The 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2021

Thursday, November 25, 2021

The votes are in! Featuring outstanding releases from Charles Lloyd, Pat Metheny, Gretchen Parlato, Georgia Mancio, Songs of Kemet, Jaimie Branch and many more...

Jazz evergreen Charles Lloyd's powerful album resonated strongly with our writers this year, making him a deserved poll-topper for 2021. The remainder of the Top 20 reveals the diversity of UK, US and European albums that helped us out of lockdowns.

1. Charles Lloyd & The Marvels              

Tone Poem

Blue Note Tone Poet

The absence of vocals places Lloyd and his ensemble centre stage for a more detailed update on their direction of travel. What becomes clear – if it was not clear already – is the addition of the guitar ‘choir’ provides unexpected depth and resonance to the time honoured configuration of sax plus piano, bass and drums... Stuart Nicholson

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2. Pat Metheny 

Side-Eye NYC (V1.IV)

BMG/Modern Recordings

Our received notions of Pat Metheny is that there is not one, but two Pat Methenys. There’s the Pat Metheny that loves jamming, be it on his memorable 80/81, or with his trio on albums such as Trio 99 > 00, Trio > Live and Pat Metheny Dave Holland Roy Haynes, and there’s the Pat Metheny formerly of the Pat Metheny Group and now custodian of its sound, as on 2020’s From This Place. Having set the bar incredibly high with the latter album (and more recently with Road to the Sun), an album of acclaimed classical compositions and arrangements, his current project/band Side Eye features young musicians making waves on the current NYC jazz scene... Stuart Nicholson

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3= Gretchen Parlato



In her first recording as leader since her Grammy-nominated 2013 album Live in NYC, Flor sees vocalist, songwriter and producer Gretchen Parlato stepping with delight into an entirely new sound-world created by her core trio of guitarist and musical director Marcel Camargo, percussionist Léo Costa and cellist Artyom Manukyan... Peter Quinn

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3= Julian Lage


Blue Note

Older and wiser, Lage has now been signed to the Blue Note label by Don Was, and he has surrounded himself with his regular working group which debuted on Mack Avenue’s Love Hurts in 2019. Wise decision. On ‘Bloo’s Blues’ and ‘Saint Rose’, two standout tracks in an album of exemplary originals, Lage, Roeder and King demonstrate the all important group empathy to the extent his “guitar trio” has a group sound that somehow exceeds its individual component parts... Tony Benjamin

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5= Georgia Mancio & Alan Broadbent 

Quiet Is The Star 

Roomspin Records

A follow-up to their outstanding Songbook album released in 2017, Quiet Is The Star presents a further nine beautifully crafted songs from the dream pairing of pianist/composer Alan Broadbent and vocalist/lyricist Georgia Mancio. Produced once again by Andrew Cleyndert, highlights include ‘When You’re Gone From Me’, a song that features music originally penned by Broadbent at the tender age of 16 which – over half a century later – takes on a new lease of life here courtesy of Mancio’s poignant lyrics... Peter Quinn

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5= Wollny/Parisien/Lefebvre/Lillinger



The undertows are often fiercely, abstractly and sometimes caressingly electronic (Wollny plays electric keys throughout), from the chain-dragging sounds and detonations of ‘Somewhere Around Barstow’, to the choirlike echoes and huge, chugging grooves of ‘Too Bright In Here’ or the dreamy harmonies of the only composed piece, Wollny’s closing ‘Nostalgia for the Light’... John Fordham

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5= Kenny Garrett 

Sounds From The Ancestors 

Mack Avenue

Although half a dozen vocalists are featured, they are invariably used to colour the music from within with sustained tones that add body and greater textural shape to the ensembles. Garret comes up with eight originals, each quite different and each with programmatic origins... Stuart Nicholson

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8 Sons Of Kemet 

Black To The Future 


With their borders-down aesthetic, fierce social conscience and sax, tuba and two-drum-kit combo, the Kemets have always packed a punch. But with opener ‘Field Negus’ and closer ‘Black’, both featuring lyrics written and spoken by poet Joshua Idehen, sparked by Black Lives Matter protests, and with guests ranging from Angel Bat Dawid and Steve Williamson to grime MC D Double E – Black to the Future has the tightly coiled righteous fury of opuses such as Attica Blues and Freedom Suite... Jane Cornwell

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9= Dave Holland 

Another Land 


This marks Dave Holland’s return to bass guitar on some tracks (notably a piece called ‘The Village’ that opens out into a long almost stream-of-consciousness development) along with some of his best recent work on double bass. His solos on tracks such as ‘Grave Walker’ and ‘Gentle Warrior’ are exemplary... Alyn Shipton

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9= Chick Corea Akoustic Band



This album was already in the works at the time of Corea’s sudden and unexpected death on 9 February 2021. On it, Corea contributes liner notes where he refers to a two day whirlwind when the trio was reconvened in January 2018 after a long break for a quick rehearsal and two shows the following evening. This two-CD set is the result... Stuart Nicholson

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9= Nigel Price Organ Trio 

Wes Reimagined 

Ubuntu Music

As its title implies, this is Price looking afresh at compositions by his hero Wes Montgomery, and re-casting them in ways that he feels Wes might well have considered. Or welcomed. Add to that, Price’s decision to enlist Au to create discrete string arrangements for three of the 10 numbers and then to enlist Snowboy to splice in percussion effects, and you can see that this surpasses anything else that he has done up to now... Peter Vacher

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12 Hedvig Mollestad Trio 

Ding Dong. You’re Dead. 

Rune Grammofon

That Mollestad would love to have played on Miles’ Live/Evil recordings is the giveaway. This is a guitarist whose writing and playing has such intensity, you fear she may spontaneously combust. Her colleagues in the coven, Bjornstad and Brekken, joyously collaborate in the highly organised mayhem... Andy Robson

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13= Kurt Elling 



Fresh from bagging his second Grammy in March earlier this year for his brilliant debut on Edition Records, Secrets Are The Best Stories, Kurt Elling’s follow-up for the label sees him taking a funky new direction in the company of guitarist and co-producer Charlier Hunter plus two members of long-standing groove merchants Butcher Brown, keys player DJ Harrison and drummer Corey Fonville... Peter Quinn

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13= Julian Siegel Jazz Orchestra 

Tales From The Jacquard  

Whirlwind Recordings

Tales From The Jacquard is a very powerful belated big-band debut for an artist who sounds in fine shape to make an enthralling habit of it... John Fordham

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13= Anthony Braxton Quartet

(Standards) 2020 

New Braxton House

Braxton and his band, which could not be more different to the great 2003 quartet (with ace guitarist Kevin O'Neil), show the thread of expression binding the Simons and Monks of this world is an understanding of the triumphs and travails of the human condition, from sunlit hope to the somber despair... Kevin Le Gendre

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13= QOW Trio 

QOW Trio

Ubuntu Music

This post-bop, pre-lockdown recording is comforting and vivid, capturing three players in a resonant room loving their work. Combining three generations, with Sussex hip priest and Tubby/Wellins drummer Spike Wells the energetic elder, a chordless trio such as Sonny Rollins' is the mode for excavating mostly standards. The point can always be questioned, when you can pile high Blue Note dates exhaustively defining the sound. But Ubuntu is a UK label supporting players who, as Myer defines the elixir, “get the feeling you really mean it, that what you're playing has to be played at that moment, it's just this.” That's what you're hearing as Riley Stone-Lonergan's full, round tenor tone slides easily onto ‘A Slow Boat to China’... Nick Hasted

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20= Jaimie Branch 

Fly Or Die Live 

Internatonal Anthem

By the time of the recording, Branch and her band had reached that perfect point when the material had been honed to near-perfection but had not yet become overly familiar; and even better, this isn’t just a presentation or recreation of two albums in a different (non-studio) environment, it’s an organic dialogue with them – so new ideas bubble up spontaneously and the band run with them... Kevin Whitlock

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20= Brandee Younger

Somewhere Different 


From the inventive comping in the striking album opener ‘Reclamation’ to the heavy ostinato of the final track, ‘Tickled Pink’, which irrevocably calls to mind ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’ from Pharoah's iconic Karma, Brandee Younger’s major label debut on Impulse! Records is a work of enormous imagination and mesmerising artistry... Peter Quinn

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20= Craig Taborn 

Shadow Plays 


Taborn invariably makes pieces unfold without clear ‘sectional’ marking so that changes of atmosphere as well as structure can be disarming and exciting. There is a fluid quality to the material here as if a rhythmic line was a succession of waves rushing back and forth that blend into brilliantly distilled, pared-down motifs that have contrastingly rugged, physical timbres, like a rock emerging from water. Sometimes Reichian repetitions are set against melancholic, slow melodic bass lines that have an enormous emotional weight, as one note at a time drops into misty, cavernous spaces... Kevin Le Gendre

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20= Matt Ridley 

The Antidote 

Ubuntu Music

The guitarist Ant Law adds a fresh electric flavour to Ridley’s organic mix of classical, jazz and rock but it’s steered well clear of any jazz-rock hybrid by Ridley. It’s one of the strongest releases by homegrown jazz talent in 2021 so far... Selwyn Harris

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