The 10 Best Jazz Albums Of 2023

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The 10 Best Jazz Albums Of 2023


2023 has been a transitional year for jazz. We lost one of the genre’s most brilliant composers and performers, Wayne Shorter; free jazz flamethrowers Peter Brötzmann and Charles Gayle; genteel pianist Ahmad Jamal; bassist, composer and Spike Lee’s father Bill Lee; singer Tony Bennett; trombonist Curtis Fowlkes; bassist Richard Davis; pianist and composer Carla Bley; saxophonist Mars Williams, known to some as a modern free jazz hero and others as the dude from the Psychedelic Furs; and some people I consider jazz-adjacent, like Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto and guitarist Jeff Beck, who made a series of excellent fusion albums in the mid ’70s. And while Shabaka Hutchings is still alive, he announced his intention to quit playing the saxophone, and disbanded all of his current groups: Sons Of Kemet, The Comet Is Coming, and Shabaka And The Ancestors.

The music’s boundaries seemed to grow more porous than ever. Drummer Kassa Overall signed to Warp Records and released ANIMALS, an album full of electronic collages and guest appearances from players like Vijay Iyer, Tomoki Sanders (Pharoah’s son), Theo Croker, as well as Lil B, Danny Brown, and J. Hoard. Saxophonist James Brandon Lewis released two albums, one a collection of gospel songs and the other a cranked-up, almost punk-rock disc that featured Fugazi’s rhythm section on one track. The Arooj Aftab/Vijay Iyer/Shahzad Ismaily album Love In Exile was a near-ambient collection of dreamlike, improvised music for trances. Trumpeter Chief Adjuah put down the horn and released Bark Out Thunder Roar Out Lightning, an album on which he played a harplike instrument of his own invention and sang lyrics honoring his Mardi Gras Indian heritage. Even saxophonist JD Allen, known for his love of traditional trio play and bluesy song structures, made an abstract, questing electronics-soaked record.

Other than calling out some excellent records, it seemed impossible to assess “the state of jazz,” so I asked a bunch of artists, all of whom put out music of their own in 2023, to share their favorite album(s) of the year. Here are the responses I got:

Arooj Aftab, vocals

2023 release: Arooj Aftab/Vijay Iyer/Shahzad Ismaily, Love In Exile (Verve)
Picks: Cautious Clay, KARPEH (Blue Note)
“My favorite record of 2023 would have to be Cautious Clay’s KARPEH, released on Blue Note as his first foray into the world of alternative jazz. While Cautious is a bad, bad cat regardless, this record is just so bold. He is pulling out all the stops, tapping into the story of his family, telling it to us with great depth and nuanced songwriting ability. Then we have his soulful vocals, we have his legendary bass player Uncle Kai Eckhart, we have Cautious himself playing infectious and super wild lines on flute and saxophone throughout the album. Cautious calls on the guitar world’s golden boy Julien Lage to work his magic into the music as well. It’s just a very awesome record, and if you missed you better run to it immediately.”

Vijay Iyer, piano

2023 release: Arooj Aftab/Vijay Iyer/Shahzad Ismaily, Love In Exile (Verve)
Picks: Meshell Ndegeocello, The Omnichord Realbook (Blue Note); Sullivan Fortner, Solo Game (Artwork); Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter 5: In The Garden (Constellation); Steve Lehman & Orchestra National de Jazz, Ex Machina (Pi); Lesley Mok, The Living Collection (American Dreams)
“I can’t go with one, so here are five, which is also too few, in no particular order. Meshell Ndegeocello, for sounding the collective exuberance and defiant joy of gathering, for reminding us of how we can move and feel together. Sullivan Fortner, for revealing the many layers and nuances of this piano genius’s art and heart, the inner voices, the counterpoint, the touch, the groove, the livingness of it all. Matana Roberts, for her courageous truth-telling and sonic layering, an elemental outpouring of love, fire, and historical reckoning. Steve Lehman & Orchestra National de Jazz, for remaking the language of large-group music from his ongoing obsessions with hardcore polyrhythms, spectral analysis, and improvisative virtuosity. And Lesley Mok, a breathtaking compendium, a compendium of breath-taking and meaning-making, aural vulnerability at the ensemble scale.”

Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother), vocals and electronics

2023 release: Irreversible Entanglements, Protect Your Light (Impulse!)
Picks: Meshell Ndegeocello, The Omnichord Real Book (Blue Note); Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter 5: In The Garden (Constellation)
“Can I say Protect Your Light? Besides that it’s a toss-up between Meshell Ndegeocello and Matana Roberts.”

Angel Bat Dawid, clarinet/vocals/bandleader

2023 release: Requiem For Jazz (International Anthem)
Pick: Roman Norfleet & Be Present Art Group, Roman Norfleet & Be Present Art Group
“Roman Norfleet is a phenomenal multi-instrumentalist interdisciplinary artist based in Portland, OR. Known for his incredibly provocative electrifying live shows, it’s really quite a treat to hear this album of young Black Portland interdisciplinary artists doing this cosmic space gospeldelic music — it’s just amazing…Sun Ra is smiling down very proud.”

Isaiah Collier, tenor saxophone

2023 release: Parallel Universe (Night Dreamer)
Pick: John Coltrane & Eric Dolphy, Evenings At The Village Gate (Impulse!)
“It’s another lost article in time and feels like another extended look into those archives of time. The Classic Quartet with Eric Dolphy is always a fascinating thing to hear but you can hear the space he was making for another horn. These five masters were having a sacred conversation that most couldn’t comprehend and we are treated with this release to take on the challenge of digesting it more.”

Johnathan Blake, drums

2023 release: Passage (Blue Note)
Pick: Roy Hargrove, The Love Suite: In Mahogany (Blue Engine)
“Roy sounds amazing and the band is on fire! It’s a live performance from 1993. This is the only recording of Hargrove’s commission piece. Commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center.”

Steve Lehman, alto saxophone

2023 release: Ex Machina (Pi)
Pick: Ambrose Akinmusire, Beauty Is Enough (Origami Harvest)
“It’s a remarkable achievement. I’m going to keep going back to it and keep learning things from it. And it’s just a beautiful album.”

Gard Nilssen, drums

2023 release: Family (We Jazz)
Pick: Petter Eldh, Post Koma (We Jazz)
“My very good friend and partner in snabbswing —amazing album!”

Thandi Ntuli, piano/vocals

2023 release: Rainbow Revisited (with Carlos Niño)
Pick: Aja Monet, when the poems do what they do (drink sum wtr)
“She expresses an urgency and a clarity which I have craved a lot and so the resonance in me was instantaneous. Deeply rooted in Spirit, a call for organizing, community, healing, freedom and love. Love, love, love! The poems did what they came to do.”

Kassa Overall, drums/programming

2023 release: ANIMALS (Warp)
Pick: Sullivan Fortner, Solo Game (Artwork)
“Sullivan Fortner is probably one of my favorite living musicians, and top five pianists, dead or alive. This album shows the greatness I have always seen in him. He is the future of Black music, a genius who is fluent in the past but doesn’t conform to the cultural expectations imposed on us.”

Matana Roberts, alto sax and composition

2023 release: Coin Coin Chapter Five: In The Garden (Constellation)
Pick: Arooj Aftab/Vijay Iyer/Shahzad Ismaily, Love In Exile (Verve)
“It stretches time, full of honesty, no ego games, and an important reminder to stay open to the worst and the best of times…It really is ‘beyond music.’ I have also seen them live and it’s amazing how present the sonicity is. Very healing work.”

Lakecia Benjamin, alto saxophone

2023 release: Phoenix (Whirlwind)
Pick: Meshell Ndegeocello, The Omnichord Real Book (Blue Note)

Sylvie Courvoisier, piano

2023 release: Chimaera (Intakt)
Picks: Tamara Stefanovich/Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Visions (Pentatone); Kris Davis, Diatom Ribbons Live At The Village Vanguard (Pyroclastic); Ambrose Akinmusire, Beauty Is Enough (Origami Harvest)

Lafayette Gilchrist, piano

2023 release: Undaunted (Morphius)
Picks: jaimie branch, Fly Or Die Fly Or Die Fly Or Die ((World War)) (International Anthem); Chief Adjuah, Bark Out Thunder Roar Out Lightning (Ropeadope); Darius Jones, fLuXkit Vancouver (i​̶​t​̶​s suite but sacred) (Northern Spy/We Jazz)

Mary Halvorson, guitar

2023 release: Illegal Crowns, Unclosing (Out Of Your Head)
Pick: Ryuichi Sakamoto, 12 (Milan)

Myra Melford, piano

2023 release: Hear The Light Singing (RogueArt)
Picks: Henry Threadgill, Poof (Pi, 2021); Cecil Taylor, The Complete, Legendary, Live Return Concert At The Town Hall NYC November 4, 1973 (Oblivion, 2022)

Terell Stafford, trumpet

2023 release: Between Worlds (Le Coq)
Pick: Johnathan Blake, Passage (Blue Note)

Sherman Irby, alto saxophone

2023 release: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra & Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Wynton
Marsalis: Symphony No. 4 “The Jungle”
(Blue Engine)
Pick: Roy Hargrove, The Love Suite: In Mahogany (Blue Engine)

And now, here are the best jazz albums of 2023.

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