Crate Digging: Best Albums of 2020 (Part 2)

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 two of our list of some of our favorite albums of 2020.


Tino Contreras, La Noche de los Dioses (Brownswood)

Drummer/percussionist/composer and Mexican jazz legend Tino Contreras, aged 96, shows no sign of slowing down as he vigorously revisits pieces from his stellar, multi-decades career. The music of La Noche de los Dioses feels timeless and approaches themes of spirituality with a sense of adventure and mystique. Certainly one for fans of Latin jazz, fusion, and anyone looking for an entry point into Contreras’ fabled discography.


Thundercat, It Is What It Is (Brainfeeder)

Thundercat explodes genres. There’s no single box to put him in. He can play anything from jazz to hip-hop, from R&B to hardcore punk and beyond. It Is What It Is, released via Brainfeeder, is just the perfect showcase of his artistry. It features a star-studded lineup of special guests – including Steve Lacy and Childish Gambino, among others – and Thundercat himself, switching up flows and trading in grooves. Plus, the runs that you hear from his bass are just phenomenal.


The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and Wayne Shorter, The Music of Wayne Shorter (Blue Engine)

Over the years, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has put on phenomenal tribute concerts that have often turned into phenomenal tribute albums. The Music of Wayne Shorter is no different, enhanced by the presence of the legendary saxophonist himself performing new arrangements of some of his most iconic compositions, matching his fabled musicianship with that of the members of this acclaimed orchestra, led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.


John Carroll Kirby, My Garden (Stones Throw)

John Carroll Kirby puts an authorial spin on the lo-fi, ambient, new age and retro-futuristic music that many of us escaped into during pandemic-era madness. Aesthetically delightful, My Garden marks the multi-instrumentalist/producer’s solo debut on Stones Throw and has been aptly defined as third-generation exotica, evoking other-worldly pictorial scenes via an explorative application of electronic sophistication.


Kassa Overall, I THINK I’M GOOD (Brownswood)

There’s no denying that drummer Kassa Overall is at the vanguard of jazz and hip-hop. Those hybrid grooves are on I THINK I’M GOOD, in the tradition of Kareem Riggins, who didn’t just electronically incorporate the sounds of hip-hop but also tried to replicate them through acoustic drums. Thematically, the record is just as compelling with its empowered take on profound themes, including mental instability, anxiety and depression, drawn from Overall’s own lived experience.


Ambrose Akinmusire, on the tender spot of every calloused moment (Blue Note)

A major statement, renewing Ambrose Akinmusire’s status as one of the biggest names in expressive jazz today. on the tender spot of every calloused moment alternates swinging tracks with more somber pieces, representing the complexity of the Black life in American that it conceptually portrays. In doing so, he employs a blend of post-bop and avant jazz, harkening back to the intensity of the days of the Civil Rights Movement, and renewing their legacy of communicative power.


Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard and Steve Swallow, Life Goes On (ECM)

Carla Bley’s trio with Andy Sheppard and Steve Swallow sounds like no other and with the passing of time, they seem to get better and better. Bley also has continued to evolve and has bloomed into one of today’s most distinctive voices on the piano at the age of 84, without losing any of her celebrated compositional knack, as Life Goes On includes a deeply resonant four-part suite on mortality and a lively, at times satirical, reflection on the Donald Trump presidency.


Rudresh Mahanthappa, Hero Trio (Whirlwind)

Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa revisits the chordless trio format, taking on a varied program of compositions by Stevie Wonder, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and more. His playing is energetic and captivating, and his approach to the wide-ranging material is explosive. Honing in on one piece of DNA of each track and then crafting an entirely new composition around it, Hero Trio is at once reverent of original artistic impulses but also offers a new approach to the art of reinterpretation.


Kurt Elling and Danilo Pérez, Secrets are the Best Stories (Edition)

A masterful renewal of the longstanding bond between poetry and jazz. Acclaimed crooner Kurt Elling’s rich baritone is matched by his skills as a lyricist, partly drawing on and paying tribute to the works of famous poets and authors, whether telling stories of universal resonance or internal monologues. Danilo Pérez’s compositions or ambitious arrangements enriches the message at the heart of this record, which testifies to the importance of both having stories to tell and stories to listen to.


Chick Corea, Plays (Concord Jazz)

Plays is a solo double album of piano maestro Chick Corea’s performances from throughout 2018 in various halls across Europe. The release is a tribute to the piano tradition, as he takes on material by Stevie Wonder, Mozart, George Gershwin and more, as well as his own compositions and improvisation. Equally noteworthy are his interactive numbers, whether welcoming members of the audience to perform two-handed piano with him or performing their musical portraits. These particularly resonated in a year defined by limited physical live music performances.


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