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THE 17 BEST JAZZ ALBUMS OF 2023(by popmatters)

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    Posted: 12 Dec 2023 at 2:11am
Some of it is conventionally beautiful and some thrills by rubbing against the edges of tonality. But all of the best jazz of 2023 serves a vision.

The most memorable and pleasurable jazz in 2023 was unconventional but beautifully composed. Whether composed on the spot (which is to say, entirely improvised but with astonishing attention to compositional elements), composed for large groups, carefully conceived for various small bands or through-written for chamber music groups, this year’s best jazz was full of purpose.

Of course, there is dazzling improvisation in every selection here — this is jazz, after all, where creative spontaneity is essential to the vocabulary. But more and more, creative musicians improvise not as virtuosos who “run the chord changes” at breathtaking tempos but with attention to the larger purpose of the art. In all of these selections, I hear music that has intention and form. Some of it is conventionally beautiful, and some thrills by rubbing against the edges of tonality. But all of the best jazz of 2023 was serving a vision.

There are a couple of fantastic recordings that just missed the mark. The veteran pianist Kenny Barron released a sterling solo album, The Source, that is as good as any other record but might have been made 40 years ago. London Brew, a huge project featuring British musicians interpreting the electric music of Miles Davis from the 1970s, is a colossus, but it sent me back to the original music mostly.  I also admired two superb records from tenor saxophonists Chris Potter (Got the Keys to the Kingdom: Live at the Village Vanguard) and Walter Smith III (Return to Casual) but decided that the six saxophonists who make up fully half of my list were enough reed representation.

Here are a dozen jazz recordings to which I will return often in the next ten years, in the order of my adoration.

Editor’s Note: We have added five more best jazz selections from other PopMatters critics at the end. Also, click the album covers to listen to the music.

1. Kate Gentile – Find Letter X (Pi)


Kate Gentile is a prolific drummer and composer who bridges classical new music, adventurous electronica that verges on metal, and post-modern New Jazz. This breathtaking triple disc clocks in well over three hours, reprising the quartet (Matt Mitchell on piano and synths, Jeremy Viner’s tenor saxophone and clarinet, and Kim Cass on bass) that made her debut recording, Mannequins, a sensation. Her facility with brain-bending time signatures has only gotten more fluid and funky, and the musicianship her tunes require (and get from this band) never seems indulgent. This music, which sweeps from acoustic groovers to synth madness and everything in between, is powerfully engaging. It helps that her drumming is both precise and soulful, as if Elvin Jones took the drum chair in a math-rock outfit, and that Mitchell and Viner bring expansive improvisational skill.

2. James Brandon Lewis and the Red Lily Quintet – For Mahalia, with Love (TAO Forms) 

James Brandon Lewis is on quite a run, and his terrific Red Lily Quintet (Kirk Knuffke’s cornet, Christopher Hoffman on cello, bassist William Parker, and drummer Chad Taylor) is an ideal group for taking simple songs and spinning them into gold. The songs here are all gospel classics associated with or inspired by the legendary singer Mahalia Jackson — material like “Swing Low” and “Wade in the Water”. Lewis and his band are in the tradition and modern at the same time, constantly reinventing the forms and feelings of these powerful melodies. But the bonus disc in the CD and LP versions of the album might be even better: a suite called “These Are Soulful Days” composed for tenor saxophone and string quartet. Lewis blends some gospel in here as well, but mostly, it is a great heap of shimmering writing for chamber musicians that defies every last worry you might have about the idea.

3. Darius Jones – FluXkit Vancouver (its suite but sacred) (Saltern/Universal) 

Here is another strong-voiced saxophonist composing for a string quartet along with his alto (and the drummer Gerald Cleaver) — a breathtaking four-movement suite that highlights Darius Jones‘ otherworldly tone. The strings play “straight” as a classical chamber group at times and also improvise with vigor, cellist Peggy Lee a leader among them. In a career of high-concept creativity where Jones has written for a cappella voices and electronics as well as standard jazz quartets, this is his most sumptuous and ambitious project yet.

4. Steve Lehman & Orchestre National de Jazz – Ex Machina (Pi) 

Steve Lehman‘s first “big band” recording extends and deepens his vision. Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet) and Chris Dingman (vibes) from his octet supplement the Orchestre National de Jazz, a French 15-piece band designed for playing progressive music that combines wild structures, electronics, and improvisation. As on some prior Lehman recordings, we can hear the otherworldly “spectral harmonies” created by compositions that exploit specific overtones on particular instruments in combination with computer programming and the possibilities of electronic sound.

Dingman’s vibes act as a critical element throughout, bridging the spectral shimmer of the rest of the band to one of the sounds of classic jazz. Finlayson is a cool breeze on his solos, and (because his composing is so distinctive) it is easy to overlook Lehman’s focused, sharp sound on alto saxophone. He plays with an anxious, urgent sound throughout. Ex Machina may be the most complete and compelling expression of what makes Steve Lehman daring and excellent.

5. Kris Davis and Diatom Ribbons – Live at the Village Vanguard (Pyroclastic) 

This live version of Kris Davis‘ Diatom Ribbons album features drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, guitarists Nels Cline and Marc Ribot, bassist Trevor Dunn, and Val Jeanty on turntables, among others. But unlike that killer album from 2019 (my favorite of that year), the live set covers a wider set of music. Davis works with spoken word recordings of her heroes — “VW” features a herky-jerky theme around the words of Sun Ra, and “Bird Call Blues” finds Jeanty layering various sampled and turntable sounds with birdlike percussion including the voice of pianist Paul Bley talking about the genius of Charlie Parker — but “Alice in the Congo” by Ronald Shannon Jackson is more of a cooker and Geri Allen’s “The Dancer” uses pointillistic subtlety and a loping groove to seduce. There are tone poems, ballads, Latin percussion, and even two versions of Wayne Shorter’s “Dolores” that let the leader and Lage cut loose on the past as well as the moment.

6. Matthew Shipp – The Intrinsic Nature of Shipp (Mahakala) 

Every several years, pianist Matthew Shipp distills his unique and personal improvising language into something that might have been imagined by the whole grand piano tradition, from Bach to Monk to Andrew Hill to Cecil Taylor. This collection of focused improvisations offers further proof that there is no pianist like him. Just when you think he is hurtling into one too many highly abstract swirls of modernism, he will harness a dramatic sense of swing and channel some inner bebop. For listeners who admire motivic improvisation in the Sonny Rollins style, Shipp is a post-modern master. He constantly discovers interesting phrases and allows them to cycle, repeat, transform, move from one hand to the other, or move to both hands at once. Despite his prolific recording habits, this outing has a laser-like focus. Shipp moves through anthems, ballads, swingers, and rumbles with each track.

7. Anna Webber – Shimmer Wince (Intakt)


Reed player and composer Anna Webber has created fascinating formats for creative music, but this is my favorite to date. Scored for an unconventional quintet — herself with trumpeter Adam O’Farrill on horns, cello (Mariel Roberts), drums (Lesley Mok), and polyphonic synth (Elias Stemeseder) — this suite of seven songs was written for “just intonation”. This means that the instruments are tuned to pure mathematical ratios within the standard octave rather than “equal temperament” tuning, which adjusted things in Western music so that pianos could be used in any key. That sounds nerdy, I know, but its effect is hypnotic — the band simply vibrates differently, opening up possibilities for improvising (and hearing the music) in a fresh way.

Ironically, perhaps, it is Webber’s most lovely work, gentle and open, with masterful solos from O’Farrill. As usual, Webber explores some unusual rhythmic forms as well, adding to the sense that this music flutters differently than conventional Western music. But when you listen, say, to her flute improvisation on “Squirmy”, which moves above a snare pattern from Mok and and set of ambiguous synth pads before the cello joins and begins a chordal improvisation, you are charmed. Beauty comes in many shades and tunings.

8. Myra Melford’s Fire and Water Quintet – Hear the Light Singing (Rogue Art) 

The second outing for this light but adventurously dancing quintet puts Myra Melford‘s Fire and Water Quintet in the top ranks for two years running. Each of the tracks (called “Insertions”) features one band member unaccompanied — and all either begin or converge on something written while preserving a sense of open possibility. Guitarist Mary Halvorson is unmistakable in conjuring lyrical mystery on “Insertion Four”, which comes into focus as an arpeggiated ballad that has a mournful melody for Ingrid Laubrock’s soprano saxophone in unison with guitar. Melford opens “Insertion One” with her distinctive manner — growling a bit in the lower register of the piano even as her right hand prances. The most dramatic of the solo features is cellist Tomeika Reid’s opening to “Insertion Two”, which feels like a dark dawn before sunlight breaks, with piano and guitar sounding almost folklike and drummer Lesley Mok coloring with great subtlety.

Edited by snobb - 12 Dec 2023 at 2:12am
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9. Michael Blake and Chroma Nova – Dance of the Mystic Bliss (P&M)


Michael Blake has been an enchanting reed player unafraid of new settings for strong melody ever since the 1990s. This is a gust of joy, with Blake playing flute for the first time on record and a string band (guitar, violin, cello, bass) joining with Brazilian percussion. Christopher Hoffman plays some gripping cello improvisations that you must hear, and Blake has set up a series of grooves that are propulsive regardless of tempo. The strings sometimes play as a tight ensemble and, at other times, are independent voices that hold their own, displaying a wide variety of textures and tones. This band just sounds different: like a modern tango ensemble, a classical chamber group, a daring freak-folk string band, and a New Jazz outfit all at once or in turns.

10. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Dynamic Maximum Tension (Cercopithecine/Nonesuch)


Darcy James Argue has been a quirky darling, picking up accolades with every recording while never playing it safe. His latest may just be his best. The title Dynamic Maximum Tension could be a review, as the music is in constant flux, not often dissonant but usually hiding any obvious tonal center as different voices and sonorities weave, bob, and vie for attention. His brand of post-modern composition and arranging flows from his studies with Bob Brookmeyer, and so there is some similarity to the large group work of drummer John Hollenbeck, and Argue’s balance of melodic flair and harmonic adventure might bring to mind Maria Schneider  — but Argue has a crack band of long-standing and a sensibility that is his own. Every time he releases something new, ears should go on alert.

11. Alex LoRe and Weirdear – Evening Will Find Itself (Whirlwind)


Alex LoRe boasts a light, beautiful, and fluid sound on alto saxophone, and his quartet (with Glen Zaleski on piano, bassist Desmond White, and Alan Mednard on drums) engages in shifting time signatures, written counterpoint and riveting surges of harmony. So, the effect is both pleasing and surprising. Some tricky playing dazzles you, but the tone of the music is cool and beautiful, making it slippery and dangerous but calm.

LoRe sounded great on Marta Sanchez’s Spanish American Art Museum from 2022 and impresses as part of the collective quartet Kind Folk, but his own music is just as sharp. Three versions of the tune “Radiance” suggest how LoRe’s music is the cousin of the music by Steve Coleman, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Steve Lehman — all alto saxophone innovators. These tracks contain swashbuckling modernity that pretzels up conventional tonal systems, yes, but this band spins this style with a fizzy joy. This, in short, is the kind of hard-edged New Jazz that also can seduce you.

12. Linda May Han Oh – The Glass Hours (Biophilia)


The Glass Hours debuts a new band for this first-call bassist, who has always had a knack for writing fresh material that hooks your ears. The veteran saxophonist Mark Turner employs his trademark fluidity, vocalist Sara Sherpa sings both lyrics and wordless lines in the ensemble, Fabian Almazan offers crisp piano and electronics, and drummer Obed Calvaire is an ideal partner to Linda May Han Oh‘s acoustic and electric bass lines. Oh moves them through a series of arrangements that use every voice in an expansive but gentle way. A track like “The Imperative” features a busy piano trio opening that invites Turner and Sherpa in, “singing” a theme that joins Almazan in fluttering play. The complexities of the music are hidden beneath the joy of expression.



Yussef Dayes – Black Classical Music (Brownswood / Nonesuch)


Black Classical Music is drummer Yussef Dayes‘ debut solo studio album, but he is not a rookie by any stretch. Should you search his name across streaming platforms and the like, you’ll see a short live album recorded with friends out in Joshua Tree. Search a little further, though, and you’ll find that he has been a major player in London’s jazz scene for a while, including his collaboration with keyboardist Kamaal Williams – naming themselves Yussef Kamaal – and his appearance on Tom Misch‘s What Kinda Music.

So, by the time he sat down to record Black Classical Music, Dayes most likely had a clear idea of what he could do and where he wanted to go. And boy, does he go places. Armed with 19 tracks and using almost every square inch available on a compact disc, Black Classical Music takes the listener on a highly groovy and ultimately fulfilling ride through the peaks and valleys inside of Dayes’ musical brain. To say that every stone is overturned would be overselling it. Dayes doesn’t achieve everything, but there are still an impressive number of stones flipped over in the creation of this album. – John Garratt

Alabaster DePlume – Come With Fierce Grace (International Anthem)


A key figure in the UK’s now globally recognized jazz scene and a mainstay of the creative hub Total Refreshment Centre, Alabaster DePlume is a unique performer, musician, and bandleader. His live performances can be both artful and arresting, advocating for care and change as much as thrilling with often wildly inventive improvisational music.

Come With Fierce Grace continues this legacy of generous, meaningful music for a chaotic and contested present. Despite being a product of sessions and ideas developed for DePlume’s previous full-length GoldCome With Fierce Grace does not feel like an odd collection of jams or unreleased tracks. DePlume delivers an uplifting yet thoroughly cohesive project that feels, above all else, ecstatically alive.

Come With Fierce Grace is perhaps Alabaster DePlume’s best work to date. It arrives at a difficult time in human history and speaks to that suffering and disconnect in a thoughtful and emotionally poignant way. It is a must for jazz fans and anyone with an appreciation for rich and reflective creative art. – Alex Brent

Samuel Goff, Camila Nebbia, and Patrick Shiroishi – Diminished Borders (Cacophonous Revival)


Lovers of post-bop free jazz will feel a twinge of welcome familiarity when “Chaos Control”, the first track on Diminished Bordersbegins. Drummer Samuel Goff counts off, and soon he’s all over his kit, while saxophonists Camila Nebbia and Patrick Shiroishi trade freewheeling notes and riffs back and forth. It’s beautiful, well-worn territory for fans of free jazz. But it’s only the tip of the iceberg for this terrific, eight-track collaboration, courtesy of Goff’s diverse Cacophonous Revival label.

Recorded in Los Angeles, Richmond, Virginia, and Lyon, France, Diminished Borders brings together these three multitalented, eclectic performers known for creating wide-ranging albums on their own and thus benefit from an even broader artistic canvas as a trio. Nebbia, an Argentinian saxophonist, composer, and visual artist currently based in Berlin, contributes spoken word to the quiet, tense, barely contained “Esperando Que Todo Desaparezca”, as both saxophones squeal in desperation and Goff’s drumming takes a minimalist approach. – Chris Ingalls

Alfredo Rodríguez – Coral Way (Mack Avenue)


Jazz pianist and former Quincy Jones protégé Alfredo Rodríguez has always thrived in brighter hues. Though he’s never shied from sparser or more solemn moments–the haunting title track of 2016’s Tocororo remains some of his most breathtaking work–it’s never at the expense of a vibrant musical palette. 

The new album Coral Way may be his most vivid work to date. Inspired less by his memories of growing up and living in Cuba (as much of his past work has been) and more by his present-day in Miami with a flourishing international career and growing family, Coral Way dazzles from start to finish, never anything less than balmy as Rodríguez brings his signature ease and zest to the keys. As usual, he brings in a few guests along the way, which makes for an even more invigorating mix of sounds. This album radiates positive energy without relying on good vibes, a show of skill and passion that pushes Rodríguez’s career even further forward. – Adriane Pontecorvo

Kassa Overall – Animals (Warp)


Kassa Overall’s music sounds free. On Animals, Overall’s third album and first for Warp Records, the drummer, producer, MC, and bandleader demonstrates the limitless potential of jazz, hip-hop, and beats, exploring and pushing new spaces for improvisation and experimentation. Attempts to blend jazz and hip-hop are certainly not new, but despite the common heritages from which both genres draw, they have often reinforced formal boundaries rather than expanded them. Kassa Overall is part of a newer generation of music-makers who have approached things a little differently, such as Flying Lotus and his Brainfeeder label or fellow jazz drummer and producer Karriem Riggins

Similarly to these contemporaries, Kassa Overall’s approach to music is imaginative, expansive, and eclectic. A deep appreciation of and skill with jazz and hip-hop are seamlessly woven together on an album that goes in multiple places with many different voices thrown into the mix. – Alex Brent

from www.popmatters.com

Edited by snobb - 12 Dec 2023 at 2:16am
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