Best Jazz Albums of 2023
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The 17 Best Jazz Albums of 2023

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 is swapped in for Adam Hopkins 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 DavisDiatom 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.