The Favorite Albums of 2020

Travis Rogers, Jr.

The Favorite Albums of 2020

10 mins
December 31, 2020

The year 2020 belied all expectations and defied all predictions. Nevertheless, this annus horribilis was met with unabashedly remarkable music that flew in the face of dashed hopes. He was speaking of violence but Leonard Bernstein said, “This will be our reply…to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

This is exactly what the following artists have done. In the face of pandemic, cultural distrust, incompetent political leadership and, yes, violence, these wonderful people have created intense, beautiful, and devoted music.

I cannot categorize the music between formats and styles this year. All I can say is that this is the music that inspired me and gave me hope. I love these artists as people as much as musicians and composers.

AJOYO – War Chant

Do not let it be said that Jazz has nothing to offer in this present time. The glory days of jazz are not over, far from it, and if you need proof of it, all you need to do is listen to AJOYO’s new album War Chant. This is their second release following their 2015 eponymous album. 

War Chant is a spiritual call-to-arms against oppression, greed, fear of others, and isolation—national and individual. AJOYO does it with grace and strength, intelligence and wit, and—most of all—a love and acceptance of who we are and who we should be.

Markus Reuter Oculus – Nothing is Sacred

Markus Reuter is one of the most extraordinary musicians and composers of this or any other century. In the wake of so many brilliant and innovative releases, Reuter presents his first Oculus project, featuring equally remarkable musicians who fit like a fist in glove in their presentation of Nothing is Sacred

Markus Reuter Oculus’s Nothing is Sacred is everything we have come to expect, respect, and admire from Markus Reuter. No idea is left unexplored, no question unanswered, in this brilliant album of shadow and light.

Alex Wintz Trio – Live to Tape

Alex Wintz decided to go old school with his trio and record his latest album Live to Tape on analog equipment in a successful attempt to recapture the warmth of the Blue Note era recordings. It was the perfect set-up for the guitar trio format, made more perfect with the artistry of bassist Dave Baron and drummer Jimmy Macbride, his longstanding comrades in arms.

Antonio Adolfo – BruMa: Celebrating Milton Nascimento

Antonio Adolfo, one of the great talents to emerge from Brazil, has released BruMa: Celebrating Milton Nascimento. Antonio first met Milton in 1967 when they were both participants at Rio de Janeiro's International Song Festival. The next year, Antonio and his trio performed with Milton, first in the recording studio and then a two-months run of their show in Ipanema. Now, Antonio Adolfo breathes new life into the work of the maestro in a time when Milton Nascimento’s vision and voice should not be forgotten.

David Cross & Peter Banks – Crossover

David’s violin brilliance and Peter’s guitar work is more beautiful than ever and the support of these astounding musicians with Peter and David make this album feel as monumental as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

Bravo, David Cross, for finishing what you and Peter Banks started over seven years ago. It has truly been worth the wait.

David K. Mathews – The Fantasy Vocal Sessions, Vol. 2

David K. Mathews has taken a delightful collection of songs from several genres and has given us a masterwork of favorite vocalists interpreting these moving and inspiring and reflective songs in ways that do honor to the originals. Mathews’ playing is incredible and his assembly of supporting artists is appropriate and well-conceived. 

I can’t wait for Volumes 3 and 4.

Sarah Elizabeth Charles & Jarrett Cherner – Tone

Tone is the inevitable evolution of the talents, skills, and hearts of Sarah Elizabeth Charles and Jarrett Cherner. Like lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids combing to make life, these two amazing artists have created something unique that the world has awaited since the beginning. It’s that good.

Jasnam Daya Singh and the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble – EKTA: The Unity Project

EKTA: The Unity Project is not about Utopia—it is not the absence of division but the overcoming of it. Nor is it simply a hope for the future but a vision that begins with coming together, followed by acceptance, and ending in oneness and walking forward together.

Jasnam Daya Singh is not only a national treasure. He is a global one.

Gary Husband & Markus Reuter – Music of Our Times

Gary Husband and Markus Reuter were on tour in China and Japan with Stick Men. They had finished their one and only performance in Nagoya, Japan, at the famed Blue Note. Then the world changed. The Stick Men Tour (with Tony Levin, Markus Reuter, Pat Mastelotto and special guest Gary Husband) was abruptly canceled. Producer and MoonJune Records owner Leonardo Pavkovic quickly booked studio time in Tokyo before the return flights of Reuter and Husband. The results—Music of Our Time—are something extraordinary.

LP and the Vinyl – Heard and Seen

I’ve been a fan of Danny Green for quite some time now. His trio’s Altered Narratives was on my Favorites of 2016 list and 2018’s One Day It Will ranks as one of my all-time favorites. In the review of One Day It Will, I wrote, “And just when I thought Danny Green’s Trio had outdone themselves with 2015’s Altered Narratives, they release One Day It Will, their third album on OA2 Records. It is the very same brilliant trio of Danny Green on piano, Justin Grinnell on bass, and Julien Cantelm on drums. In fact, they have been together since 2010.”

On One Day It Will, Danny & Company added a string quartet from the San Diego Symphony. The latest project brings a return of that great trio with the remarkable addition of Leonard Patton on vocals. That assembly is called LP and the Vinyl and their album is Heard and Seen.

Susan Tobocman – Touch & Go

Now this is a good album. Susan Tobocman has chosen a fine collection of standards, classics, and originals and a band of dedicated and interpretive artists that can give life to the instrumentation and can give her space for her own vocal expressions to make her album Touch & Go a work worthy of great attention and praise.

Susan Tobocman is a Jazz lover’s dream. Her vocals are beyond compare but her arrangements and compositions are beyond description. She is talented and brilliant beyond measure. Touch & Go does not describe the power and beauty of the album; she was full on, right on, every step of the way.

Spanish Harlem Orchestra – The Latin Jazz Project 

The Latin Jazz Project is what we have been waiting for from Spanish Harlem Orchestra. With six previous recordings, they have given us glimpses and splashes of Latin jazz. Thanks to Artistshare, a fan-funded project program, SHO have given us a full-length recording of pure Latin jazz. Their last album, Anniversary, was the Grammy winner for Best Tropical Latin Album. A wonderful album.

But Musical director Oscar Hernandez, with two brilliant Latin Jazz albums under his belt, has brought his full creative force to bear with SHO for another album of wonder. The Latin Jazz Project will certainly be a Grammy contender.

Rudresh Mahanthappa – Hero Trio

I've always enjoyed about Rudresh Mahanthappa is the way he never settles on a given expression or style. Ever since I began listening to him, he has pushed his own boundaries to new places and always finds fertile soil for his musical imagination wherever he ventures. Such is the case with his new album entitled Hero Trio

Hero Trio is exactly what it says it is. Rudresh Mahanthappa, Franςois Moutin, and Rudy Royston have created a powerful, precise, and—okay—perfect album. There’s no Kryptonite on this album. 

Lauren Henderson – The Songbook Session

Lauren Henderson continues to thrill, comfort, and amaze with every album she has released. Whether YouTube live performances, EPs, or full-length albums, Lauren never disappoints. Her 2020 CD The Songbook Session is no different. 

The Songbook Session is Lauren’s third full-length album and it is her best to date. She takes standards from the 30s and 40s and breathes sweet life into them all over again, almost as if we had never heard them before. When an artist can make you forget everything that has gone before, it is something amazing. Such is this album.

Jesse Fischer – Resilience 

It has been an excellent year for Jesse Fisher. First, he participated in the phenomenal War Chant album by Ajoyo. Now he releases his latest project as a leader called Resilience. Resilience incorporates the influences of modern Jazz, African music, and Near Eastern music reflecting Jesse's own Jewish heritage. 

Jesse Fischer has not only envisioned and composed a beautiful album, he has brought together the right players for the right job. It is executed with power and precision and—dare I say—purity. Resilience does not lose its way once. It is focused and is a frontal assault at what life throws our way, and how we can overcome.

Gato Libre – Koneko

Koneko is the eighth album from Gato Libre and the first since 2017’s Neko. Since 2015, Gato Libre (Spanish for Free Cat) has been a trio comprised of Natsuki Tamura on trumpet, Yasuko Kaneko on trombone and Satoko Fujii and accordion. Unlike Kaze (Japanese for Breeze), the other band with Tamura and Fujii, Gato Libre is more informed by tone and texture than in frenetic virtuosity.

Koneko (Japanese for Kitten) is a further exploration into the far reaches of said tone and texture. It is music to be heard with intent—not background music while making breakfast.

(Live Streaming Performance) Farofa – Jazz on YOUR Green; Live at the Omaha Performing Arts

In the days of limited access to live music, innovative promoters and artists are finding a way to still bring the joy and magic of the live performance. God bless Jazz on YOUR Green, Omaha Performing Arts, Manager Marian Liebowitz, and the band of extraordinary artists called Farofa.

It was a joyous romp that was energetic, spirited, fascinating, and leaving you wanting more. Farofa is a new band with original compositions and original takes on old songs. Farofa pulls the listener up to their level and makes you crave their understanding of life in the world we live.


Favorite Record Label - MoonJune

Leonardo "MoonJune" Pavkovic is a one-man record label who brings together the most remarkable musicians and composers from every country and every genre. The whole always becomes greater than the sum of their parts. Leonardo is a visionary who loves artists and the music they create.

I am thankful for all the beautiful work offered in 2020 by all of these beautiful people.

~Travis Rogers, Jr. is the Jazz Owl

This article was orginally reported by
Travis Rogers, Jr.

Travis is a contributor in religion and entertainment.