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Chris May's Best Albums Of 2023

Chris May's Best Albums Of 2023

Courtesy Josh Pelta-Heller


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Another great year for recorded jazz. Fourteen of 2023's most special albums are presented here. Eight are new recordings and six are reissues or previously unreleased archive items.

Joint Number One Best New Albums Of 2023

Irreversible Entanglements
Protect Your Light

There are two contendors for the slam-dunk top spot this year, but choosing between Irreversible Entanglements' Protect Your Light and Jaimie Branch's Fly Or Die quartet's Fly Or Die Fly Or Die Fly Or Die ((World War)) (International Anthem) would be a fool's errand. Both discs are cut from the same cloth and both contain what is among the most passionate and viscerally thrilling jazz heard in 2023. Protect Your Light wins the blunt—in the sense that it is the first one talked about here—but that is only because Branch was the subject of a lengthy Building A Jazz Library article on AAJ this autumn.

In 2023, Irreversible Entanglements (pictured) and Fly Or Die were in the forefront of that disappointingly small number of US jazz luminaries who took a stand against the march of hate-fuelled authoritarianism which will hit the fan with the presidential election in 2024. Irreversible Entanglements was formed when performance poet Camae Ayewa (a.k.a. Moor Mother), saxophonist Keir Neuringer and bassist Luke Stewart took part in a Musicians Against Police Brutality demonstration against the NYPD in 2015. Shortly afterwards, trumpeter Aquiles Navarro and drummer Tcheser Holmes came aboard. The lineup remains unchanged. Protect Your Light is IE's fourth album and maintains the uncompromising spirit of its predecessors. The band's arrangements are semi-free, moving between strong grooves and freewheeling collective improvisation. Moor's poetry is deep; jazz and spoken word have rarely worked so well together as on this album's "Soundness," "Celestial Pathways" and "Root And Branch" (which is dedicated to Jaimie Branch and features Fly Or Die's cellist, Lester St. Louis). The complete album may sometimes put the listener in mind of an imaginary Ornette Coleman quartet with added spoken word—and while IE is a 21st century phenomenon, tomorrow, or rather 2024, is indeed still the question.

Jaimie Branch
Fly Or Die Fly Or Die Fly Or Die ((World War))
International Anthem Recording Company

Tragically, Fly Or Die's fourth album was a posthumous release. Branch died from an accidental drug overdose at her home in Brooklyn in August 2022. By then the disc, which had been recorded and mixed earlier that year, was near completion, with only tweaks, final titles and artwork to be finalized. In the months following Branch's passing, her family (led by her sister Kate, in whose Brooklyn home studio much of the first album had been recorded) and Fly Or Die got together to complete the production. One could talk about cellist Lester St. Louis' amphetamine-urgent high-register viola-like passages evoking the Velvet Underground in its John Cale pomp, or the Death In The Afternoon / Mexicali majesty of Branch's open trumpet, or the shades of La Monte Young's opium-addled drone music, and much more... but the best way to tune into this and other Fly Or Die albums is to play the video below.

In their liner notes, St. Louis, bassist Jason Ajemian and drummer Chad Taylor write: "For this [album], jaimie wanted to play with longer forms, more modulations, more noise, more singing, and as always, grooves and melodies... jaimie wanted this album to be lush, grand and full of life, just as she was." It is indeed all of those things. (The aforementioned Building A Jazz Library / Branch article can be read here. Readers averse to predictive sci-fi are advised to avoid it.)

Best New Albums Of 2023: Runners Up

Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble
Spirit Gatherer: Tribute To Don Cherry
Spirit Muse

Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble trio has been active since 1981, breaking ground for bands such as Irreversible Entanglements and Jaimie Branch. The 2023 lineup is El'Zabar on percussion, Corey Wilkes on trumpet and Alex Harding on baritone saxophone. The gritty, groovecentric Spirit Gatherer is a tribute to Don Cherry and the trio is joined on some tracks by Cherry's son, pianist and melodica player David Ornette Cherry, and vocalist Dwight Trible.

The eleven tracks include six El'Zabar originals plus five covers of legacy material which El'Zabar associates with Don Cherry: Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman," the John Coltrane tweak "Sketches Of A Love Supreme," Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't," Pharoah Sanders' "Harvest Time" and Cherry's own "Degi-Degi." (El'Zabar talks about his choice of repertoire in an AAJ interview here). The album is best summed up as quietly shamanistic. Most of the time, "shamanistic" is used to describe high energy, high-decibel workouts which produce catharsis but not necessarily uplift. Spirit Gatherer is passionate and uplifting: nuanced, its motor rhythms upfront but harnessed, its lyricism unbroken.

London Brew
London Brew

After a high-scoring 2022, with albums by Laura Jurd, The Comet Is Coming, Alina Bzhezhinska and Tom Skinner in this Best Of list, this year the London scene has been relatively low key. Live, there has been plenty going on, but on record, none of ten or so potentially winning projects are due to be released until 2024. In fact, London Brew's double album is the only 2023 British entry. And what a blinder it is. The nearly-all-star band includes Tom Skinner, Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings, Tom Herbert, Theon Cross, Dave Okumu, Nick Ramm and Benji B.

The focus of the disc is Miles Davis' Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970), which is not recreated, recalibrated, reconstructed or any other rewhatevered, but used as a jumping off point for new explorations. Sure, Hutchings' bass clarinet resonates with Bennie Maupin's, and the keyboards on "Trainlines" are in lockstep with Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea. Ditto Okumu and John McLaughlin. And true, Garcia's use of pedals on "Miles Chases New Voodoo In The Church" deliberately references Davis' trumpet on "Miles Runs The Voodoo Down," while overall London Brew also employs more edits and post-production interventions than Teo Macero's assemblage could have waved a stick at. But London Brew takes everything so far off piste that the music is, ultimately, something else.

Espen Eriksen
As Good As It Gets
Rune Grammofon

There is a London connection on the Espen Eriksen Trio's As Good As It Gets, in the person of guest tenor saxophonist Andy Sheppard, and also a connection with London Brew's Shabaka Hutchings. In an interview with AAJ in 2021, Hutchings named Sheppard's Romaria (ECM, 2018) as one of six albums which continued to inform his playing. "It links with the tradition that comes from John Surman and some of the early works of Jan Garbarek in the way there is a poetic quality to the statements that are made on the saxophone," said Hutchings. "When I first heard it I remember thinking, how do I make my music sound more poetic, like Andy does?" (The interview can be read here.)

Anyway... Norway's Espen Eriksen Trio is the first Scandinavian piano trio to enjoy a measure of sustained international success since Sweden's Esbjorn Svensson's high-profile run was cut short by Svensson's death in 2008. While some listeners thought that EST's style was becoming over-codifed during its final years, EET still sounds box-fresh thirteen years since its first album.

Samir Böhringer
Meta Zero

Samir Böhringer's future-leaning Zurich-based quartet is urgent and urban and packs plenty of heft. The group debuted with Prometheus (QFTF) in 2020 and the line-up remains unchanged: Böhringer on drums and composing, with tenor saxophonist Rafael Schilt, guitarist and electronicist Dave Gisler and bassist and electronicist Raphael Walser. Without diminishing the roles of Schilt and Walser—for the Quartet wheels and turns with the same uncanny unity as a murmuration of starlings—the fulcrum of the band is Böhringer and Gisler.

Gisler carries traces of several plectrists who have come before him (including John McLaughlin, Jimi Hendrix, Eivind Aarset and James Blood Ulmer), but he is his own man. His trio twice recorded with Jaimie Branch, first on the live album Zurich Concert (Intakt, 2020), then on the studio set See You Out There (Intakt, 2022). Any guitarist twice blessed by Branch's endorsement is serious business and on Meta Zero Gisler proves the point once more. The album is a mixture of free improvisation and pre-composition, but such is the degree of interaction within the band that it is often hard to tell where the one finishes and the other starts. The music possesses a special kind of raw elegance.

Kurt Elling & Charlie Hunter
SuperBlue: The Iridescent Spree
Edition Records

And on the subject of guitarists... Kurt Elling and Charlie Hunter followed up their Grammy-nominated 2021 album, SuperBlue (Edition) with another sublime blend of jazz and groove. Some jazz fans have an aversion to singers, for a whole lot of complicated but valid reasons—not least the tendency of all but the most poetic lyrics to reduce music to prosaic literalism. But SuperBlue: The Iridescent Spree should overcome most objections, and certainly that one. Elling's poetic excursions illuminate five of the nine tunes, and Joni Mitchell, Bob Dorough, Ron Sexsmith and Billy Collins (an actual card-carrying poet) are on hand for the rest. Ornette Coleman's (retitled) "Only The Lonely Woman" (encountered above on the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble's album) is, perhaps, the album's masterpiece, but its somber mood is not characteristic of the overall disc, which is upbeat. There is something fingerpoppin' anachronistic about Elling's style, but delightfully so.

Arbenz, Krijger, Osby
Conversation #9: Targeted
Hammer Productions

This under-the-radar album skewers any notion that modern-day organ trios are all unimaginative bores churning out reheated cliches from Blue Note and Prestige albums of the 1950s and early 1960s. With that stereotype in mind, one would hesitate to apply the term "organ trio" to the group on Targeted. But its instigator, the Swiss drummer Florian Arbenz, uses the description in his liner notes when introducing Hammond organist Arno Krijger. The group's third member is saxophonist Greg Osby. Arbenz actually calls the band a "slightly unusual organ-trio," and when Krijger's solo—a masterclass in controlled ferocity—kicks in at 3:43 on track one the choice of words is justified within seconds. The track is Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance," though like the other two standards to be heard, Victor Feldman's "Seven Steps To Heaven" and George Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy," a showcase for Osby's wistful soprano, the version here is so radically rebooted that one could be forgiven for not immediately recognising it. As organ trios go, this is definitely one step beyond.

Number One Best Reissue/Archive Album Of 2023

Bill Evans Trio
At The Village Vanguard 1961 Revisited

AAJ policy sensibly stipulates that the site's writers may not review albums for which they wrote the sleeve notes, due to obvious conflicts of interest. Which means the author of this article cannot write about At The Village Vanguard 1961 Revisited by the Bill Evans trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. So here instead are the unedited words of one of the outlets retailing the disc: "His two Riverside masterpieces Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby. The music sounds better than ever after Ezzthetics' restoration-work, which removes the accustomed breaks between tracks, so that the concerts unfold continuously and vividly, laced with crowd chatter and clinking glasses, and all. You feel like you're there in the Village Vanguard, in 1961, enraptured. Evans is exquisitely soulful throughout, and the improvisatory trio interplay is famously stunning: check My Man's Gone Now, featuring Scott LaFaro. It's a scorcher. Unmissable." (There would be the same conflict of interest were the author to express an opinion about ezz-thetics' 2 x CD Bill Evans Duos With Jim Hall & Trios '64 & '65 Revisited.)

Best Reissue/Archive Albums Of 2023: Runners Up

Jazz Doctors
Intensive Care / Prescriptions Filled
Cadillac Records

A hybrid, in that Intensive Care, recorded in 1983, was first released by Cadillac in 1984, which makes the first half of this disc a reissue, while Prescriptions Filled, recorded in 1984, has never previously been issued, making it a new release. Whatever. The two albums were recorded during visits to the UK by The Jazz Doctors, a pianoless quartet nominally led by violinist Billy Bang and co-spotlighting tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe, two avant-garde players who went against the grain by embracing attractive melodies and well-defined tonal centres. Lowe could shriek and scream with the best of them (though not on this disc), but his core style reflected an older generation of tenor saxophonists, prominent among them Coleman Hawkins and Chu Berry. Bang was also rooted in an earlier generation of players, notably Stuff Smith. There is, in fact, little in either player's playing here to frighten all but the most skittish horses. Utterly delightful from start to finish.

Albert Ayler
Summertime To Spiritual Unity Revisited

This landmark reissue contains consummately remastered cuts of the killer track from Albert Ayler's relatively unknown My Name Is Albert Ayler (Debut 1964) plus the masterpiece Spiritual Unity (ESP-Disk, 1965) in its entirety. Summertime To Spiritual Unity Revisited starts with "Summertime" from the 1964 album. In an essay about Chet Baker in his memoir Close Enough For Jazz (Quartet, 1983), Mike Zwerin, referring to a Baker performance of the tune, wrote, "Chet Baker is summertime, but the livin' isn't easy." Sure, Baker could pack a truckload of torment into Gershwin's tune, but Ayler takes it to another level—and yet one feels cleansed and invigorated by the experience, in a way that listening to Baker never produces. If you are reading this review, you will almost certainly know Spiritual Unity as a masterclass in trio interplay on a par with... Bill Evans' trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. Ayler, Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray function as one. In an interview a couple of years later, Ayler said of the album: "We weren't playing, we were listening to each other."

Nina Simone
You've Got To Learn

The release of this previously unavailable treasure, recorded live at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1966, was headline news. Nina Simone is in peak form, accompanied by guitarist Rudy Stevenson, bassist Lisle Atkinson and drummer Bobby Hamilton. Along with Max Roach, Charles Mingus and Abbey Lincoln, Simone was, in the early 1960s, one of the first jazz musicians to stick her head above the parapet and jeopardise her career prospects with plain-spoken demands for social justice for Black Americans. Her "Mississippi Goddam" (included here in her only recorded arrangement employing an offbeat-driven motor rhythm) was written in 1964 in protest at the murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers in Mississippi, and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four Black children. The opening title track is an affecting version of Charles Aznavour and Marcel Stellman's classic and from there the intensity builds track by track over the album's thirty-three minutes playing time (never mind the width, feel the quality).

Malombo Jazz

It is no exaggeration to say that Malombo Jazz (Gallotone, 1966) and Malombo Jazz Makers Vol. 2 (Gallotone, 1967), two classics of South African jazz which were reissued on vinyl this year by Strut, changed the direction of the country's jazz. It is in 2023 so commonplace for musicians to embrace their cultural heritage that it is easy to forget that this has not always been so. In South Africa in the 1950s and early 1960s, Black musicians looked exclusively towards the US for inspiration. In 1955, Anthony Sampson, editor of Drum magazine, quoted a Black townsman thus: "Tribal music! Tribal history! Chiefs! We don't care about chiefs! Give us jazz and film stars, man! We want Duke Ellington, Satchmo and hot dames! Yes, brother, anything American. You can cut out all this junk about kraals and folk tales and Basutos in blankets—forget it! You're just trying to keep us backward, that's what!" A decade later, everything changed. In 1964, at South Africa's Castle Jazz Festival, Malombo, led by guitarist Philip Tabane, blew every other band offstage with an utterly Black South African style of jazz, one inspired by the trippy, elegant folk music of the Venda people.

Charles Mingus
At Antibes 1960 Revisited

On this historic, sonically-restored recording, Charles Mingus leads a pianoless quintet completed by Booker Ervin on tenor saxophone, Eric Dolphy on alto saxophone and bass clarinet, Ted Curson on trumpet and Dannie Richmond on drums. Bud Powell guests on piano on the closer, "I'll Remember April." The album's juxtaposition of roots and the avant-garde is played out in the main by the two reed players. The opener, "Prayer For Passive Resistance," is essentially a showcase for Ervin, whose fiery tenor is the most frequently spotlit voice on the album. Ervin never made concessions to avant-garde sensibilities, either with Mingus or when leading his own bands, remaining committed to unreconstructed hard bop. Dolphy took care of the avant-garde end of things. Perhaps wise to the conservative tastes of much of the Antibes audience, Mingus does not let Dolphy loose on the bass clarinet in full blazing effect until the penultimate piece, "What Love?" Here Mingus and Dolphy rehearse their extraordinarily eloquent non-verbal conversation on the piece as recorded three months later on Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (Candid, 1960).

Honorable Mentions

Funkwrench Soundtrack For A Film Without Pictures (Need To Know); Albert Ayler More Lost Performances Revisited (ezz-thetics); Idris Ackamoor And The Pyramids Afro Futuristic Dreams (Strut); Bill Dixon With Archie Shepp 7-tette And Orchestra Revisited (ezz-thetics); Chris Batchelor's Zoetic Telling The Tale (Pokey); Rob Luft Dahab Days (Edition); John Coltrane Featuring Eric Dolphy Evenings At The Village Gate (Impulse!); Charlie Parker At Birdland 1950 Revisited (ezz-thetics); Pharoah Sanders Harvest Time (Luaka Bop box set); Anders Lønne Grønseth Inner View (NXN); James Brandon Lewis For Mahalia With Love (Tao Forms).


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