Jazz & Soul Gems of 2019

6 min readDec 29, 2019


To my delight, there is a wealth of curated lists of great music from the last year, spanning across genres and levels of popularity. Albums from established artists like Tyler, the Creator and promising up-and-comers like black midi appeared on various year-end lists, but some of my favourite albums from this year didn’t seem to circulate much at all.

I wrote this little piece to share some of my thoughts on these albums, most of which draw from jazz, soul, and blues influences. I also selected a few tracks from these few albums and put them together in this Spotify playlist. The playlist consists largely of instrumentals and, even when vocals appear, they often act as just another instrument rather the the song’s main reason for existence. Hope you enjoy!

Bridges and Superbloom by Kiefer

Available on BandCamp and Spotify

This year, Kiefer released two EPs — Bridges and Superbloom — as one cohesive project that clearly showcases the pianist’s musical ideas and mastery of the keyboard. On these two EPs, the accompanying instruments meld subtly into the background, allowing Kiefer and his keyboard forward into the spotlight.

The song “Be Encouraged” is my personal favourite. On this track, Kiefer alternates between a short, soulful motif that he repeats like a mantra and a sequence of gorgeous harmonies that he delicately lays out as the base for his improvisations. He repeats the main melody of the song over and over, as if he were emphasizing the first part of his pithy motto: “Be Encouraged and Encourage Others.”

The Loop by Shafiq Husayn

Available on BandCamp and Spotify

After experiencing Joe Armon-Jones’ dazzling keyboard solos live at an Ezra Collective gig earlier this month, I got the chance to ask him what music he’d been listening to lately. From the various artists in the realms of jazz and soul that he recommended, Shafiq Husayn stood out.

Crowded with appearances from some of the heftiest names in contemporary R&B, jazz, and soul music, including Erykah Badu, Robert Glasper, Bilal, & Anderson Paak, The Loop delivers track after track of slow-burning grooves laden with vocal harmonies, glittering synths, streaming horns, funky bass lines, and swinging drum loops.

In this album, Husayn weaves together a tapestry of eclectic yet cohesive musical moments from slivers of home studio recordings of jam sessions with friends, dating as far back as 2012. The album pays a worthy tribute to soul, jazz, hip hop, and R&B music of preceding decades in the form of further musical innovation.

Cypress Grove by Jimmy “Duck” Holmes

Available on Spotify

Produced by Dan Auerbach of Black Keys fame, Cypress Grove presents the minimal yet full-bodied sound of Mississippi blues figurehead Jimmy “Duck” Holmes.

One of the album’s highlights is its very first track, “Hard Times”. Throughout the song, Holmes’ voice and acoustic guitar take turns resolving a strolling, bluesy riff, descending again and again to the same, inevitable place. It sounds like Holmes plucking sympathy out of his guitar.

Auerbach deserves credit for bringing robustness and polish to the country blues veteran’s vintage sound. Like the cover art, the album’s production offers a vivid snapshot of the artist by framing and colouring his straightforward, traditional approach.

Pareidolia and NUNU by Clever Austin

Available on BandCamp and Spotify

In Pareidolia and NUNU, Clever Austin, drummer of the acclaimed Hiatus Kaiyote, created two albums brimming with dynamic yet meditative instrumentals.

In “Higher Plains” on Pareidolia, Clever Austin carves out a pensive groove, hones it, and moves on to the next; each musical idea progresses organically onto the next like thoughts in a wandering mind.

Even more so than Pareidolia, NUNU is an intimate record of musical ruminations. Fans of the acoustic moments in Nicolas Jaar’s discography might find similar joy in Austin’s repetition of soft, thoughtful piano lines. On “B5”, the contemplative mood grows with the barely audible sound of light friction between neighbouring piano keys, as Austin moves them carefully in and out of place. You can imagine yourself sitting silently in the artist’s dimly lit personal studio, watching him sketch out a musical idea.

Shiroi by Mansur Brown

Available on BandCamp and Spotify

Mansur Brown, a major contributor to the acclaimed 2016 album Black Focus by Yussef Kamaal, took a strong step forward as a solo artist in 2019 with this debut album. In Shiroi, the guitarist creates a dreamy yet lively atmosphere by bringing together the sounds of jazz, funk, and electronic music in an imaginative, refreshing way.

Overall, Brown impresses with a balanced and focused album. Most tracks feature a hypnotic mesh of garbled electric guitar and bustling percussion, but maintain a spacious, inviting atmosphere. Even though the album loses a bit of its edge halfway through, due to its limited sound palette and repetitive use of song structure, it promises much of Mansur Brown’s future work. It’s no wonder the talented young guitarist managed to enlist heavy-weights Thundercat and Robert Glasper for his solo debut.

Honourable Mentions

In addition to select songs from the few albums above, I included songs from these three albums in my Spotify playlist:

All Trash, No Love by Billy Uomo: coping with romantic heartbreak, Uomo somehow translates his sour, dejected mood into sweet, funky, and soulful bedroom pop.

Zdenka 2080 by Salami Rose Joe Louis: after ditching her career as a scientist to pursue her artistic career with Brainfeeder Records, the experimental songwriter releases another enigmatic collection of colourful, meandering, and subdued compositions.

You’re so Fine by Papa Bear & His Cubs: re-released in 2019, the two songs by this family band are a blissful mix of old soul and gospel from the 60s.

It’s pleasing to notice growth in my writing. Coming back to this piece, I see a lot of adjectives and descriptive words. I don’t think they’re bad, but recently I’ve been trying to write more plainly and concretely. Trying to write shorter and more focused sentences with fewer commas.

A year after I wrote this piece, I wrote another piece about music. I can’t say the writing style is so different. But this piece and this piece, which I wrote a few months afterwards, certainly show progression in my writing style.

It’s been fun to study writers and experiment with their approach to sentence writing:

  • From Hemingway’s short stories and memoir A Moveable Feast, I took plainness, occasional and-and-and sentences, and ‘distrust’ of adjectives.
  • From Steinbeck’s East of Eden, I learned to omit commas, shorten sentences, and describe with a more down-to-earth vocabulary.
  • In The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer gave me more evidence that writing can be beautiful without being ornate or flowery.
  • The spotless prose of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road blew my mind. Rare commas, no semicolons. No quotation marks or attribution in dialogue. Phrases standing alone as sentences. It takes the question Does your writing need this? even further.
  • Then, Kathryn Scanlan, a contemporary writer continuing the craft of economical writing. Her compactness and brevity in Kick the Latch raising the stakes on the same questions. How many words are really needed? How long must chapters be? And showing again, as Hemingway did, how compelling tip-of-the-iceberg writing can be. And contributing to the nonfiction fiction lineage while contrasting with Mailer’s more traditional form.




I write about software, music, books, psychology, & other topics. Software Engineer at Microsoft in Seattle.