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    Posted: 20 Dec 2023 at 8:18am

Music Feature: The Best Jazz Albums and Live Shows of 2023

December 20, 2023|Leave a Comment 

Compiled by Bill Marx

The magazine’s jazz critics look back over the past year and highlight their favorite albums and live shows.

Cover art for Kris Davis’ album, Diatom Ribbons: Live at the Village Vanguard

Michael Ullman

Here in no absolute order are the albums, or some of them, that I particularly enjoyed over the past year. They are certainly varied, with tributes to gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and composer Igor Stravinsky, both of whom I discovered in high school. The James P. Johnson opera De Organizer features lyrics by Langston Hughes. Johnson himself recorded “The Hungry Blues” much earlier. These new excerpts are welcome…and unforgettable. The Sonny Clark includes the famous, but often difficult to find Dial S for Sonny. Bostonians are lucky to hear pianist Laszlo Gardony on a regular basis. But really these choices are largely self-explanatory.

  1. Kris Davis, Diatom Ribbons: Live at the Village Vanguard
  2. Henry Threadgill, The Other One
  3. Myra Melford, Hear the Light Singing
  4. Sullivan Fortner, Solo/Game
  5. Matthew Shipp, The Intrinsic Nature of Matthew Shipp
  6. Linda May Han Oh, The Glass Hours
  7. James Brandon Lewis, To Mahalia, With Love
  8. Sylvie Courvoisier, Corey Smyth, The Rite of Spring-Spectre d’un songe
  9. Laszlo Gardony, Close Connection
  10. Kevin Hays, Billy Street, Billy Hart, Bridges
  11. Jason Moran and Marcus Gilmore, Refract
  12. James P Johnson, De Organizer excerpts; The Dreamy Kid excerpts

Vocal album:

1. Cécile McLorin Salvant, Mélusine

2..Sara Serpa, Night Birds


1. Miguel Zenon and Luis Perdomo, El Art Del Bolero Volume 2

2. Aruon Ortiz, Serranias

Historical reissues:

Sonny Clark, The Complete Sonny Clark Blue Note Sessions

John Coltrane/ Eric Dolphy, Evenings at the Village Gate

Wes Montgomery, Maximum Swing: The Unissued 1965 Half Note Recordings

Alan Michie

Here are some of my favorites from the new releases in 2023. I’m not saying that all of them are necessarily timeless classics, and I’m certainly not saying that I had the time to give every possible release equal consideration. They’re just the ones that I personally enjoyed for one reason or another, and I think you might enjoy them, too.

Marc Jordan, Waiting for the Sun to Rise (Linus)

In my review for the Arts Fuse, I wrote: “There are plenty of other rewarding musical moments throughout the album — the lush arrangement of an elemental melody on “The Downtown Lights,” hallucinatory lyrics that accent the slinky jazz feel of “Coltrane Plays the Blues,” the inventive chord progressions and piano harmonies on “Cradle to the Grave,” and the brief instrumental interludes that make this more of a concept album than a collection of tunes. On the title song, the poetic lyrics fit perfectly into the rises and falls of the melody, which track like natural speech patterns. . . . Waiting for the Sun to Rise is an elegant discovery, and it only gets better with repeated listening. This is an album to grow old with.”

Alex Hamburger, What If?

As I wrote for the Arts Fuse, “Alex Hamburger has her own style, with evocative compositions and ethereal flute playing. It’s improvisatory jazz, but it’s informed by trance music, fusion, and world music without ever dissolving into New Age noodling. . . . These tracks are full of imagination, showcasing the versatility of these musicians. What If? Is cool, trippy, imaginative music from iconoclasts with vision and style.”

Bill Evans, Tales: Live in Copenhagen (1964) (Elemental)

In my Arts Fuse Review, alongside another excellent but very different set from Les McCann, I wrote, “As for Evans himself, what more can be said? He’s an absolute pillar of inventive, sensitive, intelligent, and imaginative playing on every track, every session, every year. He plays with deep focus and concentration so that not a solo phrase or part of an accompaniment behind others goes by without his harmonic and/or rhythmic fingerprint. If you’re looking for a representative entry way into Evans’s genius, listen to “My Foolish Heart,” a fine example of his famous flexibility of touch and his instantly recognizable sound.”

Samara Joy, “A Joyful Holiday, Featuring the McLendon Family” Austin, Texas, Bass Concert Hall, December 3

In my Arts Fuse review, I wrote, “At 22 years old, Joy is in her early prime, full of ideas, unjaded, and as surprised as anyone else at her own success. She sang every song like she meant it, and she was brought to tears three times (and held it back several times more). She uncorked her gospel pipes, the likes of which probably haven’t been heard on mainstream secular stages since Aretha Franklin.”

Allen Michie works in higher education administration in Austin, Texas. He’s the moderator of the Jazztodon.com instance on Mastodon and the Miles Davis Discussion Group on Facebook. You can read an archive of his essays and reviews allenmichie.medium.com.

Paul Robicheau

Shakti at Boch Center Wang Theatre. Photo: Paul Robicheau

Shakti, Boch Center Wang Theatre, Aug. 17. Guitar virtuoso John McLaughlin thankfully bypassed retirement to resurrect his pioneering world-fusion ensemble with tabla maestro Zakir Hussain. Its highly produced reunion album This Moment only hinted at the group’s telepathic force in concert, merging Eastern ragas and vocal flights with Western jazz and even a funky touch of blues, McLaughlin’s zippy bursts topped by an astounding finale of percussion solos.

Here’s my preview and a clip from a Nashville webcast.

Ambrose Akinmusire’s Owl Song with Bill Frisell, Groton Hill Music Center, Oct. 19. Bill Frisell was featured in two groups on this night at Groton’s monolithic new musical oasis, but the primary highlight was hearing the trio Owl Song ahead of its pensive debut album. Akinmusire’s lush trumpet meshed with Frisell’s guitar and Herlin Riley’s drums in sparse, meditative strokes suggestive of passing clouds.

Samara Joy and Joshua Redman’s Moodswing quartet, Newport Jazz Festival, Aug. 6. It’s hard to outshine icon Herbie Hancock, but these two performances transcended on the fest’s final day. A 30th anniversary reunion of Joshua Redman, Christian McBride, Brad Mehldau and Brian Blade reflected the growth of those all-star players with a rare sense of tone, space and momentum. The irrepressible Joy proved even more stunning, showing her Best New Artist Grammy was well-deserved as she injected verve and sweetness into the trad-jazz vocal canon.

Fire Jelly, the Red Room at Café 939, Nov. 8. Electric keyboardist John Medeski and microtonal guitarist Dave Fiuczynski have long crossed paths, from their 1994 outing Lunar Crush to turns with collective Club d’elf. But their volatile fusion trio with drummer Calvin Weston (Ornette Coleman, James “Blood” Ulmer) took the crossfire to a higher level, with occasional Berklee guests on bass guitar, keys and Japanese drums, denotating tunes by John Zorn and Tony Williams along the way.

Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war)). A tragedy to lose this brashly expressive trumpeter last year at age 39, but she leaves an inspiring last testament in her third album, its mixing finished by her sister and her cello-bass-drums bandmates. A fierce improvisor/composer, Branch stirs the pot with free jazz, calypso, sound toys, Meat Puppets’ Americana and political fervor, bringing a DIY edge to singing as well. As she implores in one song, “Don’t forget to fight.”

Steve Feeney

Top Ten Albums of 2023

Kris Davis – Diatom Rhythms: Live at the Village Vanguard (Pyroclastic Records)

Myra Melford – Hear the Light Singing (RogueArt)

Zoh Amba/Chris Corsano/Bill Orcutt – The Flower School (Palilalia Records)

Rob Brown Quartet – Oblongata (RogueArt)

Irreversible Entanglements – Protect Your Light (Impulse)

Darius Jones – fluXkit Vancouver (ITS-SUITE but sacred) – (We Jazz/Northern Spy)

Aruán Ortiz – Pastor’s Paradox (Cleanfeed)

James Brandon Lewis – For Mahalia, With Love (TAO Forms)

Henry Threadgill Ensemble – The Other One (PI Recordings)

Dave Liebman – Live at Smalls (Cellar Music Group)

Jon Garelick

Best Live Shows 2023

These were some of my favorite shows in 2023. There was so much more good stuff that I saw, and so much other good stuff that I missed.

In chronological order:

Jason Moran at the Berklee Performance Center. Photo: Celebrity Series/Robert Torres

Jason Moran and the Big Bandwagon tribute to James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters, Celebrity Series of Boston, Berklee Performance Center, February 17

Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra, at Berklee Performance Center, March 6

Terri Lyne Carrington + Social Science, at Berklee Performance Center, March 24

Tuba Skinny, Rockport Music, at Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport, Mass., August 30

Mehmet Alí Sanlíkol & Whatsnext?, with Anat Cohen and Miguel Zénon, Global Arts Live, at Crystal Ballroom, Somerville, September 28

Billy Harper Quintet, at Scullers, October 20

Nellie McKaye, at the Regattabar, October 27

Bill Charlap Trio, at the Regattabar, November 4

Immanuel Wilkins Quartet, at the Regattabar, December 1

Ember, at the Lilypad, December 13

Steve Elman

I never hear enough recorded music during the year to presume to name “best CDs,” but of the ones I did hear, these stand out for great performances, historical importance, or both.

Pulitzer prize-winning composer Wadada Leo Smith Photo: Micheal Jackson.

Wadada Leo Smith: String Quartets 1 – 12  (TUM, 2022, 6 CDs), RedKoral Quartet and guests – A landmark: the first recording of a cycle of innovative string quartets by a composer primarily known for his work in jazz. The set was released last year but remains very important.

Wes Montgomery and the Wynton Kelly Trio, with Jimmy Cobb: Maximum Swing: The Unissued 1965 Half Note Recordings (Resonance) – Finally, the release of more recordings by a quartet of remarkable players whose time together was all too brief. The restoration of these broadcast and private recordings is superb, but the music . . . oh, what music.

Felipe Salles Interconections Ensemble: Home is Here (Tapestry) – The accomplished saxophonist-composer presents here a “multi-movement original music work” dealing with immigration and naturalization in the US. The program does not hamper the music, which is consistently inventive and beautifully played.

Mary Lou Williams: Zodiac Suite (Mack Avenue), played by The Knights, with pianist Aaron Diehl – The Knights and Aaron Diehl have delivered the recording this music has deserved for decades. It’s a sensitive and fully-realized performance of an important major work by a perennially neglected figure in jazz.

Don Byas: Classic Don Byas Sessions 1944 – 1946 (Mosaic, 10 CDs) – An arrival late in the year, but just in time for this spotlight. Tenor master Byas, who liked to say that he played the sexophone, is given the full Mosaic treatment, that is to say, his collection is a superbly curated selection of beautifully remastered material. It concentrates on some of Byas’s most important formative years, a time when he was building his craft and reputation. This set has the great commercial recordings from this period, including multiple takes of “Candy,” one of his signature ballads, and multiple takes of his astonishing performance of “I Got Rhythm.” But there’s more: two and a half CDs of live recordings, with excellent fidelity, made at the apartment of the “jazz baron,” benefactor and patron Baron Timme Rosenkrantz. The material here includes a full set featuring the young Thelonious Monk backing (really, leading) Byas and others in an inspired jam session. Plus broadcast recordings, exhaustive notes, great photographs – in short, another collector’s item. But caveat: the press run is limited to 5000 copies, and the recording is only sold through the Mosaic website.

Live Performances

April 1: Craig Taborn, piano and Tomeka Reid, cello at Crystal Ballroom, Somerville (a Celebrity Series concert, part of the “Stave Sessions”) – A program of untitled duets, largely free-form (but not entirely so, as the preview had suggested). A very few prepared ideas (unison figures played by both) were jumping-off points, but the music made its own shape. Taborn and Reid were luminous, in their clarity, intelligence, simpatico, and open-heartedness.

December 14: Ran Blake and Friends at Killian Hall, MIT – An all-too-rare opportunity to hear one of Boston’s great masters in an intimate setting. Like many Blake-led evenings in the long past, this was a soiree crafted by the pianist-composer, who called on NEC students and friends as performers to help him celebrate his love for his late cat, DekTor. If that theme seems less than profound, the music was anything but, and it was capped by a short but feeling portrait of his friend by Blake himself, performing, as he prefers, in almost total darkness.

December 15: Sheila Jordan and the Yoko Miwa Trio at The Mad Monkfish, Central Square, Cambridge – Every performance by nonagenarian Jordan is one to cherish, and Monkfish has shown praiseworthy commitment, giving her annual opportunities to perform here in eastern Massachusetts. Jordan’s voice has been pared down a bit by the weight of years, but her joie de chanter on stage and her boundless optimism simply defy time. Miwa is a wonderful accompanist, and her work with Jordan over the years has made her trio ideal partners for the singer. All of them are more extrovert when they are at center stage, but they showed admirable reserve and reverence for a living legend in this club date. Miwa herself, bassist Brad Barrett and drummer Scott Goulding had just enough opportunities to shine.

from https://artsfuse.org

Edited by snobb - 20 Dec 2023 at 8:20am
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