The Story Of Jazz In 2021 Our critics reflect on the year that was
The Best Music of 2021.
Special Series

The Story Of Jazz In 2021

Our critics reflect on the year that was

Stream Jazz Night in America's playlist of holiday music. NPR hide caption

toggle caption
NPR

Stream Jazz Night in America's playlist of holiday music.

NPR

'Tis the season for spending time with the ones we love. It's a time for creating special memories, expressing gratitude and fondly remembering those we have lost or who are unable to gather with us. It is a time of celebration — but what's a celebration without music? While the very mention of holiday music is often met with smirks and eye rolls, the members of Team Jazz Night (admittedly, some much more than others) are suckers for the magical feelings conjured by the season's festive musical offerings. And so, with the sole purpose of spreading good cheer far and wide, the Jazz Night in America staff presents a playlist stocking stuffed with our favorite tunes: timeless classics and a few brand-new bops. This is music for playing in the background while preparing holiday meals, sipping cocktails with family and friends, or singing at the top of your lungs with the little ones around you. May your holiday season be filled with love, laughter, and jazz. Wishing you safe, happy and healthy holidays from all of us at Jazz Night in America.

Don't forget to check out our radio holiday special with new music from Norah Jones, Jamie Cullen and José James.

Stream via Spotify or Apple Music.

esperanza spalding. Samuel Prather/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption
Samuel Prather/Courtesy of the artist

esperanza spalding.

Samuel Prather/Courtesy of the artist

More than most, 2021 was a year of mixed results — an endless scroll of gains and losses, halting progress and hard retrenchment. For jazz musicians and the community of listeners around them, it brought confirmation that improvisation is a life strategy. Peering in the rearview, my mind flickers to a moment from midyear: At a community arts space on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, bassist, composer and singer esperanza spalding has taken up a residency with the musicians and scholars who constitute her Songwrights Apothecary Lab.

Surrounded by totems, ensconced in the welcoming dark, spalding addresses her music and commentary not only to the handful of souls in the room but also to the viewers of a livestream. A few songs from this public workshop, including the breathtaking "Formwela 10," will soon find their way onto an album also titled Songwrights Apothecary Lab. Later, I'll misremember the experience and swear that she also performed "Formwela 1," the song that includes this couplet: "While the levy of our predicament's unyielding / Love come flood through here."

YouTube

This was June 18, during a brief window of ravenous euphoria in New York. That evening, I caught my first COVID-era show inside a jazz club: keyboardist Robert Glasper, doing his part to rechristen the Blue Note Jazz Club as a gathering place. In the moment, it felt like we'd all come hurtling through a long tunnel into blinding sunlight. Just a week or two later, the pandemic pushed us back into the tunnel again, our predicament refusing to yield. Still, the love — and its attendant labors – came flooding through. Musicians went back out on tour, navigating new bureaucracies. Audiences packed the house again, flashing credentials, taking their chances.

Meanwhile, we encountered fresh reminders of jazz's hold on the cultural imagination, if not the popular mainstream. The next time I saw spalding perform, it was in Iphigenia, the myth-contesting opera she created with composer and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. This was around the same time Glasper returned to the Blue Note for a monthlong takeover, to capacity crowds (and with cameos by the likes of Chris Rock, Joey Bada$$, Ledisi, Common, and H.E.R.). We also watched pianist and singer Jon Batiste rack up just shy of a dozen Grammy nominations, more than any other recording artist this year; a few of those came via his involvement in Soul, the jazz-besotted Pixar film that dropped last Christmas Day. And in musical circles well outside the usual jazz perimeter, we saw outpourings of enthusiasm for two strikingly different albums that feature tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders: Promises, his odd-couple collaboration with electronic artist Floating Points, and A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle, an unearthed document of the John Coltrane Quartet and friends at the end of a weeklong gig in 1965.

These breakout examples mostly found their traction outside the jazz discourse, underscoring just how fragmentary a reality this music inhabits. What to make of such a divergent plurality, in the face of so much transition? This is the prompt at the heart of our year-end jazz reflection at NPR Music, featuring a handful of perceptive writers and listeners. If you're accustomed to watching this space for the annual Jazz Critics Poll run by Francis Davis and Tom Hull, you should know that it lives on this year at a different home, The Arts Fuse. (I'm told it will publish there before the new year.) What we've set out to accomplish here has less to do with album rankings than reflecting on some form of lived experience: presenting a mosaic of outlooks, rather than a model of consensus.

Within this package, Marcus J. Moore weighs in on the lessons reverberating through this year's unearthed archival gems, including A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle. Shannon J. Effinger considers the valiant, prolific output of our jazz elders, including Sanders. Larry Blumenfeld explores the significance of jazz in high places, placing Iphigenia alongside Terence Blanchard's Fire Shut Up in My Bones at the Metropolitan Opera. Harmony Holiday comes in praise of the spiritual uplift she heard in so many of this year's releases. And Stephanie Jones pulls back the curtain on the Jazz Gallery, as a case study of pandemic perseverance and creative adaptation.

We'll all need more of that in the coming year, as we needed it in this one. As always, the music helps show the way. Here are a dozen jazz albums that carried me through — and a dozen standout tracks from a separate batch of albums, which you could flag as a continuation.

Top 12 Albums

  1. James Brandon Lewis, Jesup Wagon
  2. Artifacts, ...and then there's this
  3. Ches Smith and We All Break, Path of Seven Colors
  4. Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, Tyshawn Sorey, Uneasy
  5. Johnathan Blake, Homeward Bound
  6. Jason Moran, The Sound Will Tell You
  7. Various Artists, KIMBROUGH
  8. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra, Promises
  9. Sylvie Courvoisier & Mary Halvorson, Searching For The Disappeared Hour
  10. Sound Prints, Other Worlds
  11. William Parker, Migration of Silence Into and Out of The Tone World
  12. Sons of Kemet, Black to the Future

Top 12 Songs

  1. esperanza spalding, "Formwela 10"
  2. Irreversible Entanglements, "Open the Gates"
  3. Terence Blanchard, "Absence"
  4. Nate Smith (feat. Kokayi & Michael Mayo), "Square Wheel"
  5. Jazzmeia Horn and Her Noble Force, "Where We Are"
  6. Tyshawn Sorey & Alarm Will Sound, "For George Lewis"
  7. Ben LaMar Gay (feat Ohmme), "Sometimes I Forget How Summer Looks on You"
  8. Miho Hazama (feat. Danish Radio Big Band) "I Said Cool, You Said... What?"
  9. Brandee Younger, "Reclamation"
  10. Jen Shyu, "When I Have Power"
  11. Craig Taborn, "Now In Hope"
  12. Kazemde George, "I Insist"

Terence Blanchard's Fire Shut Up in My Bones is the first presentation of a work by a Black composer in the Met Opera's 138-year history. Ken Howard/Met Opera hide caption

toggle caption
Ken Howard/Met Opera

Terence Blanchard's Fire Shut Up in My Bones is the first presentation of a work by a Black composer in the Met Opera's 138-year history.

Ken Howard/Met Opera

In 2021, Terence Blanchard and Wayne Shorter realized long-held dreams: the celebrated musicians both premiered operas. These are great stories that represent overdue opportunity and a fresh aesthetic context for Black composers steeped in and known for jazz, whose work blends composition and improvisation. But more than that, these projects further crumbled walls that have long separated musical genres and communities.

Blanchard's opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which opened the Met Opera's season on September 27, was historic by its placement—the first presentation of a work by a Black composer in that institution's 138-year history. In setting this story—of trauma, acceptance and resilience, concerning a Black man coming of age in a rural Louisiana town—Blanchard marshalled the same compassion and sense of social purpose coursing through his Grammy-winning work as a jazz trumpeter and bandleader. He tucked a jazz-ensemble rhythm section within the Met orchestra, and encouraged the singers to honor the church-music and R&B inflections they grew up with. Act III opened with a fraternity step routine, an audacious display of Black unity, joy and excellence that both rocked the house and claimed the space on his own terms.

Composer and saxophonist Wayne Shorter with a page from his ...(Iphigenia) score. Jeff Tang/Courtesy of Real Magic hide caption

toggle caption
Jeff Tang/Courtesy of Real Magic

Composer and saxophonist Wayne Shorter with a page from his ...(Iphigenia) score.

Jeff Tang/Courtesy of Real Magic

With ...(Iphigenia), Shorter, widely considered jazz's greatest living composer and among its defining saxophonists and bandleaders, realized an ambition he'd held since his days as a teenage music student: to compose an opera. Shorter, now 88, based his new work on Iphigenia at Aulis, the last thing the Greek dramatist Euripides wrote before his death. The opera is meant as disruptive: Its libretto, by esperanza spalding, questions cycles of needless violence and the place of women as passive victims, in myth and in opera. Musically, Shorter extends an arc of his work that has grown ever more daring and abstract during the past 20 years, frequently involving chamber orchestras. This new piece also upends ideas about operatic form; by Act III, the members of Shorter's long-standing quartet urge the orchestra and singers into a wondrously unbound musical space. Shorter once told me, "There is no such thing as a beginning and no such thing as an end." He means it. His opera is marvelously mutable. Following a November preview in Boston, a December Kennedy Center premiere included a brand-new musical coda, the result of 21 pages of material Shorter had just sent along.

This year was dotted with music from Black composers that tore down walls. Autoschediasms, created and conducted by Tyshawn Sorey, was a master-class in real-time collaboration with a new-music ensemble, first arriving in 2020 via Alarm Will Sound's "Video Chat Variations" series; it holds up just as well on the August-issued double album. Courtney Bryan's Requiem, composed before the pandemic for the vocal quartet Quince Ensemble and members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and planned for 2020, got its premiere via streaming instead in June. The piece draws upon wide-ranging death rituals, including the jazz funerals of her hometown, New Orleans, and "turned out to be a response to our times," Bryan says.

We need this music. Did we ever need those walls?

Pianist and producer Jamael Dean. Samantha Lee/Stones Throw hide caption

toggle caption
Samantha Lee/Stones Throw

Pianist and producer Jamael Dean.

Samantha Lee/Stones Throw

Catastrophic eras often inspire descents into an unkempt decadence that the music of those eras can't help but insinuate – however, sometimes even Dionysus refuses to emerge from the ruins, and our only option in the aftermath of disorienting upheaval is spiritual awakening and optimism, sans hedonism. That's our best bet now. I'm witnessing this, a refusal to be jaded or maudlin, in some of my favorite jazz albums and performances of 2021.

Jamael Dean's Primordial Waters delivers us into the arms of the Orishas of the Yoruba tradition, where our pent-up, archetypal energies are balanced through ritual, sheer virtuosity and an entirely revamped concept of the procession of time and events. The sheets of music John Coltrane accessed on his saxophone, Jamael conjures on the keys, accessing what Rahsaan Rolad Kirk referred to as the "missing Black notes that have been stolen and captive, for years and years." Jamael's playing is as close as we come to retrieving what was lost in the past year-and-a-half, as well as ancestrally, in sound and texture. The track "Ba'Ra'Ka," a confrontational tribute to Amiri Baraka, places the writer and overall cultural hero among the living gods where he belongs, brings the level of bold syncretism that makes this work stand out as a break from stodgy genre loyalties. Primordial Waters harnesses the foundation provided by Strata East and Motown's Black Forum imprint; those labels had the advantage operating in the mid-to-late 1960s and early 1970s, when militancy was a common thread. Now militancy is co-opted and diluted, sometimes to the point of blatant minstrelsy, and this music stands out as the reinvigorated potential for Black radicalism that is as tender and pensive as it is intense and propulsive.

Alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins's "Emanation," the first single from his upcoming album The 7th Hand, reminds us that the new generation of players can access the cerebral upward spiral that made hard-bop and bebop so compelling, and elaborate on it, releasing some of the tension into passages that move like meditative daydreams. Like Dean, Wilkins is dealing with faith and renewal, and they both offer the thesis that rebirth is necessary and inevitable, refusing to shrug or cower or play corny notes just because the world is on the precipice of turning itself over. At this point, we have to face our dire need for new spirituals and our remembrance of the classic spirituals against the tide of a society that conflates secularism in music with sophistication and skill. We may not be descending into abject decadence just yet, but the will to adorn stands, and pursuing minimalism just to prove jazz can be serious would be phony, when what we crave is urgent intervention from what Greg Tate called "the divine, the magical, the supernatural, the ancestral — spiritual genius." The best new jazz is reclaiming that spiritual genius, after what seems like decades of efforts to anesthetize it.

The Complete Live at the Lighthouse collects all 12 sets from Lee Morgan's 1970 residency on Hermosa Beach. Joel Franklin/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption
Joel Franklin/Courtesy of the artist

The Complete Live at the Lighthouse collects all 12 sets from Lee Morgan's 1970 residency on Hermosa Beach.

Joel Franklin/Courtesy of the artist

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.

YouTube

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.

Drummer Nasheet Waits stretches out in real time on The Jazz Gallery stage. Hank O'Neal/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption
Hank O'Neal/Courtesy of the artist

Drummer Nasheet Waits stretches out in real time on The Jazz Gallery stage.

Hank O'Neal/Courtesy of the artist

The set broke around 9:15 on a Friday night in October. Narrow aisles bottlenecked with listeners. While Delta loomed outside, The Jazz Gallery hummed with pressurized excitement. Few wore masks. Many focused on cream puffs plated in the green room to celebrate the late Roy Hargrove's 52nd birthday. Among elbow taps and clinking plastic cups, the mood reflected something untraceable yet palpable: Through a year of isolation and tense returns, the Gallery community never lost touch.

Months before Mayor de Blasio issued a proof of COVID-19 vaccination requirement for indoor entertainment in August, the Gallery launched a virtual health screening to promote community safety. In September 2020 before a viral surge, then again in April 2021, the nonprofit venue sold tickets at $50 — higher than pre-pandemic rates — to a reduced-capacity audience, temporarily suspending member discounts. "Artists were having a hard time," says Artistic Director Rio Sakairi, "so we more than doubled our payment guarantee. It was the right thing to do."

Back in spring 2020, venue rallying eclipsed a panic that choked the city. Neighboring clubs followed similar impulses, embracing livestream performance models so artists could get back to work. But Sakairi created a suite of online programming unique to the Gallery: "I experimented with formats to bring music and community together."

One such format, The Lockdown Sessions, featured artists sharing video creations and chatting via video conference. Intentionally, Sakairi paired young artists with established leaders. "Lots of people tuned in for Bill Frisell," she says. "Nobody knew [bassist] Hannah Marks, but people said, 'Wow, I'm gonna go buy your CD.' These were opportunities for discovery and creating community."

Guitarist Charles Altura live-streams from The Jazz Gallery in Flatiron. Hank O'Neal /Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption
Hank O'Neal /Courtesy of the artist

Guitarist Charles Altura live-streams from The Jazz Gallery in Flatiron.

Hank O'Neal /Courtesy of the artist

Particularly for those hunkered down abroad, the series became a lifeline. Some videos transformed the session into an art house; others, a comedy club. "Everybody was reaching for something," says Sakairi. Trombonist-composer Kalia Vandever considers The Lockdown Sessions her "most enjoyable" virtual gig: "Rio included the element of talking to the artists and the audience afterward. That felt very personal and feels very true to the Gallery community."

Eventually, the Flatiron venue began live streaming performances that would vanish after 24 hours, in deference to working musicians. Viewers embraced the virtual medium that premiered in June 2020, at least for a while. A year later, when patrons returned to physical spaces, the atmosphere online began to sour as complaints rose about sound quality and ticket prices.

Virtual programming persists, but Sakairi predicts international members will remain active for another year, then terminate their membership. In recent months, the streaming hit rate has plummeted by 90 percent from its 2020 peak to roughly 20 viewers. But heads remain cool. "We're not worried," she says. "I predicted the pandemic wouldn't change live music. And it hasn't."

The real dilemma feels more abstract. Reductive nature of live-streamed performance aside, several artists admitted to Sakairi they play "safer" when cameras are rolling. And for an improvised art form, the risk's the thing. To mitigate anxiety, the Gallery only streams Saturday performances.

With clubs now presenting livestreams alongside in-person performances, mixed reactions abound. Drummer-composer Nasheet Waits regards the move toward livestream ubiquity with measured optimism. "Music is a communal experience, to a large degree," he says. "It's not a replacement, but I think it should continue and be offered in conjunction with [in-person performance]."

Buoyed by outside funding — and similar rallying communities — like-hearted venues have invoked their inner phoenix, as well. Leaning on livestream offerings through the summer, on Sept. 14, Village Vanguard welcomed back in-person sets at full capacity. Smalls Jazz Club — whose nonprofit foundation SmallsLIVE received $25,000 from Billy Joel in April 2020 — has reclaimed its status as reigning club of the late night hang, hurdling countless obstacles including an anonymous complaint to the State Liquor Authority filed in March.

Though saddened by losses, particularly that of Jazz Standard which announced its closure in December 2020, Sakairi remains hopeful: "There's nothing like live music. It shakes you in a way that nothing on the screen can. It's a powerful thing, and I think it will be just fine."

Pharoah Sanders, photographed working with Sam Shepherd on Promises. Eric Welles-Nyström/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption
Eric Welles-Nyström/Courtesy of the artist

Pharoah Sanders, photographed working with Sam Shepherd on Promises.

Eric Welles-Nyström/Courtesy of the artist

Jazz musicians have always been my biggest superheroes. Growing up in Bed-Stuy, these mythical gods and goddesses have often supplanted the absent familial figures in my own life and become the mothers and fathers I never had and always yearned for. Everyone from Betty Carter, who lived a half-mile away on St. Felix Street (directly across from BAM), to the great Randy Weston, whose house on Lafayette Avenue was right across the street from our local CTown Supermarket.

However, I wouldn't become aware of the latter until many years later, when I had the pleasure and honor to interview Mr. Weston at his Brooklyn home. I will never forget the visible joy and immense love he had for this music, as he recounted childhood memories like opening up all his windows to blast his newly purchased copy of Coleman Hawkins' "Body & Soul" on his Victrola. This compelled me to share with him my own memories as a teenager, blasting A Tribe Called Quest on my boombox out of my tiny bedroom window.

After years of always feeling too busy to reflect and take stock of my life, the pandemic provided ample time for both, and all of these memories resurfaced like a bunch of old snapshots, vivid and unsullied. My hero worship didn't just come from the idyllic images of these splendid Black figures, but from who they were in real life, unstoppable and impervious forces that thrived in a backdrop of blatant discrimination and a daily existence that taught us all that it was a crime to be born with Black skin.

This year in jazz highlights many examples of giants who are not only the embodiment of Black genius, but, equally paramount, allow nothing to hinder their artistic vision. We also witnessed more intergenerational collaborations take shape, a rich part of the jazz tradition brought back to the forefront.

First and foremost, Wayne Shorter. Despite facing several health scares in recent years, the 88-year-old saxophonist composed ...(Iphigenia), an adaptation of the Greek tragic opera with libretto from esperanza spalding, by hand. Pharoah Sanders, another octogenarian and one of the progenitors of free jazz, joined forces with Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra to render the chimeric collaborative effort Promises, marking Sanders' first studio release in over a decade. At 97 years old, multireedist Marshall Allen also shows no signs of age. As the fearless leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra, together, the boundary-pushing collective garnered its first Grammy nomination for the 2020 release Swirling.

If I have to choose one standout this year, my pick is The Cookers' sixth studio album, Look Out!. Reading the press announcements that called the veteran collective a "jazz supergroup," it was difficult not to imagine each member in superhero poses with their initials branded across their chests. But when I spoke to them this fall, they expressed nothing but admiration for one another, genuine excitement for performing live again, and even paid homage to all the musicians they've worked with — Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard. As invincible as they appear, it turns out, even your heroes and sheroes are human.