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.

Nadia Washington – Hope Resurgence (NLW, February 2023)

This collection of all-original music by a veteran singer making her debut is the flip side of the Jo Lawry album. Washington presents nine new songs that could as easily be categorized as soul or pop rather than jazz. This is the territory of musicians such as Esperanza Spalding, Lizz Wright, Lalah Hathaway, and MeShell Ndegeocello, with appealing but complex grooves giving way to inspiring lyrics. Like Lawry, Washington has made a career using her sublime voice for projects that were not her own. Not every track fits a single mold: “Pagliacci’s Lament” is an acoustic guitar ballad, and “Machine” is driven by a metal-ish guitar sound and drums that might have been inspired by Dave Grohl, inspiring Washington to follow suit. She can pull off these tonal shifts as a singer, and on a track like “Cyclone”, she seems to get all her styles mushed together into one song. But this debut may be serving too many masters at once.

Kendrick Scott – Corridors (Blue Note, March 2023)

The era in which drummers rarely led bands is long gone. However, it is still a delight when an album like Corridors comes along, with eight very different original compositions by the timekeeper (and one relatively obscure Bobby Hutcherson tune). Scott’s band Oracle has previously created marvelous sets that straddled jazz and hip-hop to varying degrees. The group here is a stripped-down saxophone trio featuring Walter Smith III on tenor and Reuben Rogers on bass. The band sounds” wholly cooperative—Rogers, for example, dominates the start of the title track, whereas “A Voice Through the Door” begins with a lengthy solo saxophone statement—and deeply comfortable in sharing the sonic space generously. Space is key to the entire recording, as the absence of a chording instrument leaves plenty of room for the magic of invention.

Julian Lage – The Layers (Blue Note, March 2023)

Last year, guitarist Julian Lage released a winning recording that added guitarist Bill Frisell to his trio (with bassist Jorge Roder and drummer Dave King). This EP provides six more performances from that session, with these two guitarists creating casual orchestrations of strong melodies. The acoustic textures of “Double Southpaw” (without drums) and “This World” (guitars only) might remind you of the collaboration of Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie from a generation ago, and “Mantra” has a similar impressionistic leaning that evokes many great guitar-centric ECM records. Overall, this collection is shorter and has a moodier selection of tracks than A View with a Room. It remains recommended as a very good complement to an excellent full album.

Anthony Branker & Imagine – What Place Can Be For Us? (Origin, February 2023)

Branker is a composer and trumpeter who is better known on the academic scene than as a gigging musician. Branker had a 27-year career at his alma mater, Princeton, establishing the school’s jazz program, and he has been a conductor of the work of others and a prolific composer for his groups. His new recording is a suite of ten songs that touch on politics and justice as well as being lyrical and modern. The band is a septet of many of the best players in New York, including saxophonists Walter Smith III and Remy Le Boeuf, pianist Fabian Almazan, Linda May Han Oh on bass, and Pete McCann on guitar. In addition, Alison Crockett contributes spoken word on a couple of tracks—for example, performing Langston Hughes’ poetic response to Walt Whitman on “I, Too, Sing America”. The instrumental work, however, stands out most clearly.

“Indivisible” is jabbering chart that puts the whole band to work: McCann plays a captivating theme that is offset but piano and horn countermelodies that then converge, the kind of New Jazz theme that uses a shifting, syncopated time feeling that nevertheless remains rivetingly tonal, moving from chord to chord with both surprise and logic. “Sunken Place” lurches in ways that evoke the music of modern masters such as Steve Coleman, but other tunes are lyrical and have the epic quality of music by Maria Schneider (“The Trail of Tears to Standing Rock”—with lovely playing from trumpeter Philip Dizack and the truly wonderful ballad “Sundown Town” with a cascading piano solo from Almazan).

Marc Ducret – Palm Sweat: Plays the Music of Tim Berne (Screwgun/OOYH, March 2023)

Marc Ducret is the kind of “jazz” guitarist we used to have many more of—which is to say that he comes from a realm of avant-garde playing that draws as much from rock and new music as it does from Wes Montgomery or Tal Farlow. Let’s be honest: much more from rock than from “jazz” proper. Ducret has played and recorded with composer/saxophonist Tim Berne for years, and this collection of Berne tunes is a showcase for the vast (and at times trying) range of Ducret’s guitar sounds. On “Rolled Oats 1” and “Rolled Oats 2”, Ducrets plays solo acoustic guitar in an idiosyncratic, craggy, exploratory style.

On other tracks, he layers various guitars, basses, and percussion to thrilling effect or adds a few improvising voices from other musicians. Berne’s music is such that the line between the written and the improvised or interpreted can be hard to find with certainty. But on something like “Static”, with ladder-rung melodies being played with resonant precision and then added percussion, voices, and emotion, the coming together of musical thinking between composer and performer is very strong indeed.


Chris Potter – Got the Keys to the Kingdom: Live at the Village Vanguard (Edition, February 2023)

Chris Potter holds the belt as the tenor saxophonist with the brightest, most dazzling attack on a horn that can be the showiest in music. That doesn’t mean he (or previous champs such as Michael Brecker) don’t play with depth and ideas, but their recordings tend to be exciting and rich in feeling. On this third date, recorded live at jazz’s New York basement mecca, Potter had a superb modern rhythm section in pianist Craig Taborn, Scott Colley on bass, and drummer Marcus Gilmore, the kind of group that can swing, funk out, and explore freely without losing an audience to abstraction. The all-acoustic band delivers a set with no original tunes but a powerful concept, resulting in my favorite Potter recording.

The band reimagines two songs from America’s gospel heritage in “You Gotta Move” and the title track. “Move” retains the infectious melody but adds a more modern harmonic structure and catchy jazz motif around which the group builds fresh structure. “Keys to the Kingdom” also adds an original bass line and harmonic form that turns it into something both old and new. The performances of these re-composings are long but never dull, as the band seems equally intoxicated with the song’s blues core and how these new elements inspire the dazzling playfulness of modern jazz playing.

At the end of Potter’s solo on “Keys”, the new, hyper-syncopated figure gets batted back and forth with vigor by all four musicians that you expect your earbuds or speakers to be about to explode. The reconstructions of two Brazilian tunes, “Nozani Na” and “Ohla Maria”, are not as dramatic (as their “jazz” harmonies were already intact). Still, the idea is similar: all four songs come from a powerfully rhythmic place that the band uses to build an improvised torrent that sounds wholly consuming. Taborn’s improvisation on “Nozani Na” is an outstanding example of how a pianist’s two hands can be so conversationally independent that it is hard to believe that one musician can so successfully invent both voices in the moment. Wisely, he then lays out for the start of Potter’s solo, clearing space for the trio to engage in clattering rhythmic chatter that moves up to the sublime when the piano reenters.

The last pair of tunes on the set are Charlie Parker‘s “Klactoveedsedstene”, a bop theme that the band uses as kindling for a roaring round of blowing—particularly when Colley cooks using lots of low pedal tones. Potter answers with throaty repetitions of patterns that also repeat a low note, making his horn sound like the hippest bagpipe on any side of the Atlantic and the Billy Strayhorn ballad “Blood Count”. The latter is taken at ballad tempo but not as a traditional jazz ballad. Taborn explores the harmonies alone for almost two minutes, after which Potter enters as an improviser in no rush to encounter the melody, taking full advantage of the space that Taborn has created. Colley enters with the written line, but each instrument resists going to a set tempo. Gilmore comes in near the end, letting the slow burn force him to bring things to an at-last boil.

Got the Keys to the Kingdom is impressive because it balances the balance. In some ways, it is just a blowing record, with soloists going on long journeys for our ears—but the soloists are arresting at every turn, never playing standard licks or just indulging themselves by playing fast or bluesy or to some obvious climax. If you told me that this was a Craig Taborn album, I’d believe you because his playing is on another level, bending the rules toward breaking but always bringing us back from the brink. In some ways, this is a “clever cover” record where jazz musicians interpret a quirky selection of non-jazz material—but, even though there is some interpretive cleverness here, most of the playing here is infused with a sincere allegiance to the songs: the bop tune swings hot, the Strayhorn tune aches, the Brazilian tunes contrast polyrhythms and slick chords, and the gospel/blues tunes dig deep on cue. In some ways, this is another Sax+Trio Jazz Record Recorded at the Vanguard—but as with so nearly all of Chris Potter’s music, old verities (amazing tone, powerful rhythmic drive) are balanced with a sense of innovation. Same old, not the same old.