Best New Jazz of February and March 2023
CHRIS POTTER / Photo: Edition Records

JazzMatters: The Best New Jazz of February and March 2023

Our jazz columnist chooses the best new jazz albums of the past two months while reflecting on the passing of Wayne Shorter and the Grammy Awards.

Wayne Shorter: Legend, Rises Above

On 2nd March, the universe beyond this daily life received the searching, creative spirit of composer and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, born in 1933.

Shorter only started playing the clarinet at 16, which seems like a late start, but he became a complete and unique stylist on the early side. In quick succession, he played with Horace Silver, Maynard Ferguson, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and the Miles Davis Quintet of the 1960s. With Blakey and Davis, Shorter was an essential composer who redefined jazz harmony (favoring open, modal-sounding chords and patterns), used novel structures, and had a knack for memorable melodies and patterns. He also made a series of recordings as a leader in the 1960s on Blue Note that remains some of the best jazz of that (or any) decade: Night Dreamer, Juju, Speak No Evil, Schizophrenia, and The Odyssey of Iska are my favorites, but there are ten that are worth your time. Of the songs he wrote in that decade, as many as 20 are classic standards, including “Dolores”, “Nefertiti”, “Yes or No”, “Witch Hunt”, “Infant Eyes”, “Footprints” and “Ping Pong”.

If he had stopped playing and composing after leaving the Davis band around 1970, his place in the music would be titanic. But he had almost 50 more years of accomplished creativity still ahead. Many fans know him as the saxophonist for Weather Report, a fusion band that would go on to play arenas. His tunes “Mysterious Traveler” and “Elegant People” showed another side of Shorter as a musical mind, and his 1975 solo album Native Dancer was a collaboration with Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento, featuring more gorgeous composing (“Ana Maria” and “Beauty and the Beast”). In the decade after Weather Report broke up, his recordings used synthesizers and funk grooves, disappointing some who hoped Shorter would return to “classic” jazz. Critics treated these albums unkindly, but time redeems them. They sound less like “jazz” and contain less improvising, perhaps, but check out Atlantis from 1985 and High Life from 1995, with their more sumptuous compositional approaches, deploying voices, woodwinds, electronics, and orchestral elements.

Wayne Shorter
Photo: @ Tom Beetz / CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

During this time, he was also a critical collaborator with other artists, including Joni Mitchell (he appeared on a beautiful string of her studio albums, becoming something of a doppelganger for her category-busting late-career vocal art), Herbie Hancock (his Davis bandmate and best friend), and that single, unforgettable solo on Steely Dan’s “Aja”, which he apparently nailed in a single take.

Though Shorter convened an acoustic quartet in the early 2000s that was his most adventurous and long-standing working band, the music of his next two decades was never a throwback. The quartet (Danilo Perez on piano, Brian Blade on drums, and John Patitucci on bass) played old tunes like “Footprints”, sure, but also interpreted new songs, collaborated with orchestras, and even participated in performances of Shorter’s opera, Iphegenia, composed with Esperanza Spalding. The last complete album from the band in 2018, Emanon, included a graphic novel; Alegria from 2003 used an orchestra as fluidly as any jazz recording ever, and 2005’s Beyond the Sound Barrier may be the best and freest reimagining of small group improvising in the last three decades.

There isn’t a moment, including on the record that came out last year from a live concert at the Detroit Jazz Festival in 2017 (see Shorter’s Grammy, mentioned below, shared with pianist Leo Genovese), when his prowess as a player seems diminished in either conception or execution. Though he started playing more soprano saxophone than tenor late in his tenure with Davis (and then with his electric bands), he remained a master of both horns until the end—capable of percussive bleats, serpentine runs, beautifully held notes on ballads, and anything else he could imagine.

As a musician, Wayne Shorter seemed to be eternal. I barely noticed him getting older. When I saw the quartet play in concert a dozen years ago, Shorter seemed on fire—a true bandleader on the stage. In interviews, he was mysterious, wise, funny, and whimsical, qualities his friends were always aware of. Shorter was by all accounts a nerd-genius from Newark, New Jersey all along, fascinated by comics and science fiction early on, a Buddhist, and a philosopher later in life. He lost a 14-year-old daughter to a grand mal seizure in 1986 and then his wife and niece in the tragic crash of TWA Flight 800 one decade later, but Shorter’s view of the universe never tarnished. Tina Turner even credits Shorter and his wife Ana Maria with saving her life by taking her in after she left Ike in 1976. He was, by all appearances, a man of remarkable kindness.

When celebrities and artists pass on, it feels like a hole opens up in the fabric of our lives. The void left by Wayne Shorter is huge for me because—even at 89—he was a productive and revelatory creative force. I am not missing his memory, but the possibilities he still represented. In the last 15 months, I watched an early performance of Iphigenia, thrilled to see what “Mr. Gone” was up to.

The confession I have is this: I didn’t much care for Iphigenia, but that doesn’t diminish Wayne Shorter in the least. I had to catch up to his brilliance many times. He was always ahead of the pack, smiling and playing astonishing music. Every sound he ever recorded repays a careful review—it will bring you joy all over again. And again. 

It isn’t over yet, because Shorter’s influence on younger musicians is among the most important in the history of this music. That is why, as he certainly knew, death doesn’t diminish him. The hole he leaves is being sewn up right now by a teenager listening to “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” or “The Three Marias” for the first time and thinking, “Wow, that’s incredible. I wonder if I could learn that tune.”

Jazz and the Grammys

I have always loved awards shows because so many do: to see some stars on display and to gnash my teeth over the injustices visited upon my favorite artists by an out-of-touch academy. That second part, well, it is silly, we all know—but we do it.

These days, the big-time artists on the Grammys broadcast aren’t the ones I always pine to see, so I am left to gnashing. Of course, the “jazz” awards aren’t presented on the show, and you can nitpick them as much as you like. The very existence of the category “Best Improvised Jazz Solo” fascinates me. How could the Academy or its voters, even its most discerning “jazz” voters, compare the tens of thousands (or more?) of recorded improvisations in a given year and then decide which were “best”?

The nominee list in any given year is hard to fathom; this year, it included Gerald Albright, playing an off-the-shelf-generic smooth jazz solo, drummer Marcus Baylor playing an unaccompanied live solo, pianist John Beasley playing briefly over “Cherokee” changes with a big band, and two “new jazz” adventures from trumpeter Ambrose Akimmusire and saxophonist Melissa Aldana. The winner was the pair of soloists Wayne Shorter and pianist Leo Genovese on “Endangered Species” from the release of a live show from 2017, also including Esperanza Spalding and Terri Lyne Carrington—a very hip choice because the two artists truly improvise together magically. Still, how on earth did this field emerge? Or make sense.

SAMARA JOY / Photo: Meredith Truax / Shorefire

As in all categories of almost all awards machinery, specific works or artists get singled out because of what’s in the air. So Terri Lyne Carrington won “Best Jazz Instrumental Album” for New Standards, Vol. 1, a modern all-star reading of great compositions by women. “Best Jazz Vocal Album” went to Linger Awhile by the young Samara Joy, beating out Cécile McLorin Salvant‘s Ghost Song, among others. These two vocal albums were high on the 2022 lists for most jazz critics. For me, Joy’s major label debut was dazzling—featuring fantastic vocal control and interpretive vision for a singer barely old enough to order a glass of wine in a restaurant—but hardly the mature artistic achievement of Ghost Song.

Of course, it was so very Grammy that a fresh face singing old songs would be the winner. And perhaps also very Grammy that Joy would stroll off with “Best New Artist” from a field of ten nominees. The Academy describes this category as recognizing “an artist whose eligibility-year release(s) achieved a breakthrough into the public consciousness and notably impacted the musical landscape.” Given that I saw Joy sing in a tiny Washington DC club just a few months ago, I was surprised that Academy voters thought she had achieved a “breakthrough into the public consciousness”. Spalding won this award in 2011, beating out—do you remember this?—Justin Beiber, Mumford & Sons, Florence & the Machine, and Drake. Given what Spalding has done since then, I wonder if the Academy knew what it was doing. On the other hand, given what Drake (and that whole list) has done since then …

This year, even if we narrow our view to jazz alone, Samara Joy’s win as “Best New Artist” tells us something about our current era. Another nominee in the category was DOMi and J.D. Beck—a duo (keys and drums) even younger than Joy who rose from TikTok stars to a recording on Blue Note, mixing virtuosic jazz fusion with contemporary pop and hip-hop. To my ears, as flawless as Joy’s “classic jazz” vocal skills are, she is still an artist working well within the shadow of her influences, from Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McCrae, possibly through the generation above her (including Cécile McLorin Salvant). DOMi and J.D. Beck have their influences too (Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, others), but their music feels—in its fearless rhythmic qualities and in how it is being presented—like music that is arcing forward. It is very Grammy to favor music that ties us to the past rather than tomorrow.