best new jazz of winter 2024
VIJAY IYER TRIO / Photo: © Ogata / ECM Records

JazzMatters: The Best New Jazz of Winter 2024

PopMatters presents the best new jazz recordings from the winter of 2024 and reflects on the relationship of the Grammys to jazz.

The Grammys

Another winter, another Grammy Awards show. If you love jazz, the problem with the Grammys is not that the members of the Recording Academy don’t appreciate jazz — after all, the Best New Artist (all categories) last year was the jazz singer Samara Joy. The problem is that the Academy doesn’t know how to categorize the music intelligently.

The “Best Jazz Instrumental Album” category included a record by Adam Blackstone that few jazz critics paid attention to, but a leading jazz guitarist recording for the premiere jazz label (Julian Lage on Blue Note) was nominated in the “Best Contemporary Instrumental Album” category. The Academy invented a new category called “Best Alternative Jazz Album”, giving the award to MeShell Ndegeocello’s The Omnichord Real Book, a fabulous record that might as easily have been nominated in an R&B category. What is “alternative jazz”? How is that different from “contemporary instrumental” or all the excellent jazz these days?

None of this is a scandal—the Blackstone album is perfectly lovely as a vanilla Whitman’s sampler of various styles—and I am thrilled any time Ndegeocello is honored. But it seems like the Recording Academy feels obligated to get involved with something it doesn’t know much about.

Of course, no one really knows how to categorize jazz intelligently. Jazz is a glorious hybrid, and the best jazz musicians, going back at least 60 years, have been satisfyingly involved in other kinds of music. Herbie Hancock was lovingly involved in hip-hop (“Rockit”), to name only the most obvious example. Today’s jazz musicians are as versatile as anyone in music — with four of Robert Glasper‘s Grammys being in R&B and the last being for a soundtrack.

Even when the Academy gets the category right, it usually votes by name only. The “Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album” went to Basie Swings the Blues by, uh, the Count Basie Orchestra, defeating the latest by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society — which is the equivalent of giving a Grammy to a Grateful Dead tribute band recording new versions of “Ripple” and “Casey Jones” instead of to Taylor Swift or SZA. The whole thing is nuts.

Please stop, Grammys. You are a pop music awards group. Leave jazz out of it. Bring the musicians in, of course, on the telecast. Get Herbie to accompany Joni Mitchell next time — or give DOMi and JD Beck a chance to blow the crowd away with their virtuosity. You don’t have to call it “jazz” — I’m fine with Contemporary Alternative Instrumental Wow Music.

But Count Basie, may he rest in peace, has enough Grammys already (nine — and the first ever given to an African-American!).

Best Releases of Winter 2024

It has been a strong 2024 so far, and it has become increasingly unusual for the jazz “major labels” to put out work as emphatic and wonderful as their music in the first quarter of the year. In addition to the powerful albums below, I recommend Ches Smith’s Laugh Ash on Pyroclastic, James Brandon Lewis’ Transfiguration on Intakt, and Ethan Iverson’s Technically Acceptable on Blue Note.

Chris Potter – Eagle’s Point (Edition, March 2024)

Not every all-star jazz band sounds like more than the sum of its parts. Putting a commanding modern tenor saxophonist together with a rhythm section that is pure gold could have just been slick. But Brad Mehldau (piano), John Patitucci (bass), and Brian Blade (drums) are all drawing their oars forcefully together here, and Potter’s playing is urgent and inventive. From the first track, “Dream of Home”, you sense that you are hearing a modern classic. Potter sounds elegiac (playing soprano saxophone) on the plaintive “Aria for Anna” (much of which features just Mehldau or piano and horn), and his bass clarinet playing on “Indigo Ildiko” is seductive.

But the rest of Eagle’s Point is a Ph.D. dissertation on how brilliant the tenor saxophone still is in American music. Potter dodges and darts and dazzles, but what he exhibits is never excess — he expresses the full range of colors and feelings and doesn’t once neglect to carry the interest of a listener. If you “drop the needle” at any point at all, say, in the title track, something riveting is going on. Mehldau is continually playing with alert intelligence, and the sure sound of Patitucci (as in the introduction to “Other Plans”) brings to mind the greats like Paul Chambers and Ron Carter. “Horizon Dance” gives Blade the chance to pop and scamper with sure-footed joy.

Mary Halvorson – Cloudward (Nonesuch, January 2024)

The band that made Mary Halvorson‘s 2022 Amaryllis so dazzling is back, and things remain astonishing. Adam O’Farrill’s trumpet and Jacob Garchik’s trombone are that rare front line that is all brass, no wind, and the attack is bold. The other twinning is in how Halvorson’s spikey guitar sound finds common space with the ringing attack of Patricia Brennan’s vibes. In the second section of “The Tower”, for example, these two sounds are alone and hypnotic. Tomas Fujiwara’s cymbals and Nick Dunston’s bass creep in beneath harmonized punches of brass. It is balanced and lovely. “Unscrolling” is another track that demonstrates how delicate this band can be without ever seeming to be “old school” or soft.

The music here can be a bit skronky or edgy in spots (dig the clinky-clanky improvisation that begins “Incarnadine”), but this adds to the rush of feeling that accompanies getting to know a lovely performance such as shimmering “Ultramarine” or lightly bouncing “Collapsing Mouth”. One song here even rocks a bit — “Desiderata” begins with a backbeat, setting up a melody for vibes underpinned by the brass before a period of suspended sunlight. Then Halvorson plays a distortion-fed solo that goes into psychedelic overdrive. All the feelings are jammed into this album somewhere.

Vijay Iyer Trio – Compassion (ECM, February 2024)

Compassion is the second outing for the Vijay Iyer Trio (with Linda May Han Oh on bass and drummer Tyshawn Sorey) on the ECM label. ECM, of course, is known to create albums with a sometimes chilly beauty. The trio sometimes plays with that kind of studied care, as on the title track or the slow ballad “Prelude: Orison”. I swoon to these tracks, but they do not sound as distinctive and thrilling as the tracks where this trio kicks up dirt.

“Tempest” is a punching, swirling workout during which Iyer’s piano plays blues-infused patterns in a roundabout with the bass and drums, the three players constantly circling each other within the composition like a trio of combatants in a ring. Once the jam kicks in, it just gets more exciting. “Ghostramental” also swaggers and struts with appeal. There are several treatments of songs by ancestors that are notable. Roscoe Mitchell’s “Nonaah” is a scrambling, free joy that works its way to the theme only at the end; the mashup of John Stubblefield’s “Free Spirits” and “Drummer’s Song” by Geri Allen is a gorgeous onrush of momentum; and “Overjoyed” is yet another reminder that there are endless depths in Stevie Wonder’s music — Iyer powers it with a pedal point and rumbling chords that never cover up the song’s arcing fun.

As always with Iyer, there is some top-notch writing. I’ve read some recent social media posts by older jazz scenesters complaining that younger jazz musicians are all technique, weird signatures, and no heart. But listen to the thrill of “Maelstrom” or the wistful tug of “Where I Am” and tell me that this generation doesn’t play and write with feeling.

Joel Ross – nublues (Blue Note, February 2024)

This young wizard of the vibraharp continues a strong run on Blue Note, collaborating with his generation peers on this, his fourth outing as a leader. This is a blues and ballads album, featuring two tunes by John Coltrane (“Equinox” and “Central Park West”), one by Thelonious Monk (“Evidence” — given a herky-jerky arrangement that makes it sound like a New Jazz classic of complex rhythms), and mostly originals that nod a bit to classical music as well as modern jazz masters like Keith Jarrett. Once again, Joel works in creative tandem with alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins.

They play the ruminative melody of “mellowdee” in a lovely unison that never sounds too neat and clean. On that track, we also get to hear the best from bassist Kanoa Mendenhall and drummer Jeremy Dutton, making a ballad sound popping and thrilling, with traded phrases by Ross and Wilkins also being in full dialog with the rhythm section. Pianist Jeremy Corren is exceptional on “ya know”, the most traditionally swinging tune on the set. Corren comps with a superbly light hand beneath Wilkins’ tart, melodic solo, he gets spikier as he pushes Ross along, and his own solo after that is extra-pleasing: connecting melodic cells with increasing intensity, truly building his improvisation in waves, each connected by crashing chords on the McCoy Tyner tip. As for Ross himself? His playing remains a fluid blend of surprise and elegance.

The Messthetics and James Brandon Lewis – The Messthetics and James Brandon Lewis (Impulse, March 2024)

Saxophonist James Brandon Lewis is around every corner right now, and the new album by his quartet, Transfiguration, is smashing. This recording finds him with a very different kind of quartet but making music just as bracing. He has been playing with Washington, DC-based guitarist Anthony Pirog for many years, and the Messthetics is a DC trio made up of Pirog, bassist Joe Lally, and drummer Brendan Canty. That is the rhythm section for the punk band Fugazi, and yet the groove supplied here is as responsive and compelling as any jazz group.

Lewis has been playing with the trio for some years, and this first full-length recording is a joy to hear. The tenor saxophone is burly and bold enough to rock, and Pirog has every intriguing harmonic surprise beneath his fingers that you would expect of, say, Bill Frisell or Nels Cline. The result, as you can hear on a track like “Emergence”, is a rave-up of excitement or, as “Fourth Wall” proves, something more like a form of chamber jazz that you might have heard in the 1970s or again in the 1990s. It is the farthest thing in the universe from gloopy “fusion”, but more like the combination of rock and jazz that you always dreamed of: solid and propulsive but open to a world of conversation and exchange.

Jeremy Rose & The Earshift Orchestra – Discordia (Earshift, February 2024)

Jeremy Rose is a new name to me — a composer and woodwind player from Australia whose US profile has been limited. The large ensemble he conducts and composes for on his latest recording is a proper “big band” that deserves comparison to Maria Schneider’s band: for all its size (five trombones, four trumpets, six saxophones/clarinets, a four-piece rhythm section) it plays with both power (“Loudspeaker”, of course) and light transparency (“The Illusion of Perfection”).

As with Schneider’s band, the guitarist (Hilary Geddes) comes to the front at times to remind us that even jazz big band writing has evolved with the times — the indie-rock big band is now practically a thing! “Bring Back the Nineties” is practically a pop tune (or, if you think of the best ones), a television theme song. The writing is consistently ear-catching, even when it takes the form of a tone poem like “Floating Just Beyond Reach”, with its shimmering pads of horns and burbling sections that invite you to see things with your heart. “Unverified Persona” is more unabashedly romantic, with the bass clarinet in a Johnny Hodges mood and the band whispering in support.

Riley Mulherkar – Riley (Westerlies, February 2024)

This young trumpeter from the Seattle area was a co-founder of the jazz-ish brass ensemble the Westerlies. Riley Mulherkar has also studied at Julliard and earned an Emerging Artist award from Lincoln Center, so it’s no surprise that he has one foot firmly in the tradition — the album features versions of “King Porter Stomp” and “Stardust” that are more outwardly influenced by Louis Armstrong than most playing we hear in this century.

The magic of this quirky debut, however, is that “King Porter Stomp” incorporates electronic drums and groove, part of a collaborative production process with Rafiq Bhatia and Chris Pattishall (the album’s pianist). The original songs aren’t saddled with this tradition/vanguard issue, but even on “Hopscotch”, which uses an acoustic trio with Pattichall, bassist Russell Hall and drummer Kyle Poole, there is a feeling that Mulherkar’s tone and phrasing connect back to the oldest jazz tradition even as the groove approach of the arrangement owes more to 1960s jazz funk and 21st-century rhythm practice that owes some to hip-hop and downtown New Jazz.

Another original, “Ride or Die”, uses some digital process on Mulherkar’s horn, and “No More” uses singer Vuyo Sotashe on a haunting spiritual bathed in electronics. Each suggests the breadth of the leader’s interests. As wide as Riley’s angle is, it always feels focused, and I suspect there is much more from this century-aware trumpeter.