In 2021, jazz went back in time to see the future
Every few years, a new jazz artist (or at least new to us) comes along to shake our perception of what the music can entail. In 2015, it was Kamasi Washington, the Los Angeles saxophonist and Kendrick Lamar collaborator whose West African robes and blustery sound were akin to stalwarts like Lonnie Liston Smith and Idris Ackamoor. A year later, another saxophonist, the London-based Shabaka Hutchings, broke through with three very distinct bands, each with its own unique musical texture. In 2018, with the release of his community-minded LP Universal Beings, drummer/producer Makaya McCraven earned critical acclaim for a blend of jazz that surveyed scenes in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and London.
This year, though, jazz music's preeminent star was one who's been releasing music for almost 60 years: Pharoah Sanders, a reluctant legend whose billowing and sometimes screeching sax can be heard across landmark albums by Alice and John Coltrane, along with his own solo work. And while Promises, his collaborative LP with electronic producer Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra, wasn't technically a Pharoah release, he was still the record's featured player, his melodic chords wafting atop a subtle blend of harpsichord and rising strings.
That there wasn't a new face as consensus critical darling this year was quite curious. Surely, there were a number of impressive jazz albums released in 2021, but there didn't seem to be one in particular that garnered universal praise. The fact that Sanders—an octogenarian with dozens of albums to his credit as a bandleader and sideman—is having a moment speaks to our collective need to revisit the past. Nostalgia tends to dominate our respective listening habits. This year saw the excavation of various titles from the annals of time.
The release of archival albums from John Coltrane, Roy Brooks, Lee Morgan and Sheila Jordan shed even more light on a collection of artists we already held in the highest esteem. Yet these albums showcase a fire we wouldn't have heard otherwise. On Coltrane's A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle and Brooks' Understanding, the bandleaders unpack combustible arrangements that bubble to the point of explosion. One can hear this heat in modern-day purveyors like Nubya Garcia and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, both of whom merge the intensity of years' past with their own genre-bending interpretations of cumbia and hip-hop, respectively. A Morgan boxed set, The Complete Live at the Lighthouse, collected all 12 sets from a run of shows played by the trumpeter at the California venue in 1970. Jordan's Comes Love captures a lone recording date in 1960, three years before her famed debut album, Portrait of Sheila, was released via Blue Note Records. These albums help connect the past and present, lighting a path for the new generation to follow.
For a certain type of listener, there's always something quite fascinating about hearing unreleased music from our faves. It's why we run to their vaults and clamor for any undiscovered masterworks left dusty on the tape reels. It's the revelation that captures us, the fly-on-the-wall feeling of being there in that smoky club in 1965, or eavesdropping on an unknown singer with a life's worth of art to be created. While we wait for another person to save jazz (spoiler: it doesn't need saving), revisiting the past helps us forecast where we're going.