Discover our final and definitive “Best Jazz Albums of 2021” list.
This year, the selection is divided into albums featuring solos, duets, trios, quartets, quintets, and larger ensembles, with three selections per category, for a total of 18 albums. We also added one category for “Artist of the Year”, and one for “Archive of the Year”, thereby adding two albums to the final selection, for a grand total of 20 albums that sum up how great 2021 was for jazz.
It was a year with an incredible amount of greatness thanks to so many amazing releases; it was sometimes hard to follow and listen to them all. But of course, this is what we love to fill our lives with.
Sadly, it seems that too many great musicians passed away this year. On the bright side, many musicians have clearly blossomed to a new level, bringing more astonishing music and joy to all of us, and finally, the end of 2021 has seen clubs and venues slowly reopening, thereby allowing us to come back to our favorite thing—live music.
Raw Demoon Alchemy (A Lone Operation)
(Northern Spy Records)
“Raw Demon Alchemy (A Lone Operation) harnesses the gamut of raw, unadulterated emotions.“
The sound is breathtaking; the performance is beautiful; the message is overwhelming. Read our full review: Raw Demoon Alchemy (A Lone Operation)
Darius Jones: alto saxophone
Release date November 5, 2021
Dancing Spirits is one of those precious albums that reveal themselves after several listening, growing to a point where it becomes essential. This is evidently a major release of 2021 and beyond. Read the album review: Dancing Spirits
Naoko Sakata: piano
Released date March 26, 2021
With Overpass, his first solo recording, Marc Johnson is now joining the amazing list of ECM bass solo releases—or should we say with Overpass, ECM has managed to add the amazing Marc Johnson’s first solo album to its catalog? Either way, for us, it is a dream release, as personal and intimate as it is beautiful.
Marc Johnson: double bass
Release date August 27, 2021
Sten Sandell, Lisa Ullén
(Clean Feed Records)
Two humble charcoals, but big as rocks, stable and present as ever, and ready to sketch the most beautiful music. Read our review: Double Music
Sten Sandell: piano; Lisa Ullén: piano
Release date October 15, 2021
Sylvie Courvoisier, Mary Halvorson
Searching For The Disappeared Hour
Searching for the Disappeared Hour is the second album by Sylvie Courvoisier and Mary Halvorson after the release of Crop Circles in 2016. In the meantime, the two of them really manage to bring their duet to another level. The two string instruments—one pinched, the other hammered—come together comfortably and intrinsically under the mastery of these unique and exceptional musicians.
Sylvie Courvoisier: piano; Mary Halvorson: guitar
Release date October 29, 2021
Tyshawn Sorey, King Britt
Tyshawn / King
(The Buddy System Project)
“These two titans went into the studio for 2 days, which happen to fall right before the world went into lockdown in 2019. With no rehearsals, direction or plan, armed with drums & synths, these two did what they do best and created a sonic documentation of fearless exploration into polyrhythmic time travel. They were channeling and conjuring sounds from an alternate universe, releasing whatever emotions were in the moment. They were focused on the journey leaving the destination in the listener’s mind.”
— The Buddy System
Tyshawn Sorey: drums; King Britt: electronics
Release date October 21, 2021
Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, Tyshawn Sorey
“We have an energy together that is very distinct. It has a different kind of propulsion, a different impulse and a different spectrum of colors”.
A new trio with new intensity, for an absolute 2021 gem. Full album review here: Uneasy
Vijay Iyer: piano; Linda May Han Oh: double bass; Tyshawn Sorey: drums
Release date April 9, 2021
The four tracks wander on those organic paths, looking similar but never the same, taking different directions that lead nowhere but are consistently defined by one voice, the unique and endlessly captivating voice of the Trio themselves. Read our review: Wandersphere
Eric McPherson: drums; Kris Davis: piano; Stephan Crump: acoustic bass
Release date September 17, 2021
Wadada Leo Smith, Milford Graves, Bill Laswell
Sacred Ceremonies 3
This year, TUM Records released three boxes to celebrate Wadada Leo Smith’s 80-year anniversary. The first box is Smith’s Great Lakes Quartet in The Chicago Symphonies, as four CDs. The second box, Trumpet, is three CDs of solo trumpet. As beautiful as it is intense, Wadada Leo Smith is simply the perfect quintessence of himself. The third box, of which this album is part, is also three CDs. On CD #1, Wadada Leo Smith plays a duet with Milford Graves, and CD #2, he plays a duet with Bill Laswell. Both are amazing, but the box’s third CD, played as a trio, is even more so. This is a perfect way to honor the memory of Milford Graves—who passed away this year—while celebrating Wadada Leo Smith.
Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet; Bill Laswell: basses; Milford Graves: drums, percussion
Release date May 21, 2021
Quartet (Standards) 2020
(New Braxton House)
Nothing less than a breathtaking 13-CD box documenting Anthony Braxton and his quartet, composed of British musicians Alexander Hawkins on piano, Neil Charles on bass, and Stephen Davis on drums, during their 2020 European tour, just before the world was starting to shut down. The 67 tracks are all standards and will delight you for hours, as the quartet is so incredibly talented, unpredictable, and good at what they do. These are 12 hours of relaxing and massaging spa time for your brain.
Anthony Braxton: saxophones; Alexander Hawkins: piano; Neil Charles: bass; Stephen Davis: drums
Release date June 18, 2021
Sons of Kemet
Black to the Future
It is a Sons of Kemet album, without a doubt: angry sounds, bewitching rhythms, and an incredible mix of influences and music. Yet, it has something extra—a new tranquility which strangely gives even more impact to the album. They no longer seem to be saying, “This is the way everyone should do it, so let’s do it,” but “This is the way we’re doing it, so come and join if you want.” Full album review here: Black to the Future
Shabaka Hutchings: saxophone, clarinet; Tom Skinner: drum; Theon Cross: tuba; Eddie Hick; drum
Released date May 14, 2021
Nights on Saturn (communication)
(Astral Spirits Records
“حمد [Ahmed] – the quartet of Pat Thomas, Antonin Gerbal, Joel Grip and Seymour Wright – make music of heavy rhythm, repetition and syncopation set deep into an understanding of jazz and the obscure depths of its history. Recorded live at Cafe OTO […] the group work and rework the music of the late musician Ahmed Abdul-Malik to create a stamping, swinging, relentlessly propulsive record where profundity and physicality root right back to ecstatic feeling”
— Cafe OTO
Pat Thomas: piano; Joel Grip: bass; Antonin Gerbal: drums; Seymour Wright: alto saxophone
Release date March 26, 2021
James Brandon Lewis, Red Lily Quintet
What James Brandon Lewis is offering here, is poetry. Nothing less. Read the review here: Jesup Wagon
James Brandon Lewis: tenor saxophone; Kirk Knuffke: cornet; William Parker: bass, gimbri (#2 & #7); Chris Hoffman: cello; Chad Taylor: drums, mbira (#6)
Released date May 7, 2021
Charles Lloyd & The Marvels
(Blue Note Records)
Just perfectly perfect. A pure moment of pleasure for the ears and the brain.
Charles Lloyd: saxophone; Bill Frisell: guitar, electric; Greg Leisz: guitar, steel; Eric Harland: drums; Rueben Rogers: bass.
Released date January 29, 2021
Natural Information Society with Evan Parker
descension (Out of Our Constrictions)
The music is as close as I could imagine to what a shamanic experience could be: transcendental, fascinating, and timeless. Full album review here: descension (Out of Our Constrictions)
Joshua Abrams: guimbri; Lisa Alvarado: harmonium & effects; Mikel Patrick Avery: drums; Evan Parker: soprano saxophone; Jason Stein bass: clarinet
Released date April 16, 2021
Larger Ensemble Albums
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra
Behind the name Floating Points stands Sam Shepherd, a British electronic-music producer, DJ, and musician. On Promises, Sam Shepherd created this beautiful and emotional piece of music, and by adding the fantastic Pharoah Sanders and the venerable London Symphony Orchestra to help this piece of music fly, they deliver a breathtaking album, transcending the piece as much as themselves.
Sam Shepherd: piano, harpsichord, celesta, solo vocal; Pharoah Sanders: tenor saxophone, voice; Orchestrated by The London Symphony Orchestra
Released date March 26, 2021
“Idiom is a series of six pieces, each of which is based on a specific woodwind extended technique — a broad term meaning any non-traditional way of producing sound on an instrument, including the use of multiphonics, alternate fingerings, key clicks, overblown notes, and the like — that she has taken from her own improvisational language.”
— Pi Recordings
Read our review: Idiom
Disc One | Simple Trio
Anna Webber: tenor saxophone, flute; Matt Mitchell: piano; John Hollenbeck: drums.
Disc Two | Large Ensemble
Anna Webbe: tenor saxophone, flute, bass flute; Nathaniel Morgan: alto saxophone; Yuma Uesaka: tenor saxophone, clarinet, contra-alto clarinet; Adam O’Farrill: trumpet; David Byrd-Marrow: horn; Jacob Garchik: trombone; Erica Dicker: violin; Joanna Mattrey: viola; Mariel Roberts: cello; Liz Kosack: synthesizer; Nick Dunston: bass; Satoshi Takeishi: drums; Eric Wubbels: conductor.
Released date May 28, 2021
“With Togetherness Music, British pianist and composer Alexander Hawkins presents a fascinating musical panorama, a distillation and synthesis of different traditions and influences, reflecting the broad spectrum of an extraordinary musical spirit.”
— Intakt Records
Alexander Hawkins: piano; Evan Parker: soprano saxophone; Aaron Holloway–Nahum: conductor; Rachel Musson: flute, tenor saxophone; Percy Pursglove: trumpet; James Arben: flute, bass clarinet; Neil Charles: double bass; Mark Sanders: drums, percussion; Matthew Wright: electronics; Benedict Taylor: viola; Hannah Marshall: cello
Release date January 15, 2021
Artist of the Year: William Parker
During 2021, William Parker released his monumental Migration of Silence into and Out of the Tone World but also participated in more than nine releases (and still counting) either as a leader, or as part of a duet, trio, or larger formation. There was so much new material for his fans to listen to, but also a lot of material to read, thanks to Migration of Silence into and Out of the Tone World‘s liner notes, and, of course, the excellent biography, Universal Tonality: The Life and Music of William Parker by Cisco Bradley, published on February 12, 2021.
In 1995, the Village Voice wrote: “[William Parker is] the most consistently brilliant free-jazz bassist of all time.” William Parker was 43 at the time. He will turn 70 on January 2022, and he will still certainly be celebrated as the most consistently brilliant free-jazz bassist of all time.
Migration of Silence Into and Out of The Tone World – [Volumes 1–10]
“Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World (Volumes 1–10) is a 10-album collection of vocal and instrumental suites all recorded expressly for this set between late 2018 and early 2020, with women’s voices at its core.”
Read our review here: Migration of Silence Into and Out of The Tone World – [Volumes 1–10]
William Parker: compositions, bass & additional instruments | Featuring: an international, inter-generational array of singers & musicians, drawn from both long-standing colleagues and a new generation of devoted artists.
Released date January 29, 2021
Archive of the Year: A Love Supreme (Live In Seattle)
If you never gave A Love Supreme a try, then you are a lucky person who can still discover a mind-blowing album. The original release is even part of our selection “The 3 Greatest Jazz Albums Of All Time“.
A Love Supreme (Live In Seattle)
On this newly discovered live version of A Love Supreme, the classic quartet that recorded the original album version—John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums—is joined by Pharoah Sanders on tenor saxophone, Carlos Ward on alto saxophone, and Donald Garrett on bass.
This is definitely A Love Supreme, but the compositions are extended, and the musicians have added long solos, so we get so much more of it at twice the initial duration! Even the sound that at first can be surprising, provides a new point of view on the music and makes it more alive than ever.
“I’d like to point out to people the divine in a musical language that transcends words. I want to speak to their souls.”
— John Coltrane
John Coltrane: tenor saxophone, percussion; Jimmy Garrison: double bass; Elvin Jones: drums; McCoy Tyner: piano | Additional personnel – Carlos Ward: alto saxophone; Pharoah Sanders: tenor saxophone, percussion; Donald Garrett: double bass
Recorded by Joe Brazil on October 2, 1965
Release date October 22, 2021
Best Jazz 2021:
- Darius Jones – Raw Demoon Alchemy (A Lone Operation)
- Naoko Sakata – Dancing Spirits
- Marc Johnson – Overpass
- Sten Sandell, Lisa Ullén – Double Music
- Sylvie Courvoisier, Mary Halvorson – Searching For The Disappeared Hour
- Tyshawn Sorey, King Britt – Tyshawn / King
- Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, Tyshawn Sorey – Uneasy
- Borderlands Trio – Wandersphere
- Wadada Leo Smith, Milford Graves, Bill Laswell – Sacred Ceremonies
- Anthony Braxton – Quartet (Standards) 2020
- Sons of Kemet – Black to the Future
- [Ahmed] – Nights on Saturn (communication)
- James Brandon Lewis, Red Lily Quintet – Jesup Wagon
- Charles Lloyd & The Marvels – Tone Poem
- Natural Information Society, with Evan Parker – descension (Out of Our Constrictions)
- Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
- Anna Webber – Idiom
- Alexander Hawkins – Togetherness Music
- William Parker – Migration of Silence Into and Out of The Tone World
- John Coltrane – A Love Supreme (Live In Seattle)
2021 – New Releases Month by Month
- January 2021 (feat. Charles Lloyd & The Marvels, Shai Maestro…)
- February 2021 (feat. Fire!, St. Barbe, The Locals/Pat Thomas, Arnan Raz…)
- March 2021 (feat. Punkt.Vrt.Plastik, Throttle Elevator Music…)
- April 2021 (feat. Myele Manzanza, Vijay Iyer, Damon Locks, Koma Saxo…)
- May 2021 (feat. James Brandon Lewis, Sons of Kemet, María Grand… )
- June 2021 (feat. Julian Lage, Amaro Freitas, Tomoko Omura…)
- July 2021 (feat. William Parker, Daniel Herskedal, Dave McMurray…)
- August 2021 (feat. Tomi Lassy, Adi Meyerson, Julien Loureau…)
- September 2021 (feat. Rachel Eckroth, Nate Smith, Jeremy Steig…)
- October 2021 (feat. Evan Parker, William Parker, Lisa Ullen…)
- November 2021 (feat. Darius Jones, Makaya McCraven, Matthew Shipp…)
- December 2021 (feat. Jamire Williams, Jeff Parker, Cassius Lambert…)
Listen to those 20 albums (one track per album), plus 100 extra tracks from the monthly New Release Selections on our Spotify playlist “Best Jazz 2021”.
Thank you everyone for reading this article!
Thank you to all musicians—whether listed here or not—for creating music!