Best New Jazz of Autumn 2023
DARIUS JONES / Photo: Courtesy of the artist

JazzMatters: The Best New Jazz of Autumn 2023

Our jazz columnist chooses the best new jazz albums of Autumn 2023 while reflecting on a new documentary, Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity.


Since I started listening to jazz 50 years ago, Wayne Shorter has been a thread leading me to more adventure. I first heard him on the great Jazz Messengers recordings from the early 1960s. Roots & Herbs was recorded in 1961 (when I was just a few months old) but released in 1970, and the opening track was “Ping Pong”, a tune written by Shorter that made my head nod and feet tap like little else in my adolescent world. At the time, I didn’t know anything about how Shorter’s writing broke convention while still sounding so catchy. I just knew that the hypnotic piano figure (Bobby Timmons playing what sounded like the tune’s title) was hip and that when it exploded into a powerful flow of walking swing, I felt liberated. WOW. This was jazz.

Before long, I learned that this same guy — Wayne Shorter, with his big, muscular tenor saxophone sound on those Art Blakey records — had been in Miles Davis’ 1960s quintet, writing and playing material that was quite different: mysterious, snaking, and elusive, like “Dolores” and “Nefertiti”. I loved it all, and it became clear that Shorter was a beacon. I followed him into early fusion music with Davis (In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew) and with his new band Weather Report, into free improvisation with records like The Odyssey of Iska and Moto Grosso Feio, into Brazilian music with his album Native Dancer, … on and on it went.

This fall, Amazon Prime debuted Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity, a three-part documentary by Dorsay Alavi. It is several cuts above nearly every jazz biography. Sure, it has the standard interviews with critics, biographers, family, and peer musicians (including Shorter’s best friend, Herbie Hancock, who is in all these films) and a good amount of music, but it includes a great deal of Wayne himself, interviewed across 20 years. More importantly, this film is an intimate portrait of Shorter as a quirky, unique, creative genius — from his childhood fascination with science fiction and comic books to his allusive and whimsical style of communication later in life. Yes, Shorter was “The Neward Flash” because he played his horn with dazzling velocity and came on the scene seemingly out of nowhere — but he was also a self-styled superhero. We also see his teenaged saxophone case, labeled “Mr. Weird”.

WAYNE SHORTER / Photo: Tom Beetz / CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

At some point in the late 1970s and 1980s, Shorter seemed to disappear for a while behind Joe Zawinul’s Weather Report synthesizers and within Shorter’s solo albums that featured more electronics and longer-form compositions. I remember hearing the tune “Where or Wayne” on New Directions by Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition and thinking, Yeah, these great musicians are missing Wayne just like I am.

Watching Zero Gravity, I came around to thinking that the problem was not that Wayne Shorter had wandered off but just that I hadn’t caught up to him yet. After all, the music he made in 1961 was capturing me in 1976 — so why wouldn’t he be at least 15 years ahead of me all the time? After all, when I first heard Shorter’s 2018 album Emanon, I wasn’t enamored of hearing his quartet play with the Orpheus Chamber Ensemble. Shorter’s orchestral writing was not well-documented, and my ears were behind. When I heard his opera Iphegenia in North Adams, Massachusetts, in 2021, I was mostly baffled.

The documentary contained just enough footage of Wayne (along with his quartet of pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patatucci, and drummer Brian Blade) playing with an orchestra to melt my misunderstanding. Wayne was a cartoonist, musician, philosopher, and comedian. He was not a perfect human being, but he saw and felt the world in a powerful and unique way.

Zero Gravity was so good that he shook me out of my narrowness and laziness. Now that is a good piece of art.



James Brandon Lewis and the Red Lily Quintet – For Mahalia, with Love (September 2023, TAO Forms)

James Brandon Lewis has a potent tool in his Red Lily Quintet, with cornet specialist Kirk Knuffke, veteran bassist William Parker, Chad Taylor on drums, and cellist Chris Hoffman. The program here is a set of gospel tunes and spirituals associated with or inspired by the legendary singer Mahalia Jackson. The band are an elite improvising unit capable of creating attention-grabbing music from skeletal sources, so the relative simplicity of the harmonic and melodic material, combined with its emotional power, is ideal.

A classic like “Wade in the Water” might seem like a retread, but this band reveals it in many fresh ways. Despite the absence of a traditional “chording” instrument, the melody is freshly harmonized by the writing for brass, and the mournful melody is bounced into thrilling optimism by a Parker/Taylor groove that makes 6/8 time sound like a folk dance. Then, just as you think they will merely ride the joyous groove, the arrangement gets more introspective, featuring a melodic solo for Parher and the horns in quiet conversation. Another familiar melody, “Swing Low”, surprises as well, with a solo saxophone opening (Lewis alternating melody and an original accompanying figure) before the rhythm section takes the accompanying figure, recasts it for Hoffman’s cello, and then unleashes the full band in playing both elements in shifting perspective.

Every player on this quintet disc could be singled out, but on every listen, I find Hoffman to be quietly the most revelatory. Knuffke’s cornet is always logical and melodic, Parker and Taylor use time like magicians, and Lewis seems never to waste a note, but Hoffman has be toughest job. The cello has been around in jazz for decades, but it has rarely sounded this utterly at home. Hoffman uses the instrument’s strengths in so many ways — it can be a guitar-ish accompanist (“Wade”), it emerges playing pizzicato single-note melodies that work in between the walking bass and an improviser (“Go Down, Moses”), it can sound like a droning counterpoint in mode of a sitar or bagpipe (“Were You There”), and it can work within a low-voiced string section or generate more orchestral textures (“Calvary”). There isn’t a single track in this recital where the cello seems marginal. Lewis knows why he wants it there, elevating and grounding the music.

What makes For Mahalia, with Love so extraordinary is also related to how James Brandon Lewis writes for strings. Though many may have missed it as it is a “bonus disc” with the CD or LP version of the album, a six-part suite called “These Are Soulful Days” might be even more breathtaking than the quintet music. Written for string quartet (here, the Lutoslawski Quartet) and saxophone and performed at its world premiere in Poland at the Jazztopad Festival, “Soulful Days” is so skillfully imagined that Lewis’s tenor saxophone becomes entirely one with the quartet, seldom a voice “soloing” on top of a string chart.

In Movement I, we hear the quartet alone, then all five voices, then Lewis improvising, yes, but there is no lessening of intensity as the next section places string voices at the top of the ensemble. The written parts for strings incorporate tonal, atonal, and bent-note elements, giving them as much a claim to “soul” or “blues” elements as the horn. Movement III opens with a bass-line-like plucked triple-meter part for cello that would have come naturally from William Parker’s bass, which shocked and pleased me by including the melody to “Wade in the Water” — connecting this suite directly back to For Mahalia. The string writing here is both wild and beautiful, a swirl of licks and figures that propels Lewis upward in improvised excitement as surely as any drummer.

The last (ballad) movement is a romantic and melancholy thing that blooms into a gentle dance and then resolves to incredible beauty. I would have been thrilled to let it end there. Still, Lewis’s epilogue, “Resilience”, is a set of fireworks that lifts off, erupts into collective improvisation, and then lands us back on the ground, exhilarated. As an encore, Lewis plays three minutes of solo saxophone on the hymn “Take Me to Water”, which brings the entire project to a prayerful conclusion. And, well, if it doesn’t convince you that James Brandon Lewis is in the top rank of artists out there today, I don’t know what will.

Kate Gentile – Find Letter X (October 2023, Pi)

Drummer and composer Kate Gentile sits playfully and vitally at several intersections at once: composed and improvised “creative music”, electric and acoustic instrumentation, atonal “noise”, and dense harmony, a fascination with 1960s avant-garde jazz and heavy metal. But all of what she creates launches with intense musical imagination. She and her keyboard partner Matt Mitchell (they are the band Snark Horse, and they have been crucial to each other’s solo recordings) are also simultaneously maximalists and minimalists — often creating huge bodies of work that are meted out in scores of short bursts, such as Snark Horse’s six-CD collection, built on musical fragments.

Find Letter X is not only another triple-disc torrent of astonishing music, but it is also written for and performed by Gentile, Mitchell (piano, synths, and electronics), bassist Kim Cass, and reed specialist Jeremy Viner — the band that made Gentile’s Mannequins the most astonishing debut of the century so far. The new collection is just as good — a fertile and fun record that demonstrates beyond question that this kind of genre-slashing New Jazz is a playground more than it is a final exam.

Gentile’s writing for this razzle-dazzle group is as complex as it is compelling, but there is nothing that seems merely complex, even as the band scampers through strange (and shifting) time signatures or melodies that seem like the unfolding strings that physicists theorize being at the center of atoms. A composition like “recursive access” is so firmly anchored in a fat acoustic bass line by Cass that you barely notice — or, actually, just DIG — the shifts in time that Mitchell and Viner ride over with an attractive melody and jagged improvising.

Similarly, “open epoch” has a busy shirting meter on the bottom and a breezy melodic lead for clarinet, while “prismatoid” features a more propulsive line and a powerful rhythm groove that could have come from the pen of Wayne Shorter but lurches with stop-start strangeness that is Gentile’s own. She is, after all, a drummer, and her style of playing syncs with her composing: she is both a wonderfully jazzy player whose touch one cymbals and snare reminds me of Elvin Jones and a super-precise timekeeper who would have no trouble matching fusioneers like Dave Weckl. On the largely acoustic tracks, the sound of the piano trio is positively classic — Mitchell uses a dazzling touch on piano, Cass roams but always ties the groove to solid earth, and Gentile is both in constant dialog with the melody and a magical colorist.

Colors also come from the ingenious use of Mitchell’s synth textures and Viner’s agility on both tenor sax and clarinet. The woodwind overtones on the gentle “subsurface” mix well with Mitchell’s piano voicings and Gentile’s quirky hand percussion. The tune “r.a.t.b.o.t.B” kicks off the more electronic second disc with a surefooted synth pattern that twines together with Viner at his most muscular on tenor, creating a dark maelstrom. On some tracks, the synth and sax work together on a melody (“garbage juice”) like a trumpet/sax pairing on an old Blue Note date — but most of Mitchell’s “solos” are on piano, though they may come amidst electronic experimentation. A favorite track for me is “… va zisroas”, where the wandering acoustic piano works in tandem with Viner’s clarinet and a crackling synth sound such that it becomes hard to hear them as separate sounds.

At three hours and 16 minutes, Find Planet X is impossible to summarize. When Cass is on electric bass and Mitchell is sticking to his Prophet (“zislupme tnilyive tsoam ath​.​.​.”, which I think you can read phonetically backward for vague meaning), the proceedings are the hippest metal you’ve ever heard. When the band leans more into chordal movement and more supple drumming, you can almost convince yourself that pianist Andrew Hill has risen from the grave to make a wild new album. Happily, there are plenty of moments where all the elements are present at once, as in “Jupiter vs. the Sun”, which slides from an acoustic funk to electronic impressionism.