The question of where jazz is headed in the 90s has been around now since the mid-80s (and I expect the question of 21st-century jazz will start crossing lips before Arbor Day). Will the 90s be a decade of further consolidation? More “neoclassic” (read: recycled hard bop) bands of youngsters? Has the new-age slant lost its sway?

I’m not telling, largely because I’m not sure. But one way to figure where we’re headed is to take a look at where we’ve been. In 1989, I was exposed to approximately 600 new or reissued albums, and I don’t pretend to have seen more than 85 percent of everything that was released. But after sifting through memories and impressions and going back to a batch of that 600, I’ve found 20 that I can, with relative equanimity, call the best of ’89 (or at least my favorites).

If there were any notable trends, they would have to be: the continued emergence of young musicians steeped (and in some cases buried) in the music’s past glories; the full-frontal arrival of electronic keyboards and sampling synthesizers, which now show up on straight-ahead dates where they were never welcome before; and the explosive influence of world music, with the sounds of the Caribbean, South Africa, Japan, and South America informing a staggering array of new albums.

I have not included reissued albums in this list, although the digital revolution has spurred record labels into a frenzy of newly mastered rereleases from classic catalogs. It’s worth mentioning, however, that this is not always a boon. Consider MCA Records, which bought up the Impulse catalog and has done an amazingly sloppy job of transferring memorable albums to CD. The nadir was broached with the reissue of John Coltrane’s Om, which was originally a 34-minute piece split onto two sides of an LP. When the folks at MCA made the switch to compact disc, they simply transferred the two parts of the piece–complete with the fade-out and fade-in made necessary by LP technology–instead of working from the original, complete master tape. As Mr. Boffo might say, these are people unclear on the concept.

Luckily, they didn’t have anything to do with the year’s best albums.

1. John Carter, Shadows on a Wall (Gramavision). The name of the album is also the name of a single piece in six movements: the finale of clarinetist/composer John Carter’s epic cycle of five suites designed to trace the history of the African people brought to America. Structured around lyric poetry also written by Carter, and performed brilliantly by an octet featuring cornetist Bobby Bradford, violinist-vocalist Terry Jenoure, and keyboardist Don Preston, the piece chronicles the post-Civil War black migration north, from the siren lure of the cities to the healing force of the church to the irrepressible energy that bubbled up in the jazz tap dancers of the 20s and 30s. But the music needs no such programmatic cues to succeed utterly. The group sounds larger than it really is, due to Carter’s mature exploitation of principles of arrangement laid down by Duke Ellington and Count Basie–specifically, Ellington’s ability to blend tonal colors in unexpected ways, and Basie’s fondness for “riff” playing, in which the band prods and pushes each soloist with rhythmically sharp interjections. It’s a monumental and challenging work.

2. Don Pullen, New Beginnings (Blue Note). Pullen doesn’t usually get mentioned when the subject turns to the most exciting pianists on the current scene; listening to this album, you have to wonder why. Recording shortly after he and saxist George Adams broke up the quintet they led, Pullen joined with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Tony Williams to craft a collection that displays his stylistic breadth. Even on a single tune, it’s no trick for Pullen to leap from a jaunty soul groove to tone-cluster fireworks inspired by Cecil Taylor, keeping the groove in place all the while. And on every tune, Pullen displays an energy–born of musical intelligence more than mere muscle–that seems to light up the room. Pullen should be considered one of the signal pianists of the next decade; if that comes to pass, I suspect much of the credit will fall to this album.

3. Dave Liebman, Trio + One (Owl). Liebman is arguably the reigning king of the soprano saxophone, as well as one of the most complete improvisers in modern music, and this is his most uninhibited, freewheeling album in perhaps 15 years. As much as anyone, Liebman exemplifies the state of the avant-garde in 1990. Having explored the frontiers of free improvisation and extramusical sounds on his instrument, he now interpolates these explorations in a concept that includes more traditionally based elements, such as structured composition. Like a wordly, educated novelist, Liebman weaves stories that draw on a variety of narrative “voices,” from bebop to postmodern, while retaining an unmistakable voice of his own. The trio of the title includes two musicians as accomplished on their instruments as Liebman is on his–bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette; the “+ One” is Liebman’s wife, oboist Caris Visentin, who joins on several of the tracks here.

4. John Scofield, Flat Out (Gramavision). Scofield has spent much of this decade pursuing a seamless fusion of jazz, rock, and blues, and this album is the payoff for his restless search. The material ranges from the guitarist’s own compositions–including power-blues tunes and a N’Awlins-styled slow drag–to a couple of surprising standards (“Secret Love” and the warhorse “All the Things You Are”); each is highlighted by the unlikely combination of elements that characterizes Scofield’s style. He can slash and burn on his solos, and his rough-hewn sound and thick chords strike a blow for garage bands everywhere; but his sophisticated lyricism, and the forceful integrity of his improvising, consistently come to the fore. Those qualities are heightened by the stripped-down trio sound (guitar, bass, drums) that dominates this album, creating an atmosphere of lean, smart fun.

5. Miles Davis (and Palle Mikkelborg), Aura (Columbia). It’s Miles’s name on the cover, but this album really belongs to the Danish trumpeter/composer/arranger/conductor Palle Mikkelborg, who conceived and constructed this 65-minute work. (It comprises ten sections, named for different colors, with the purpose of conveying Davis’s musical “aura.”) Recorded in 1984 but released only this year–the delay reportedly irked Davis enough for him to sever his three-decade relationship with Columbia Records–the album finds Davis in particularly good form: in other words, he plays with notable tact and precision the same solos he’s been playing all decade. But Mikkelborg’s composition is revelatory. Really an episodic concerto with trumpet soloist, it shows Mikkelborg in complete command of his far-flung material, blending acoustic instruments and electronics in an often-gorgeous palette. Aura pairs Davis with an orchestrator on a par with Gil Evans, whose late-50s collaborations with Davis remain landmarks in both their careers.

6. Kahil El’Zabar with David Murray, Golden Sea (Sound Aspects). It’s easy to laud this album just for the performance of saxophonist Murray: as one-half of a drums-and-tenor duo, he is forced to disencumber himself of expressionist excesses in order to meet the more basic demands of the format, and the resulting music is especially clear and forthright. But the concept was Kahil El’Zabar’s, as are most of the compositions, and these contributions must share the spotlight with their beneficiary, Murray. What’s more, El’Zabar dazzles on drums–not by dint of traditional virtuosity, but because of the intimate trance state he seems to achieve as a solo dancer. This is improvisation in a pure but earthy, abstract but accessible package–it has the universal simplicity of song and drum–and it is frequently stunning.

7. McCoy Tyner, Revelations (Blue Note). Simply because he is one of the three most influential pianists in modern jazz, McCoy Tyner’s development would bear scrutiny–even if it didn’t hold nonmusical lessons for us all. Tyner played with John Coltrane’s quartet from 1960 to 1965, and for ten years after that his music remained completely under Coltrane’s spell. But since then, the pianist has steadily redefined his music, and the process can be marked by specific albums, on each of which he sheds another layer of the past and gets closer to the truths at the core of his music. (He’s modern jazz’s answer to King Lear.) The latest plateau was attained on Revelations, an aptly titled collection of solo piano performances. None of Tyner’s previous albums has relied so little on his grab bag of trademark musical devices, nor trusted so much in his unadorned musicality.

8. Sun Ra Arkestra, Live at Pit-Inn, Tokyo, Japan (DIW Records). A legend in his own space-time, Sun Ra in his recent albums and appearances has increasingly relied on slapdash theatrics and loosely reworked arrangements of classic jazz compositions from the 30s and 40s. That’s why this full-blown live recording from 1988, with its emphasis on vamp forms, extended solos, and group improvisation, is such a welcome release–it celebrates the things that made Sun Ra so terrific in the first place, and it does so with what must be among his finest performances of the decade. This version of the Arkestra is a relatively trim 12-piece affair, with individual honors falling to trumpeter Michael Ray and the long-standing saxophone junta of Marshall Allen, John Gilmore, and Danny Thompson.

9. Tom Harrell, Sail Away (Contemporary). Here is the state of the art in modern mainstream jazz. Harrell, the highly regarded trumpeter who left Phil Woods’s group this year to branch out on his own, assembled a varied and complementary band for this album: it includes the accomplished young pianist and composer James Williams, the guitar visionary John Abercrombie, the rock-solid bassist Ray Drummond, and the versatile tenor saxist Joe Lovano. Harrell’s compositions reflect the diversity of styles and influences that make up this band, but not at the cost of mere eclecticism. And the tunes themselves, good as they may be, serve as luxury vehicles for a parade of grand solos; primarily, this is a blowing date, and a radiant one to boot.

10. Duke Ellington, The Private Collection, Vol. 10 (Saja). Ellington was constantly dragging his band into recording studios while they were on the road, documenting even those compositions that had yielded apparently definitive recordings earlier; so all ten volumes of this CD-only series, drawn from the Ellington estate, contain valuable and memorable tracks. But this one offers a bonus: all nine sections of Black, Brown and Beige, the gargantuan “serious” work Ellington premiered at Carnegie Hall 47 years ago this month. The only other complete recording of the work is the one made at that Carnegie Hall debut. In general the performances here are more polished, and they display a great deal of feeling–though they’re not quite so brash as those on the original. In short, it’s an older and wiser Black, Brown and Beige, and a chance to hear Ellington rethink one of his greatest accomplishments.

Should any of these albums be unable to serve out its full term, the following runners-up will be waiting to take its place:

11. Pat Metheny, Letter From Home (Geffen).

12. Steve Lacy, The Door (Novus).

13. Von Freeman, Walkin’ Tuff! (Southport).

14. Wynton Marsalis, Crescent City Christmas Card (Columbia).

15. Ralph Moore, Rejuvenation (Criss Cross).

16. Oregon, 45th Parallel (Portrait).

17. Jim Hall Quartet, All Across the City (Concord).

18. Paul Smoker, Come Rain or Come Shine (Sound Aspects).

19. Robin Eubanks and Steve Turre, Dedication (JMT).

20. Fred Hersch, The French Collection (Angel).