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The 10 Best Jazz Albums Of 2023 (by Stereogum)

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    Posted: 14 Dec 2023 at 3:20am

2023 has been a transitional year for jazz. We lost one of the genre’s most brilliant composers and performers, Wayne Shorter; free jazz flamethrowers Peter Brötzmann and Charles Gayle; genteel pianist Ahmad Jamal; bassist, composer and Spike Lee’s father Bill Lee; singer Tony Bennett; trombonist Curtis Fowlkes; bassist Richard Davis; pianist and composer Carla Bley; saxophonist Mars Williams, known to some as a modern free jazz hero and others as the dude from the Psychedelic Furs; and some people I consider jazz-adjacent, like Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto and guitarist Jeff Beck, who made a series of excellent fusion albums in the mid ’70s. And while Shabaka Hutchings is still alive, he announced his intention to quit playing the saxophone, and disbanded all of his current groups: Sons Of Kemet, The Comet Is Coming, and Shabaka And The Ancestors.

The music’s boundaries seemed to grow more porous than ever. Drummer Kassa Overall signed to Warp Records and released ANIMALS, an album full of electronic collages and guest appearances from players like Vijay Iyer, Tomoki Sanders (Pharoah’s son), Theo Croker, as well as Lil B, Danny Brown, and J. Hoard. Saxophonist James Brandon Lewis released two albums, one a collection of gospel songs and the other a cranked-up, almost punk-rock disc that featured Fugazi’s rhythm section on one track. The Arooj Aftab/Vijay Iyer/Shahzad Ismaily album Love In Exile was a near-ambient collection of dreamlike, improvised music for trances. Trumpeter Chief Adjuah put down the horn and released Bark Out Thunder Roar Out Lightning, an album on which he played a harplike instrument of his own invention and sang lyrics honoring his Mardi Gras Indian heritage. Even saxophonist JD Allen, known for his love of traditional trio play and bluesy song structures, made an abstract, questing electronics-soaked record.

Other than calling out some excellent records, it seemed impossible to assess “the state of jazz,” so I asked a bunch of artists, all of whom put out music of their own in 2023, to share their favorite album(s) of the year. Here are the responses I got:

Arooj Aftab, vocals

2023 release: Arooj Aftab/Vijay Iyer/Shahzad Ismaily, Love In Exile (Verve)
Picks: Cautious Clay, KARPEH (Blue Note)
“My favorite record of 2023 would have to be Cautious Clay’s KARPEH, released on Blue Note as his first foray into the world of alternative jazz. While Cautious is a bad, bad cat regardless, this record is just so bold. He is pulling out all the stops, tapping into the story of his family, telling it to us with great depth and nuanced songwriting ability. Then we have his soulful vocals, we have his legendary bass player Uncle Kai Eckhart, we have Cautious himself playing infectious and super wild lines on flute and saxophone throughout the album. Cautious calls on the guitar world’s golden boy Julien Lage to work his magic into the music as well. It’s just a very awesome record, and if you missed you better run to it immediately.”

Vijay Iyer, piano

2023 release: Arooj Aftab/Vijay Iyer/Shahzad Ismaily, Love In Exile (Verve)
Picks: Meshell Ndegeocello, The Omnichord Realbook (Blue Note); Sullivan Fortner, Solo Game (Artwork); Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter 5: In The Garden (Constellation); Steve Lehman & Orchestra National de Jazz, Ex Machina (Pi); Lesley Mok, The Living Collection (American Dreams)
“I can’t go with one, so here are five, which is also too few, in no particular order. Meshell Ndegeocello, for sounding the collective exuberance and defiant joy of gathering, for reminding us of how we can move and feel together. Sullivan Fortner, for revealing the many layers and nuances of this piano genius’s art and heart, the inner voices, the counterpoint, the touch, the groove, the livingness of it all. Matana Roberts, for her courageous truth-telling and sonic layering, an elemental outpouring of love, fire, and historical reckoning. Steve Lehman & Orchestra National de Jazz, for remaking the language of large-group music from his ongoing obsessions with hardcore polyrhythms, spectral analysis, and improvisative virtuosity. And Lesley Mok, a breathtaking compendium, a compendium of breath-taking and meaning-making, aural vulnerability at the ensemble scale.”

Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother), vocals and electronics

2023 release: Irreversible Entanglements, Protect Your Light (Impulse!)
Picks: Meshell Ndegeocello, The Omnichord Real Book (Blue Note); Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter 5: In The Garden (Constellation)
“Can I say Protect Your Light? Besides that it’s a toss-up between Meshell Ndegeocello and Matana Roberts.”

Angel Bat Dawid, clarinet/vocals/bandleader

2023 release: Requiem For Jazz (International Anthem)
Pick: Roman Norfleet & Be Present Art Group, Roman Norfleet & Be Present Art Group
“Roman Norfleet is a phenomenal multi-instrumentalist interdisciplinary artist based in Portland, OR. Known for his incredibly provocative electrifying live shows, it’s really quite a treat to hear this album of young Black Portland interdisciplinary artists doing this cosmic space gospeldelic music — it’s just amazing…Sun Ra is smiling down very proud.”

Isaiah Collier, tenor saxophone

2023 release: Parallel Universe (Night Dreamer)
Pick: John Coltrane & Eric Dolphy, Evenings At The Village Gate (Impulse!)
“It’s another lost article in time and feels like another extended look into those archives of time. The Classic Quartet with Eric Dolphy is always a fascinating thing to hear but you can hear the space he was making for another horn. These five masters were having a sacred conversation that most couldn’t comprehend and we are treated with this release to take on the challenge of digesting it more.”

Johnathan Blake, drums

2023 release: Passage (Blue Note)
Pick: Roy Hargrove, The Love Suite: In Mahogany (Blue Engine)
“Roy sounds amazing and the band is on fire! It’s a live performance from 1993. This is the only recording of Hargrove’s commission piece. Commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center.”

Steve Lehman, alto saxophone

2023 release: Ex Machina (Pi)
Pick: Ambrose Akinmusire, Beauty Is Enough (Origami Harvest)
“It’s a remarkable achievement. I’m going to keep going back to it and keep learning things from it. And it’s just a beautiful album.”

Gard Nilssen, drums

2023 release: Family (We Jazz)
Pick: Petter Eldh, Post Koma (We Jazz)
“My very good friend and partner in snabbswing —amazing album!”

Thandi Ntuli, piano/vocals

2023 release: Rainbow Revisited (with Carlos Niño)
Pick: Aja Monet, when the poems do what they do (drink sum wtr)
“She expresses an urgency and a clarity which I have craved a lot and so the resonance in me was instantaneous. Deeply rooted in Spirit, a call for organizing, community, healing, freedom and love. Love, love, love! The poems did what they came to do.”

Kassa Overall, drums/programming

2023 release: ANIMALS (Warp)
Pick: Sullivan Fortner, Solo Game (Artwork)
“Sullivan Fortner is probably one of my favorite living musicians, and top five pianists, dead or alive. This album shows the greatness I have always seen in him. He is the future of Black music, a genius who is fluent in the past but doesn’t conform to the cultural expectations imposed on us.”

Matana Roberts, alto sax and composition

2023 release: Coin Coin Chapter Five: In The Garden (Constellation)
Pick: Arooj Aftab/Vijay Iyer/Shahzad Ismaily, Love In Exile (Verve)
“It stretches time, full of honesty, no ego games, and an important reminder to stay open to the worst and the best of times…It really is ‘beyond music.’ I have also seen them live and it’s amazing how present the sonicity is. Very healing work.”

Lakecia Benjamin, alto saxophone

2023 release: Phoenix (Whirlwind)
Pick: Meshell Ndegeocello, The Omnichord Real Book (Blue Note)

Sylvie Courvoisier, piano

2023 release: Chimaera (Intakt)
Picks: Tamara Stefanovich/Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Visions (Pentatone); Kris Davis, Diatom Ribbons Live At The Village Vanguard (Pyroclastic); Ambrose Akinmusire, Beauty Is Enough (Origami Harvest)

Lafayette Gilchrist, piano

2023 release: Undaunted (Morphius)
Picks: jaimie branch, Fly Or Die Fly Or Die Fly Or Die ((World War)) (International Anthem); Chief Adjuah, Bark Out Thunder Roar Out Lightning (Ropeadope); Darius Jones, fLuXkit Vancouver (i​̶​t​̶​s suite but sacred) (Northern Spy/We Jazz)

Mary Halvorson, guitar

2023 release: Illegal Crowns, Unclosing (Out Of Your Head)
Pick: Ryuichi Sakamoto, 12 (Milan)

Myra Melford, piano

2023 release: Hear The Light Singing (RogueArt)
Picks: Henry Threadgill, Poof (Pi, 2021); Cecil Taylor, The Complete, Legendary, Live Return Concert At The Town Hall NYC November 4, 1973 (Oblivion, 2022)

Terell Stafford, trumpet

2023 release: Between Worlds (Le Coq)
Pick: Johnathan Blake, Passage (Blue Note)

Sherman Irby, alto saxophone

2023 release: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra & Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Wynton
Marsalis: Symphony No. 4 “The Jungle”
 (Blue Engine)
Pick: Roy Hargrove, The Love Suite: In Mahogany (Blue Engine)

And now, here are the best jazz albums of 2023.


Lakecia Benjamin - Phoenix (Whirlwind)

This album opens with a statement from feminist philosopher and political activist Angela Davis, and later tracks offer words from poet Sonia Sanchez and even a bit of enigmatic wisdom from Wayne Shorter. There are a lot of other guests, too, including Georgia Anne Muldrow, Patrice Rushen, Dianne Reeves, and trumpeter Wallace Roney Jr. Alto saxophonist Benjamin wrote this music during the waning phases of the pandemic, so it’s reflective of a lot of angst and swirling emotion. “New Mornings” features a repeated, vamping melody over a pulsing, high-energy rhythm that sounds like waking up and saying to yourself, “, here we go again.” But the relatively short solos — and the way the rest of the band gathers together supportively — winds up making it about resilience, not resignation.


Darcy James Argue's Secret Society - Dynamic Maximum Tension (Nonesuch)

Composer Darcy James Argue’s fourth release with his ultra-adventurous big band, the Secret Society, is their first in seven years, following 2016’s Real Enemies. What he does with large ensembles — the Secret Society, on this record, includes five trumpets, four trombones, five wind instruments (saxophones and/or flutes), electric guitar, piano, bass, and drums — is simply some of the most exciting music being made right now. The pieces throb and roar, ebb and flow, swing and rock. Sometimes it’s quiet, but it rises to tremendous crescendos, and there’s always some little sound tucked in the corner to surprise you. Some big bands just riff; the music pulses and the drummer gives it the illusion of forward movement. But Argue’s music shifts and whirls like an entire galaxy in orbit around itself, and it’s breathtaking to listen to. I love this record.


Fire! Orchestra - Echoes (Rune Grammofon)

Saxophonist Mats Gustafsson’s Fire! is a stripped-down trio with him on saxes and homemade electronics, Johan Berthling on bass, and Andreas Werliin on drums. Their music is grinding and heavy, pounding one-chord riffs into the ground like a pile-driver. Fire! Orchestra is those three dudes plus dozens of guests, and their music is lush, trance-inducing, and theatrical, featuring multiple vocalists, extra horns, strings and more. It swirls jazz, soul, and modern classical together into something that at its best reminds me of the work of the late Greg Tate’s improvising ensemble Burnt Sugar. This latest release, a 2xCD or 3xLP set, features 43 musicians in total, performing a single two-hour piece broken into seven movements and seven interludes with early ’70s blaxploitation movie soundtrack strings, a deep bass groove, plenty of singing, and some muscular soloing from Gustafsson.



James Brandon Lewis - Eye Of I (Anti-)

James Brandon Lewis is constantly challenging himself and putting a new spin on his art — different bands, different contexts, but always recognizably him. On this record, one of two he released in 2023, he’s backed by cellist Chris Hoffman — playing a highly distorted electric instrument — and drummer Max Jaffe, with cornet player Kirk Knuffke and keyboardist Shahzad Ismaily popping up here and there and one track, “Fear Not,” featuring the Messthetics (guitarist Anthony Pirog and Fugazi’s former rhythm section of bassist Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty). There’s a version of Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” that becomes a beautiful duo exchange between Knuffke and Lewis over a massive grinding roar from Hoffman and a kit-rattling backbeat from Jaffe. On “The Blues Still Blossoms” he takes big bites of a simple, emotionally resonant melody and his tone is so huge it recalls Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity.


Arooj Aftab/Vijay Iyer/Shahzad Ismaily - Love In Exile (Verve)

Pianist Vijay Iyer first performed with bassist Shahzad Ismaily and singer Arooj Aftab in 2018. It was a fully improvised encounter, and when it was over they all knew they’d have to do it again. Their debut album, which followed maybe a half dozen shows, is a hushed, meditative, and extraordinarily beautiful studio session. Iyer plays piano and electronics; Ismaily plays bass and keyboards; and Aftab sings in Urdu. The shortest track lasts eight minutes, the longest nearly 15. Aftab’s low, prayerful vocals are balanced by Iyer’s florid piano, as Ismaily rumbles between the two of them. The first track, “To Remain/To Return,” reminds me of Alice Coltrane’s devotional music from the ’80s, crossed with one of Keith Jarrett’s darker solo ECM albums. But really, there’s nothing else out there like this music. Give yourself over to it for its entire 72-minute running time, and see how you feel when it’s over.


Wadada Leo Smith & Orange Wave Electric - Fire Illumination (Kabell)

Wadada Leo Smith never seems to stop working. I’ve heard him in what feels like a hundred contexts, and his use of space and his piercing single notes allow him to cut through no matter who he’s playing with. On this digital-only album, he’s joined by guitarists Nels Cline, Brandon Ross, and his grandson Lamar Smith; bassists Bill Laswell and Melvin Gibbs; electronic musician Hardedge; drummer Pheeroan akLaff; and percussionist Mauro Refosco. The music has some of the same simmering, tiger-watching-you-from-the-shadows energy as portions of Miles Davis’ Get Up With It, but there’s a lot more going on here than just nods to the past. Smith and his collaborators bring electric jazz-rock (and dub, and ambient music) very much into the 21st century and even beyond. It’s a little disappointing that there’s no physical version of this record, but it’s a must-hear regardless.


Jason Moran - From The Dancehall To The Battlefield (Yes)

James Reese Europe, born in Alabama in 1881, was a classically trained violinist, a composer and a bandleader. During World War I, he fought as part of the 369th Infantry Regiment, better known as the Harlem Hell Fighters, and led the regimental band, which performed all over France and recorded for the Pathé label before returning to the US. His arrangements combined ragtime and military band music, set to a highly syncopated rhythm that you can hear the roots of swing in. It’s not jazz, but it’s a key step on the way to jazz, and it’s an amazing piece of Black American cultural history. On this album, Moran arranges new versions of Europe’s compositions, making the ties to jazz explicit — “Ballin’ The Jack” is combined with the late pianist Geri Allen’s “Feed The Fire,” and the spiritual “Flee As A Bird To Your Mountain” transitions seamlessly into Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts.” It’s amazing.


Irreversible Entanglements - Protect Your Light (Impulse!)

Irreversible Entanglements have come a long way since saxophonist Keir Neuringer, trumpeter Aquilles Navarro, bassist Luke Stewart, drummer Tcheser Holmes, and vocalist/electronic musician Camae Ayewa first joined forces in 2015. After three albums on Chicago indie label International Anthem, they’re now signed to Impulse!, and their latest record was tracked in part at the legendary Rudy Van Gelder studio in New Jersey. Protect Your Light is their most positive record to date, offering tributes to fallen friends, mantras for creating sustainable and welcoming communities, and paeans to universal love. The music includes Caribbean parade rhythms, dub effects, and special guests on piano, cello and vocals. They haven’t lost their edge, though; on “Our Land Back,” the horns and Janice A. Lowe’s piano waver mournfully and Ayewa sneers “Clueless outdated on sale and made of plastic/ Well, at least we’ve been to the moon,” a line worthy of the late Gil Scott-Heron.


Jaimie Branch - Fly Or Die Fly Or Die Fly Or Die ((World War)) (International Anthem)

Trumpeter jaimie branch’s third studio album, Fly Or Die Fly Or Die Fly Or Die ((World War)), was nearly complete when she died; her friends and bandmates finished it for her, and it’s an amazing record, showcasing her as a compelling and poetic vocalist and lyricist as well as a powerhouse trumpeter. She harmonizes with bassist Jason Ajemian on a version of the Meat Puppets’ “Comin’ Down” (retitled “The Mountain” here) that will bring tears to your eyes, and the album’s next-to-last track, “Take Over The World,” is a churning folk-punk eruption. Elsewhere, the arrangements are lush and carefully constructed, with additional instruments (flute, trombone, bass clarinet, marimba, timpani, conga and other percussion), some played by the group members and others by guests filling out the sound and making it the biggest, most colorful canvas Branch and her collaborators ever got to play with. She’ll be missed.


Matana Roberts - Coin Coin Chapter 5: In The Garden (Constellation)

Matana Roberts’ Coin Coin series is one of the great works of art of the 21st century. Each volume sounds radically different from the others, but they all flow together as manifestations of a single creative impulse. The fifth volume tells the story of a relative of Roberts’ who died in the 1920s following an illegal abortion. Roberts has combined family stories with their own research and has created a harrowing piece of spoken-word narrative art set to some really beautiful music performed by a large group of collaborators including punk/jazz drummer Mike Pride, pianist Cory Smythe, violinist Mazz Swift, TV On The Radio synth player Kyp Malone, alto saxophonist Darius Jones, and others. Roberts chants over and over, “My name is your name/ Our name is their name,” and as the protagonist tells her story, it becomes disturbingly clear how much she has in common with present-day women, and therefore how little has changed. This is a heartbreaking record, but it’s also deeply inspiring, a tale of thwarted but nevertheless undeniable resilience and determination.

from /www.stereogum.com

Edited by snobb - 14 Dec 2023 at 3:25am
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