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Recent months have been agonizing for jazz musicians. The pandemic robbed them of the ability to perform live and claimed the lives of many elders. In May, the community, which has a long history of decrying racial injustice, was further shaken by the killing of George Floyd. Some of the finest jazz albums in years were released in 2020. These four seem perfectly timed for this unprecedented moment.
Suite: April 2020
The veteran pianist documents life during lockdown in Amsterdam, where he currently resides.
In 12 brief, glowing solo works, he depicts now-familiar pandemic emotional states like the surreal feeling of waking up to another day with little to do, the pain of maintaining distance from loved ones, and the solace of family life. The album features a crystalline rendition of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” a love note from the jazz pianist to the city he called home for years.
On the Tender Spot of Every Callused Moment
The most expressive jazz trumpeter since Miles Davis recorded this album before George Floyd’s death. Even so, it spoke to the tragedy when it was released in June. It’s an exploration of the pain, joy, and complexity of being Black in America, which Akinmusire renders operatically on his horn. He also includes a hymn-like song dedicated to victims of police violence, “Hooded procession (read the names out loud),” that he performs by himself on electric piano.
This extraordinarily gifted 22-year-old alto saxophonist managed to capture the spirit of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests on his first album as a leader on Blue Note, even though he finished it months earlier. He has written almost cinematic compositions concerning the 2014 killing of Michael Brown and the 1918 lynching of a Black woman named Mary Turner in Georgia. When it’s time to solo, Wilkins wields his instrument with a maturity and inventiveness that many peers twice his age could only dream of.
A protégé of the late Roy Hargrove, this 21-year-old trumpeter from the Bahamas unveiled his first album as band leader in April, just as parts of the country were locking down. That meant it didn’t attract much attention, which is unfortunate. Gelin possesses an opulent tone and, much like his mentor, he takes a pugilist’s approach to soloing. True Design’s highlights are the leader’s stirring up-tempo pieces. They radiate optimism and remind us of the power of jazz to, in the words of Art Blakey, wash away “the dust of everyday life,” even in a time like this.