With a steady supply of fantastic music, 2023 offered an abundance of riches to fans of creative jazz. With groups spanning the gamut from small combos to large ensembles, there is a good deal of diversity on offer here, but what these artists all have in common is an uncompromising commitment to making music that transcends stylistic boundaries. Whether it is James Brandon Lewis' inspired dedication to gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, or Ava Mendoza's punk-meets-jazz aggression, or Steve Lehman's unique exploration of human/computer compositional possibilities, each of these outstanding releases exemplifies jazz's maverick tendencies.
Sylvie Courvoisier Chimaera
While Courvoisier routinely offers surprises and wonders with each release, the always-unpredictable pianist has surpassed even her own inimitable standards with Chimaera
, a beguiling and transfixing musical statement. The two-trumpet tandem of Nate Wooley
and Wadada Leo Smith
is essential, but so too are the electronics and guitar textures provided by Christian Fennesz
. And with the sinuous grooves maintained by Courvoisier's regular partners, bassist Drew Gress
and drummer Kenny Wollesen
, the album is genuinely addictive, revealing more of its marvels with each encounter.
James Brandon Lewis' Red Lily QuintetFor Mahalia, With Love
After 2021's terrific Jesup Wagon
(Tao Forms), saxophonist Lewis' previous release from his Red Lily Quintet, expectations were sky-high for what the group could produce for a tribute to Mahalia Jackson
. The results certainly don't disappoint. With Lewis' trademark lyrical propensities and occasional bursts of fire, not to mention the energized contributions of cornetist Kirk Knuffke
, cellist Christopher Hoffman
, bassist William Parker
and (frequent Lewis collaborator) drummer Chad Taylor
, this is a heartfelt and impassioned memorial to one of the giants of gospel music.
Steve Lehman with Orchestre National de JazzEx Machina
Another triumph for saxophonist Lehman, Ex Machina
represents his investigation of the intersections of computer-generated and human-produced music, and despite its complexity the outcome is surprisingly engaging and accessible. The expertly integrated contributions of France's Orchestre National de Jazz provide a rich, big band-sized template for Lehman, whose creativity has never been more apparent. And as always with Lehman's music, its multi-rhythmic fervor is captivating.
Lawry's vocal talents have taken her well beyond the jazz world, with forays into folk and pop perhaps leading her to be overlooked among top-flight vocalists. But this outstanding release with bassist Linda May Han Oh
and drummer Allison Miller
confirms her status as a creative and adventurous improviser. Lawry's remarkable agility and crafty arrangements breathe plenty of life into some well-chosen standards, and with Oh and Miller in lithesome support the results are consistently invigorating.
Rodrigo AmadoBeyond the Margins
Stalwart free-jazz saxophonist Amado may most frequently be found in piano-less trios with bass and drums, but here he appears once again in a quartet with pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach
, with whom he recorded previously on 2021's The Field
(No Business). There is an undeniable chemistry between the two, highlighting Amado's lyrical aspect amidst the many fireworks, particularly alongside the presence of bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten
and drummer Gerry Hemingway
, who are able to find nuances worth exploring even amidst the group's most intense moments.
Irreversible EntanglementsProtect Your Light
On its fourth release, the ever-feisty Irreversible Entanglements continues to develop its distinctive combination of avant-garde intensity and incisive political commentary, all while creating some of the most irresistible grooves in modern jazz. The group is a true collective, with the instruments sometimes changing hands on each track, but the essential constant is vocalist Moor Mother (Camae Ayewa
), whose fierce denunciations of injustice have animated the ensemble since its debut in 2017.
Henry Threadgill Ensemble The Other One
Once again, Threadgill continues to break new ground, this time with a twelve-member ensemble that has a classical temperament but with blues and jazz elements that surface in intriguing ways. Leaving his alto saxophone aside in favor of his composer-conductor role, Threadgill brings a dense complexity to his compositions, but never without a shimmering vitality. Frequent Threadgill collaborators David Virelles
(piano), Jose Davila
(tuba) and Craig Weinrib
(drums) help to maintain the music's vibrant connection to the jazz tradition.
Punk-inspired guitarist Ava Mendoza
has been an up-and-coming presence in avant-garde circles for some time, with a recent stint with William Parker
on Mayan Space Station
(Aum Fidelity, 2021) just one recent example. But Echolocation
is her most fully realized work so far, a heavy-hitting onslaught of guitar wizardry that meshes perfectly with the powerhouse rhythmic team of bassist Devin Hoff
and drummer Ches Smith
. The wildcard and fourth member of the group is saxophonist James Brandon Lewis
, who has a chance here to unleash the muscular side of his sound, which he does with gusto.
TricksterLive in Brooklyn
Guitarist Miles Okazaki
has always fascinated listeners with his prodigious technique and ambitious vision. He also has a knack for choosing the perfect partners for his assorted projects. His compatriots in Tricksterpianist Matt Mitchell
, bassist Anthony Tidd
and drummer Sean Rickman
offer all the rhythmic versatility and intrepid spirit needed to handle anything Okazaki throws at them. That it's a live recording from an intimate club setting only adds to the appeal of the record, an ideal encapsulation of the last several years of Okazaki's work.
Ingrid LaubrockThe Last Quiet Place
Saxophonist Laubrock is always keeping listeners guessing, and in recent years her work with larger ensembles has taken up much of her attention, as on 2020's Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt
(Intakt). As strong as her large-scale compositions have been, her work with the sextet on The Last Quiet Place
packs a more compact punch, rewarding the close interaction that only a smaller ensemble can provide. And it is quite a group she has assembled, with violinist Mazz Swift
, cellist Tomeka Reid
, guitarist Brandon Seabrook
, bassist Michael Formanek
and drummer Tom Rainey
skillfully navigating Laubrock's tricky, but always stimulating, compositions.