2019: The Year’s Top-Rated Albums

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The list below is a round up of the 5-, 4.5- and 4-star reviews that ran in print editions of DownBeat during 2019. If a performer was the focus of a major feature, it’s likely their album wasn’t reviewed, and accounts for its omission from the list below. See what DownBeat critics said about your favorite albums.

For a list of 2018’s top-rated recordings, take a look here. DB

FIVE-STAR ALBUMS (New)

Terri Lyne Carrington and Social Science, Waiting Game (Motéma)

Waiting Game absorbs the Black Lives Matter movement’s simmering fury and converts it into artistic fuel as Carrington addresses homophobia, the genocide of Native Americans and the exile of political prisoners. Her keen focus on song-based compositions helps shape her thematic clarity on the first half of this double-disc set, as does the scintillating rapport she’s struck with her band. The drummer and bandleader dedicates the second half of the album to “Dreams And Desperate Measures,” a four-part instrumental suite that begins with a gossamer arrangement of haunting woodwinds, melancholy strings, a pensive guitar, piano and bass, all in dialogue.

Dave Douglas, Brazen Heart Live At Jazz Standard (Greenleaf Music)

Trumpeter Douglas’ Brazen Heart Live At Jazz Standard captures his 2015 quintet during eight sets. The road-tested troupe—saxophonist Jon Irabagon, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Rudy Royston—tackles 26 separate songs, most played at least twice in this massive set. Five songs, though, are played only once, which is where listeners can start to nerd out over the flow and shape of these performances. For example, the Friday night crowd gets treated to three pieces the band would play just a single time during the run, while the Sunday night audience heard the quintet stretch out on a 23-minute version of “Bridge To Nowhere” and a 22-minute medley of “My Cares Are Down Below” and “The Pigeon And The Pie.”

Eliane Elias, Love Stories (Concord)

Elias’ prodigious talent grows stronger as the years pass; a feat capable by only the true elites of the music world. Her romantic vocals invite the listener to delve into her timeless grace and sophisticated presence as a commanding singer, pianist, composer, producer and lyricist. Her stately arrangements, soothing, sensual vocals and piano musings are enhanced by a majestic string orchestra as standards, Brazilian classics and three originals are locked in with laid-back ease.

Delia Fischer, Tempo Mínimo (Labidad/Nomad)

Fischer again proves that she’s an innovative composer and lyricist of Brazilian pop. The 12 songs on Tempo Mínimo are crafted with irresistible melodies and poetic lyrics about time, love and the search for meaning in an era of splendid digital isolation. The arrangements make creative use of flutes, clarinets, strings and electronica—as well as Fischer’s understated vocals—to blend Brazilian, jazz, pop and classical elements into something sui generis.

Ted Nash Trio, Somewhere Else: Songs From West Side Story (Plastic Sax Records)

With no pressure to prove himself as a composer, multireedist Nash takes on the daunting challenge of interpreting one of the 20th century’s greatest musical treasures, West Side Story. The songs that Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim wrote—steeped in the sounds of jazz and Latin music—have been interpreted before, but the energy and imagination that Nash and his ensemble bring to the task are exceptional. They transform this passionate material into both a tribute to, and a meditation on, the songs’ beauty and power.

Santana, Africa Speaks (Concord)

Combining Albert King-influenced string bending with his own unique brand of speed picking, the septuagenarian guitarist plays with mesmerizing zeal and abandon here. Africa Speaks, Santana’s most inspired and fully realized album since 1970’s Abraxas, is not only an exhibition of searing licks from the leader, but a showcase for the majestic voice of Spanish singer, poet and lyricist Buika. With an uncommon intensity and power, the vocalist delivers performances that take these heady jams to an even more exalted level.

FIVE-STAR ALBUMS (Historical)

Various Artists, The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions (Craft)

FOUR-AND-A-HALF-STAR ALBUMS (New)

Antonio Adolfo, Samba Jazz Alley (AAM)

Maria Chiara Argirò, Hidden Seas (Cavalo)

John Butcher/Rhodri Davies, Drunk On Dreams (Cejero)

Andrew Cyrille, Lebroba (ECM)

Joel Harrison, Angel Band: Free Country, Vol. 3 (HighNote)

Marquis Hill, Modern Flows Vol. II (Black Unlimited Music Group)

Abdullah Ibrahim, The Balance (Gearbox)

In Common, In Common (Whirlwind)

Inter Arma, Sulphur English (Relapse)

Ahmad Jamal, Ballades (Jazz Village/[PIAS])

Angélique Kidjo, Celia (Verve)

Konx-Om-Pax, Ways Of Seeing (Planet Mu)

Quinsin Nachoff’s Flux, Path Of Totality (Whirlwind)

Marco Pignataro, Almas Antiguas (Zoho)

The Jamie Saft Quartet, Hidden Corners (RareNoise)

Matthew Shipp, Ao Vivo Jazz Na Fábrica (SESC)

The Steady 45s, Don’t Be Late (Happy People)

Teeth Of The Sea, Wraith (Rocket)

Tinariwen, Amadjar (Anti-)

Torn/Berne/Smith, Sun Of Goldfinger (ECM)

FOUR-AND-A-HALF-STAR ALBUMS (Historical)

Bill Evans, Evans In England (Resonance)

Milford Graves, Bäbi (Corbett Vs. Dempsey)

The Roots, Things Fall Apart (Geffen/UMe/Urban Legends)

Johnny Shines, The Blues Came Falling Down—Live 1973 (Omnivore/Nighthawk)

Various Artists, Down Home Blues: Chicago 2—Sweet Home Chicago (Wienerworld)

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