While it’s true that this has been one of the most extreme years humanity has faced in a lifetime, there’s always a bright side to be looked upon. In terms of recorded music (MAN, do we miss seeing it live), 2020 has produced some very special material. As our mission at KMHD is to provide a respite from all the bad stuff in the world, this year forced us to change our sound a bit. You’ll find that the overall vibe of our list has changed this year – with more subdued, ambient sounds added to the list (one could make the argument that this change was already happening before 2020 hit, but that’s another story). So much is unknown – and maybe the best we can do is try to acknowledge the impermanence of this world we’re all making our way through.

In no particular order, these are the albums we played the most, listened to the most, and (most importantly) got the most response from you on this year. -Matt Fleeger, KMHD Program Director


LoFiJazzSoul — “Summer Soulstice 2020″

Produced by trumpeter and impresario Farnell Newton, this sampler of many key players and producers in the Portland jazz scene is a worthwhile listen on any home stereo. Unlike so many other “lofi” samplers, this compilation features musicians who can really play their instruments, resulting in quality solos and riffs that aren’t typically found with this genre. -Matt Fleeger

Misha Panfilov Sound Combo — “Days As Echoes”

Odds are decent that you have never heard of Misha Panfilov. Likewise, you might be hard pressed to find his homeland of Estonia on a map. Either way, the music he has crafted on this album sounds like tunes you have been humming along to since you were a child. Drawing inspiration from library music, Krautrock and Ethiopian jazz, the multi-instrumentalist offers up six compositions, all of them conjuring a world of nostalgia, innocence, optimism and, most importantly, hope. -Derek Smith

Surprise Chef — “Daylight Savings”

DIY jazz-funk journeymen Surprise Chef work out of Melbourne, Australia, infusing Daptone-style throwback production with a ’70s twist and citing David Axelrod & Isaac Hayes as key influences. Sophomore effort “Daylight Savings” goes fuzzier and more psychedelic than Daptone ever would, landing the quartet a unique seat at the table next to El Michels Affair or Menahan Street Band — and maybe even threatening to steal their spots. -Isabel Zacharias

Kamaal Williams — “Wu Hen”

Kamaal Williams’s “WU HEN” project is a perfect score to a movie yet to be created. He seemingly effortlessly and effectively brings on an adventure through a gumbo of funk, classical, hip-hop and electronic house music. This project has a feel that reminds me of Maxwell’s “Urban Hang Suite,” but more cinematic in its soundscape, with the string sections composed by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and Quinn Mason engaging with his mood-shaping saxophone playing. -Cedric Hudson

John Carroll Kirby — “My Garden”

This keyboardist/producer/composer from Los Angeles has crafted a wonderful album of cool vibes, smoothed-out rhythms and beautiful piano work. “My Garden” seemed to just drop into 2020 seamlessly – bringing with it something we truly needed from music this year. -Matt Fleeger

Los Days — “Singing Sands”

A collaboration between skateboard pioneer Tommy Guerrero (whose work as a groove-based instrumental musician has been equally praised) and fellow Californian instrumentalist/producer Josh Lippi, Los Days made a record I needed this year, one of those that sounds exactly like its cover looks. This record is about expanse, about taking one’s time — the relieving translation of space between notes to space between crowded thoughts in the listener’s head. A gem. -Isabel Zacharias

Chip Wickham — “Blue To Red”

With his latest release, the flautist delivers on the promise of previous efforts by giving the world his spiritual jazz opus. Continuing the tradition of flute & harp duos begun by Frank Wess and Dorothy Ashby, Wickham works with harpist Amanda Whiting to establish an ethereal vibe throughout the album. Chip Wickham believes that jazz helps connect we humans to our place in the cosmos, and “Blue To Red” is his sonic message for us to save the Earth and ourselves. -Derek Smith

Kassa Overall — “I Think I’m Good”

With his sophomore full length release, Kassa Overall continues his voyage into a future-jazz sound that seamlessly melds hip-hop, electronic music, free jazz and social commentary with an MC’s swagger and a philosopher’s intellect. The opening line of “I Know You See Me” begins, “Welcome to Planet Earth, where if you slip then you die,” which could be as much of reference to Heidegger’s “thrownness” as it is to the experience of Black people in the United States. Like everything else that is so ahead of its time – the inexperienced listener might not “get” all the ideas and concepts presented on this record at first, but will be rewarded with a first glance into the future of jazz with subsequent listens. -Matt Fleeger

Greg Foat — “Symphonie Pacifique”

With his sixth album in the last two years, keyboardist and composer Greg Foat incorporates his dizzying array of influences into one stellar record. Artfully adorned with strings, myriad sonic textures, pedal steel and much more, the songs on “Symphonie Pacifique” sound as lush and inviting as Foat’s native Isle of Wight. Album highlight “After the Storm” provides perhaps one of the most poignant and pastoral moments of the year. It’s how the world might sound after the pandemic. -Derek Smith

Various Artists — “Blue Note Re:Imagined”

As if further proof of the modern UK jazz scene’s relevance were necessary, this LP sees Blue Note Records, that most American of institutions, inviting some of Britain’s most acclaimed artists to rework classics from their catalog. Every landmark phrase of the label is represented here, from Wayne Shorter’s compound-meter standard “Footprints” to Bobby Hutcherson’s ’70s feel-good breakthrough “Montara” — elevating this record to a statement on what counts as “classic” Blue Note in the first place. -Isabel Zacharias

Nubya Garcia — “Source”

The sound emanating from Nubya Garcia’s saxophone possesses an energy level approaching that of a force of nature. She is the source of that power, and her long-awaited long player demonstrates the incredible command and dexterity she wields. Whether the composition is spiritual jazz, 21st century soul-jazz, dub reggae or cumbia, Garcia’s playing on “Source” adapts effortlessly, never overwhelming the demands of the song or the needs of her band. Hers is a debut that jazz history will remember. -Derek Smith

Lemon Quartet — “Crestless”

So quiet in moments that it’s almost loud, this ambient jazz record features the same personnel behind The Aqueduct Ensemble (whose “Improvisations On An Apricot” was one of our favorite LPs of 2018) but tends to build in more sustain, reverb and room noise than on previous projects. It’s hard to tell whether the wandering, synth-enshrouded voyage of “Something Masked” is a reference to 2020′s interpersonal circumstances — but regardless, the balance of light and darkness struck by “Crestless” was just the soundtrack this year called for. -Isabel Zacharias


Ali Shaheed Muhammad & Adrian Younge — Jazz Is Dead series

The duo known as The Midnight Hour have focused their formidable musical and production abilities on jazz history by starting a new record label called Jazz Is Dead (JID). Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge have released a debut compilation and four albums in 2020, showcasing new work from living jazz legends. Beginning with the first new studio album from Roy Ayers in 18 years, JID has subsequently released fresh albums from Brazilian keyboard legend Marcos Valle, masters of Brazilian fusion Azymuth and Black Jazz Records titan Doug Carn. Throughout these releases, the grooves are deeply cinematic with each album offering an elegant showcase for the jazz master in question. -Derek Smith

Read our list of favorite 2020 jazz singles here, and list of favorite reissues of the year here.