Favourite Recordings of 2021 – The List

Despite the effect of the pandemic on much of live performance, recorded music seemed to more than hold its own in 2021.  As per as usual on One Man’s Jazz, I post a list of releases that I call my favourites.   I’ll be sampling a lot of these in the first show of 2022.

Three artists in particular dazzled my ears in 2021: bassist William Parker, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, and saxophonist James Brandon Lewis. Each released several albums and all of them could qualify.

Being a bassist, Parker is in much demand for other musicians’ projects, however his own three albums stood out: his monumental 10-cd box set “Migration of Silence Into and Out of The Tone World” (AUM Fidelity) is a true opus. Each cd has a different theme, different musicians, different instrumentation, different sound. Parker plays some instruments I’ve never heard of. It’s all very brilliant and not easy listening. It’s highly creative and original.

He also released “Mayan Space Station”, which is his first foray into a “power trio” with guitarist Ava Mendoza and drummer Gérald Cleaver, and “Painter’s Winter” with old partner drummer Hamid Drake and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter. (Both on AUM Fidelity.)  Parker also recorded “No Joke!” for ESP Disk with his partner, poet/dancer Patricial Nicholson.

Parker’s a true culture maker and one of the leaders of the creative music scene. And so is Wadada Leo Smith. He turned 80 this December, but celebrated his birthday all year basically with several releases, concerts, premieres, commissions, and lectures. Whatever keeps him going, I’ll take several cases.

My favourite release by Smith was “A Love Sonnet For Billie Holiday” with Vijay Iyer and Jack DeJohnette. I also quite liked “The Chicago Symphonies” with his Great Lakes Quartet which included fellow-AACMer Henry Threadgill, “Sacred Ceremonies” with Bill Laswell and the late Milford Graves, “Sun Beams Of Shimmering Light” with AACM’s Douglas Ewart and Mike Reed, a completely solo effort, the three-CD “Trumpet”, and there’s also one out there with a couple of freak-out guitarists. Check out Wadada’s birthday celebration on YouTube. (These are all on Tum Records, except for “Sun Beams” which is on Astral Spirits)

James Brandon Lewis was tabbed as a future great by many people when he emerged from the Buffalo NY scene. He plays with gusto, power, soul and heart. His “Jesup Wagon” (Tao Forms) with his Red Lily Quintet is showing up on several-best of lists. It’s a superb recording based on the work of Black American scientist and educator George Washington Carver, conveying the heartache and hardship of the American south of the time. (Parker’s on bass.)

JBL also showed up on a recording that came out of nowhere – “Resilient Vessels Live At The Cell”. This was a project put together for a residency by bassist Josh Werner bringing together various artistic forms. It got blitzed by the pandemic however, so Werner released a pre-recorded performance (released on RRGems). Exceptionally strong playing.

The third release by Lewis came from his quartet, “Code Of Being”. Again, JBL is in top form
and the quartet blazes through a brilliant set. This one was released on Intakt Records, the same label that released Lewis’ “Live At Willisau” which was at the top of my list last year. Perhaps there’s a pattern here?

Here are more of my favourites for 2021 that you might like to explore:

Artifacts – “...And Then There’s This” (Astral Spirits)
present day AACM members from Chicago: Nicole Mitchell flute, Tomeka Reid cello & Mike Reed drums. Highly creative, brilliantly played original music.

Mankwe Ndosi & Body Mem-OriFelt/Not Said” (ESP-Disk)
Minneapolis vocalist with AACM connections, stunning and very original

The Claudia Quintet – “Evidence-Based” (Flexatonic)
Drummer John Hollenbeck up to his usual tricks, this time building an album around seven banned words by the CDC for use in documents. Poet Eileen Myles stands out.

Irreversible Entanglements – “Open The Gates” (International Anthem)
Blazing quartet with poet Moor Mother charging headlong into expression about systemic racism and disenfranchisement. Powerful music!

Benoit Delbecq – “The Weight Of Light” (Pyroclastic)
One of my favourite pianists, so versatile, so creative, in a solo set that presses all emotional buttons.

Friends & Neighbors – “The Earth Is #” (Clean Feed) – Norway
Love this band of highly creative and free-wheeling musicians from Norway. They play hard and strong while bringing a sense of accessibility to free jazz.

Mario Pavone Dialect Trio + 1 – “Blue Vertical” (Out Of Your Head)
Sadly, we lost this wonderful bassist in 2021, but this choice is not a tribute. This is a bloody great recording, charged with emotion and brilliant playing instilled by the iron will of Mario to complete this and one other recording before he died.

Gard Nilssen – “If You Listen Carefully The Music Is Yours” (Odin) – Norway
If the legendary Vikings of the North had a military band, this is what it would sound like. Three drummers, three bassists and ten saxophonists rampaging their way through Europe..

Unscientific Italians – “Play The Music of Bill Frisell Vol. 1” (Hora) – Italy
I play a good deal of music from Italy so I was familiar with a lot of musicians on this late-arriving album that’s growing on me. Their re-interpretations of compositions of easily one of the most important musicians alive today really stuck a chord.

Danilo Gallo & Dry Dark Tears – “A View Through A Slot” (Clean Feed) – Italy
This exceptional bassist from Italy sent me a large batch of very interesting and wide-ranging music this year and they all culminated in this very original release. Also, I found his album with singer Kathya West intriguing – “Last Coat Of Pink” (Caligola).

Francesca Remigi & Archipelago – “Il Labarinto Dei Topi” (Emme) – Italy
Back in January, I received an email from a young drummer from Italy wondering if I would be interested in playing her debut recordings. After listening, I couldn’t wait to get this one into shows. Excellent performances by a group of young Europeans, topical compositions revealing the composer’s feelings about society. Can’t wait to hear what’s coming next.

Barry Altschul’s 3-Dom Factor – “Long Tall Sunshine” (NotTwo)
Inspired playing by a sizzling trio recorded live on tour with veteran drummer Barry Altschul leading saxophonist Jon Irabagon and bassist Joe Fonda to new heights.

Broken ShadowsBroken Shadows (Intakt)
Four contemporary players jump feet first into the music of the “Fort Worth TX BigThree”: Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman and Julius Hemphill. Brilliant playing ensues by Tim Berne and Chris Speed on saxophones and Reed Anderson and Dave King, bass and drums, respectively.


Jaimie Branch & Fly Or Die – “Live” (Intl. Anthem)
It doesn’t get more “live” than this one recorded by the irrepressible trumpeter and her quartet just before the pandemic rolled in.

Isaiah Collier & The Chosen Few – “Cosmic Transitions” (Division 81)
Chicago saxophonist and trio who reflect their Chicago roots and inject their music with a contempo street feel. One to watch.

Ritual HabitualPagan Chant” (Clean Feed) – Portugal
Any group led by bassist Goncalo Almeida will capture my attention, and this one soars with its excellent performances and forays into free jazz.

Innanen/Piromalli/PasborgThis Is It” (Clean Feed) – Finland/France/Denmark
Three European heavies – Mikko Innanen saxophones, Cedric Piromalli hammond organ & Stefan Pasborg drums take the venerable organ trio in a very different way.

Chet Smith & We All BreakPath Of Seven Colors” (Pyroclastic)                                                                 Chet lets his passion for Haitian voudo music run wild in this very rhythmic and powerful recording.