Best Albums of 2021


Kenny Garrett’s Sounds From The Ancestors is among DownBeat’s latest crop of 5-star reviews.

(Photo: Mack Avenue)

Welcome to DownBeat’s best-reviewed albums of 2021. Below you’ll find the 5-star recordings, both new and historical, that our reviewers found to be masterpieces. To see the rest of the best — our 4½-star and 4-star reviews for the year, as well as the issue each review ran in — click HERE.


Django Bates
Lost Marble/Jan.
Bates’ most recent project marks the convergence of two birthdays — the pianist’s 60th and Charlie Parker’s centennial. It also explores a confluence of the bandleader’s deep-diving, iconoclastic work in both large ensembles and the intimate piano-trio setting, combining his Belovèd trio (with bassist Petter Eldh and drummer Peter Bruun) with the Swedish Norrbotten Big Band. Such classic Bird bop tongue-twisters as “Donna Lee,” “Ah Leu Cha” and “Confirmation” are put through Bates’ deconstructionist blender to thrilling ends. —Josef Woodard

Veronica Swift
This Bitter Earth
Mack Avenue/April
Swift is a woman of many voices, and she uses every one of them to refract a dizzying kaleidoscope of moods on This Bitter Earth, the follow-up to 2019’s Confessions. As on that earlier work, Swift digs deep into the American songbook to reveal new, often surprising truths. … Swift is a supernova. And the players who help manifest her vision make This Bitter Earth a musical bounty of depth and breadth. —Cree McCree

Jim Snidero
Live At The Deer Head Inn
For his first live album since 1989, Snidero, a seasoned saxophonist with more than 20 records to his name, brings together the incomparable Orrin Evans on piano, Peter Washington on bass and Joe Farnsworth on drums. Recorded at Pennsylvania’s famed Deer Head Inn on Halloween 2020 in front of a small, socially distanced audience, the recording’s immediacy is heightened by the quartet’s interactions with listeners and the way they refer to time-honored standards to contextualize these difficult times. —Alexa Peters

Isaiah Collier
& The Chosen Few
Cosmic Transitions
Division 81/June
This is the third offering from the Chicago-based saxophonist, who at age 23 has transcended the realm of prodigy. Collier and his band, the Chosen Few, walk through several moments of transition in the music, moving from its foundation in the blues directly into hard-bop. From the downbeat, with a literal tolling of the bell, until the final note that finds Collier improvising, forcing the limits of his soprano saxophone, Cosmic Transitions is like the moments after an afternoon rainstorm. —Joshua Myers

XXXX is mysterious and magical. The 10 tracks are derived from eight hours of live club performance by an electro-acoustic quartet that had not met before going onstage in Berlin in late 2019, yet achieved remarkable results. Keyboardist Michael Wollny, bassist/electronics player Tim Lefebrve, saxophonist Émile Parisien and drummer Christian Lillinger together created a wildly colorful and dramatic recording that partakes of a weird, wide and evidently processed instrumental palette — one that serves the fluid, propulsive interactions of these highly responsive, imaginative and daring musicians. —Howard Mandel

Kenny Garrett
Sounds From The Ancestors
Mack Avenue/Oct.
Always a highly percussive saxophonist, Garrett has found an exceptional partner in drummer Ronald Bruner. Their connection pushes Garrett to some intense heights, and when the rhythm section expands to include Lenny White and Rudy Bird on additional snare drums for “Soldiers Of The Fields/Soldats des Champs,” Sounds From The Ancestors moves into rarefied territory. —James Hale

Theo Croker
Sony Music Masterworks/Dec.
Croker’s sixth album aims to send “coded frequencies to activate our sleeping, ancestral DNA” that bubble up throughout this ode to Blackness. It’s a daring work of psychedelic jazz in which Croker, playing trumpet and flugelhorn, brings together forebearers like saxophonist Gary Bartz and rapper Wyclef Jean with futurists like U.K. blues singer/songwriter Malaya. Largely shaped by Todd Carder’s production, Croker’s horns occupy various sonic positions on these 13 tracks. —Carlo Wolff


Hal Galper Quintet
Live At The Berlin Philharmonic 1977
Sony Music Masterworks/Dec.

Keith Jarrett
Sun Bear Concerts

Louis Armstrong
The Complete Louis Armstrong Columbia and RCA Victor Sessions 1946–1966


  • Casey_B_2011-115-Edit.jpg

    Benjamin possessed a fluid, round sound on the alto saxophone, and he was often most recognizable by the layers of electronic effects that he put onto the instrument.

  • Charles_Mcpherson_by_Antonio_Porcar_Cano_copy.jpg

    “He’s constructing intelligent musical sentences that connect seamlessly, which is the most important part of linear playing,” Charles McPherson said of alto saxophonist Sonny Red.

  • Albert_Tootie_Heath_2014_copy.jpg

    ​Albert “Tootie” Heath (1935–2024) followed in the tradition of drummer Kenny Clarke, his idol.

  • Geri_Allen__Kurt_Rosenwinkel_8x12_9-21-23_%C2%A9Michael_Jackson_copy.jpg

    “Both of us are quite grounded in the craft, the tradition and the harmonic sense,” Rosenwinkel said of his experience playing with Allen. “Yet I felt we shared something mystical as well.”

  • Larry_Goldings_NERPORT_2023_sussman_DSC_6464_copy_2.jpg

    Larry Goldings’ versatility keeps him in high demand as a leader, collaborator and sideman.

On Sale Now
April 2024
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