A lot of my absolute favorite music of 2020 was instrumental: jazz and especially various kinds of experimental music. Some of it I reviewed here at GMR, some I didn’t. Here’s a look at 10 of my favorites in this vein.
This underground gem by the New York-base “soundscape designers” called SUSS was in my Top 3 of 2020 in any genre. I discovered SUSS because one of its members plays in another ambient music group called Numün, whose Voyage au Soleil was pitched to me by a publicist and is also on this list. I find the music on Promise deeply relaxing but never boring. Its twangy Southwestern lounge vibe somehow works equally well when visually paired with abstract cityscape imagery, as you can see in their video for “Home,” which lays a sketchy hint of a melody on baritone guitar over a shimmering soundscape.
Henri Texier’s Chance
The French bassist’s bouyant 2020 release was one of three more or less straight jazz discs in my Top 10. His unusual quintet includes his son Sebastien Texier and Vincent Le Quang on reeds plus a guitarist and drummer, all of which creates some earthy and colorful soundscapes for Texier’s compositions like the title track.
Avishai Cohen and Big Vicious’s Big Vicious
I’m a fan of this thoughtful Israeli trumpeter and composer, but I didn’t see this one coming. It’s hard to describe his Big Vicious ensemble as anything but a rock band when the two guitarists start dueling. Cohen gives everybody lots of room to stretch out, as in this live performance of an early version of “The Things You Tell Me” featuring bassist Yonatan Albalak. That sad-sunny melody still sounds to me like a Beach Boys deep cut!
Numün’s Voyage au Soleil
One of these tracks started as part of a 2019 compilation celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first landing on the Moon. The members of Numün kept going and created an album’s worth of space jams that blend electronics with acoustic instruments including the Turkish banjo-like cümbüş. As I said in my review, this title track is ‘deeply spacey and yet still somehow organic, the guitar and cümbüş strumming and twanging over layers and loops of drones – relaxed but rhythmic.’
Nous’s Nous III
I was drawn to the orchestral post-rock trance of Nous in 2019 by the presence of multi-intrumentalist and composer Shazad Ismaily, but I stayed for the deeply affecting music of Christopher Bono’s wildly creative ensemble. One of my favorite tracks, “Blush” puts layers of drone from numerous instruments and wordless vocals over a jazz-rock fusion beat.
Hailu Mergia’s Yene Mircha
I don’t attend Pickathon very often any more but I like to keep an eye on their roster, which is surprisingly varied and often ahead of the curve. That’s where I first learned of Ethiopian-American keyboard player Hailu Mergia, who was touring behind his stellar 2018 release Lala Belu. He’s out with more in a similar vein in 2020. In addition to Mergia on accordion, organ, and electric piano, the best tracks on this brief album including “Semen Ena Debub” feature Setegn Atenaw on the masenqo, a single stringed bowed lute.
Ruben Machtelinckx’s Porous Structures
This release by Belgian avant garde composer and guitarist Machtelinckx was voted top Belgian jazz album of 2020. I find it a bit more accessible than some of his aggressively experimental works, as I noted in my review: ‘Each of the eight performances recorded here is a variation on gently plucked guitars, high-pitched droning from reeds or voice, and a compendium of percussion.’ “Mémoire” fits that description pretty well:
SUUNS’s Fiction EP
Canadian trio Suuns blends guitar-keyboard post rock with electronics. On Fiction they’re clearing out the vaults a bit as they prep for a promised full length sometime soon. On “Breathe” guest musician Radwan Ghazi Moumneh (Jerusalem In My Heart) absolutely rocks out on the Lebanese buzuq.
Artemis’s Goddess of the Hunt
This is the debut disc from the international jazz supergroup that features pianist and musical director Renee Rosnes, clarinetist Anat Cohen, tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, bassist Noriko Ueda, drummer Allison Miller, and vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant. They swing, they rock, they even sway at times on Brazilian tracks brought to the group by Cohen. And they kick you know what, as in this live version of the title track.
Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids’ Shaman!
Ackamoor is a longtime activist, composer, player of many instruments, vocalist, tap dancer and more. With The Pyramids he’s been making Afro-centric world jazz since the ’70s. This year’s Shaman! continues that tradition with its mix of psychedelic spiritual and soul jazz plus spoken-word numbers. Topping the tracklist is “Tango Of Love.”
There’s so much great jazz and experimental music I loved this year. Here’s a Spotify playlist of some of my favorite tracks of this kind released in 2020.