Best of 2021: The 2021 Jazz2K Awards (plus “The Rest of The Best”)

So here we are at the end of 2021, and while several venerable jazz clubs were eaten by the Covidiocy (and a couple of others are still in danger), the music itself continues to grow and advance – both around the world and here at home. Once again, the “Smokin’ Homegrown” jazz of Greater Nippertown stood up to the national releases that came through my mailbox, while the post-Lockdown national releases showed all the creativity and energy that hid inside houses and apartments around the world. 

But before we start counting things down, let’s hand out a few bowling trophies:


DR. LONNIE SMITH – Breathe (Blue Note)

One of several big losses we suffered over the course of this year, the Good Doctor was still the leading light of Hammond B3 players when he passed at age 79. Breathe may not be Smith’s strongest disc, but it’s got two elements that ring big bells: Great live tracks recorded at the now-closed Jazz Standard in NYC, and surprisingly successful takes on two pop classics (Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” and Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together”), both with vocals by that renowned jazz crooner Iggy Pop. Drive home safely, Dr. Lonnie, and thanks for one last ride!


DAVE MCMURRAY – Grateful Deadication (Blue Note)

Another big, beautiful outing from a multi-instrumentalist that roars like a lion no matter what he’s playing.  It’s not hard to link the Grateful Dead to this genre, as improvisation was at the heart of everything the band did for over 30 years. McMurray displays infinite dexterity on the band’s voluminous catalog, from the space-exploration “Dark Star” to the Aging Boomer anthem “Touch of Grey”, and The Dead’s Bob Weir blesses the date by contributing guitar lines to the Bettye LaVette-fronted version of “Loser.” Good trip, man!


MARY LAROSE – Out Here (Little i Music)

This one came down to the wire: Kurt Elling put himself in the hands of 8-string guitar hero Charlie Hunter and the result was Elling’s best disc to date, the funked-up Edition release SuperBlue. At the end of the day, though, this award was always going to go to Mary LaRose’s wild tribute to the music of jazz icon Eric Dolphy. The combination of Dolphy’s boundary-stretching compositions and LaRose’s singular lyrical style results in music that always has a volcano at its heart, fueled by great performances from drum major Matt Wilson, vibes master Patricia Brennan, and reed wizard/producer Jeff Lederer. Out Here is seriously out there, but it’s SO worth the trip!



For a long time, it looked like this award belonged to tenorman J.D. Allen: The Savant release Queen City had Allen all by his lonesome in the studio, blowing up ex tempore on some truly deep meditations. Then, at the last minute, along comes another reed wizard in Anat Cohen, pairing up with guitarist Marcello Goncalves on a wonderfully elegant set of Brazilian classics (plus one far-too-short take on Stevie Wonder’s “I Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer”). This is Cohen at her most subtle, painting beautiful colors on the aural canvasses Goncalves creates for her. Some things you just can’t argue with, and Anat Cohen playing Jobim and Nasciemento is definitely one of them!

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR (First release as a leader): 

BEN TIBERIO – Rare Peace (Outside In Music)

The jazz economy wasn’t in great shape even before the first iteration of COVID came down the pike. That’s why it warms my heart to see independent labels like Outside In Music keep on keeping on – primarily because it’s the indie labels that give young turks like bassist Ben Tiberio their first chance at leading from the front. An NYC fixture who’s worked with Ari Hoenig, Ben Wendel, Joel Ross and Veronica Swift, Tiberio is not only a prolific composer (All the tracks on Rare Peace are originals of his), but he’s also a solid band leader, giving keyboardist Lex Korten and altoist Nathan Reising room to move and grow on a dynamic debut release that hints at a great future for this Biggie-PHAT bass player.

LOCAL HERO (Best Greater Nippertown release)

KEITH PRAY – Universal Blues (PrayNation Records)

There was a ton of competition for this year’s Local Hero award: The Tani Tabbal Trio continue to be this area’s most dangerous band on their Tao Forms release Then Now, Bright Dog Red returned with the dizzying live date In Vivo, and two area stalwarts were big parts of two heavy regional releases: Sax master Erica Lindsey on Alchemy Sound Project’s ARC disc Afrika Love, and horn blower Dylan Canterbury on The Pietra Groups’ self-released date People Chain. All that said, altoist Keith Pray’s extension of the blues mentality made Universal Blues stand out from the rest, making Pray the first repeat Local Hero. Great job, as usual, bro!

Once again, when it came to choosing the best releases of 2021, we couldn’t leave well enough alone. The stuff that didn’t make the final 10 (including a couple of Jazz2K Awards near-misses) deserved to get one more airing, so we built another episode of “The Rest of The Best”:

  • ALEX SIPIAGIN – Upstream (Positone)
  • BEN ALLISON – Moments Inside (Sonic Camera)
  • BENITO GONZALEZ – Sing to the World (Whaling City Sound)
  • BRANDEE YOUNGER – Somewhere Else (impulse!)
  • BRIGHT DOG RED – In Vivo (Ropeadope)
  • CHARGED PARTICLES w/ TOD DICKOW – Live at the Baked Potato (Summit)
  • JOE FIEDLER’S OPEN SESAME – Fuzzy and Blue (Multiphonics Music)
  • KURT ELLING – SuperBlue
  • MATTHEW WHITAKER – Connections (Resilience Music)
  • NOAH HAIDU – Slowly: Song for Keith Jarrett (Sunnyside)
  • RENEE ROSNES – Kinds of Love (Smoke Sessions)
  • SONS OF KEMET – Black to the Future (impulse!)
  • TANI TABBAL TRIO – Now Then (Tao Forms)
  • THE PIETRA GROUP – People Chain (Self-released)

Next time: We start counting. Be there! Aloha!“The Rest of The Best” will appear this Saturday night @ Midnight on Night 2 of “The Jazz2K Holiday Extravaganza”, while the 2021 Jazz2K Awards will be handed out on Night 3 – Saturday December 25th @ Midnight on WVCR 88.3 / Albany, NY.

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