2020: The Year’s Top-Rated Albums

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Carla Bley (left), Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard recorded Life Goes On for the ECM label.

(Photo: Caterina di Perri/ECM)

The list below is a roundup of the 5-, 4.5- and 4-star reviews that ran in the print edition of DownBeat during 2020. Before digging into what our critics said about your favorite albums this year, take look back at top-rated recordings from 2019 and 2018. (If a performer was the focus of a major feature, it’s likely their album wasn’t reviewed, and that was a factor in its omission from these lists.) DB

FIVE-STAR ALBUMS (New)

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, AXIOM (Ropeadope)

“Oftentimes when we come into environments like this to play creative improvised music, someone uses the word ‘jazz,’ and then everyone in the room becomes a fuckin’ Fulbright scholar,” trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah told the audience at New York’s Blue Note Jazz Club at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. “And that’s cool, but that has nothing to do with where this music’s power rests.” AXIOM, which was recorded that night, is a testament to that power.

John Beasley, MONK’estra Plays John Beasley (Mack Avenue)

John Beasley has arranged the brass brighter and brasher, the low horns to be more growly and his tasty keyboard parts to be artfully highlighted on his third album with the acclaimed MONK’estra. Extending neatly synchronized section motifs—those indelibly quirky Monk phrases—into swelling backdrops that balance freely impassioned soloists, Beasley as a pianist and composer draws out even more melodic, harmonic and rhythmic implications in music by Monk, Bird and Duke.

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

Life Goes On is a brilliant expression of the camaraderie developed by Carla Bley’s longtime trio with bassist Steve Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard. It offers three suites highlighting Bley’s deft sense of dramatic development, her gifts as a soloist (often overshadowed by her composing) and the trio’s deadpan minimalism and subtly organic interplay. During Bley’s long career, there have been times when her work has merely seemed smart, but not emotionally resonant. Here, it’s both.

Bill Frisell, Valentine (Blue Note)

“Playing together” is a phrase so commonplace it’s easy to forget what it signifies. Of course, there’s the obvious: making music with others, performing as an ensemble, being creative in a group. But the music guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston offer here suggests a specific spin on the idea, one that emphasizes the togetherness of the playing. Even though the selections on Valentine hail from a range of styles, the performances represent jazz playing at its most sublime. And music seldom gets more “together” than that.

Guillermo Klein Y Los Guachos, Cristal (Sunnyside)

The Argentine pianist, composer and bandleader is working at the top of his game—and so is his 11-piece group, which includes jazz luminaries like alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón. Here, Klein features his own compositions, as well as those of Carlos Gardel, the early 20th-century tango singer whom Klein listened to growing up. But the album isn’t sentimental or even recherché. Cristal is thoroughly modern, with groovy beats, sophisticated horn voicings and a folksy feel that only could have come from Los Gauchos.

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