Favorite Albums for 2023

Jazz is a prism.

Seen through the lens of our contemporary culture, Jazz refracts into spectacular musical wavelengths representing the contributions of a remarkably diverse array of artistry. There is no elegant way to establish an absolute value for this other than to embrace the blessings of such a radiant art form in our musical lives.

Every year critics, broadcasters and assorted pundits in Jazz make their “best-of” lists attempting to categorize this annual cornucopia of excellence. Personally I’ve given up on that. Instead I extend the length of a typical broadcast in order to stuff as many personal favorites into a program that tries to showcase the fullest range of brilliant contributions that have made the year so special.

That each year tends to eclipse the last is a tribute to the stunning achievements of consummate artists who defy the economic logic of how Jazz currently operates. Their labor of love consistently produces world-class music that ends up being a fraction of what’s broadcast or sold within the larger music industry. A single Taylor Swift hit can easily eclipse the reach and financial output of hundreds of wildly creative Jazz musicians.

Regardless the plethora of creative options prevails. Big bands had another banner year, while the intimacy of solo, duet and trio work excelled in ways that exceeded expectations. Classical, chamber, pop, folk, spoken-word, fusion, rock, blues and R&B found curious routes into Jazz, while staples like hardbop, fusion, avant-garde, swing and Latin Jazz continued to propel the genre forward.

Choosing from this treasure chest of achievement can feel tortuous. For example, this year’s favorites were culled from 615 songs within 373 albums representing 359 artists. And this only represents my particular vantage point. The fluid circumference of this music is much, much larger, representing many more ingenious approaches to the vast musical possibilities Jazz represents.

And of course there’s the politics associated with this mess.

From the systemic compartmentalization of Pan-Latin Jazz, to the continued struggle that women, queer, and trans folks have feeling seen and hear within the idiom, Jazz continues to struggle with the tenants of diversity, equity and inclusion that would make for a more resilient, progressive and holistic foundation for all artists wishing to shape its future.

Beyond being entertainment, Jazz continues to be one of the most profound and prolific proponents of democracy, freedom and the struggle both require to remain poignant voices in world culture. Jazz musicians continually use their music to speak to identity, oppression, liberation and a wide variety of socio-political issues within our increasingly disrupted society.

Too often courageous efforts like these are set against a stagnant backdrop of risk-adverse philosophies within the ecology purporting to support Jazz. Resource poor realities have led to equivalent attitudes as slim margins for radio, publishing, non-profit, educational and even venue based organizations inch the economy of Jazz forward.

A stark contract to the adventurous journey Jazz musicians have taken us on again this year. To celebrate that, and showcasing musicians who might not get the full attention they deserve, here’s my 20 favorite albums for 2023 along with a companion broadcast showcasing many more artists who have outdone themselves with stunning new work this year.


Áron Tálas

New Questions, Old Answers

Jazz trios are the bread and butter of Jazz. Their longevity pivots between quaint familiarity and the genius of those who aspire to reinvent the tradition. Belonging to the later group is Hungarian pianist Áron Tálas and proof of his genius resides in New Questions, Old Answers. Rich in musical metaphor, driven by the crystalline chemistry of his group, Tálas sails compositions through endless rounds of superb technical play, ingenious chord progressions and melodies that will ring in your ears for days. Thoughtful, provocative, completely grounded in a fluid mastery of his instrument, Tálas navigates New Questions, Old Answers by offering a gorgeous array of compositions ranging from the M.C. Escher like title track, the lovely tribute tune Hargrove, the mercurial qualities of Rain, the driving Afrosatie and finishing with the somber and aptly abrupt To Be Continued. Functioning in a space that is traditional but simultaneously all his own, Tálas sets a high bar for the kind of music three instruments can create.



In Real Time

Until more men demand and support gender equity and inclusion in how Jazz bands are born, we’ll continue to have the anomalies of all-women groups featuring elite talent bound together by the pursuit of musical excellence. Then again, perhaps groups like this nurture the same secular chemistry men have coveted forever within the idiom. Composed of remarkably talented instrumentalists, composers, educators and band leaders in their own right, ARTEMIS is a sextet of saxophonists Alexa Tarantino and Nicole Glover, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Noriko Ueda, and drummer Allison Miller. Representing their best work to date, In Real Time soars with adaptations of songs from Lyle Mays (Slink) and Wayne Shorter (Penelope) as well as stellar original compositions from Rosnes, Ueda, Jensen and Tarantino. Balanced, inquisitive and brilliantly executed, In Real Time serenades, swings, and probes with the kind of patience, craft and intuitive interplay you’d expect from such modern masters. Gender aside, ARTEMIS currently represents one of the best sextets in Jazz.


Ben Wendel

All One

Not content with being a “traditional” multi-instrumentalist, Ben Wendel utilizes his technical mastery of saxophones, bassoon, EFX, and hand percussion to give us the Grammy nominated All One. Collaborating with vocalists José James and Cécile McLorin Salvant, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, guitarist Bill Frisell, flutist Elena Pinderhughes and pianist Tigran Hamasyan, Wendel utilizes extravagant arrangements to accentuate the compositional brilliance within this captivating album. Ranging from playful to performance art, All One mesmerizes with a flare for the avant garde, all while anchored by the kind of creative ingenuity that’s essential to world-class improvisational music. By adroitly looping his own instrumental inspirations, Wendel creates elegant platforms for the solo efforts of his guest artists. Wanderers creates an ethereal palette for the atmospheric brilliance of Terence Blanchard, while Speak Joy’s rhythmic pulse becomes the clay that Pinderhughes uses to shape her own graceful musical explorations. As elegant as it is experimental, “All One” unfolds as code for the kind of inventive vision required to move Jazz forward.


Billy Childs

The Winds of Change

What doesn’t Billy Childs do well?! This consummate pianist, composer and arranger has consistently demonstrated an elite musical dexterity throughout his career. The Winds of Change finds Childs scaled down to a quartet with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blades. This perfect compliment of instrumental mastery allows Childs to dive deep into his muse with lengthy compositions that showcase his flare for making a quartet setting sound full, complex, angular and completely engrossing. Here Childs finds ways to showcase the curious inclusion of trumpet over sax and thus the different musical depths that fosters. The Great Western Loop rings with precision stalking the territory of tension and release that Child has roamed for decades. Somehow songs like The End of Innocence and Masters of the Game shine cinematic as Childs again takes delight in incisive musical narratives. The Winds of Change swings hard but does so in ways that always make you feel something special while thinking hard about his music.


Bobby Sanabria

Vox Humana

Few contemporary Latin musicians have persevered as much as drummer, percussionist, and MULTIVERSE big band leader Bobby Sanabria. Encyclopedic in his knowledge of the history, culture and politics surrounding Pan-Latin music, Sanabria also excels as a programmer, author, educator, activist and champion of Afro-Cuban Jazz. The Grammy nominated Vox Humana contains his latest ode to the immense contribution Puerto Rico has had on world music. Flaunting the full spectrum of the MULTIVERSE’s skill set, Vox Humana features guest vocalists Antoinette Montague, Janis Siegel and Jennifer Jade Ledsesna. Even better, this live recording is brilliantly captured giving you a front row seat to the massive waves of positive energy Sanabria wields in concert. Ever the showman, Sanabria guides the album through Latin tinged versions of Caravan, Do It Again and Let the Good Times Roll, as well as unleashing the full power of classics like Puerto Rico, Mi Congo and Partido Alto. Set the table, uncork the wine, cue Vox Humana and get dancing till dawn.


Chuck Owen


Earlier this year Downbeat published an article admonishing a variety of large ensembles for daring to color outside the lines of tradition big band music. Beyond of the ignorance of that message is the reality that many contemporary big bands have become remarkable engines for innovation in the music. Chuck Owen’s brilliant album Renderings is a superb example of that. This album does both: coloring artfully within those lines while finding creative ways to blur such distinctions with, sophistication, curiosity, poise, and respect for the role that big bands have played throughout the history of Jazz. Most importantly, Renderings is a gorgeous representation of Owen's lyrical imagination. Arabian Nights, Fall Calls and especially Knife’s Edge create a tapestry of achievement that satisfies at every level with Owen’s squeezing every drop of magic from the world famous WDR Big Band he leads on the album. Perhaps most magical of all is Of Mystery & Beauty, a composition replete with the nuance that makes Owen’s work so inspiring.


Clark Sommers

Feast Ephemera

Always the consummate sideman, bassist Clark Sommers has created his own masterwork with Feast Ephemera. Bassists traditionally understand space, timing, melody and the need for structure - all of which are exemplified on this superb album. Songs unfold like blossoming flowers, which also describes Sommer’s new stand as a big band leader. For this reason alone you get to hear an expanded sense of Sommers’ musicality. If anything, pulse is key here as songs like Backstory, Cave Dweller and Follow the Mystery all have particular meters which swing while patiently allowing for the gentle display of Sommer’s musical temperament. Horn arrangements perfectly compliment the glissading metronome of Sommer’s bass work while electric guitar, and rhodes anoint tracks with just the right compliment of flavor. Which brings us back to timing, or more precisely patience: the patience to master a unique style, form a supple fraternity of musical voices and then wait for the perfect time to write, arrange and produce a superb work like Feast Ephemera.


Darcy James Argue

Maximum Dynamic Tension

Darcy James Argue is the Cirque du Soleil of Jazz. The flexible muscularity of Maximum Dynamic Tension will have you saying “WTF?!” several times out loud. Never one to back down from a musical fight, Darcy James Argue wields a remarkable array of instrumentalists, harnessing the best of the best when it comes to veteran big band musicians. Nothing subtle here as this elite ensemble excels at painting with a broad cinematic brush, utilizing lush arranging, dense layers of harmonic voodoo, and compositions that range from invoking sublime tranquility to the apprehension of hearing the band pivot on a dime without a net. All while expanding the integrity of their signature sound?! WTF?! Maximum Dynamic Tension appears to check in on so many tangental musical idioms that trying to keep count distracted me from the splendor of their compositional achievements. One listen through this album won’t do. Keep it on queue. Let it marinate. And be very, very glad you scored “tickets" for their show.


Hugues Mayot


Where classical music and Jazz compliment each other is in the ear of the beholder. Somewhere beyond the horizon where strings traditionally inform what Jazz can sound like are musicians like Hugues Mayot and exceptional albums like Invocations. Refusing to be detoured by the stalemate that the fusion of these two monumental idioms often creates, Mayot veers to starboard, culling from an impressive range of formal and improvised gifts to render what can often sound like a completely independent form of music. Lovers of Jazz and classical might hate this album given that Mayot honors, but then also disregards, the boundaries of both musical genres. Apparition is a perfect example of this as it begins with loose classical forms eventually settling into something reminiscent of John Coltrane, and then winds it’s way back all over again. Invocations is a monumental album for the simple reason that is bravely maps out new musical territory in a similar brilliant fashion that Mayot’s 2019 album L'Arbre Rouge did.


Jalen Baker

Be Still

New talent in Jazz can be exhilarating. Like crows, we often seek shiny new artists to decorate our musical nests. Jalen Baker and Be Still surges beyond this. Here’s an old soul dressed up as a young lion playing and composing beyond his years on an instrument that routinely needs infusions of brilliance in the form of skilled interpreters like Baker. Surrounded by other firebrands (pianist Paul Cornish, bassist Gabe Godoy and drummer Gavin Moolchan), Be Still is relentless in the musical energy it cultivates. From energetic tracks like Be Still, Herzog and the curious titled There’s Beauty In Fear, to a lively cover of Joe Henderson’s Jinirikisha and a lovingly rendition of Body and Soul, Baker doesn’t shy away from complicated repertoire and certainly his band is more than up to the task. Most importantly what we have here is the maturation of a star on the vibraphone; a new voice destined to carry the torch forward in a thrilling, prolific and profound fashion.


Kenny Barron

The Source

With more than a half-century of monumental contributions to the art form, pianist Kenny Barron is the heir apparent to a legacy of excellence established by musicians like Red Garland and Tommy Flanagan. Perhaps there’s no better way then to marvel at his mastery than listening to him waltzing alone with his own genius. Surveying American songbook classics (Monk, Ellington and Strayhorn) as well as some of the premier compositions he’s penned throughout his career, Barron tugs and teases through melodies that have done more to inform Jazz than most will ever manage. Only his second solo effort in forty two years, it feels like his best given the unique vantage point we get to hear at this stage of his career. Balancing old and new school values, Barron makes everything sound exquisite, easy, and right on time. Measured while remaining rhythmically sophisticated, shaped buy his intricate phrasing and unique tone, The Source flows like a “Real Book” juke box for any young aspiring pianist.


Lakecia Benjamin


If Jazz had a true superstar in 2023, it might well have been alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin. With a career that’s as hot as the immortal bird Phoenix celebrates, Benjamin found herself on the cover of many of Jazz’s most celebrated publications. Politically, Phoenix is a poignant
essay on everything that encompasses Black American Music, while speaking to the United States’ ongoing struggle with systemic racism, as well as the effects COVID19 has had on society and Benjamin personally. All this ground is covered superbly via Benjamin’s musicianship and the interplay with her collaborators. Produced by drummer Terri Lynn Carrington, Phoenix dives deep into the full spectrum of Benjamin’s skills with the help of a wide range of guests including vocalist Dianne Reeves, activist Angela Davis and the poet Sonia Sanchez. Electronics, poetry, spoken word, field recordings and dialog from Wayne Shorter all fit seamlessly into Benjamin’s elaborate understanding of Jazz and her own burgeoning musicality. Phoenix rises powerfully with familiar, discordant and educational tonalities.


Lauren Henderson


With her signature tone, molasses like phasing and ability to make the most mundane song feel like it’s being sung just for you, Lauren Henderson has carved out a niche as a premier vocalist specializing in traditional Latin and Jazz repertoire. Conjuring continues her storied career of harnessing bright young talent to provide a sparkling backdrop for every ounce of humility poured into the intimate ways she renders a song. From the familiar That Old Black Magic and Day Dream to the hypnotic Spells and Amuleto, Henderson’s rich, lush tone prevails allowing Conjuring to excel as a sublimely rich vocal album. No gaps in quality here as every song dovetails perfectly to the next. Like an all-you-can-eat buffet where every dish is as good as the next, Henderson fosters the kind of musical continuity that makes albums like Conjuring complete listening experiences. Seemingly defying the natural laws of physics, Henderson floats above lyrics like a song bird sailing over the dark clouds of our times.


Leon Foster Thomas


Halfway through Calasanitus you can sense that this album is more than just the latest potent work from steel pan master Leon Foster Thomas. It’s a declaration of independence; a report from the front lines of a musician slashing through the thickets of Jazz. Born in Trinidad and currently a vital part of London’s burgeoning music scene, Thomas knows that his chosen instrument comes with baggage. Acknowledging the compartmentalization of the artistic contributions of musicians like himself, Calasanitus unpacks a full spectrum of musical possibilities inexorably tied to the politics of the steel pans and the Caribbean’s influence on Jazz. Songs like I am an Immigrant, Silent Maze, Bliss and Together flow together like chapters of a great autobiography. Propelled by saxophonist Troy Robert, trumpeter John Daversa, and pianist Tai Cohen, Thomas showcases everything he and his pans can do. By the time Calasanitus ends with Ascension, you can feel the celebratory emotions of redemption and tranquility from music constructed entirely on Thomas’ own terms. 


Nicole Zuraitis

How Love Begins

How Love Begins marks a significant turning point for vocalist Nicole Zuraitus. After years of singing in the shadows, this gorgeously appointed album finds Zuraitus manifesting her art in an unapologetic fashion that will take your breath away. Take for example 20 Seconds, a heart wrenching portraying of love gone bad. Zuraitis shapes her voice such that you can feel oxygen leaving the room. Songs like Burn or Reverie find Zuraitis in rare form having refined her approach with the kind of technical fluency that makes for exhilarating verses. Of course it never hurts to have Christian McBride on board but that doesn’t take away from the weight of her achievement. Singing in Jazz can feel like a transcendent but lonely art, taking years to perfect the “world’s oldest instrument” before finding your own (pardon the pun) voice. But that’s exactly what Zuraitis has done with How Love Begins thus setting the stage for many more glorious and productive new chapters in her burgeoning career.


Peter Somuah

Letter to the Universe

Spirit and focused intention can lead to remarkable music. Ghanian born trumpeter Peter Somuah seems to realize this as Letter to the Universe unfolds as a powerful statement that his particular international brand of Jazz is here to stay. Circling back to his mother land, Letter to the Universe reminds us that the first whispers of Jazz came from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, before they found a new footing in the United States. Somuah invokes the spirit of everyone from Ghanian Highlife master E.T. Mensah to Miles Davis while remaining humble and confident as he conveys a variety of styles with ease and imagination. This cornucopia of sound turns Letter to the Universe into a commercial free world radio station featuring inspiration from no less than three continents, and music that spans the FM dial. I can imagine when the Universe finally writes back, Somuah may receive a heartfelt note of thanks for the passion and unique spiritual compass this album represents.


Sammy Figueroa

Searching For A Memory

Sammy Figueroa’s musical journey has been a kaleidoscope of opportunity. From folkloric, Latin Jazz and salsa, to rock, R&B, soul and pop, Figueroa’s fingerprints are all over music that’s inspired audiences for decades. Having been such a prolific contributing for so long, it’s easy to forget what a dynamic band leader percussionist Figueroa continues to be. Using the musical spirit of his father’s legacy as his guide, Searching For A Memory (Busco Tu Recuerdo) navigates the language of Jazz using the diverse experience he’s cultivated as a internationally renown percussionist. And because of that it works out perfectly. Madrigal is classically gorgeous, Anoranzas (Longing) probes the eclectic contours of Latin Jazz, while Plegaria De Amor (A Prayer of Love) bends folkloric rhythms with the melodic structure of contemporary Jazz. Vaulting sectors of Latin music like this should seem perilous but not for Figueroa. Hiding in plain sight is the master at work playing the congas with the precision and vigor he’s become famous for.


Garland & Rebello

Life to Life

Duet albums were quite the thing this year and perhaps none were better than Life to Life by multi-reed instrumentalist Tim Garland and pianist Jason Rebello. Often thin and unimaginative, duet albums often fail because they can’t demonstrate their value or the concept of the work at hand. But Life to Life avoids this by perfecting the combination of skilled musicianship, compositions carefully positioned to thrive in such isolation, and superb recording and mastering techniques. Powered by Garland’s complete command for tenor, soprano, sopranino sax, and bass clarinet, and Rebello’s use of space, touch and elegant phrasing, each song recites like a delicate conversation you won’t want to end. Whether playing together or soloing apart, the respect and admiration each musician shows for each other is abundantly clear. While Chick Corea’s Children's Song No.6, Black Is The Colour and The Missing Ingredient! stood out for me, the entire album resonates with spacious beauty from beginning to end. Life to Life is just that good.


Vince Mendoza


Commanding the dual threat of the Metropole Orkest (the Dutch ensemble incorporating big band and symphonic orchestration) Vince Mendoza has created preeminent music that defies conventional expectations. Followers of Mendoza’s genius will find Olympians to be a fitting mosaic of the originality and spectacular attention to detail he’s mastered throughout his career. Symphonic treatments add an entirely different dimension to the album as Diane Reeves and Cécile McLorin Salvant share their voices to the intricate melodies on Esperanto and House of Reflections. This is timeless music; the mark of a master finding musical universality within the kind of compositional strategies exclusive to those who have spent a life preparing for such an opportunity. Each song brings some kind of sonic enlightenment, as the power of this massive orchestration is wielded brilliantly but also somehow with a remarkably light touch. Far from overbearing, Olympians glides on the ball bearings of Mendoza’s genius, consistently proving itself to be some of the most aspirational music of the year.


Walter Smith III

return to casual

Saxophonist Walter Smith III has a solution for the elusive nature of normality in our society - the comforting weighted blanket of sound created by his album return to casual. But don’t be fooled; comfort doesn’t mean relinquishing taste and sophistication. return to casual reverberates with remarkably well constructed compositions that fully compliment this stellar quintet. Smith attacks melodies like a Rubik Cube, alternative colors with lightning reflexes, creating sonic collages that dazzle and delight. Contra somehow floats at breakneck speed, levitated by the elite drumming of Kendrick Scott and the supple play of Smith. Tunes like Pup-Pow and Mother Stands for Comfort exist as quiet emotional mantras, while Quiet Song is the album’s oxymoronic nod to electrifying Jazz with the energy of rock. And maybe this is all part of the plan, as Smith deftly navigates inside and outside the lines of Jazz. In the end, return to casual is enlightening; a smart, vivacious, aspirational blueprint for what contemporary post hardbop albums can sound like.

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