The Best of 2023 – Owning It

By Fritz Byers

If someone tells you they understand the current music landscape, they’re bragging.  And if they tell you they know what it will look like by the end of the decade, they’re lying.

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The decline of major record labels that record, promote, and distribute jazz is an inarguable fact, and the trend has been burbling for most of my adult life.  If you’re into expropriation theory, you might applaud the trend and celebrate that artists can both produce and own the means of production.  All that market upheaval began, as best I can tell, in the late 1970s.  I’m old enough to remember when John Snyder founded Artists House in 1977, reputedly an artists’ cooperative that eliminated all sorts of parasites from the production chain.  The political-economy implications of that made me doubly proud to own Ornette Coleman’s Body Meta and Soapsuds, Soapsuds, two of the new label’s first issues, and two of the first jazz albums I ever bought.

Then, in time, came the digital revolution with its accompanying liberations.  Blue Note, Impulse, Verve, and Atlantic, titans of an earlier age of jazz recordings, may not be what they used to be.  But in their stead, countless artist-owned “labels” have sprung up, and they’re wonderfully adept at getting out the music and making sure you know it’s there for the listening.  I don’t know the economics of all this, but the current flow of new jazz releases is more or less a flood, and a welcome one for a jazz omnivore.  

My makeshift diary seems to show that I listened to at least substantial parts of more than 250 newly released jazz records this year.  This has made for a thrilling soundtrack to a challenging year.  

Speaking of challenges, winnowing all that listening to a manageable Best of Year list has turned the last week into a series of false starts, fresh starts, head-scratching reconsiderations, and occasional “why do it” shrugs.   There’s likely no good answer for that last question.  But for a reason I can’t grasp, this saying of Lao Tzu came to mind a couple of nights ago: “Nature does not hurry; yet everything is accomplished.”  And for a reason I can’t grasp, that got me back on task.  So I put my shoulder back to the wheel, and here you are: my selections of the 40 new releases from 2023 that most engaged me.  (* denotes a special favorite)

Ambrose Akinmusire - Beauty is Enough 
Ambrose Akinmusire - Owl Song 
Rodrigo Amada - Beyond the Margins 
* Darcy James Argue's Secret Society - Dynamic Maximum Tension 
Art Ensemble of Chicago - The Sixth Decade 
Artemis - In Real Time 
* Kenny Barron - The Source
Jonathan Blake - Passages 
George Coleman, Live at Smalls Jazz Club 
* Sylvie Courvoisier, Chimaera 
Kris Davis - Diatom Ribbons Live at the Village Vanguard 
Aaron Diehl & the Knights, Zodiac Suite 
Paul Dunmall, Bright Light a Joyous Celebration 
Michael Formanek Elusion Quartet, As Things Do
Sullivan Fortner - Solo Game 
Ron Horton - A Prayer for Andrew 
* Jo Lawry, Acrobats 
Leap Day Trio - Live at the Cafe Bohemia 
Steve Lehman, Ex Machina 
James Brandon Lewis - Eye of I
* James Brandon Lewis, For Mahalia with Love
Joe Lovano Trio Tapestry, Our Daily Bread 
Christian McBride's New Jawn, Prime 
Pat Metheny, Dream Box 
Allison Miller - Rivers in Our Veins 
* Jason Moran - From the Dancehall to the Battlefield 
Natural Information Society, Since Time is Gravity
Linda May Han Oh - The Glass Hours
* Chris Potter - Got the Keys to the Kingdom
Joshua Redman - Where Are We 
Mike Reed, The Separatist Party 
Cecile McLorin Salvant, Melusine 
Angela Sanchez - NIghtime Creatures 
John Scofield - Uncle John's Band 
* Tyshawn Sorey Trio - Continuing 
Walter Smith , Return to Casual 
Micah Thomas - Reveal 
* Henry Threadgill, The Other One 
Mark Turner - Live at the Village Vanguard 
* Anna Webber, Shimmer Wince 

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