The 10 best contemporary music albums of 2020 | Jazz

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Brandee Younger and Dezron Douglas – Force Majeure

Recorded during lockdown in the couple’s New York apartment, Force Majeure (named after the fine print of a contract referring to extraordinary events, such as a global pandemic) sees harpist Brandee Younger and double bassist Dezron Douglas, in duo on a wide range of compositions – witty jazz epics by John and Alice Coltrane, soul standards made famous by the Jackson 5 and the Stylistics, pop ballads by Sting and Kate Bush. The results are marvelous and beautifully arranged; sun compressed to brighten up a miserable year. Read the full review.

Keith Jarrett in 2013. Photography: Didier Baverel/WireImage

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The revelation that two crippling strokes, suffered in 2018, could have ended Jarrett’s career as a public performer adds gruesome emotion to what could be his final outing. Like his historic 1975 concert in Cologne, this 2016 show is almost entirely improvised, but Jarrett’s 12 pieces sound like understated, perfectly plotted compositions. He growls frantically on the opening track and works through pensive introspection and austerity. In the second half, he shifted to a major key – passing through fin de siècle romanticism, ecstatic boogie woogie and heartbreaking ballad – before signing with two deceptively simple and soulful standards. What a way to bow out.

8

Although led by a Chicago jazz drummer, this album is definitely chamber music, arranged for symphonic horns, neurotic strings and spartan African percussion. And the choice of material – including a wobbly reading of the 19th century patriotic anthem America the Beautiful, a heavy-stringed staccato rendition of Charles Wright’s Express Yourself and a drumless version of How Can You Mend a Broken Heart from ‘Al Green – not only speaks to the racially fractured America of 2020, but also serves as a beacon for what the nation can become.

7

This Polish-born, Melbourne-based composer and pianist has created stunning chamber music under lockdown, and the music on her Band Camp page became a source of comfort throughout a year of isolation. They are simple piano figures, deliciously orchestrated for slurring strings, filled with heartbreaking chord changes and fleeting nods to bebop and prog Canterbury Scene.

6

Based between South London and Sierra Leone, this composer, visual artist and fashion designer has released a curate’s egg from an album called Help in August, featuring guest vocalists and vapourwave and l electronica. But he is in his most powerful environment for this solo piano album. Based on jagged ostinato basslines and jazzy right-hand chords, his precise, metrical compositions sound as if they’ve been drawn on graph paper but are still devastatingly effective.

5

A sax/bass/drums trio unlike any sax/bass/drums trio you’ve ever heard before. It’s sludge rock disguised as background music; sacred minimalism disguised as gothic grindcore. Drummer Seb Rochford plays his kit like an orchestral percussionist; bassist Neil Charles is subjected to effects pedals to sound like a symphonic horn section; while Pete Wareham’s wildly distorted tenor saxophone can sound like an entire string section, like Jimi Hendrix exploring the outer reaches of the solar system, or the death cries of a wounded elephant.

4

The Hermes experience – Here we are

An unorthodox album by an unorthodox quartet, which includes a soprano singer Heloise Werner supported by harp, clarinet and double bass. Here We Are is a fine collection of chamber music by various contemporary British composers, including Oliver Leith, Emily Hall and Errollyn Wallen, but the highlight is Misha Mullov-Abbadowhich transforms Schubert’s Le Tilleul into a deliciously abstract piece of medieval soul music.

Christine Ott and Mathieu Gabry of Snowdrops.
Christine Ott and Mathieu Gabry of Snowdrops. Photographer: Benoit Lesieux

3

An atmospheric electro-acoustic chamber music piece that puts the ondes Martenot – a proto synth developed in the 1920s – alongside the violin, viola, cello, piano and Mellotron. What is remarkable is how radically different Christine Ott manages to get the airwaves ringing on every track: from a primal, guttural sound on the 13-minute Odysseus to a chirping boy soprano on Ultraviolet. Read the full review.

2

A compilation of 13 tracks that serves as the perfect introduction to this fascinating musician, who has produced an extremely varied body of work over the past half-century. Early 1970s tracks like Don’t Despair and Durocher are folk-funk, tossed somewhere between Pentangle, Tim Buckley and Joni Mitchell. By the 1980s, Glenn-Copeland had swapped acoustic guitars for synthesizers and was creating blissful, buzzing electronica like Ever New. In recent years, he’s shifted to a minimalist gospel soul, while the album’s newest track, River Dreams, sets his extraordinary, androgynous vocals against a majestic, hypnotic backdrop.

1

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and Carlos Niño – Chicago Waves

This 44-minute live performance often sounds like a full orchestra, but it’s actually the work of just two multi-instrumentalists. Miguel Atwood-Ferguson plays the five-string violin (his cascading arpeggios recall the leitmotif of Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams) while Carlos Niño creates a veritable documentary on the nature of sound using exotic percussion; both also trigger samples and electronic effects. The result is a beautiful and immersive piece of music – minimalism with the harmonic complexity of a romantic symphonic poem, ambient music with the rigor of contemporary jazz. Read the full review.

What were your favorite albums from the confines of music this year? Share your tips in the comments below.