The 10 best jazz albums of 2021

Anthony Braxton, Gretchen Parlato, Pat Metheny

Anthony Braxton, Gretchen Parlato, Pat Metheny. Composite: Redferns, Getty

An enthralling live set from Pat Metheny, Ches Smith’s fascinating blend of avant garde and Vodou and octogenarian Charles Lloyd’s fresh takes on Leonard Cohen and the Beach Boys stood out in a strong year

John Fordham

John Fordham

10. Emile Parisien/Tim Lefebvre/Christian Lillinger/Michael Wollny – XXXX

This international quartet of contemporary jazz mavericks was invited by German virtuoso pianist/composer Michael Wollny to play four unrehearsed free-jamming nights at Berlin’s A-Trane club, and to massage a studio album from the best takes. It’s sometimes horn-led and jazzy (saxophonist Émile Parisien’s influence), explosively abstract, avant-funky or gracefully choirlike, but there isn’t a cliche in earshot.

Uncategorisable … Ruth Goller.

Uncategorisable … Ruth Goller

9. Ruth Goller – Skylla

Bass guitarist Ruth Goller has played bone-crunching punk jazz, harmonically mysterious Ghanaian ritual music, improv and avant-bop, but this uncategorisable venture, inspired by Greek mythology and aided by singers Lauren Kinsella and Alice Grant, joined iconoclastic ideas about guitar tuning and intonation (reminiscent of Derek Bailey) to ethereal, multi-layered vocal sounds sometimes suggestive of 1980s Laurie Anderson, to startling effect.

8. Anthony Braxton – Quartet (Standards) 2020

Sixty-seven tracks on a mammoth live-recorded box set by one-off multi-reeds virtuoso Anthony Braxton, one of the most prolific, unflinchingly exploratory and idiomatically open-minded artists in all jazz. Recorded with a UK touring band including Braxton-attuned pianist Alexander Hawkins, it focuses on a forensic, fearless re-examination of Broadway standards, jazz classics and popular songs. Read the full review.

7. Tim Berne/Chris Speed/Dave King/Reid Anderson – Broken Shadows

New York altoist Tim Berne is famous for knottily wrought originals, but this punchy all-covers set with fellow saxophonist Chris Speed, and the Bad Plus bass/drums pairing of Reid Anderson and Dave King, pays vivid tribute to the music of Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman, and Julius Hemphill. The pieces are succinct and memorable, the playing right on the money.

Prodigy … Jihye Lee.

Prodigy … Jihye Lee

6. Jihye Lee Orchestra – Daring Mind

South Korean Jihye Lee was first an indie pop singer, then a jazz composer prodigy whose work has been compared to the legendary Gil Evans and Maria Schneider. Daring Mind, a contrast-packed big-band set produced by Darcy James Argue with Lee, shows just why in its dizzying sweep from bebop to 21st-century rhythm-bends and haunting Schneider-like harmonies.

5. Gretchen Parlato – Flor

Her singing can be as quiet as a sigh or as buoyantly melodious as calls by the hippest of birds. New Yorker Gretchen Parlato is a vocal adventurer, but also a delicately ingenious exponent of gliding Brazilian dances and sidelong swing. This terrific comeback set after a parenting break mixes touching originals and covers of composers from David Bowie to Joao Gilberto and Bach.

4. Shai Maestro – Human

Israeli pianist/composer Shai Maestro, once mentored by that country’s famous bassist and songwriter Avishai Cohen but a bandleader of rare character for the past decade, made his best small-group recording to date on this session with Lima-born bassist Jorge Roeder, Israeli drummer Ofri Nehemya, and brilliant New York trumpeter Philip Dizack – cinematic, eclectic and profoundly humane music.

3. Charles Lloyd and the Marvels – Tone Poem

The music of Charles Lloyd – an octogenarian reeds player out of 1960s John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman but with his own poignantly voicelike sound – comes in several guises. His country-oriented Marvels group, including guitarist Bill Frisell, joins the songs of Coleman, Leonard Cohen and the Beach Boys on a set that sounds alluringly like a vocal album without vocalists. Read the full review.

2. Pat Metheny – Side-Eye NYC (V1.IV)

Guitarist Pat Metheny, one of contemporary jazz’s boldest updaters of traditions from freebop to country music and hard rock, picked the classic 1960s funky guitar/Hammond organ/drums trio format for his Side-Eye project – here featuring young multi-genre keys player James Francies, and fiery drummer Marcus Gilmore. This enthralling live recording mixes classic Metheny evergreens and new works. Read the full review.

Thrilling … Ches Smith.

Thrilling … Ches Smith. Photograph: Pacific Press Media Production Corp./Alamy

1. Ches Smith and We All Break – Path of Seven Colours

Ches Smith, the New York drummer and composer equally devoted to avant-garde jazz and Haiti’s ancient drums-and-vocal-centred Vodou culture, set himself the fascinating challenge of intertwining those threads. The result was this thrilling mix of haunting folk vocals, conversational multi-instrumental drumming and the kind of rhythmically intricate jazz favoured by his frequent bandleader, Tim Berne. Read the full review.