Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Albums for 2023

There’s been so much wonderful music out and about this year that I could have easily plucked a few more from my runners-up without losing any sleep. (A motif to which, as with others baked into this year’s blog, we shall, in roundabout manner, return.) And not to sound like a broken record, as it were, but you wonder why with so much talent and achievement coming from so many directions and from so many generations, jazz remains an afterthought, a marginal presence in the global marketplace. Unless I’m mistaken, nobody’s yet asked Esperanza Spalding – sorry, esperanza spalding – to headline a Super Bowl halftime show. Or even an NBA All-Star Weekend. At least, she headlines this list, or, more accurately, shares top billing.
But then, I often wonder whether music, any music, has much of a place in people’s lives these days. If whatever I’ve been seeing lately on Saturday Night Live’s musical guest shots are any indication, presentation and fashion are what matter more than whatever sounds are being made. (I know, I know, whatever the hell am I doing watching Saturday Night Live lately in the first place? Can’t blame COVID anymore, even if it doesn’t seem to have gone away after all…) So maybe it’s no longer just jazz –whatever people believe it to be – that’s getting hit in the face; it’s all the other genres that are now all merely boutiques. There are now college curricula in Hip-Hop History in case you haven’t heard.


Maybe this explains why lately I’ve been thinking about the way past generations, including mine, used to buy records. Briefly: you went to whatever outlet or department store had people you could trust, and you hung out, browsed, and maybe something was playing in the background that made you go, “What’s that?” The people you trusted were happy to not only tell you, but bring out a fresh copy of the thing that turned our head and you decided you needed to take this “ride” home. And then you shared it with other people who trusted you and maybe if there were little people in your house, they would hear it and start getting ideas…


My origin story. If you’re reading this, it’s probably yours, too.


I don’t know what the equivalent of this process is today unless you count tweets and Bandcamp messages in whatever in-box you reserve for such intelligence. I only know it’s not the same and neither is the world that make those earlier, more haphazard encounters possible.


All I know is that the Good Stuff still somehow makes it out and about. Think of me, then, as that guy in the department store or record outlet – whatever that is – tilting his head at the turntable in the corner. Like that? There’s some more over here…

 

 




1.) Fred Hersch & esperanza spalding, Alive at the Village Vanguard (Palmetto) – You need to give this one to the wisenheimers in your life demanding to know what’s so special about jazz, or even what jazz is. It’s possible these people at least remember hearing Barack Obama profess affection for Spalding while he was still president; maybe they’ve heard or even seen live performances of her varied bands showcasing her upright bass, acrobatic vocals, and varied ensembles. For this bare-bones live set at jazz’s Holy Dive with the redoubtable pianist Hersch, Spalding left her bass at home and what results from their collaboration – which I’ve been labeling “Herschsperanza,” and try and stop me from obtaining a copyright! – may be the grandest, most insurgent act of her still-ascendant career. Traditional pop standards are blown up, rewoven, and all-but terraformed into audacious counter-narratives through the interaction of Hersch’s polymorphic variations and Spalding’s serpentine, uproarious digressions. From Ira Gershwin’s lines of “But Not For Me” (“I was a fool to fall and get that way/Hi-ho, alas, and also lack-a-day”), Spalding extrapolates the following strain of vocalese: “Oh, me. Oh, my. What a sad case I seem to be. It’s my fault, letting love to lead the way. I should know that there’ll be skies of gray. I can’t say I’ve seen too many, but they say that Russian plays do boast of many gray skies, all right – and then some words I don’t really understand because it’s, like, old English – hi-ho, alas, and lackaday. That’s how I feel, confused about the whole situation…” She carries this willed ingenuity into smart-alecky battle against Bobby Troup’s ring-a-ding lyrics on Neal Hefti’s “Girl Talk, which in her hands becomes a twelve-minute proto-feminist interrogation of male presumptiveness, at one point, veering into issues of “economic sustainability. Reduce, Reuse. Recycle…Am I lying?” while still riding the song’s theme and changes as if she were on a thoroughbred leading the Preakness by a length-and-a-half. Charlie Parker’s “Little Suede Shoes,” in like fashion, weaves a dream of dancing in suede shoes just as Hersch’s “Dream of Monk” becomes, with Spalding’s vocals, a clarion call for diligent, if circumspect weirdness. These tracks were culled from a three-night engagement, and I bet those in attendance felt as you will when this album ends: wishing these two crazy kids never stop.

 

 

 

 

 

 



2.) Matthew Shipp, The Intrinsic Nature of Shipp (Mahakala) –Three years ago, Shipp wrote an intriguing essay/manifesto, “Black Mystery School Pianists” (Monk, Herbie Nichols, Mal Waldron, Andrew Hill, Hassan Ibn Ali, to name a few examples) who each cultivated willfully idiosyncratic styles constituting “the subconscious of the jazz idiom…a secret code, passed through an underground way of passage, a language outside the mainstream.” Shipp’s own body-of-work over the last quarter-century so exemplifies this subversive counter-tradition he’s defined that it’s tempting to think of him as its apotheosis, especially when weighing the considerable assets of this latest solo album, which could be a kind of hypertext to his essay. The performances here feel at once more expansive and more challenging than usual. While he can still pile on the tone clusters with his customary intensity, as on the aptly named “Crystal Structures,” Shipp here lets more air and space flow and settle in his thematic extensions as with the graceful and intricate “That Vibration” and in his enigmatic montage of fugitive riffs on “The” – yes, that’s what it’s called and whatever mood he’s in, there abides in Shipp a punkish “what’s-it-to-you” impertinence hat, oddly and appropriately, makes him more endearing, whether he’s throwing down the sledgehammer on “The Bulldozer Poetics” or letting his ruminative side reach for deeper, wider tonal combinations on “Tune Into It.” Shipp cherishes his “Mystery School” progenitors for giving him permission to be as mad, bad, glad, and unpredictable as he wants, and needs, to be. However far he continues to expand on this tradition (and there’s a lot about this album that suggests a transition, even a breakthrough), this school won’t close with him. And times being what they are, I think the school will only increase its enrollment because there’ll always be outliers in America’s backyards and basements searching, as Shipp once did, for affirmation that it’s not only O.K. to be as weird as Thelonious, Herbie, and the rest, it’s necessary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



3.) Jason Moran, From the Dancehall to the Battlefield (Yes) – Visionary badass James Reese Europe (1881-1919) helped make the American Century possible, though you likely never heard of him. He journeyed from his native Alabama to New York in his early 20s to write and conduct show music, then organized the Clef Club, an ambitious collective of Black musicians, whose dance orchestra, 125 members strong, performed a significant recital at Carnegie Hall. His ensembles bent the angularities of ragtime closer towards the looser, more propulsive syncopations shaping the jazz to come. He fought in World War I and organized the 369th Infantry Band, better known as the “Hellfighters.” He hadn’t been back home in Harlem for very long before he was stabbed to death, at just 38, by a drummer incensed with the boss’s criticisms of his on-stage deportment. You would think that a legend of this magnitude yielded dozens of contemporary tribute albums by now, if not a whole Netflix series. But you would also figure that Moran, an artist of comparable vision, would leap to the forefront of an eclectic parade in Europe’s honor, carrying the Hellfighter’s legacy across the century by seamlessly fusing Europe’s arrangement of “Ballin’ the Jack” with the late Geri Allen’s rousing standard “Feed the Fire.” A similar, even greater melding of different eras is executed with Europe’s paean to fallen soldiers, “Flee as a Bird to Your Mountain” transitioning to Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts” with solicitousness and intelligence towards both forms of 20th century modernism. Throughout, Moran’s wide-ranging pianistic gifts and crafty showmanship honors tradition and extends its possibilities with neither undue solemnity nor gratuitous flourish and his various ensembles, anchored by longtime trio mates bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits and including David Adewumi on trumpet, Reginald Cyntje and Chris Bates on trombones, Logan Richardson on alto sax, Brian Settles on tenor sax, Darryl Harper on clarinet, José Davila (about whom more later) on tuba, acquit themselves on “Clef Club March,” “Castle House Rag,” “St. Louis Blues” and “That Moaning Trombone” with discipline and energy that would have mightily pleased the demanding Europe. (Available on vinyl and from Bandcamp.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



4.) Henry Threadgill Ensemble, The Other One (PI) – The best jazz book I read this past year is Easily Slip Into Another World (Knopf), Threadgill’s autobiography, written with Brett Hayes Edwards. If you only knew Threadgill’s music, for which he’s already received the Pulitzer Prize, you could have surmised he had an extraordinary life. But…wow! Growing up musical in Chicago and helping create the seminal Association for the advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) before touring with an evangelical preacher in the mid-1960s and then heading off to Vietnam, hoping to survive jungle combat and racism…And even these experiences, however vividly rendered, are no less significant than all his spellbinding insights into modernism, improvisation, and using time and space to extend harmonic possibilities. Not that you couldn’t retrieve some of those same insights from listening to this three-movement composition, “On Valence,” conducted by Threadgill, rendered by an arresting 12-member combination of musicians, including pianist Davis Virelles, violinist Sara Caswell (about whom more later), violist Stephanie Griffin, cellists Christopher Hoffman and Mariel Roberts, and Threadgill’s longtime tuba player Jose Davilo. Even bassoonists Sara Schoenbeck and Adam Cordero are given opportunities to break off into their own intricate, elegantly woven musings. The 16-minute “Movement II” is a tour-de-force of roiling, extemporaneous interplay of the string section with saxophonists Alfredo Colón, Noah Becker, and Peyton Pleninger Each movement and subsection can be heard as episodes in an edge-of-the-seat pursuit thriller and its myriad arcane pleasures may be more accessible. But then, even at its most abstract and inscrutable, Threadgill’s music, in any configuration, finds a way of inviting you in. At the precipice of 80, Threadgill’s compositional powers seem, if anything, more formidable than ever. And as both his book and this album prove, he’s a helluva storyteller, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 


5.) Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Dynamic Maximum Tension (Nonesuch) – So let’s see: Buckminster Fuller, Levon Helm, Mae West, Bob Brookmeyer, Alan Turing…The far-flung subject matter for this wild and, yes, somewhat wooly program of inspirational big-band adventures comes across like a code waiting to be deciphered. Indeed, the first track on the second disc, a tribute to Turing, whose genius helped break down the Nazis, is entitled “Codebreaker” and its opening bars dare you to write out whatever combination of words and numbers its beat is tapping out – except you’ll be too busy digging that beat to care whether it means anything or not. The pleasures are constant, the inventions surprise. “Dymaxion,” a portmanteau of the album title, was coined by Fuller the merry futurist and the rhythmic mischief makes you alert to possibility and transfiguration throughout from “All In,” a tribute to charter Secret Society member Laurie Frank, to “Last Waltz for Levon,” which honors the memory of the late drummer for The Band to “Wingèd Beasts,” whose silky, tendril-like design is reminiscent of Brookmeyer’s arrangements for Gerry Mulligan’s big bands. Elsewhere, Cecile McLorin Salvant (about whom more later) drops by for “Mae West: Advice,” to have her impudent fun with Paisley Rekdal’s dada-like lyrics mimicking La West’s saucy bon mots (“…date a cad and canoodle/be éclat on a cot…”) As brainy as Argue’s music is, thematically and conceptually, it never fails to hit and sustain a solid groove, even on the epic, near-35-minute “Tensile Curves,” an anthology of tension-release motifs, time signatures, and riff extensions inspired by Duke Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” Once again, you’ll be tempted to take the track apart, shove its fragments beneath an ontological microscope, and probe for methodology by virtue of its sheer dimension. But as with everything else in this bountiful, sunny exhibition of relentless virtuosity and cheeky intelligence, you’re better off just letting the orchestrations wash over and carry you along with its most of its mysteries intact and undisturbed. Not for nothing, after all, does Argue’s 18-piece aggregation roam the Earth as a “Secret Society.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


6.) Cecile McLorin Salvant, Mélusine (Nonesuch) – She keeps raising the stakes on her range of expression, her repertoire, and her conceptual prowess, both as a vocalist and as a maker of albums. Once again, she shows her fearlessness in not doing the same thing twice with this daring, almost imposing array of French chanson and other music woven around the record’s eponymous half-woman-half-serpent mythic figure from the 14th century. (The short version: she turned into a dragon and flew away after her duplicitous lover came upon her snake-like part.) The song cycle fashioned to tell her story begins with “Est-Ce Ainsi Que Les Hommes Vivent” (“Is This the Way Men Live?”) with lyrics by Louis Aragon and music by Leo Ferre, which is followed closely by Charles Trenet’s “La Route Enchantée” and eventually to Mélusine posing the musical question, “Dites Moi Que Je Suis Belle” (“Tell Me I’m Beautiful”), carrying echoes of Salvant’s “Look at Me” from her 2015 For One to Love. Which is as good a prompt as any to how the singer’s gifts as a composer meld so seamlessly with those of the French composers she honors here, most especially in the startlingly gorgeous title song, which she performs bilingually with only Daniel Swenberg’s acoustic guitar as backup. It would be tempting to say that Salvant, like her heroine here, has taken flight it weren’t for the fact – yes, an irrefutable fact – that she is already her own mighty legend, majestically soaring several hundred miles above any vocalist in any medium you can name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


7.) Sara Caswell, The Way to You (Anzic) – One of those cases where a seasoned, resourceful instrumentalist is matched with a first-rate supporting cast (vibraphonist Chris Dingman as special guest star!) and a far-flung itinerary of genres and styles. And what you get is an album that refuses to sit quietly on the shelf all year long. Caswell’s clear tone, fluid dynamics, and agile phrasing on the violin are what you needed all year round, whether to paint sonic landscapes you can imagine drifting by your car window (“South Shore”), pull your coat in frisky, breathless give-and-take on a crowded dance floor (“7 Anéis”), tear off an aromatic slice of classic hard bop (“Voyage” by Kenny Barron – about whom more later), or bathe the senses in balladry, by turns probing (”Stillness”), impassioned (“O Que Tinha De Ser,” “On the Way to You”), and pastoral (“Warren’s Way”). Caswell led her working quartet of bassist Ike Sturm, drummer Jared Schonig, and guitarist Jesse Lewis for a project that, if the album notes are to be believed, took 17 years to put together. She’s very busy; her dance card has names like the aforementioned Threadgill, Spalding and Argue, and prominent jazz bandleaders crowded all along the genre waterfront in pursuit of her services. I speak here only for myself, but I hope it doesn’t take as long for a follow-up to materialize, even though I don’t expect to get tired of this one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


8.) Kenny Barron, The Source (Artwork) – The first thing to mention is the gorgeous acoustics. I’ve never actually been to the Théâtre d’Athenéé in Paris, but after diving deep into this solo recital countless times over the past year, the place is as familiar to me as my family’s basement rec room (where, by the way, I first heard Barron’s piano comping on Joe Henderson’s 1967 album, The Kicker.) As with his immediate surroundings, Professor Barron conveys an imposing, but expansive familiarity in his playing. And yet, as much as you think you may already know about the Strayhorn-Ellington standards, “Daydream” and “Isfahan,” Barron burrows deep within the contours of their melodies rather than spin into virtuosic inventions. The corners, this approach insists, is where you find the gold. He also reasserts his primacy as an interpreter of Monk’s music, speaking fluent Thelonious (while remaining his elegant. dryly romantic self) on “Teo” and “Well, You Needn’t.” But it’s in Barron’s own beautiful and haunting compositions where what once seems familiar is transformed into something you never heard before. “Dolores Street, SF”is a fog-shrouded dawn over a landscape huge enough to contain both possibility and loss and he has you on the edge of your seat wondering how, or if, it reaches resolution. The Brazilian-inflected “Sunshower” has a different, downward trajectory that puts forth its own bittersweet lyricism while the jocular “What If?” and the eerie “Phantoms” are reinvigorated by Barron’s authoritative progressions. The master, all told, is in wondrously durable voice and leaves you waiting for more surprises, alone or with others.

 

 

 

 

 

 



9.) Anat Fort Trio, The Berlin Sessions (Sunnyside) – The world as we know it has been all too much with Israeli pianist Fort, who was forced by the 2020 lockdown to be separated from bassist Gary Lang and drummer Roland Schneider after two decades of working together. Two-and-a-half years later, they reunited in Munich for a one-time gig and then headed for Berlin’s Hansa Studios to release what was apparently a metric ton of pent-up energy. In these sessions, you hear the joy, relief, and exuberance in being able to let chance take its course and play freely with whatever ideas and phrases materialize in their shared space. “First Dance” sets off a four-part, 16-minute suite of reacquaintance that gives the group a chance to loosen up, pitch, catch, and spin off each other’s ideas and, as the cliché goes, it’s as though they’ve never been away from each other. Once they’re settled in, the trio settles in for another series of pieces written by Fort and inspired by pieces of eastern art at New York’s Rubin Museum, making “The Jain Suite” its own gallery of insinuating harmonic and tonal designs. The reunion spills over into another disc with a rollicking blend of Fort originals (“Wish Cloud,” “Fire Drill Blues”), a matched set of old (“All the Things You Are”) and (relatively) new (“Just The Way You Are”) pop standards delivered with conviction and affection, and even a little something from Level 42 (“The Sun Goes Down”) What made this trio session stand out so starkly from others released this year are two meditative pieces that seemed especially affecting given the violent upheavals in Fort’s homeland: “Oseh Shalom,” a rendition of composer Nurit Hirsh’s prayer for peace, and “The World as a Human Being,” which comes across as both a somber lament for squandered opportunities and a defiant plea for renewal and resolution. At least, that’s what I heard. But, as a listener, I’m part of this collaborative process, too.

 

 

 

 

 



10.) Allen Lowe & the Constant Sorrow Orchestra, In the Dark (ESP) – These three discs celebrate (if that’s the right word) a more arduous recovery process. Lowe, a protean composite of saxophonist, bandleader, archivist, producer, composer, sound engineer, musicologist, cultural historian, and gadfly (still not sure whether he altogether approves of my using that last one) has had to somehow persevere through these myriad vocations while undergoing more than a dozen operations for cancer, including surgery for removal of a tumor from his sinus. This left Lowe with a debilitating case of insomnia in which he was at best able to doze for minutes at a time, said times being as early at 5 a.m. or as late as, well, 5 a.m. Throughout this harrowing time, Lowe somehow kept writing and composing music and, with the help of his faithful and highly adaptable musician friends – pianist (and fellow musicologist) Lewis Porter, clarinetist Ken Peplowski, altoist Aaron Johnson, drummer Rob Landis, bassist Kyle Colina, trombonist Brian Simontacchi, trumpeter Kellin Hannas, and baritone saxist Lisa Parrott – assembled a formidably eclectic bounty of recordings that manage to evoke several traditions of jazz and blues in ways that sound both cutting edge and mischievously retro in the manner of Lowe’s previous projects. (In case you need it, there’s even a tango called “Velasco’s Revenge.”) Scattered throughout are compositions prefaced by “In the Dark” suggesting they were written at those midnight-or-later hours when he couldn’t sleep. The rest of those titles suggest his moods of those moments; on the one hand, there are “Night Terrors,” “Tears,” and “; on the other, there’s “Dance of the Apparitions” and “Elvis Don’t you Weep.” Along with the tributes to Eric Dolphy, Barry Harris, Jelly Roll Morton, and Duke Ellington, there are other crafty gnomish tunes with such crafty gnomish titles as “Kickin’ the Bucket,” “Innuendo in Blue,” “Blues for Old Jews,” and “Do You Know What It Means to Leave New Orleans,” the latter of which could be a teaser for his long-awaited Louis Armstrong project. Yes, he’s working as you read this, despite the ongoing physical challenges and, lest one forget, he sounds pretty good on his tenor saxophone for somebody who’s been through as much as he has.

 

 

 

 



HONORABLE MENTION: Tyshawn Sorey Trio, Continuing (PI), Myra Melford’s Fire & Water Quintet, Hear the Light Singing (RogueArt), Christian McBride’s New Jawn, Prime (Mack Avenue), Brad Mehldau, Your Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays the Beatles (Nonesuch), Kris Davis’s Diatom Ribbons, Live at the Village Vanguard (Pyroclastic), Orrin Davis, The Red Door (Smoke Sessions) Craig Taborn, Joëlle Léandre, Mat Maneri, hEARoes (RogueArt).


VOCAL
Fred Hersch & esperanza spalding, Alive at the Village Vanguard (Palmetto)
Cecile McLorin Salvant, Mélusine (Nonesuch)
Luciana Sousa & Trio Corrente, Cometa (Sunnyside)

 

 


LATIN
Miguel Zenon & Luis Perdomo, El Arte del Bolero, Vol. 2 (Miel Music)
Luciana Sousa & Trio Corrente, Cometa (Sunnyside)
Arturo O’Farrill, Legacies (Blue Note)

 

 

 

 



HISTORIC
Geri Allen & Kurt Rosenwinkel, A Lovesome Thing (Motema)
Ahmad Jamal, Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse 1966-1968 (Jazz Detective)
Sun Ra & His Arkestra, Jazz in Silhouette: Expanded Edition (Cosmic Myth)