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.


Brad Mehldau –Your Mother Should Know (Nonesuch, February 2023)

Brad Mehldau Your Mother Should Know

Brad Mehldau contains multitudes. He is a top-rank jazz pianist in the mold of great post-boppers like Kenny Barron and Barry Harris, working with a trio playing originals and standards; he pioneered using a “jazz” platform to interpret music by both classical composers and rock artists, using electronics or unusual instrumentation; and he developed a lovely voice as a solo player, springing from players like Fred Hersch and Keith Jarrett but emerging as a distinctive original. This new recording was made at a concert in September 2020 at Philharmonie de Paris as part of a series covering all of the music of the Beatles. Mehldau—now in his early 50s and born around the time the Fab Four stopped recording music—has a long relationship with this music, inheriting it as one of the common languages that connect generations from Tin Pan Alley to today.

This set is filled with wonders, of course, as Mehldau is a wonderful pianist. The end of “I Am the Walrus” finds him playing a riveting fantasia with the highest and lowest ends of the piano moving as two diverging voices; “Golden Slumbers” emerges as a classic ballad that perhaps should have been interpreted by other classic jazz pianists, with its seductive harmonies and minor melody. At the same time, a major jazz player transforming the Beatles is no longer novel, and Mehldau sounds—at times—almost too comfortable, like a brilliant talent just playing his favorites and ours. When “Golden Slumbers” reaches its halfway point and the pianist slides into a shimmering improvisation that echoes Jarrett’s The Koln Concert, you will love it and maybe wonder if Mehldau is operating on autopilot—sublimely, by still. The Beatles in Mehldau’s hands are like my mom’s baked ziti: GREAT but, in the deepest sense, also nothing new, nothing to take you by surprise. 

Kurt Elling and Charlie Hunter – Guilty Pleasures (featuring Nate Smith) (Edition, February 2023)

In 2021, the supercharged jazz singer Kurt Elling fronted a session with a band called Superblue, with guitarist Charlie Hunter driving a groove-based trio with drums and keyboards. The tunes were originals or odd covers (of tunes by Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter, but also Tom Waits) centered around the pleasure centers of funk, layered vocals, and tasty harmonic turns. The band will release a new album later this year, but Guilty Pleasures offers six covers that give the boys (Elling, Hunter, and drummer Nate Smith) a chance to have fun on familiar tunes.

Maybe this music isn’t that different from Brad Mehldau playing some of his favorite songs. But these pop pleasures tend to push Elling away from the space where we have gotten so used to hearing him—they seem like fun catalysts for a singer who most often sings classic jazz or hipster interpretations of pop material. Here, the band plays a slapping backbeat without any fancy reharmonized refractions of “Baby Hold On” (Eddie Money), “Wrap It Up” (Isaac Hayes), or AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”.

When the group lays into Al Jarreau’s “Boogie Down”, they use some Take 6-ish multi-tracked vocal harmonies, yes, but they are native to the tune, and hearing Elling fly all over this simple groover is a joy. The AC/DC tune seems slightly comic, but when you get past the lyrics and focus on Elling’s great vocal tone roughed up against Nate Smith’s super-tight drumming, well, you’re having too much fun to chide the crooner for slumming on a pseudo-metal anthem.

Joe Chambers – Dance Kobina (Blue Note, February 2023)

The late career of percussionist Joe Chambers is a balm for whatever may ail you. Chambers played on some of the best Blue Note and Atlantic albums of the 1960s and 1970s (including Chick Corea’s Tones for Joan’s Bones and classics by McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Charles Mingus, and Andrew Hill), and he has been busy ever since. In 1998, Blue Note got him back in the studio for Mirrors, and Samba de Maracatu came out two years ago. The new one is pure delight, featuring musicians from both New York and Montreal playing sumptuous modern jazz that sounds neither like the young folks’ jazz nor like a “classic jazz” session you’ve heard a million times before.

The trio tracks swing with a lightness balanced by a clear purpose, and the larger group on the title track burbles and punches, featuring an alto saxophone, vibraphone, piano trio, and hand percussion. The same sextet sounds hypnotic on the modal “City of Saint”, which blends a strong repeated bass line with brooding melodic arcs. My favorite track is Chambers’ take on the Joe Henderson tune “Power to the People”, marrying tenor saxophone to vibes over percolating Latin percussion.

Christian McBride’s New Jawn – Prime (Mack Avenue, February 2023)

Bassist Christian McBride is one of the most affable figures in 21st-century jazz, a player with a sumptuous tone and a deep feeling for the blues. Most of his music is robustly mainstream, but this quartet is more raw and adventurous. Trumpeter Josh Evans is twinned with saxophonist and bass clarinetist Marcus Strickland in a sinuous front line that gets rough and tumble, playing free and wild sometimes and soulfully slick at others. McBride and drummer Nasheet Waits are the only instruments in the rhythm section, so the band plays it straight when they cover Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman, ancestors who often recorded without a chording instrument to add lush harmonies.

All the bandmates contribute original tunes, and the covers aren’t common ones (“Obsequious” is a snaky Larry Young tune, and “The Good Life” is from the Ornette Coleman/Pat Metheny session), so all the tracks here are exceptionally fresh. “Dolphy Dust” comes from the pen of Evans, and it is one of happy, bopping themes that mix freedom with sunshine. “Moonchild” is a Waits ballad that lets Strickland put his bass clarinet up front, lyrical but dark. McBride’s “Lurkers” also uses that color, combining it with Evans’ muted horn in a simple line that runs beneath a highly melodic drum solo. The collective improvisation that follows is daring but not (too) dissonant.

The opening tunes may be the best—vigorous and playful. McBride’s “Head Bedlam” begins with the whole band in squiggling dissonance that resolves into a soulful groove over which a hypnotic blues melody flows. The title track is by Strickland, and it generates a fun, stop-and-go rhythmic flow that provokes the horns and bass into improvisations that joust with Waits. The interaction between McBride and the drums is at telepathic levels of wonder. That is not a bad description of the whole session.

Yelena Eckemoff – Lonely Man and His Fish (L&H, March 2023)

Yelena Eckemoff is a Russian-born pianist who came to improvised music a bit later in her development. Her larger project is fascinating—she paints, writes poetry and stories, engages in vocal music related to Christianity, and works with jazz musicians, even if her pianism sounds fluidly jazz-ish rather than squarely in or from that tradition. As on last year’s I Am a Stranger in This World, Eckemoff presents melodic/harmonic constructions on this new two-disc-length collection that are intriguing and fluent in their movement across influences: I think that even someone not knowing her history would suspect that she comes from a world of European composition. The 2022 session featured Ralph Alessi’s trumpet, electric guitars from Adam Rogers and Ben Monder, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits. And the power of this new album is also in its conception and gathering of collaborators.

Ben Street (bass) and Eric Harland (drums) are a firm rhythm section, over which ensemble playing and improvising from cornet specialist Kirk Knuffke and Masaru Koga on Japanese flutes takes center stage. Knuffke is tonally varied and conversational, finding fascinating melodic pathways through the songs, and Koga is astonishing. The Japanese flute is akin to a recorder and produces a complex tone that is rarely heard in jazz.

My favorite tracks are “Empty House”, on which both horns interact and Eckemoff layers a Rhodes or “Ampli-celeste” and piano together to create a web of tones. Tempos are moderate throughout this double-length session, so perhaps there is a little too much of a good thing on Lonely Man. Eckemoff records for her own label and handles all the production, all the artwork, and some of the photography. What is mostly sublime can lean toward being indulgent after a while, but having too much of a good thing isn’t all that bad.

Simon Moullier – Isla (Lossless, February 2023)

It is an incredible time for improvising mallet players, and Simon Moullier is among those making a strong impression. This is his third recording, with a quintet debut in 2020 and a rare trio record (vibes, bass, drums) in 2021. Moullier is Parisian, with a Berklee undergrad degree and then a stint at the Monk Institute in Los Angeles, where he came to the attention of Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones. For all of that connection, Moullier’s recordings are on small labels featuring bandmates who are not the “name players” on every other session recorded in New York. Isla is a quartet date (Lex Korten on piano, bassist Alexander Claffy, and Jongkuk Kim on drums) consisting of six Moullier originals and the standards “You Go to My Head” and Mercer Ellington’s “Moon Mist”.

This is fresh and enchanting music, mainstream jazz that still contains a feeling of bouncing forward. The opener, “Empress of the Sea”, launches the album on a jaunty 6/8 tempo, finding vibes and piano sharing the melody. Moullier’s sound is just a bit different from other players on his instrument—light and transparent rather than toughly metallic. Even on a busy composition like the title track, which launches into a brisk “classic jazz” walking bass line for his solo, Moullier sounds cushioned and marimba-adjacent. On majestic but somewhat funky “Enchantment”, Moullier’s solo consists almost entirely of muted notes soon after they are rung, creating a cautious and mysterious sound that contrasts nicely with Korten’s more traditionally romantic piano lines. The Ellington tune is a ballad with a distinctive tone if more legato.

Isla stands out, however, less for the fine playing than for Moullier’s engaging tunes, which compare nicely to the writing of Gary Burton or Pat Metheny. “This Dream”, for example, is an impressionist melody that keeps stacking upward dramatically, pushed along by a modified surf beat. “Phoenix Eye” is more of a craggy New Jazz composition that inspires the quartet to its most daring playing.

Jo Lawry – Acrobats (Whirlwind, February 2023)

I’ve often written about the trap of jazz singing in the new century—very few singers find ways to create new art in the grand tradition of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan and entirely beyond those imposing shadows. Australian singer Jo Lawry has been in the US for 20 years, where she is one of the most respected singers among other singers. She has made a living singing with pop/rock legends and has released some impressive work that—partly because she does not sing with an obvious set of “jazz” ticks or tonal reference (that is, even though her instrument is pliant and bends notes with ease, she doesn’t add in shouts, growls, or soulful affectations)—sounded more like “singer-songwriter material”. But on Acrobats, Lawry lays claim to being a sterling jazz singer in the purest sense. Eschewing a chording instrument and challenging herself by recruiting accompaniment from bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Allison Miller, Lawry takes on ten standards, prancing above the circus floor with no net in sight.

Not all the standards are common (Frank Loesser’s “Traveling Light”, a Lennie Tristano tune, the title track from an Australian writer), and many of the arrangements are off the beaten path (“‘Deed I Do” is taking at a loping ⅞ tempo, and “Two to Tango” as a duet with May Han Oh), and on every track, the rhythm section challenges to Lawry to a fully present member of an improvising jazz trio. The bass defines the harmonies, but the leader is equally responsible for moving around the songs’ chords so that we hear the tunes well beyond melody. Miller, as ever, is more than just a “timekeeper”, and she forces Lawry to be as sure-footed in her time as a great alto saxophonist. Lawry does some scatting (as on the wordless “317 East 32nd St.”), and she always demonstrates a mastery of the song’s form. Her voice is light but rich, with flawless intonation for every note.

This is a “jazz” recording in every sense, not a simulacrum of what “jazz singing” used to sound like or jazz-inflected pop material. It contains more than a little daring—such as the super-hip arrangement of two Loesser tunes (“My Time of Day / I’ve Never Been in Love Before”)—but Lawry’s winning sound keeps everything glowing.