Wednesday, December 27, 2023

best of 2023, pt. 2: jazz top 11

[This is part 2 of 5 of the DFSBP 2023 rundown; find the other parts here.]

jazz top 11

I'm going to get a little creative with the math here, due to the simple fact that I submitted my ballot for the annual Francis Davis Jazz Critics Poll (results of which should be online in early January) before I really got my ears around James Brandon Lewis' Eye of I, cited and discussed in the overall top 10 above. If I had spent more time with that album before the deadline, I would have absolutely made space for it, probably in the #2 spot, but… that is not what transpired, revealing yet again the fundamental arbitrariness of listmaking! So, not wanting to penalize any of the 2023 jazz albums I did initially choose, I'm just going to list 11 albums here and call it a day.

1. Mendoza Hoff Revels, Echolocation (Aum Fidelity)
2. James Brandon Lewis, Eye of I (Anti-)
3. Christian McBride’s New Jawn, Prime (Mack Avenue)
4. Joe Farnsworth, In What Direction Are You Headed? (Smoke Sessions)
5. John Zorn, Full Fathom Five (Tzadik)
6. Jason Moran, From the Dancehall to the Battlefield (Yes)
7. The Schrimps, Ain’t No Saint (Intakt)
8. Ambrose Akinmusire, Beauty Is Enough (Origami Harvest)
9. Kate Gentile, Find Letter X (Pi)
10. jaimie branch, Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die (​(​world war​)​) (International Anthem)
11. Leap Day Trio, Live at the Cafe Bohemia (Giant Step Arts / Little (i) Music)

We'll leave aside the Mendoza Hoff, the JBL and the Zorn since they're dealt with in the overall top 10, as well as the McBride, which I discussed in passing in this New York Times profile of the bass maestro earlier in the year. (Is New Jawn his best band ever? From my vantage point, yes!) Regarding the other picks:

Each year, Joe Farnsworth looks more and more like one of the jazz scene's sturdiest anchors, a true ambassador of goodwill and precious passed-down-from-the-masters, learned-on-the-gig knowledge (check out this great Farnsworth interview by Morgan Enos for more on all of that). What's cool about this album is that it enriches and subtly complicates his typical role of Mr. Straight Ahead. It's a Joe Farnsworth record, so obviously it swings like mad, but the variety of the material and ingenious combination of players (hard to think of another place where you'd hear Immanuel Wilkins, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Julius Rodriguez and Robert Hurst together…) gives it just the right amount of unexpected wrinkles. Check out the backbeat funk of the Harold Mabern–penned title track, the hushed bossa nova vibe of "Terra Nova" or the floating waltz-time feel of his own reading of "Someday We'll All Be Free" (a fascinating point of comparison with the JBL version of the same tune on Eye of I). Throughout, Rosenwinkel and Wilkins make for a thrilling pair, sharing a gift for liquid-toned lyricism.

Every Jason Moran record is an event, and that's especially true of From the Dancehall to the Battlefield. Having seen the piece live this summer — one of the most compelling concerts and/or live happenings of any kind that I witnessed all year — it's hard for me to consider the music apart from the multimedia presentation of this impressionistic evocation of the life and work of pioneering ragtime/proto-jazz bandleader James Reese Europe, complete with costumes, projections and creative staging. But the record itself is a brilliant manifestation of the "from ragtime to no time" ethos that Moran has been steadily fortifying for around 25 years now — classicism, modernism and the future all swirled together. You get the feeling that Moran's mentor Jaki Byard would have been exceedingly proud of a work like this. 

I generally love Jim Black's bandleading efforts, especially Alasnoaxis and the piano trio he launched more recently. His latest project is a Berlin-based quartet featuring European players who are all new to me: Asger Nissen on alto sax, Julius Gawlik on tenor, and Felix Henkelhausen on bass. Black's familiar sonic fingerprint is here — deliberately off-kilter funk, playful abstraction, disarmingly plaintive themes — but to my ears, there's an increased emphasis here on conventional swing (i.e., of the "ting ting-ta-ting" variety). The results lean at times toward a nimble, post-Ornette-y sort of freebop, with the two saxes scampering around the sound field, and it all sounds absolutely great.

One of our finest contemporary trumpeters, performing an improvised solo concert in a Paris cathedral. That's the sales pitch on Beauty Is Enough, and the record absolutely lives up to whatever lofty expectations that description might evoke. It's really a joy to hear Ambrose Akinmusire staking out a particular sonic territory in each of these pieces — patient and spacious on "Cora Campbell," say, or busy and staccato on "Achilles," or achingly delicate on "Carvin." — and just feeling it out, seeing where it takes him. The resonance of the church itself is also a major asset. This is the kind of album that really makes you wish you were there during the performance, and it sounds so damn good, it practically fulfills that wish. (The other 2023 Akinmusire disc, Owl Song, a trio with Bill Frisell and Herlin Riley, is lovely as well!)

At this point, drummer Kate Gentile and pianist Matt Mitchell are effectively their own school of contemporary jazz, challenging listeners and themselves alike with gargantuan helpings of hypercomplex sound assemblage. Gentile's latest, which features Mitchell and reedist Jeremy Viner (both of whom appeared on her strong 2017 effort Mannequins) and bassist Kim Cass, spans three discs and clocks in at more than three hours. As with Gentile and Mitchell's 2021 Snark Horse box set, I'd be lying if I said I'd had time to properly digest all of what's here, but every time I've dipped in, I've been pretty much floored. The second disc is especially up my alley, being clearly informed by Gentile's avowed love of extreme metal. A track like "raze" here is without question one of the most superbly insane things I've heard all year, and is pure wish fulfillment for anyone [raises hand] who's ever wondered what a sonic collision between Tim Berne and Behold… the Arctopus, with a sprinkling of Magma, would sound like. It's fascinating to hear, in the span of a year, the metal/punk/etc. influence making its way into jazz in one way on, say, Echolocation, and in a completely other way here. And that's just one facet of what's afoot on this release, which also includes wild electroacoustic interludes and more, for lack of a better term, chamber-ish tracks that sound like a drum-equipped version of the Giuffre/Bley/Swallow trio 1,000 years in the future. (Note here: If this general musical zone appeals to you, definitely check out Capacious Aeration, Mitchell's recent duo release with reedist Anna Webber. And note to self: I really need to make some time for Gentile's disc with International Contemporary Ensemble, which seems on a quick sampling like the perfect counterpart to Find Letter X.)

"Gonna take over the world / Gonna gonna gonna take over the world," jaimie branch declares forcefully on "take over the world," a track from her third, possibly best and, as well all now know, sadly final album with her signature ensemble Fly or Die. And somehow, even though she's gone, you still believe her, so energizred is the rollicking punk-samba groove that breaks out once the piece gets going. During her roughly five years of peak bandleading activity, branch really seemed to alter the course not just of how jazz sounded but how it was received in the world. This music reached people, and Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war)) will stand forever as a testament to why, its eccentric but ever-inclusive blend of heady synth drone, texture-rich avant-Latin-/African-jazz, low-down funk, ecstatic dance-rock, homespun folk and more playing out like a standing invite to some sort of utopian carnival. Amid the pain of her loss, we're so lucky to have gotten one more complete statement. (Note: for context I recommend both this heartbreaking memorial piece by branch's sister Kate and this conversation I had with jaimie shortly before her passing, just as she was putting the finishing touches on this record.) 

Is there such a thing as a power trio in jazz? If there is, I feel like it might best connote the Rollins-indebted tradition of sax-bass-drum combos, a lineage definitely evoked by Leap Day Trio's excellent Live at Cafe Bohemia. Tenor player Jeff Lederer's avowed love for Ayler gives the record a certain kind of free-jazz lean at times, but basically this is a hard-swinging freebop effort: gritty, earthy, propulsive. Again, as with the Akinmusire, the sounds and textures here — including drummer Matt Wilson's "whoo" exclamations during Lederer's solos and the no-nonsense drive of his rhythmic mesh with rock-solid bassist Mimi Jones — really make you wish you were in the room (i.e., the briefly reopened new incarnation of legendary downtown jazz room the Cafe Bohemia) for this one. I'd love to hear more from this trio and, ideally, to catch them live at some point. This album simply rocks.

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