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For the jazz community, 2021 proved that improvisation is a life strategy

esperanza spalding.
Samuel Prather
Courtesy of the artist
esperanza spalding.

More than most, 2021 was a year of mixed results — an endless scroll of gains and losses, halting progress and hard retrenchment. For jazz musicians and the community of listeners around them, it brought confirmation that improvisation is a life strategy. Peering in the rearview, my mind flickers to a moment from midyear: At a community arts space on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, bassist, composer and singer esperanza spalding has taken up a residency with the musicians and scholars who constitute her Songwrights Apothecary Lab.

Surrounded by totems, ensconced in the welcoming dark, spalding addresses her music and commentary not only to the handful of souls in the room but also to the viewers of a livestream. A few songs from this public workshop, including the breathtaking "Formwela 10," will soon find their way onto an album also titled Songwrights Apothecary Lab. Later, I'll misremember the experience and swear that she also performed "Formwela 1," the song that includes this couplet: "While the levy of our predicament's unyielding / Love come flood through here."

This was June 18, during a brief window of ravenous euphoria in New York. That evening, I caught my first COVID-era show inside a jazz club: keyboardist Robert Glasper, doing his part to rechristen the Blue Note Jazz Club as a gathering place. In the moment, it felt like we'd all come hurtling through a long tunnel into blinding sunlight. Just a week or two later, the pandemic pushed us back into the tunnel again, our predicament refusing to yield. Still, the love — and its attendant labors – came flooding through. Musicians went back out on tour, navigating new bureaucracies. Audiences packed the house again, flashing credentials, taking their chances.

Meanwhile, we encountered fresh reminders of jazz's hold on the cultural imagination, if not the popular mainstream. The next time I saw spalding perform, it was in Iphigenia, the myth-contesting opera she created with composer and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. This was around the same time Glasper returned to the Blue Note for a monthlong takeover, to capacity crowds (and with cameos by the likes of Chris Rock, Joey Bada$$, Ledisi, Common, and H.E.R.). We also watched pianist and singer Jon Batiste rack up just shy of a dozen Grammy nominations, more than any other recording artist this year; a few of those came via his involvement in Soul, the jazz-besotted Pixar film that dropped last Christmas Day. And in musical circles well outside the usual jazz perimeter, we saw outpourings of enthusiasm for two strikingly different albums that feature tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders: Promises, his odd-couple collaboration with electronic artist Floating Points, and A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle, an unearthed document of the John Coltrane Quartet and friends at the end of a weeklong gig in 1965.

These breakout examples mostly found their traction outside the jazz discourse, underscoring just how fragmentary a reality this music inhabits. What to make of such a divergent plurality, in the face of so much transition? This is the prompt at the heart of our year-end jazz reflection at NPR Music, featuring a handful of perceptive writers and listeners. If you're accustomed to watching this space for the annual Jazz Critics Poll run by Francis Davis and Tom Hull, you should know that it lives on this year at a different home, The Arts Fuse. (I'm told it will publish there before the new year.) What we've set out to accomplish here has less to do with album rankings than reflecting on some form of lived experience: presenting a mosaic of outlooks, rather than a model of consensus.

Within this package, Marcus J. Moore weighs in on the lessons reverberating through this year's unearthed archival gems, including A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle. Shannon J. Effinger considers the valiant, prolific output of our jazz elders, including Sanders. Larry Blumenfeld explores the significance of jazz in high places, placing Iphigenia alongside Terence Blanchard's Fire Shut Up in My Bones at the Metropolitan Opera. Harmony Holiday comes in praise of the spiritual uplift she heard in so many of this year's releases. And Stephanie Jones pulls back the curtain on the Jazz Gallery, as a case study of pandemic perseverance and creative adaptation.

We'll all need more of that in the coming year, as we needed it in this one. As always, the music helps show the way. Here are a dozen jazz albums that carried me through — and a dozen standout tracks from a separate batch of albums, which you could flag as a continuation.

Top 12 Albums

  • James Brandon Lewis, Jesup Wagon
  • Artifacts, ...and then there's this
  • Ches Smith and We All Break, Path of Seven Colors
  • Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, Tyshawn Sorey, Uneasy
  • Johnathan Blake, Homeward Bound
  • Jason Moran, The Sound Will Tell You
  • Various Artists, KIMBROUGH
  • Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra, Promises
  • Sylvie Courvoisier & Mary Halvorson, Searching For The Disappeared Hour
  • Sound Prints, Other Worlds
  • William Parker, Migration of Silence Into and Out of The Tone World
  • Sons of Kemet, Black to the Future
  • Top 12 Songs

  • esperanza spalding, "Formwela 10"
  • Irreversible Entanglements, "Open the Gates"
  • Terence Blanchard, "Absence"
  • Nate Smith (feat. Kokayi & Michael Mayo), "Square Wheel"
  • Jazzmeia Horn and Her Noble Force, "Where We Are"
  • Tyshawn Sorey & Alarm Will Sound, "For George Lewis"
  • Ben LaMar Gay (feat Ohmme), "Sometimes I Forget How Summer Looks on You"
  • Miho Hazama (feat. Danish Radio Big Band) "I Said Cool, You Said... What?"
  • Brandee Younger, "Reclamation"
  • Jen Shyu, "When I Have Power"
  • Craig Taborn, "Now In Hope"
  • Kazemde George, "I Insist"
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