roy, folk is the style they’ve married with jazz on this beautiful record. The album highlights not only the effortless, fluid tone of Propp’s voice (complete with a few Joni Mitchell-isms) and the wonderful tapestry of sound created by guitarist Roy, but also their strength as a songwriting team. The tunes are clever yet accessible — something that’s no easy feat. Heather Bambrick


Avataar – WORLDVIEW

Led by saxophonist, flautist and composer Sundar Viswanathan, Avataar reach across continents for a worldly, modern jazz sound that borrows from the traditions of India, Brazil and Africa. The Toronto group’s second album — and their first in six years — is lustrously layered, replete with funky, groovy beats, entrancing atmospherics and lively jazz instrumentation, along with the airy, almost ethereal vocalizations of Felicity Williams. WORLDVIEW is an ambitious, exploratory yet firmly focused album that takes you on a journey through worlds both real and imagined. Adam Feibel


Michael Mayo – Bones

Michael Mayo’s Bones is, in a word, gorgeous. His influences? … “I listened to Pet Sounds a lot in college, grew up on A Tribe Called Quest, the Fugees, Busta Rhymes, Biggie Smalls and J Dilla. They all seem inherently connected. Why not mix them all together and see what happens?” His parents sang and played with Luther Vandross, Earth Wind & Fire, Diana Ross and more, and it’s clearly in his DNA. Start with The Way and go from there. Dani Elwell

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