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Dan McClenaghan's Best Jazz Albums Of 2023


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The top jazz recordings of the year in the order (more or less) that they came in the door. Concerning the recorded jazz offerings in in 2023, we could quote Frank Sinatra singing Ervin Drake's lyrics in the 1966 Grammy winner: "It was a very good year." It is difficult to pick a favorite. These are all stellar sets. But twist my arm and I'll pick Arild Andersen's Affirmation, or maybe John Bishop's Antwerp, or possibly Allison Au's Migrations, or...

Arild Andersen
ECM Records

Arild Andersen began his association with ECM Records in 1975, with the release of his album Clouds In My Head. He has released over 20 more recordings in a leadership role for the label, and has participated in even more albums—for ECM and other labels—in a sideman role, joining artists as diverse as pianists Bobo Stenson, Ketil Bjornstad and Yelena Eckemoff, saxophonists Jan Garbarek and Tommy Smith. trombonist Roswell Rudd and singer Sheila Jordan. He has proved himself a prolific and versatile artist over a 45-year career, with a style that is hard to tag—not mainstream, not avant- garde, but rather an approachable, off-center full embrace of beauty in a personal, off-the-beaten-path way. Call it Nordic Cool, which is not afraid to heat things to a steady high flame at times.

Satoko Fujii
Hyaku: One Hundred Dreams
Libra Records

Pianist Satoko Fujii's discography runs from solo to big band outings and everything in between. Hyaku: One Hundred Dreams features a nonet, that, under Fujii's leadership, crafts a distinctive 5-part suite that whispers and wails, swings and bops, ruminates and riots, and then noodles around with life-affirming, sometimes whimsical energy. Electronicist Ikue Mori layers in surreal backdrops; trumpeters Wadada Leo Smith and Natsuki Tamura inject, by turns, straight-ahead blowing and wildly avant-garde sounds.

Jim Snidero
Far Far Away
Savant Records

Alto saxophonist Jim Snidero had quite a year in 2021, with the re-release of his masterpiece, Strings (Savant), originally released in 2001, and the release of another masterful set, Live At Deer Head Inn (Savant). In 2022 he decided to keep a good thing going, inviting his Deer Head rhythm section—pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Peter Washington, with John Farnsworth back in the drummer's seat—into the studio, along with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, for an inspired set of bop and post-bop tunes, mostly from Snidero's pen, plus a couple of time-tested standards in the mix.

Snidero's fresh material was shaped with Rosenwinkel in mind. This added another layer to Snidero's concepts. After a thirty-five- year career, Snidero seems to have slipped into a "can do no wrong" mode. The choice of bringing in the versatile guitarist, who always lifts the music up in his sideman gigs, pays off here. The sound is denser than his quartet music. It comes out of the tradition with risks taken, serving up and presenting a surprise a minute.

Brad Goode
The Unknown
Origin Records

This skillfully conceived album sets a modern tone from the opener, "Decathexis," straight through to the closer, "Shiprock," via seven engaging Goode originals and three surprising cover choices. Continuity of sound and approach is—as always—a big plus when crafting a collection of tunes. The Unknown has this. It is a quartet outing, a rhythm section and Goode's trumpet that sounds, on an initial spin, like a pared-down, Miles Davis outing from the 1980s, with Jeff Jenkins electric keyboards sparkling in the creation- -in league with bassist Seth Lewis and drummer Paa Kow—some deep grooves.

Wadada Leo Smith
Fire Illuminations
Kabell Records

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith fronts lots of different bands and puts out lots of albums. After a busy period when he released five boxed sets, totaling 27 CDs, here he debuts his new all-star ensemble Orange Wave Electric, with the download-only offering, Fire Illuminations. The band name applies as electric it is, featuring three electric guitarists, two electric bassists and an electronicist, joining the leader's horn, percussionist Mauro Refosco and drummer Pheeroan AkLaff.

Satoko Fujii
Libra Records

It starts with assertive flurries. The tune is "Torrent," also the album title. From the opening flurries, things do swell in the direction of a torrent. This is pianist Satoko Fujii sitting down at the piano without a pre-planned set. She conjures the music, much as pianist Keith Jarrett did in his monumental solo shows before medical problems sidelined him.

Russ Lossing
Alternate Side Parking Music
Aqua Piazza Records

Pianist Russ Lossing is not one to let imposed downtime go to waste. The imposition comes from New York City's regulations concerning alternate side parking which requires, only one day per week, that cars park on one side of the street, for street cleaning purposes. The evening car-moving causes jostling. Sometimes open spots are not readily available. Parallel parking is often required, as is (temporary, we can assume) double parking. Time in the driver's seat results. Lossing put this time to use by writing the tunes for Alternate Side Parking Music.

Brent Wallarab
The Gennett Suite
Patrois Records

This is where music for mass consumption—recorded music—started, in Richmond, Indiana, in the 1920s, in a piano factory by the railroad tracks in a glacier-carved gorge. Established in 1887, in the beginning Starr Pianos' bread and butter was pianos, but they branched out to selling other instruments and eventually phonographs and records—their own records, recorded in the piano factory, taking breaks in the process when a train came by. At first, they called their recording side of the business Starr Records, but they switched it to the company's family's name. Thereafter it was Gennett Records.

Gennett Records fought with Victor Talking Machine Company over the rights to the recording process—big guy versus little guy, an old story. Gennett won. Be thankful that they did. This is where so many of the seminal jazz recordings came from, musicians who traveled from south to north, from down New Orleans way, a migration rolling up Highway 61, or more likely on the rails.

That was the 1920s and current jazz fans can be excused for not listening to, or even knowing of, the music which was made in the Starr Piano Factory. But The Gennett Suite by the Buselli/Wallarab Jazz Orchestra can serve as a gateway for the sound.

If this music is obscure to many, it is not for the instigator of The Gennett Suite, Indiana University Professor and composer Brent Wallarab. With the century-old music, he has shaped for the jazz orchestra he presents the art of the pioneers in 4 parts; "Movement 1: Royal Blue" explores the creations of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings then King Oliver and Louis Armstrong; "Movement 2: Blues Faux Bix" embraces the sounds of cornetist, composer and bandleader Bix Beiderbecke; Movement 3 shines the light on Hoagy Carmichael, and "Movement 4: Mr. Jelly Lord" explores the music of Jelly Roll Morton.

Denny Zeitlin
Crazy Rhythm: Exploring George Gershwin
Sunnyside Records

Denny Zeitlin's jazz career began when he sat in as the featured pianist on flutist Jeremy Steig's Flute Fever (Columbia Records, 1964). He followed this up with his debut as a leader on Columbia Records' 1964 album Cathexis. While maintaining another successful career as a psychiatrist and college professor, he released more than a dozen albums over the next quarter century, most of them acoustic piano sets, plus a few experimental electronic outings, along with a groundbreaking electro/orchestral soundtrack to the 1978 remake of the science fiction film Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

At the turn of the century, Zeitlin had established himself as a top-level, if somewhat underrecognized, jazz talent. Then, in 2001, he found a home at Sunnyside Records, a connection that turned into a late-career profile boost that resulted in some of the pianist's finest recordings. In addition to his Sunnyside home, Zeitlin also found a home at Oakland's Piedmont Piano Company, where he presents yearly solo recitals focusing on individual composers. In 2014 it was saxophonist Wayne Shorter, resulting in the album Early Wayne (Sunnyside, 2016); in 2016 it was Miles Davis, for Remembering Miles (Sunnyside, 2019). And now, for 2023, we have Crazy Rhythm: Exploring George Gershwin.

Charu Suri
Rags & Ragas
Self Produced

Pianist Charu Suri was born in India, where the raga holds sway, and she listened to the ragas her father played on the radio. But she left her homeland and has lived in four continents. New York, at this writing, is her current home. But the raga has stayed with her, on her albums Book Of Ragas (2019), Book Of Ragas Vol II (2022) and Ragas and Waltzes (2022), all on Amala Records.

Rags and Ragas came about after several of Suri's trips to the Crescent City, where she experienced the New Orleans' Preservation Hall Jazz Band. She then found a way to blend New Orleans ragtime with the songs of India. Her effort is a beguiling brew of the timelessness of the music of India and the exuberance and playfulness of The Big Easy, with a dash of funk thrown in for good measure.

Teri Parker
Shaping the Invisible
Self Produced

Teri Parker is a Toronto-based musician. Her debut album, 2017's self-produced In The Past (review here) is a highly engaging and beautifully melodic set. Shaping The Invisible takes things, compositionally, to the next level. Her tunes are frequently off-kilter, odd. It is not clear who she listened to in her creation room, but with "Becoming"—named for Michelle Obama's memoir—the incomparable pianist Andrew Hill's approach seems to bubble up. Like Hill's writing, "Becoming" is compelling in its own unconventional way, the "unconventionality" of it making it all the more riveting, opening in a dreamy mode before shifting into an insistent straight eighths groove.

John Bishop
Origin Records

Drummer John Bishop, the guy who runs Seattle's Origin Records, does not often put out records under his own name. There was Nothing If Not Something (Origin Records) in 2005, review here, and then nothing until the disc at hand, 2023's Antwerp. Not that Bishop has avoided the recording studio. He is, as a sideman, in fact quite prolific, sitting in on Hal Galper's string of rubato-style piano trio sets—one example: Trip the Light Fantastic (Origin Records, 2011), review here, and first-rate recordings headed up by guitarist John Stowell, trumpeter, Chad McCullough and Bram Weijters' Abstract Quantities (Origin Records, 2014), and many more. All this is in addition to running a record label and creating some of the coolest cover art out there.

The set—that includes three compositions from bassist Verbist, three form pianist Weijters, one each from Carla Bley, Hal Galper and Henry Mancini—has a life-affirming, celebratory quality. This is a trio of old friends gathered in Belgium's second-largest city to make jubilant jazz and slip into, as occasionally and unpredictably happens, a communal groove that takes the music to the highest level. Did they come out of the studio saying, "Wow. We nailed it." They could have. This is, according to Bishop, about "Ales, waffles & fries, and many days/nights spent with new then old friends, and celebration from a feeling for a particular place." And the results say everything fell into place. And magic happened.

Allison Au
Self Produced

Canadian saxophonist Allison Au says she was drawn to the simplicity of a jazz quartet "as a vehicle for realizing the visions of my original compositions." Charlie Parker must have felt the same way; Art Pepper, too. And John Coltrane. Au stuck to this format for her Wander Wonder (Self Produced, 2018) and 2017's self-produced Forest Grove (review here). Both were terrific outings that spoke to the young artist's potential. But as with the noted giants mentioned above, Au must have felt a need to expand her palette and explore the endless possibilities of a larger ensemble. She does this with great success on her excellent Migrations.


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