The Best of 2023, Revisited - Latticework

By Fritz Byers

This week is the second of two editions of Jazz Spectrum that focus on my selections for the best new releases of 2023. The entire list of forty is in last week’s post, and it is repeated below. Last week we attended to half; this week, to the other half.

The time spent in December re-reading my contemporaneous listening notes and re-listening is immensely satisfying. In last week’s post I shared a few thoughts on the year in jazz, and I briefly commented on the difficulty of picking from among the hundreds of new releases. Eventually I landed on forty releases that had truly stuck with me, and from that list I identified ten special favorites. Looking at the list now, I’m second-guessing, reordering, and again wondering whether the chore itself is worthwhile.

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It is, if only for selfish reasons. As I’ve listened again and again to the twenty releases we’ll focus on this week, I’m struck by the way jazz artists cross-fertilize, and almost always in the most dynamic ways. For example, you might come across this saxophonist leading their own band, and then a month later hear them sitting in with a different drummer’s ensemble. And what’s particularly thrilling is that, invariably, although you can recognize the tone and the style of improvisation, in the new setting the saxophonist is faithful to the jazz maxim: Make it New. 

This capacity for constant change, for leaving one frame of improvisational mind for a wholly different one, while maintaining the expected virtuosity, is one thing, among many, that makes jazz such a protean art form. Such shape-shifting is, of course, not new in jazz. Even as locked-in a soloist as the alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, for all his many definitive recordings over his years as a lead soloist with Duke Ellington, became a different kind of soloist when he recorded as a leader – and this was true, even when the sidemen for his own sessions were largely drawn from Duke’s band. If you want to test my thinking on this, check out The Complete Johnny Hodges Sessions 1951 from Mosaic. You’ll recognize his pure, purring tone, of course, but he’s up to something musically new on nearly every one of the Ellington tunes he works out on. Do a few A/B tests and you can hear for yourself.

A somewhat brief blog post such as this is not the place for a detailed discussion of the ways in which the artists who populate this year’s Best-of list have been feeding each other’s visions. And I’m proud to say I’ve made it this far in life without ever creating a spread sheet or a matrix, so I won’t do that either. Instead, just a few notes about who’s been working with whom, and where among the recordings below you can hear them:

The pianist Aaron Diehl leads his own group, The Knights, on Zodiac Suite. And he’s at the keys on Tyshawn Sorey’s Continuing.
The vibraphonist Joel Ross, whose next release will drop in February, is with Johnathan Blake on Passage and with Joshua Redman on Where Are We
Ambrose Akinmusire has two recordings as a leader on the list – Owl Song, with the guitarist Bill Friseel and the drummer Herlin Riley; and Beauty is Enough, an entrancing work of solo trumpet. Ambrose is also with the saxophonist Walter Smith III on Return to Casual.
The pianist Kris Davis leads Diatom Ribbons and also is part of Michael Formanek’s Elusion Quartet on As Things Do.
The drummer Hamid Drake seems every year to be everywhere. This year he’s at the rhythmic core of both the Natural Information Society on Since Time is Gravity and Paul Dunmal’s Bright Light a Joyous Celebration.
The percussionist Allison Miller leads her own marvelous group through a 12-song cycle on Rivers in Our Veins. She’s also a rhythmic force in Artemis and part of the bass-and-drums backing for the vocalist Jo Lawry on Acrobats.
The trumpeter Jason Palmer contributes greatly to both Allison Miller’s Rivers in Our Veins and to the saxophonist Mark Turner’s quartet on Live at the Village Vanguard.
Mark Turner, in turn, leads his own quartet and also is part of Linda May Han Oh’s band on The Glass Hours.
And Linda May Han Oh, in turn, leads her own band and also is with Allison Miller in supporting Jo Lawry on Acrobat (a rare vocal recording, in which Jo is backed by only a bass and drums.)

Best of 2023
(* 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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