Crate Digging: Best Albums of 2020 (Part 1)

Remember record stores? Remember the thrill of turning your friends on to new music by swapping vinyl and CDs? Yeah, we do too. That’s why we’re rebooting that tradition for the digital age with our “Crate Digging” video series, in which we’ll search through crates of our memories to bring you a handful of album recommendations on a given theme. It’s social media in the truest sense of the term: no algorithms, no computer-generated playlist. Just jazz fans sharing records with other jazz fans.

You can watch a full-length discussion of the albums via the video player below. Write-ups of individual albums and sample tracks follow. Welcome to the party! This week’s Crate Digging is part one of our list of some of our favorite albums of 2020.


Sun Ra Arkestra, Swirling (Strut)

Sun Ra Arkestra’s first studio album in 20 years is an inspired tribute to the master Sun Ra, revisiting some of the most celebrated works of the fabled ensemble’s repertoire. The “swirling” music of the record was arranged by the great Marshall Allen, now 96 years old, blending jazz tradition with the same forward-thinking mentality that has characterized the Arkestra for decades, as well as their trademark space-age motifs.


Maria Schneider, Data Lords (ArtistShare)

In addition to being a brilliant bandleader, Maria Schneider is one of the brightest minds in terms of the economy of music and has actively spoken out against big-tech companies’ exploitation of music artists and the commodification of people’s attention, removing it from nature. Data Lords is her musical statement about it, split into two – the natural side and the tech side – each motivated by fascinating concepts and, among other things, a wonderful showcase of Ben Monder on guitar.


Tigran Hamasyan, The Call Within (Nonesuch)

The Call Within is a journey into the mind of idiosyncratic pianist/composer Tigran Hamasyan’s mind, rich in wide-ranging textures and influences, from celestial choirs to thrash metal energy, from ambient to Armenian folk music and beyond. The contrasts create tensions that drive the narrative intensity of individual tracks and the album as a whole forward, sometimes cinematically, representing the balance between physical performance and conceptual vision.


Benny Benack III, A Lot of Livin’ To Do (La Reserve)

If you want to swing, if you want melody and good song compositions, this is the album for you. Benny Benack III positively swings in A Lot of Livin’ To Do, featuring a liberal approach to the Great American Songbook and a few other gems, as well as special guest Christian McBride on bass. In addition to being a trumpeter, Benack III is a great vocalist in the Rat Pack style and it’s rare these days to see an instrumentalist wear both hats as remarkably.


Tony Allen and Hugh Masekela, Rejoice (World Circuit)

The only collaboration between Tony Allen, one of the architects of Afrobeat, and the Father of South African Jazz, Hugh Masekela, is a one-of-a-kind work of Afrofusion and the blend of two distinctive idioms and creative approaches. Recorded in 2010 but only completed last year by producer Nick Gold, putting the finishing touches the musicians had discussed. Rejoice is all the more valuable now that both trailblazing musicians have sadly passed away.


Frankfurt Radio Big Band and Somi, Holy Room: Live at Alte Oper With Frankfurt Radio Big Band (Salon Africana)

An energetic live release for 2020, featuring a spirited blend of neo-funk, world music, Afrobeat and, of course, jazz. Somi strikes the balance between the classic jazz chanteuse tradition and the neo-soul, world music vein. Here, the vocalist is accompanied by the acclaimed Frankfurt Radio Big Band, bringing these compositions and the Alte Oper audience to life.


Luciana Souza and The WDR Big Band, Storytellers (Sunnyside)

Vocalist Luciana Souza, one of today’s best interpreters of the Brazilian music tradition, collaborates with Vince Mendoza and the WDR Big Band on Storytellers, a celebration of Brazilian music and poetry and some of its greatest interpreters. Mendoza’s arrangements are wonderfully expressive and never overbearing, quite aligned with Souza’s vision and artform and conveying a wide range of styles, atmospheres and emotions.


Christian Sands, Be Water (Mack Avenue)

Pianist Christian Sands draws inspiration from Bruce Lee’s philosophy for his latest album, Be Water, featuring his core trio, plus special guests – including Marvin Sewell and Marcus Strickland, among others. The album is indeed a collection of fluid, straight-ahead jazz in constant progression and while it features standout covers, it is the original compositions that truly shine.


Ella Fitzgerald, The Lost Berlin Tapes (Verve)

Ella Fitzgerald’s previously unreleased full live recording of her concert in Berlin from 1962, backed by a trio. The Berlin Lost Tapes is one of the highlight historic recordings to have been released in 2020. The fact that we’re still getting long-delayed releases as valuable as this one is also a wonderful opportunity to highlight the importance of art and music preservation at large.


Artemis, Artemis (Blue Note)

Artemis is the self-titled debut of the star-studded all-female title ensemble, under the musical direction of Renee Rosnes, and marks the continuation of Blue Note’s longstanding jazz supergroup tradition. A nine-song dynamic set comprising covers and originals composed and/or arranged by each of the band’s six instrumentalists and it is no surprise, given its star power, that Artemis delivers the goods, as all musicians trade grooves and rhythms that feel both fresh and familiar, adventurous and comfortable.

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