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Best Jazz Albums of 2021: Exit To Vintage Street

The Best Albums of 2021? My picks from the world of jazz including some Blue Note Tone Poet Series albums you need to own.

2021 Favorite Albums by Eric Pye

It’s that time of year again as we approach mid-December to take a hard look back at the past 12 months and the best albums of 2021.

It’s fair to say that with little else to do or spend their money on, music fans picked up a lot of titles in 2021 and music stores sold a lot of vinyl. Consumers purchased over 20M new records in the United States alone in H1 2021. We won’t have the final 2021 numbers until late-January 2022, but it was clearly the best year for new record sales in almost 30 years.

Blackbyrd Record Shop in Calgary
Blackbyrd: One of my Calgary regular stops.

Although I listen to music in a variety of genres, my bread and butter is jazz, so that’s where I’m going to focus my attention. There were some outstanding new releases and reissues in 2021, and I know from my Instagram feed and follows that interest in jazz music – audiophile reissues, Tone Poet remasters, previously unreleased vault finds, Record Store Day limited editions — has never been higher.

What’s the most fascinating to me is that the age of jazz listeners is dropping and that’s a very positive trend; classical music has a very different problem which isn’t good for the genre.

Favorite RSD Titles

Including the low-key Black Friday Record Store Day there were three RSD events in 2021, with the first two taking place in June and July. Read my thoughts on the RSD concept and the June event here. As a jazz fan RSD can be hit-and-miss, but I ended up taking home some stellar releases, and am glad I hit the lines early for all three. My two favorites were:

RSD Album Favorites
RSD Favorites: Thelonious Monk’s Palo Alto and Kenny Dorham’s Quiet Kenny.

Thelonious Monk – Palo Alto (The Custodian’s Mix)

I’m not a huge Monk fan, but bought this on a whim, thinking a high school performance would be more accessible than his other stuff. I was right, and the sound quality, considering it was recorded by the school janitor, is excellent.

Kenny Dorham – Quiet Kenny (Riverside/Craft Recordings reissue)

Some controversy over this release as so few copies (3900 worldwide) were pressed. An exquisite record, beautifully remastered by Kevin Gray, and one I feel lucky to own.

Melodiya Records
Melodiya: RSD 2021 Pre-Open

Favorite Audiophile Vinyl Reissues

If you’re looking for an easy way to get better sound quality out of your stereo system, audiophile vinyl pressings are a great place to start. I wrote about audiophile reissues here, and these were my top two releases in 2021:

Shoji Yokouchi – Greensleeves (Three Blind Mice/Impex reissue)

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When audiophiles speak of reference albums to show off an audio system, they’ll typically have one album for highs, another for mids, another for bass, for soundstage, for atmospherics… This one shows off everything in one. Remarkable recording from TBM, mastering by Chris Bellman, and pressing by RTI make this Impex release a must have.

The Gil Evans Orchestra – Out Of The Cool (Impulse/Acoustic Sounds reissue) (Buy at Amazon)

To help celebrate Impulse Records’ 60thAnniversary, Acoustic Sounds (parent company of Analogue Productions) remastered and reissued a slew of Impulse albums. I was never a big fan of orchestral or big-band jazz, but this one really grabbed me, and the Ryan Smith remaster sounds truly stunning. Glad I took a chance on this.

Shoji Yokouchi on Impex and Gil Evans on Acoustic Sounds Audiophile Albums
Top Audiophile Releases: Shoji Yokouchi on Impex and Gil Evans on Acoustic Sounds.

Favorite Blue Note Tone Poet Reissues

Blue Note Records has been killing it over the last couple of years with the “Tone Poet” series of classic and contemporary jazz reissues. The all-analogue, Joe Harley curated, Kevin Gray remastered series launched in 2019. Each release is mastered from the original master tapes, pressed on 180 gram audiophile vinyl at RTI and packaged in an old-style Stoughton “Tip-On” jacket. Mitch Anderson and I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe and Kevin as part of the eCoustics podcast series (listen here). Suffice it to say I’m a real fanboy; choosing just two favorite releases was almost impossible, but I settled on the following titles.

Tone Poet Label
Tone Poet Label: The mark of a great record!

Paul Chambers Quartet – Bass On Top (Blue Note Tone Poet reissue)

As mentioned, I love everything from the Tone Poet series, but from the opening bowed bass notes of “Yesterdays,” you just know this one’s going to be a crackerjack, and it does not disappoint. Stunning dynamics and atmosphere here from the masterful hands of Kevin Gray.

Curtis Amy – Katanga (Blue Note Tone Poet reissue) (Buy at Amazon)

The Easter egg of the Tone Poets? This one came out of nowhere, but is a firm favourite within serious collector circles. The synergy in this sextet of virtual unknowns and interplay between Amy and co-leader DuPree Bolton is remarkable. Kudos to Joe Harley for selecting this one and bringing it some deserved attention.

Tone Poet Albums
Top Tone Poets: A crackerjack and an Easter egg.

Favorite New Jazz Albums

Most of my top picks for 2021 are reissues of material originally released decades ago and kissed with modern mastering and pressing technology. I also picked up several releases this year of material never available before on vinyl, including quite a few “from the vaults” live performances. Both of my top two 2021 new albums feature Japanese artists; one is a live album, and the other a compilation.

That Old Retro Store
That Old Retro Store: I loves me some retro, and I loves me some new.

Ryo Fukui – 1977 Live At Vidro

Previously unknown live performance recorded shortly before Fukui entered the studio for his second album, Mellow Dream. Fun to hear variations on tunes from his first, Scenery, and gestational musings on those laid down a few months later on Mellow Dream. This two-record set quickly became my favourite Fukui release.

Various Artists – J-Jazz: Deep Modern Jazz From Japan (Volume 3) (Buy at Amazon)

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Jazz listeners outside Japan are quickly discovering the amazing jazz produced there from the late ‘60s to mid ‘80s. They’re also learning that original and early pressings are hard to find, and seriously hard on the wallet. Styles vary, but inventiveness, technical ability and recording quality are all top-notch. The 3-volume (so far) J-Jazz series is a great way to discover this music without breaking the bank.

New Jazz Albums
New Jazz Albums: Japanese Jazz for your listening pleasure.

Favorite New Artist 

It’s always a pleasure when a bright new talent emerges. For new artists I’m sure the pandemic has been a huge challenge, but even so breaks have been made in the close-on two years we’ve been locked down and restricted in our activities. My favorite is still a relative unknown, but I don’t think that will be the case for long.

Lady Blackbird Album
Lady Blackbird: Black Acid Soul is going to blow up the airwaves next year!

Lady Blackbird – Black Acid Soul (Buy at Amazon)

Not yet released in North America, but coming in early 2022. This record is going to be HUGE! Lady Blackbird has a million-dollar voice – soulful, passionate, raw – and the songs on Black Acid Soul, a mix of covers and originals mastered lovingly by Bernie Grundman, are all crackers. This one may not quite be jazz, but it’s certainly jazzy. If you love the Black Pumas, this will be right up your alley.

Honorable Mentions

Several other albums either didn’t fit my categories, or were just tipped out by the chosen two; they got spun a lot though and are worthy of mention, and deserving of a spot in my (and your) collection.

Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio – I Told You So (Buy at Amazon)

Lana Del Rey – Chemtrails Over The Country Club (Buy at Amazon)

Dominique Fils-Aimé – Three Little Words (Buy at Amazon)

Celeste – Not Your Muse (Buy at Amazon)

Abbey Lincoln – Abbey Is Blue (Buy at Amazon)

Ron Carter – Golden Striker (Live)

Bill Evans Trio – On A Friday Evening (Live) (Buy at Amazon)

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Oscar Peterson – A Time For Love (RSD, Live) (Buy at Amazon)

Top Jazz Albums and Honorable Mentions of 2021
Some of 2021’s Finest: My top picks, and some honorable mentions.

What were your picks for 2021? Would love to hear about them in the comments, or drop me a message at @audioloveyyc. Here’s to another great year in music in 2022!

Related:

You Had Me at Tone Poet: Podcast

A Deep Dive Into Blue Note Records’ Album Art: Podcast

Exit to Vintage Street: All Columns

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Mike Cornell

    December 16, 2021 at 7:56 pm

    Great list, Eric….most of what is on your list makes mine too, though will definitely have to check out the Japanese artists and Lady Blackbird. One fave of mine that I don’t think made it to vinyl was the Phil Nimmons tribute “To The Nth” organized by Phil’s grandson.
    Also can’t wait to hear about that McIntosh amp sitting on your stand!

    • Eric Pye

      December 17, 2021 at 4:13 am

      Cheers Mike. Don’t know Phil Nimmons but will see if I can track something down. The Mac (MC2105) will definitely get a write up soon, along with the matching pre-amp (C28) currently having a couple of kinks ironed out by my tech.

      • James Hale

        December 21, 2021 at 2:16 pm

        For those not in the know: Phil Nimmons is Canada’s answer to Wynton Marsalis, but he did it all decades before Wynton was born. To wit: Phil, a Vancouver native, showed up at The Juilliard School in New York in the ’40s, thinking he could simply apply for the composition program. Told he couldn’t, he decided to audition on clarinet and was enrolled on the spot. After returning to Canada, he became ubiquitous on CBC—radio, and later TV. With Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown, he founded a jazz school in Toronto, and then the jazz program at The Banff Centre. Onwards, he started jazz programs at several other post-secondary institutions, including the University of Toronto, where he led the program for many years. In his senior years, following the death of his wife, he took up free improvisation in duet with the pianist David Braid. In short, Phil is a national treasure.

        • Ian White

          December 21, 2021 at 2:29 pm

          Another Canadian gem. I think an article is warranted.

          Happy Holidays James. Stay warm in Ottawa!

          Ian White

        • Eric Pye

          December 23, 2021 at 6:07 pm

          Thanks for the suggestion, James. Will be checking out Phil Nimmons forthwith.

  2. Cheryll Davis

    December 17, 2021 at 4:57 pm

    I forgive you – not a Monk fan!?!??
    Thanks so much for your list!

    • Eric Pye

      December 18, 2021 at 8:41 pm

      My tastes run pretty safe and conventional. Thank you for your understanding 😉 Hope you found some good stuff to try on the list.

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