After presenting our favorite albums of the year, songs, metal albums, electronic albums, hip-hop albums and reissues, we now discuss our favorites in jazz. Perhaps the most unpredictable of any genre right now, and not merely because improvisation is one of its defining elements, jazz continues to evolve in fascinating and creative ways. This year’s batch includes some more experimental records featuring unusual compositional techniques, a handful of ambient-leaning records, more vocally based jazz records than usual, and even a few veterans in the midst of a hot streak. These are the best jazz albums of 2023.
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Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids – Afro Futuristic Dreams
Since Idris Ackamoor reformed the Pyramids decades after their initial three-album run, the influential spiritual jazz group has been on an incredible run, evolving and expanding with each new iteration. Afro Futuristic Dreams builds on an already strong sequence of releases with a set of pieces that lean heavy on melody and groove, rising up into moments of fiery climax on “Police Dem,” dreamy intricacy on “First Peoples” and psychedelic spirals on the opening title track. An outstanding addition to a spectacular body of work. – Jeff Terich
Arooj Aftab/Vijay Iyer/Shahzad Ismaily – Love In Exile
Singer Arooj Aftab, pianist Vijay Iyer and multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily went onstage in New York without any pre-planned set of compositions in 2018 and somehow managed to create something intangible and beautiful as if drawing magic from the air. Love In Exile is the studio product of that initial improvisational performance, delayed a few years for obvious reasons but no less affecting or powerful upon its arrival. Spacious, mystical, transcendent, it’s neither jazz nor ambient, but rather existing between genres, between universes. Its pieces are neither busy nor frenetic, defying predictability while opening up seemingly endless potential avenues for progression. It’s not so much lightning in a second bottle as mastering the ability to harness its electricity. – Jeff Terich
jaimie branch – Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war))
The day I met Pharaoh Sanders (very briefly), I witnessed a room full of Black men, myself included, quietly weep. It was after the American jazz saxophonist, known for skronking and squeaking out gusts of liberation from his tenor saxophone, completed a rehearsal version of “Naima” in preparation for the San Francisco North Beach Jazz Festival years back. That warmth, an ease to be so vulnerable, poured out from his horn and worked its paranormal self throughout the room: Pharaoh brought John Coltrane to our ’90s ears and we were not ready or prepped. When he was done, all you could hear were sniffles.
I never met jaime branch nor saw her perform live, but her music, for the couple of years I was engaging with it, gave me a similar case of the sniffles. She played trumpet as if her life depended on it. And it hurts to say that after reading her sister’s memorial to her because it was a thousand percent of the truth. But again, that ease in being vulnerable just melted folks.
There are numerous moments all over Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war)), her in-through-the-out-door farewell of sorts, where she plays like the elements she’s built upon: Steel, sweat, anger, joy, protest, big love, more sweat, community. She abruptly died on the night of Monday, August 22, 2022, at her home in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. We are told that Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war)) was almost finished around the time of her death. And though there’s often reason to be leery of posthumous releases, her final act does the business of inviting the heads together for one final meeting, a session unlike any other in her career, to make a protest on “Take Over The World” in punk glory giving back to the land. She supplies some jazz arrangements, some folky Americana twang jawns, and inflections of Branch’s Colombian roots in other spots. It’s a large umbrella. But jaimie never thought small, cause there is no color in small.
There is no life in the timid and no vulnerable in holding back. Sniffles are the by-product of the raw and uncut cosmic bouillabaisse. Her Fly or Die bandmates Lester St. Louis, Jason Ajemian, and Chad Taylor knew this: “jaimie never had small ideas. She always thought big. The minute you told her she couldn’t do something, or that something would be too difficult to accomplish, the more determined and focused she became.” – John-Paul Shiver
Bex Burch – There is only love and fear
Percussionist and composer Bex Burch has described There is only love and fear as “a more domestic style of music: the simplicity of life and sound-making.” It’s through Burch’s aptly described “messy minimalism” that she achieves this unique, transfixing tone. Indeed, there are few records that sound like this. Burch’s minimalism is loose, warm, and distinctly naturalistic, oscillating between the unaffected sound of her idiophones and a selection of field recordings. Between mellow grooves, one can hear cuckoos, gentle winds, cooing wood pigeons, trains passing, courting tawny owls, distant sirens, tides meeting the shore. It’s a meditative, nourishing LP. – Noah Sparkes
Yussef Dayes – Black Classical Music
Black Classical Music is a debut in only the strictest sense, the first record to bear only Yussef Dayes’ name on the spine after two excellent collaborative recordings. It’s also the album that showcases the broadest range of music in his repertoire. The atmospheric grooves of his earlier nu-jazz funk recordings are here, as are more traditional hard bop performances, haunted moments of avant garde sounds, even cinematic string-based interludes. Dayes had proven himself an artist to be reckoned with already; Black Classical Music shows just how much depth and breadth there is to his astonishingly versatile talent. – Jeff Terich
Alabaster dePlume – Come With Fierce Grace
Last year, Manchester jazz artist Alabaster dePlume released the ambitious GOLD, blending spiritual jazz compositions with poetry—which he’s followed up with the mostly instrumental Come With Fierce Grace. A more concise and concentrated set of haunting and mesmerizing compositions, Come With Fierce Grace feels more raw and physical in its presentation, as evident on compositions like “Greek Honey Slick,” which finds dePlume engaged in a groove-heavy jam session with drummer Tom Skinner. An urgent and excellent set of pieces, Come With Fierce Grace feels less like a companion to its predecessor than a fiery encore. – Jeff Terich
EABS Meets Jaubi – In Search of a Better Tomorrow
Pakistani group Jaubi made a stunning debut with 2021’s Nafs at Peace, an eclectic and moving set of music that landed on our own list of best jazz albums that year. Two years later, they make their return in collaboration with Polish jazz fusion group EABS, the two group working in mesmerizing harmony in creating something unpredictable and multifaceted. In Search of a Better Tomorrow draws from the haunted palette of darkjazz, frequently crafting something that feels like highly charged moments in a crime drama (the sinister pulse of “Strange Love,” for instance), but there are moments of soulful groove in the psychedelic swing of “People In Between,” frantic tabla rhythms in “Whispers,” and a low simmering heat on “Tomorrow.” In Search of a Better Tomorrow is a cross-cultural collaboration that yields endless moments of epiphany and vast potential for growth from here, but more than anything, it simply sounds like the coolest jazz record you’ll hear this year. – Jeff Terich
Fire! Orchestra – Echoes
Swedish collective Fire! Orchestra—an outgrowth of jazz trio Fire! that has counted more than two dozen members and collaborators over the past decade—is a complicated entity to wrap one’s head around, rooted as much in jazz as avant garde and modern classical music. Their compositions are swelling and elaborate, steeped in the third stream fusions of the early 1960s embraced by the likes of Miles Davis and Charles Mingus. Echoes is a crowning achievement for the group, a triple-album-length odyssey into richly orchestrated and tense avant jazz with an emphasis on dark and anxious moods. They’re more akin to a group like Australia’s The Necks (who also appear here) than more conventional jazz groups, but with an even bigger scope of arrangement; when everything comes together as on the first two pieces of their “ECHOES” suite, it feels like a force of nature, a rush of energy and intensity that portends something alternately ominous and awe-inspiring. – Jeff Terich
Matthew Halsall – An Ever Changing View
British composer and instrumentalist Matthew Halsall isn’t afraid of making mistakes and taking chances, exploring sounds without going too far off the deep end. Channeling North Wales, he set out to capture and create music for his seventh solo album. His tracks have a melancholy, though not too mournful sound to them. There’s often a saxophone leading the tune with percussion keeping the beat, piano or flute sliding in and out occasionally, like a stream winding its way through a forest, never forced or overexerted. An Ever Changing View doesn’t try to be different or weird for its own sake. The album merely represents an artist’s inspirations, his travels through the fields and woods. – Konstantin Rega
Miho Hazama – Beyond Orbits
Miho Hazama fits into an interesting category of forward-thinking jazz that doesn’t leave the listener behind—cool, funky, yet sophisticated. With her latest release Beyond Orbits, Hazama’s m_unit celebrates ten years of innovative and energized jazz. There are moments of movie soundtrack-like strings or horns as well as more otherworldly aspects that define this project. Her three-part “Exoplanet Suite” (featuring Christian McBride) has a bit of the classic big band sound to it—think Benny Goodman—yet Hazama’s voice and musical taste come through. Her control is masterful and the execution of the music itself shows sophistication. All this points to how she has grown and how much her m_unit has to offer. – Konstantin Rega
Irreversible Entanglements – Protect Your Light
The free-jazz quintet with an experimental punk mentality—featuring poet-vocalist Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother), bassist Luke Stewart, trumpeter Aquiles Navarro, saxophonist Keir Neuringer, and drummer Tcheser Holmes—did two unexpected things this year. For one, somebody over at Impulse! Records ran the personal math and immediately signed one of the most important jazz bands of the 21st Century. Along with Brandee Younger, Shabaka Hutchings, and his many incarnations, Impulse! decided it was wise to connect “the house that Trane built” with modern arrangers of energy music. Second, the first two tracks on Protect Your Light are celebration pieces where you’d be more than encouraged to dance, spend moments, songs, and stretches of carnival dance rhythm, to be free. Reminding us all that the first revolution is through movement, it’s an assured pathway of freedom for the mind.
I’m compelled to hear this record as a counterpart to jaimie branch’s final record in terms of both of these bands being in a constant state of fight for change, bringing the issues to the surface, while still able to burn an unwavering light in leading the charge for revelry and human expression. These former labelmates, not the wealthy pop music folks, brought the fight to the light a couple of years ago. Cherish this music, it’s priceless. – John-Paul Shiver
Mbuso Khoza – Ifa Lomkhono
Ever since 2020’s breathtaking Queen Nandi: The African Symphony—an unsung record that remains vital listening for any jazz fans—I’ve been eagerly awaiting any kind of reunion between that record’s many participants. Finally, after three years, Mbuso Khoza (the vocalist whose remarkable voice soars throughout “Queen Nandi”) delivered the goods, assembling Nduduzo Makhathini, Linda Sikhakhane, Ayande Sikade, Ndabo Zulu, and many others for his debut album. It’s deep, rich music, forming a dialogue between South Africa’s many musical traditions. Oscillating between gentle ballads and uproarious arrangements, Ifa Lomknono is dense, enriching music produced by some of the most exciting musicians of the jazz world. – Noah Sparkes
Steve Lehman & Orchestre National de Jazz – Ex Machina
A collaboration between two heavyweights—prolific saxophonist Steve Lehman and the long-running French ensemble Orchestre National de Jazz—Ex Machina is a work that balances the finer details with a much grander overall execution. The album’s eleven pieces integrate spectral harmonies as translated via interactive real-time electronics, creating something that sounds otherworldly, even as the ensemble’s performances feel both impactful and grounded. While on the surface, the idea might come across as overly cerebral or conceptual, in practice it’s often mesmerizing—even breathtaking. Ex Machina feels like a new frontier in jazz. – Jeff Terich
aja monet – when the poems do what they do
Following a pair of breathtaking singles in “Give My Regards to Brooklyn” and “The Devil You Know,” jazz poet aja monet’s debut album, when the poems do what they do, finds her joined by artists such as Samora Pinderhughes, Marcus Gilmore and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. It’s a mesmerizing debut as both a jazz album and a collection of verse, with immersive and dynamic musical arrangements swirling around her alternately incisive, powerful, moving and playful lyricism, which have an undeniable musicality of their own. At 83 minutes, it’s a lengthy debut, but there’s so much here to revisit and unravel, with words that’ll linger for a few hours longer. – Jeff Terich
Natural Information Society – Since Time Is Gravity
Helmed by bandleader, composer and multi-instrumentalist Joshua Abrams, Chicago jazz collective Natural Information Society have spent more than a decade exploring avant garde acoustic music at its most cosmic and psychedelic. Their fourth album, Since Time Is Gravity, continues to pull at the fabric of the universe through mostly lengthy pieces that breathe and ebb and flow with stellar energy, balancing mesmerizing raga-like drone with powerfully dynamic lead performances. Throughout there are small works of magic that glimmer amid the heady orchestrations—Kara Bershad’s harp on “Murmuration,” Ben Lamar Gay’s cornet on “Stigmergy,” Mai Sugimoto’s flute on “Gravity”—but it’s hard not to be awestruck by a set of music that seeks to make a statement as big as this one. – Jeff Terich
The Necks – Travel
For more than 30 years, The Necks have been a constant presence in avant garde jazz and improvisational music, their hypnotic pieces often stretching to sprawling lengths. In fact, the four pieces on their 18th album Travel are by no means brief, each one nearing or surpassing 20 minutes each. But for Necks, that length is never so much an indulgence as a necessary space for exploration, meditative and understated yet mysterious and unpredictable. There’s an undercurrent of darkness flowing through Travel, haunted yet electric, rife with myriad surprises that emerge within their breathtaking noirscapes, uncovering fascinating textures that simmer and steam, only occasionally reaching a boiling point. – Jeff Terich
Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter Five: In the garden…
Matana Roberts’ Coin Coin series of albums has been nothing short of a revelation over the past 12 years, each one defined by a different topic—ranging from Roberts’ own family background to the tragic history of slavery in America. In the garden… adds on to the series with an examination of reproductive rights through a historical lens and set to musical pieces both fiery and meditative, melodic and disorienting. It’s characteristically challenging and captivating, its spoken-word pieces adding context to what’s nonetheless a deeply moving and powerful set of music. In the garden… is another remarkable chapter in an essential work of American music. – Jeff Terich
Cécile McLorin Salvant – Melusine
Going in a slightly different direction from her previous projects (which can be considered a bit more traditional with interesting takes on jazz standards, like “You’re My Thrill” off her Dreams and Daggers), Salvant celebrates the European legend of Mélusine here. Sung mainly in French, Occitan, and Haitian Kreyòl, she embraces her heritage and goes to new places. This recent release doesn’t rely too much on the piano to take the lead. Drums, synths, and guitar are ready for action. She’s changing it up; though, her vocals are still recognizable and consistent. Salvant digs deep into her own story and reveals many tiny treasures. – Konstantin Rega
Kendrick Scott – Corridors
On his third album for Blue Note, drummer and composer Kendrick Scott takes a break from his larger group, Oracle, to play in a trio. The result is a collection of hushed conversations, restrained and unhurried, novel and traditionally minded. There are individual showcases for all three players: Reuben Rogers’ bass crawl opens the title track, while tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III puts melody forward on the gorgeous “One Door Closes, Another Opens.” Generally, Rogers lays down an unshowy foundation while Smith traces simple melodic lines (only on closer “Threshold” does he really start cooking). The dramatic thrust comes from Scott’s drumming: playful, commanding, and rippling with texture. – Casey Burke
Daniel Villarreal – Lados B
Daniel Villarreal, percussionist and member of the Chicago group Dos Santos, delivered a masterful set of Latin jazz fusion on last year’s Panamá 77, a record that paid tribute to the sounds pioneered in his country of birth while putting them in more of a modern context. Lados B is a more understated and stripped down affair, comprising trio jazz recordings with guitarist Jeff Parker and bassist Anna Butterss. The title translates to “B-Sides,” which suggests this is cutting-room floor material, but the final product is anything but, a dazzling and freewheeling set of small-ensemble jazz that’s electrifying and effortlessly cool in equal measure. – Jeff Terich
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