Best D.C. Jazz Albums of 2020

Over the past 10 years on the D.C. jazz scene, we’ve seen venues come and go. We’ve seen elders pass on, as well as a steady influx of fresh young voices and ideas. All the while the music continues to grow and change, right along with the ever-gentrifying landscape of Washington, D.C.

But the coronavirus pandemic has presented the scene with a challenge like nothing else. Beloved institutions have closed, and others are questioning how to keep on keeping on; some musicians have left the area and its staggering rents behind, and those that remain are trying to navigate the labyrinth of local and federal aid. Yet as this list shows, D.C.’s musicians continue to create some of the most vibrant, exciting work in this realm we call “jazz.”

A six-person team of CapitalBop staffers and contributors voted on this year’s best-albums list, considering about two dozen releases from the past 12 months. (Director of Presenting Luke Stewart, who was featured on multiple albums mentioned below, didn’t cast a ballot or otherwise play a role in this year’s poll.) The albums we considered came from musicians up and down the I-95 corridor between Baltimore and D.C., reflecting the close-knit nature of the area’s music community.

The final list features albums by D.C. jazz veterans, new blood and even the legendary saxophonist and musical activist Archie Shepp, collaborating with musicians from the area. We do want to acknowledge (with some sheepishness) that for the first time in a number of years, all of the bandleaders on our Top 5 are male. However, it’s also worth noting that this year’s vote was probably the most divided in CapitalBop’s history of year-end list-making — reflecting the wide range of outstanding music that emerged, against the odds, in this hard year.

So we’d encourage you to read (and listen) all the way through to the “Honorable mentions” section, and give your ear to each of the albums mentioned. Happy listening, and Happy New Year!

Jackson Sinnenberg

#4. (Tie) Stephen Arnold, ‘Sea Change’

Stephen Arnold is already known as one of the most versatile bassists and side musicians on the D.C. jazz scene. His debut album as a bandleader, Sea Change, with his band of the same name, proves that he may be one of the city’s most imaginative composers too.

Sea Change’s music reflects Arnold’s deep study of contemporary jazz and sponge-like ability to absorb music from all other sources. For example, the ideas of harmonic progression that Arnold pulls from prog rock give a narrative feeling to many of the compositions — the title track and “Brother Ben” chief among them. Arnold also smartly assembled a band that aids in the singular vision he has: on “The Red Turtle,” Brian Settles’ tenor saxophone solo pushes and pulls against the cadence created by Arnold’s bass, Keith Butler, Jr.’s drums and the tide of Simone Baron’s accordion; pianist Aleksey Izotov sprinkles notes from the ivories that trickle down and twinkle like soft rain on the ocean.


#4. (Tie) Luke Stewart, ‘Exposure Quintet’

Creative music is spiritual and rather timeless. Boundaries collapse — the space between the artist and the watcher shrinks, and bright lines that define our realities fade. Thus, it makes sense that Luke Stewart’s Exposure Quintet, a record that in so many ways befits the loneliness, the struggle and the chaos of D.C. in 2020, was recorded during an otherwise unremarkable night in Chicago in 2018. The music was then and there, but it was perfect for here and now.

Though assembled by saxophonist Dave Rempis for his ongoing Exposure Festival, the AACM-heavy lineup seems hand-tailored for Stewart. A freewheeling pair of saxophonists balances with a solid rhythm section, constantly led and moved by Stewart’s guiding pull on the bass. The results are captivating, and beautifully fluid. The band drives and grooves, establishing secure emotional foundations always, letting adventurous individuality fly into musical unknowns.

Abram Mamet

#3. Archie Shepp, Raw Poetic & Damu the Fudgemunk, ‘Ocean Bridges’

“We are the music / You may think it jazz.” In that one line, delivered during the 12-minute epic sermon of “Aperture,” rapper Raw Poetic not only captures the whole spirit of the Ocean Bridges album, but makes a broader comment about so much of the Black American Music (BAM) canon. The Northern Virginia-based emcee’s latest project with vibraphonist and producer Damu the Fudgemunk, featuring the legendary saxophonist Archie Shepp (Raw Poetic’s uncle), Ocean Bridges exists in a similar space as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s so strongly grounded in both the hip-hop and jazz veins of the BAM tradition that it can embody both spaces.

The band on this album features a range of D.C., Virginia and Baltimore cats (including CapitalBop’s Luke Stewart on bass). Raw Poetic spits rhymes over a foundation that brings together the distinctive brands of funk, creative exploration and melodious straight-ahead soul that define the DMV scene. And when Shepp blows his horn, it all becomes even more divine.


#2. Reginald Cyntje with Allyn Johnson, ‘Healing’

Reginald Cyntje’s Healing is a fascinating addition to his steadily growing catalogue. Featuring the spare instrumentation of Cyntje on trombone and Allyn Johnson on piano, the nine tracks here are an exploration of the complex range of human emotions, as well as a contemplation of purposeful living and social justice. 

These two jazz masters showcase their delightful musical synergy while supporting the album’s theme. Lush with complex key changes and conversational attitude, Cyntje and Johnson’s duo performance invites audiences to focus on the timeless, self-reflective messages of each composition. The first song, “Healing,” features Johnson laying the foundation on piano while Cyntje plays majestically on trombone.  Where “Forgiveness” is round and lyrical, “Appreciation” is upbeat and layered. “Communication,” one of the album’s many gems, features extended solos from both Cyntje and Johnson. Where “Motivation” conveys a message of urgency, “Acceptance” is animated and cinematic. “Yearning” concludes the musical journey with hints of soulful R&B influences. All together, Healing is an essential gift.

Majeedah Johnson

#1. ¡FIASCO!, ‘Arson’

¡FIASCO! is a quartet of young D.C. jazz musicians that has been around since 2016, and released its debut album, Arson, at the start of this year. The album fuses experimental jazz with elements of acid rock and punk rock, resulting in six tracks that reflect a deep imagination and philosophical temperament. Guitarist Nelson Dougherty’s use of reverb and effects creates an ethereal feeling that stays consistent throughout the album, while saxophonist Andrew Frankhouse uses a variety of techniques to place an eerie emphasis on surrealism.

Even amid all the grandiosity, authenticity is a theme in Arson; it’s free of all expectation or mandated direction. “Setting in Motian,” a nod to the late drummer Paul Motian, is an emotional peak; while Frankhouse’s sax calls out in an echoey chant, seemingly waiting for a response, the song crescendos before ending quietly, as if it had been a mirage. “Ground Control” ends the album by taking flight with a lengthy, uninhibited saxophone solo and complex guitar harmonies competing with more punk-inspired chords.

With each song feeling more mysterious than the last, Arson’s slow, celestial sounds invite the listener to tap into a true feeling of freedom and openness.

Sadie Gronigan

Honorable Mentions

Votes were cast in this poll by Sadie Gronigan, Majeedah Johnson, Abram Mamet, Giovanni Russonello, Jamie Sandel and Jackson Sinnenberg.

Lead illustration by Jake Reeves.