The 10 best jazz albums of 2023
Wayne Shorter, one of a few musical sages who left our earthly plane this year, had a standard take on the subject of finality. "To me, there's no such thing as a finished anything," Shorter, the august saxophonist and composer, liked to say. By his estimation, there was also no such thing as a beginning or an ending. It's a mindset I've struggled to embrace since reckoning with Shorter's departure in early spring, and making the cross-country pilgrimage to an all-star memorial concert in late summer.
Like many of us, I had a year of listening defined by season and circumstance. I communed extensively with Shorter's music, not only as a way of processing my emotions but also because it kept surrendering new truths — partly as a matter of course, but also because of the many enticing details in Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity, an immersive three-part documentary that arrived on Amazon Prime in August. Considering the many splendors of Shorter's musical life was a welcome reminder of how much space there is to move within this art form, how many layers and levels are still waiting to be found.
Looking back on 2023, my mind turns first and foremost to the moments that felt supercharged with that spirit of discovery. I think about two live encounters with Irreversible Entanglements — a band that fiercely challenges every strain of complacency, not least on a studio album, Protect Your Light, that came close to making the list below. I recall another uncontainable band I saw on two separate occasions: Christian McBride's New Jawn, unpacking another terrific new release, Prime. And I reflect on a series of revelations involving Tyshawn Sorey, either at the helm of his own music or with collaborators like Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman and Linda May Han Oh (each of whom also released excellent albums this year, in case you weren't aware).
The 10 best jazz albums of 2023, according to my own idiosyncratic calculus, capture something of that spark, too. But just as importantly, these are recordings that I kept within easy reach throughout the year, returning to them often — for comfort or for challenge, or for more inexplicable reasons. They appear in loosely ranked order below; I trust this selection because it has already stood up to all manner of second-guessing, and I can only be true to my lived experience. So it's official: The list has been finalized. Just don't call it finished.
Meshell Ndegeocello The Omnichord Real Book
For Those Who Like: Afrofuturism, cosmic vibes, self-care
The Story: Meshell Ndegeocello, the uncompromising singer-songwriter and electric bass magus often credited as an early catalyst for neo-soul, was apprehensive about making a jazz album. She still doesn't claim to have made one, exactly. But her slow-burn Blue Note debut as a leader — inspired by the memory of her parents, as well as her first Real Book, bequeathed by her father a lifetime ago — does feature visiting jazz dignitaries like harpist Brandee Younger and guitarist Jeff Parker. With them, Ndegeocello pursues a synthesis of searching interiority and improvisatory communion that abides by the spirit of jazz, whatever you choose to call it.
The Music: I hailed The Omnichord Real Book as "a coolly transfixing album" in my NPR Music review, and that description held fast through two live encounters with Ndegeocello and her band this year. There's rarely a moment of evident exertion here, but you'll find masterly composure all over the place, especially in the calibration that brings various points of the Black-music cosmology — P-Funk, Sun Ra, Fela, Prince and more — into alignment as a glowing new constellation. Ndegeocello isn't seeking to knock anyone out with musical fireworks; what she's after is intrigue, which always leaves something to the imagination, prompting a listener to go deeper. As she urges on "Perceptions," a hymn grounded by Jason Moran's bittersweet pianism: "Don't let the outside world / Distract you from your inner world."
Darcy James Argue's Secret Society Dynamic Maximum Tension
For Those Who Like: Big bands, progress, systems theory
The Story: Darcy James Argue, a composer devoted to jazz's tradition of large-ensemble orchestration, moved to Brooklyn 20 years ago, after earning his masters at the New England Conservatory. His mentor there, Bob Brookmeyer, is one of the heroes invoked on Dynamic Maximum Tension, Argue's fourth and most ambitious release; among the others are jazz forebear Duke Ellington, architectural futurist Buckminster Fuller, cryptographer Alan Turing and Hollywood trailblazer Mae West. These figures haunt the complex machinery and political agency of Argue's music, daringly executed by the Secret Society, his 18-piece band.
The Music: Sprawling to nearly two hours, Dynamic Maximum Tension is a beast of an album, by design; that's the maximalist aesthetic hinted at in the title. As for the dynamism and tension — Argue expertly deploys those elements in each and every one of his compositions, charting a willfully intrepid course through the landscape. His Secret Society has honed a rare degree of collective flexibility, and it's well-stocked with aces, like saxophonist Dave Pietro and trombonist Ryan Keberle, who know how to make an impression. However emphatically modern his approach, Argue has written a love letter to the big band tradition, honoring a time-honored musical language with myriad new inflections.
Jason Moran From the Dancehall to the Battlefield
For Those Who Like: Black history, syncopation, portals
The Story: James Reese Europe was a composer, bandleader and organizer who cut a pioneer's path for African American music and musicians, both at home in New York City and abroad during the first world war. His legacy inspired pianist Jason Moran to create this riveting tribute, which reclaims the marches and rags of Europe's era — and the indomitable fire of the all-Black 369th Infantry Regiment ("The Harlem Hellfighters") — as a renewable resource. As in a lot of other concept-driven work by Moran, this is an album that slips into the seams of history, retrieving truths that carry both urgency and possibility for us today.
The Music: Originating as a multimedia concert piece about five years ago, From the Dancehall to the Battlefield has had plenty of time to coalesce. Its core is still The Bandwagon, Moran's elastic trio with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits; saxophones and brass add spirited heft. History unfolds as a continuum: Hear how "Darktown Strutter's Ball" begins in antique style, with a clackety-clack of woodblocks, only to shift into the sort of hypnotic loop that Moran adapted from hip-hop protocols. The album's cinematic sweep reflects his command of form and his gift for curation, both of which come fused with a potent sense of justice.
Darius Jones fLuXkit Vancouver (i̶t̶s suite but sacred)
For Those Who Like: Astringency, spiky chamber music, conceptual art
The Story: Saxophonist Darius Jones created this music on a commission from Western Front, an artist-run residency in Vancouver, whose experimental legacy he took to heart. He was especially drawn to the Fluxus movement and its concept of the "fluxkit," in which artists would gather an assortment of printed matter and readymades in a box, like a portable museum. With that ideal in mind, Jones composed music for an improvising string ensemble plus sax and drums, and incorporated new work by the artist Stan Douglas and poet Harmony Holiday — a mini-society formed around his rigorous and revelatory sounds.
The Music: The raw, full-throated cry of Jones' alto saxophone has long been one of the visceral pleasures of the improvising avant-garde. On this galvanic and challenging album, he nestles that sound within a shifting picture — bonding not only with a regular partner, the brilliant drummer Gerald Cleaver, but also with cellist Peggy Lee, double bassist James Meger and the brothers Zubot (Jesse and Josh) on violin. At any given moment, it's unclear where Jones' intricate ensemble writing ends and the collective improv begins. That unknowing is the point, sharpening the senses even as it leads a listener farther into the labyrinth.
Allison Miller Rivers in Our Veins
For Those Who Like: Watersheds, tap dance, folklore
The Story: Commissioned by Mid Atlantic Arts and the Lake Placid Center for the Arts, Rivers In Our Veins began as a multimedia performance piece with a message of conservation and renewal. Drummer and composer Allison Miller, drawing on personal history with several east coast waterways, enlisted some of her closest collaborators, like violinist Jenny Scheinman and clarinetist Ben Goldberg, to bring the project to life. Her warm, lyrical writing leaves room for the percussion of several tap dancers, whose inclusion feels perfectly natural.
The Music: Miller has always been a drummer-bandleader of irresistible groove, and the trust she has cultivated among her musical family runs deep. The aforementioned Scheinman and Goldberg join a few others — bassist Todd Sickafoose, pianist Carmen Staaf and trumpeter Jason Palmer — in embodying the ebullient spirit of Miller's tunes. And the tap dancers, including Michelle Dorrance and Claudia Rahardjanoto, are deftly integrated, the opposite of a distraction. This is joyful music with a folkloric heart, but only the most accomplished players could make it feel so effortless and inexorable, like a current pulling steadily downstream.
Kris Davis Diatom Ribbons Live at the Village Vanguard
For Those Who Like: Live albums, Musique concrète, Julian Lage
The Story: Four years ago, pianist Kris Davis topped the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll with Diatom Ribbons, a sleek, surprising album she made in collaboration with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and turntablist Val Jeanty. This double album chronicles an engagement at the Village Vanguard in 2022, with the project's three principals joined by Trevor Dunn on bass and Julian Lage on guitar. The result is a more open and expansive take on Davis' concept, which throws its arms around the music of Eric Dolphy, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Olivier Messiaen (among others).
The Music: Even in a notably strong year for albums made in jazz's greatest club — seek out worthy entries by guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, saxophonists Mark Turner and Chris Potter, and pianist Fred Hersch with singer esperanza spalding — this one looms as a standout. Davis has never sounded more energized or extroverted at the piano, and Jeanty's sampled spoken-word interpolations add a layer of stylish mystique. Every member of the ensemble leans into the promise of an avant-gardism that offers multiple points of entry, at once volatile and inviting.
John Zorn Homenaje a Remedios Varo
For Those Who Like: Surrealism, surprises, Julian Lage
The Story: The Spanish-born mid-century artist Remedios Varo is most often remembered as a surrealist, for the visionary quality of her paintings and drawings, and her outspoken devotion to the dream world. She's just the sort of figure to inspire a tribute from John Zorn, the wildly prolific, willfully eclectic composer who turned 70 this year. As is often the case of late, he doesn't play on the album — entrusting the execution instead to a crisply expressive quartet.
The Music: There's a common misperception about Zorn's music, that it's all about transgression and convulsion, with skronk to spare. That isn't totally off the mark, but it's woefully incomplete. Homenaje a Remedios Varo features a virtuoso effort by Brian Marsella on piano, Jorge Roeder on bass, Ches Smith on drums and especially Julian Lage on guitar (who graced a few other Zorn albums this year, along with the Kris Davis album above and his own trio effort, The Layers). Their negotiation of Zorn's turn-on-a-dime compositions is heroic, but they also know how to bring the proper grace and humility to a pastoral hymn like "Patience."
Sullivan Fortner Solo Game
For Those Who Like: Piano, standards, post-impressionism
The Story: Pianist Sullivan Fortner has had a career you could describe as both high-profile and low-key: He won the prestigious Cole Porter Fellowship in 2015, the same year he released his debut album on a major label. But if you've experienced him in performance — especially on his own or alongside singer Cécile McLorin Salvant — you know that his genius hasn't been adequately captured on record. The double album Solo Game comes pretty darn close, thanks to his sparkling playing, his rangy repertory and the focusing input of his producer and former teacher, Fred Hersch, who knows a thing or two about pacing a solo piano recital.
The Music: Fortner's sensitivity of touch and tone (something he has in common with Hersch) comes as handsomely presented here as a gemstone on a velvet cushion. And because Disc 1 is an assortment of first takes, there's a dazzling air of spontaneity to the performances, whether on a show tune like "I'm All Smiles" or a soul standard like Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing." Disc 2 delivers a hard left turn, with synths, prepared piano, percussion and wordless vocals, in a series of spacey miniatures that underscore Fortner's expeditionary side.
Tyshawn Sorey Trio Continuing
For Those Who Like: Piano, standards, Ahmad Jamal
The Story: Even as his intensely focused compositions continue to earn acclaim within the classical realm, Tyshawn Sorey retains his foothold in the bedrock jazz tradition. He's a calmly observant drummer in his own trio, which features the meticulous pianist Aaron Diehl and the deeply intuitive bassist Matt Brewer. Following their winsome first outing, 2022's Mesmerism, the group has returned with a set of just four songs, one for each side of a 45-rpm double LP.
The Music: There's a delicious tension in Sorey's trio, a sensation of explosive energies pulsing beneath every placid surface. When I caught the band at the Village Vanguard one evening this fall, that push-pull often found Diehl teetering on the far threshold of control (a thrilling thing to hear, from a musician of such exceptional poise). That live experience surely informed my love of Continuing; so too does the prescient inclusion of songs by Wayne Shorter and Ahmad Jamal, two masters we lost this year. Pianist Harold Mabern, who died in 2019, also has a tune in the track list. Sorey pays these masters an homage that feels palpably sincere.
Mendoza Hoff Revels Echolocation
For Those Who Like: Darkness, shredding, Sonny Sharrock
The Story: The product of a pact between guitarist Ava Mendoza and bassist Devin Hoff, Echolocation is a gnarly, ferocious album of the sort that used to define an iconoclast Downtown Scene (cf. Zorn, above). But the album isn't a throwback, nor an attack on someone else's orthodoxy; Mendoza and Hoff, working in rugged lockstep with tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis and drummer Ches Smith, are merely chasing their vision, with absolute unyielding conviction.
The Music: Buckle up: Echolocation is a blast furnace of an album, with Mendoza leaning heavily into distortion. (Hoff too, in fact.) There's obvious precedent for this in the incandescent jazz-rock of Sonny Sharrock and certain John McLaughlin, and more recently the metallic prog-jazz of Hedvig Mollestad. But the tunes are distinctly shaped by Hoff and Mendoza's sensibilities, and indelibly stamped by the foursome, which sounds unmistakably like a band. Lewis — whose own two 2023 releases, Eye of I and For Mahalia, With Love, would appear on an extended list — delivers an incredible performance from inside the heart of the storm.
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