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Favorite Jazz Albums of 2019

The Branford Marsalis Quartet

As the host of Jazz Nightly, I receive more than 500 new jazz CDs each year. However, that’s just a small fraction of the number of new jazz albums that are released. Each month in DownBeat and JazzTimes magazines I see reviews and advertisements for dozens of new albums that never come across my desk. A search through various jazz websites shows many more. There's a wealth of new jazz created by artists throughout the U.S. and the world and it's impossible to keep up with it all.

Given that I only heard a small percentage of this year’s new albums, it would be presumptuous of me to make a "Best of 2019" list. Instead, I offer a “Favorite New Jazz Albums I Was Fortunate To Hear in 2019” list. The artists are listed alphabetically.

Cyrille Aimee - Move On: A Sondheim Adventure

Stephen Sondheim is the most acclaimed Broadway composer of the past sixty years, but his songs haven’t been adopted into the jazz canon. On her ninth album, vocalist Cyrille Aimée makes the case that they should be. Move On shows how well Sondheim’s brilliant songs work outside of the musical theater with arrangements that include everything from Aimée’s trademark gypsy swing to rousing Cuban rhythms.

Melissa Aldana - Visions

Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana was inspired to take up the tenor after hearing Sonny Rollins and his influence remains strong in her playing. But Aldana turns to the life and work of painter Frida Kahlo for inspiration on Visions. With a band including rising jazz star Joel Ross on vibes, Aldana’s playing ranges from raucous to subtle with compositions finding a balance between structure and freedom

Theo Croker – Star Nation People

Trumpeter Theo Croker is from a generation of young musicians who have never known a world without hip-hop. And while contemporary grooves, rhythms and production techniques are embedded throughout Croker’s fifth studio album, the trumpeter’s music is steeped in the jazz tradition (he's the grandson of trumpeter Doc Cheatham), which makes his music both current and timeless


Sara Gazarek – Thirsty Ghost

Following a difficult period that included a divorce and concerns over her creative direction, vocalist Sara Gazarek released the self-produced Thirsty Ghost. It’s a powerful album exploring loneliness, alienation, desire, self-deception and ultimately survival with songs mostly outside of the standard jazz repertoire. The treacherous emotional terrain of Thirsty Ghost features a harrowing version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”

Abdullah Ibrahim – The Balance

Although South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim has spent most of his career away from his home country, the music, spirit and rhythms of South Africa have always remained at the heart of his work. The Balance is a good summation of the 84-year-old musician’s career with both old and new compositions spanning big band, township music and solo piano. There’s a comfort and joy in Ibrahim’s music that brings peace to the soul.

Godwin Louis – Global

Godwin Louis’ debut album is the result of the alto saxophonist’s quest to find the roots of jazz. In his research, Louis traveled to over 100 countries studying the African musical diaspora. Throughout this double album of mostly original compositions, Louis takes listeners on a journey from New Orleans’ Congo Square to Bahia, Cuba, and Port-Au-Prince in Haiti, where his parents were born. While exploring the past, Louis remains firmly in the present with music that’s both challenging and accessible.

Branford Marsalis Quartet – The Secret Between Shadow and Soul

Saxophonist Branford Marsalis’ current quartet has been together for ten years and the four musicians have developed a unified group mind. Marsalis and pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner are committed to musical exploration and adventure without forsaking a strong foundation in melody and rhythm. The seven tracks on this stellar album range from quirky and wild to elegant and ruminative and showcase some of the best acoustic jazz of 2019.

Adam Meckler Orchestra – Magnificent Madness

Some of the most exciting sounds in jazz history have come from big bands, but too often they can sound formulaic and stale. Trumpeter Meckler and his Twin Cities musicians take a fresh approach to the big band format with original compositions that are daring, modern and inventive and often a lot of fun. This is a welcome update of the big band tradition. (Meckler relocated to Michigan from Minneapolis a few months after the album’s release.)

Joshua Redman Quartet – Come What May

Come up with a good melody and listeners are more comfortable going on whatever improvisational journey they’re taken. The strength of the Joshua Redman Quartet’s first studio album in 25 years lies in the compositions. Redman’s seven originals are memorable and provide a solid foundation for some impressive soloing, and even when the quartet moves into more free directions the playing never loses its focus.

Veronica Swift – Confessions

25-year-old Veronica Swift is the breakout jazz vocalist of 2019. While Confessions isn’t her debut, it’s her first album to receive wide distribution. It’s a brilliant introduction to a major talent as Swift tackles music from Broadway, jazz, and the classic American songbook, but nothing that’s overly familiar. Swift has a dark, husky voice and possesses a strong sense of swing that is all too rare. Her next album can’t come soon enough.