My Favorite Albums of 2023, part 2
The second part of my year-end rundown, arranged alphabetically
Here’s the second part of the list running down my 40 favorite new albums of 2023, at least on the days I assembled it. You can find the first half in yesterday’s newsletter. Tomorrow I’ll wrap things up with some reissues/archival faves and some additional records that I deeply enjoyed. Thanks for reading, and please subscribe.
My 40 Favorite Albums of 2023, Part 2
Egil Kalman followed up a recording made on the Synthi 100 last year with this sprawling collection using the Buchla 200. I don’t know enough about these early synthesizers to make any useful comments about how they differ, but Kalman—whom I first heard as a bassist playing much different sounds in the Marthe Lea Band and the improvising trio Miman—serves up a radically different batch of blorpy, contrapuntal excursions, including a couple of pieces involving his current research, translating folk traditions to the Buchla 200, such as the Swedish song “Blågeten,” with its clear lines to early music. The stylistic range is much wider here, and although it all seemed a tad more conventional than the Synthi 100 stuff on first blush, over time I’ve been pulled deeper and deeper into his playful soundworld, with each track opening up a discrete pathway.
This excellent composer portrait focused on the vocal music of Catherine Lamb, which hews to the same concerns as her instrumental work but nonetheless offers another timbre, to borrow the label name. Musicians from Explore Ensemble join forces with Exaudi Vocal Ensemble on the haunting, levitating “color residua,” with the voices of Juliet Fraser, Cathy Bell, and Michael Hickman generating a spectrum of sounds by exploring mouth shape. Lotte Betts-Dean of Exaudi takes on the other two works, “pulse/shade,” a multi-tracked marvel of wordless counterpoint, and the title piece (with Explore again), where she extracts “the tonalities from the phonetic timbres.” It’s heartening to see Lamb’s music receiving performances from a growing number of musicians around the globe, watching it slowly seep into the classical world.
Saxophonist and bandleader Marthe Lea has a rare ability to transform sponge-like absorption into an elusive strength, as she assimilates styles and approaches from all around the globe into a composite built around and extending well beyond jazz. She’s credited with tenor saxophone, piano, flutes, udungu (a stringed instrument from Uganda), voice, and percussion, a casual range that’s indicative of how she eschews any sort of creative limits. Supported by an excellent quintet with violinist Hans P. Kjorstad, bassist Egil Kalman, drummer Hans Hulbækmo, and reedist Andreas Røysum, Lea continues to forge a total music that feels both hyper focused and utterly spontaneous, ready to move in any direction the spirit calls for while maintaining an impressive rigor and graceful shape. There are strong folk elements, such as the ritualistic-sounding “Springar Fra Rollag” or the ceremonial rhythms of “Ayumi,” in which the name of Trondheim-based Japanese pianist Ayumi Tanaka becomes the basis of nonsensical lyrics that quickly become impossible to dislodge from memory. It all feels utterly natural and innate, while transmitting a powerful air of playfulness and joy. The recording is more concise and pared down than the quintet’s raucous live performances, but both approaches are wildly satisfying. It’s scary to realize the group is just hitting its stride.
As invaluable as composer Mary Jane Leach’s research and activism on behalf of Julius Eastman has been—and it’s impossible to see anyone else drove his renaissance as much as her—it’s been meaningful to see her own work finally start to reach a new audience as well. This gorgeous collection delivers four more works in a setting that’s suited her during the pandemic and now that she’s relocated to Belgrade, where pieces written for masses of a specific instrument can be recorded and performed by just one player, as flutist Manuel Zurria, clarinetist Sam Dunscombe, bassoonist Shannon Peet, and oboist Libby Van Cleve have done here. Leach finds exquisite depth and subtle richness in such groupings, unleashing ravishing swirls and eddies of psychoacoustic splendor produced by meticulously arranged heaps of microtonality, whether the cool serenity of “8B4,” below, or the symphonic nasality of “Xantippe’s Rebuke.”
I didn’t expect to be so consistently compelled by a release from Musica Elettronica Viva some 46 years after the ensemble formed, but this 2012 live recording serves as an excellent memorial for Frederick Rzewski and Richard Teitelbaum, who passed away, respectively, in 2020 and 2021. Along with the indefatigable Alvin Curran, who remains as sharp and prolific as ever, they weave highly personal languages into a collective improvisation that’s distinguished by collisions that blend logic and madness. The line between composition and improvisation is irrelevant with MEV, a juggernaut whose legacy has aged very well. It’s sad that we won’t encounter anything like this again, but we do have recordings.
A couple of months ago I played “Traveler Song” before a concert I presented by Finn Loxbo’s excellent quartet Kommun here in Berlin. It is not an exaggeration that at least a half-dozen people asked me what it was. Indeed, it’s that kind of piece, at once familiar and utterly otherworldly, formally daring yet homemade in its earnestness. I first heard the piece in 2019, when it was part of an essential CD of Miller’s vocal music called Songs About Singing (All That Dust), and it riveted me, but the work has only gained resonance after hearing it performed live in Athens, Greece in 2021 at part of Tectonics, with a new arrangement, where Black Truffle capo Oren Ambarchi also heard it, leading to this release. Miller built the piece from improvised vocal lines she created while listening to a field recording of a song sung by a Sicilian cart driver made by Alan Lomax in the early 1950s. It’s a 21-minute chamber masterpiece, filled with unexpected turns, ingratiating melodies, and meticulous instrumental counterpoint. “Thanksong,” which was abstracted from a late Beethoven string quartet is also sublime in its beauty and uniqueness, sung by Juliet Fraser and played by Quatuor Bozzini, and while it has the unfortunate luck to be the flipside of “Traveler Song,” it’s almost as incredible. Wake the fuck up to Cassandra Miller.
I don’t know of another musician that can not only parse and illuminate the creative process with total clarity, but connect his expansive medium with other practices like Jason Moran. After years of developing and refining this homage to the music of proto-jazz bandleader James Reese Europe he finally dropped a recording of the endeavor of New Year’s Day, 2023. Fittingly, for a project dedicated to an historic figure most listeners have never actually heard, much of the music taps into period sounds, but Moran has never and will never be a repertoire purist. As usual he hears and envisions all sorts of unexpected conjunctions, infusing the earliest jazz sounds with his own ineffable aesthetic sensibility—compounding, splintering, and resoldering elements of tunes by Europe, W.C. Handy, and himself with imaginatively connected pieces by Geri Allen, Pauline Oliveros, and Albert Ayler. You can hear the band’s take on “Darktown Strutter’s Ball” toggling between the past and Moran’s present. Nobody can see continuums more vividly than Moran.
I got to hear Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society three times in 2023, each in a different context. I used to see the band regularly when I still lived in Chicago, but it had been over four years since I caught them. In April I heard the core quartet—with drummer Mikel Patrick Avery, harmonium player Lisa Alvarado, and bass clarinetist Jason Stein—in Chicago. A few months later they melted my mind with a performance in Lisbon with saxophonist Evan Parker, only the second time they’d worked together. In November they played Jazzfest Berlin with featured guest saxophonist Ari Brown and a larger ensemble with cornetist Ben LaMar Gay, trumpeter Axel Dörner, and saxophonists Mia Dyberg and Anna Kaluza. Each concert was closely related yet totally different. In the years since I left Chicago NIS has evolved into a remarkable band. They were always good, but the core quartet has drilled down into an essential sound that’s unfuckwithable. This latest recording features Brown and the group’s extended Chicago community, and it arrives as the fullest single portrait of an ensemble that’s constantly changing shape.
Another conceptual coup from Polish saxophonist Marek Pospieszalski, a guy capable of transforming avant-garde Polish contemporary music as easily as he reimagines the Frank Sinatra songbook. This octet album, which features a slew of Polish players who should be better known, whether trumpeter Tomasz Dąbrowski or pianist Grzegorz Tarwid, radically adapts a selection of pieces written by some of his homeland’s most strikingly original female composers, including past figures like Grażyna Bacewicz or current heavies like Agata Zubel. His variations on those themes are astonishing, moving within and outside of jazz orthodoxy, retaining a crucial essence or feature of the originals, and producing something wholly unique.
In recent years no piece of music has changed the way I listen as much as Éliane Radigue’s Naldjorlak, the remarkable 2005 work she created with cellist Charles Curtis. Not only does it recalibrate the listener’s expectations straight out of the gate with almost imperceptible, unpitched gray sounds, but it’s entire focus is to maintain the cello’s “wolf tone,” a microscopic spot on the instrument when the instrument’s resonant frequencies wreak havoc with a bowed tone, producing a wild feast of acoustic feedback. These two performances, from 2006 and 2020, not only reveal the cellist’s deep engagement with the piece—which is so unpredictable that it feels like the musician must grapple with a wild animal for an hour—but have proven invaluable in centering my own attention. This is music of the most transcendent variety, delivering an experience of unparalleled beauty and single-mindedness.
With the fifth chapter of her long-form epic Coin Coin it feels like Matana Roberts has decisively found their groove. Previous installments pivoted from one another, offering dramatically different groups of players, narrative procedures, and stylistic thrusts. I'm in no position to suggest that Roberts was self-consciously altering the m.o. for each successive chapter. It’s just as likely that they simply created sounds that felt simpatico within each new transmission, but there’s a level of confidence here that makes me think that Roberts has fully settled into the project after nearly two decades. The storytelling here is also more focused and specific on a single narrative—one that’s more directly connected to her own bloodline, as she takes on the tale of a great grandmother—that feels different from the earlier work, too. Either way, the project continues to expand, grow, and flower in astonishing ways.
It felt like only yesterday—but I actually mean 2022—when the crew of musicians revolving around the Motvind Kulturlag axis in Norway were bursting with nascent potential and boundless ideas. At the end of 2023 the ideas continue to flow unabated, but suddenly the various projects released by the label suddenly seem fully formed, whether it’s the we-do-what-we-want ethos of the Marthe Lea Band’s new album covered elsewhere in this rundown or the second album from the electro-folk-JI hybrids further refined by Naaljos Ljom on its second album. But it really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Clarinetist Andreas Røysum happily plays the crew’s extroverted leader, both in terms of political agenda and showmanship. He’s firmly established his devotion to bloody-knuckled improvising and raucous free jazz, but Mysterier, the third album by his ever-enlarging Ensemble, dramatically broadens his scope. The music pivots to include a much more explicit folk underpinning through sharp readings of old British tunes like “Barbara Allen” and “Hares on the Mountain”—both sung beautifully by Sofie Tollefsbøl—and Norwegian folk melodies seeping into the leader’s own buoyant tunes, which ignore any boundaries between trad jazz counterpoint and Nordic folk dances.
There have been a slew of stunning recordings of her music in recent years, but Dark Flower is probably the most expansive portrait of the fantastic Canadian composer Linda Catlin Smith thus far. I’m sure I’m not alone in discovering Smith’s work through a series of superb recordings on Another Timbre, but Toronto’s Thin Edge New Music Collective have been interpreting her compositions since forming back in 2011, when they performed violin-piano piece “With Their Shadows Long” on their first concert program. They suffuse pieces written across two-and-a-half decades with assured, richly-felt melancholic beauty that conveys a rare intimacy with the material. Check out the album’s centerpiece, the title composition commissioned by the ensemble in 2020.
The third transmission from Tyshawn Sorey’s transformative take on jazz’s standard rep is probably the best yet, injecting an extravagantly patient, exploratory vibe that renders the results as radical as anything else I heard in 2024. There’s a deep blues sensibility rippling through every keystroke by Aaron Diehl, every bass note from Matt Brewer, and every glorious cymbal hit by the leader, especially on their version of “Angel Eyes,” which magically reimagines time. Earlier this year I wrote about how its “molasses-slow tempo pushes the tune to the breaking point. In some ways the pace might be the most virtuosic thing on any of these three albums. Sorey doesn’t join the fray until three minutes have passed, allowing Diehl to stretch the sorrowful melody out over a deliciously slow, skeletal bassline. It’s a slow-motion rhapsody that becomes almost unbearable until the drummer finally strikes a cymbal, introducing a near-frozen groove that only reinforces the tune’s sense of longing. Sorey comes in and out, but the pace never really changes, turning the performance into a kind of sonic tightrope walk where one false move can send the whole enterprise crashing to the ground.”
Year after year saxophonist Chris Speed is a model of craftsmanship and carefully sculpted expression. He’s honed a gorgeous sound on tenor saxophone, adapting the silken generosity of Lester Young with a thoroughly modern conception, both harmonically and in terms of ensemble sound. Together with drummer Dave King and bassist Christ Tordini he’s a stunning sound sculptor, spinning narratives that always avoid sharp edges and sudden turns even if they are underpinned by delicious ambiguity. His tune “Sunset Park in July,” a patient, heartfelt expression for the titular New York hood written from his adapted Los Angeles home was one of the most beautiful things I heard all year, but since it’s not streaming you could a lot worse than checking out his limber “Uncomfortable Truths,” bounding over kit-spread chatter and warm, woody double stops.
After reading Henry Threadgill’s riveting, nonchalantly creative autobiography Easily Slip Into Another World I’d hesitate to place anything he’s done over his long career into some sort of hierarchy, but it’s hard not to see this finely detailed suite as one of his most ambitious works. Made with his long-running Zooid at the core, a phalanx of musicians from improvised and contemporary music bring his idiosyncratic, highly personalized language to life on a previously unrealized scale. His thumbprints are instantly recognizable, and not just on the judicious solos he drops in, but through the music’s deliciously convoluted, instinctual organization. Threadgill was inspired by the teachings and practice of the brilliant percussionist and educator Milford Graves, a figure who also eschewed conventional forms in his writing and playing. I’m still digesting its cross-cutting density and internal interplay, a process that feels deeply satisfying without denying instant pleasures.
It took me some time to fully absorb the multi-cadential rigor and beauty of this work developed by Ben Vida with Laura Barger and Russell Greenberg of Yarn/Wire. On first blush there’s a new age-like aura and vocal focus that might suggest a radical transformation of a Robert Ashley work, but it doesn’t take too long to realize such a connection is tenuous. Rather, Vida in virtuosic synchronization with vocalist Nina Dante, plots his own hypnotic path, interweaving complex yet melodious vocal patterns within a minimalist soundscape of piano and tuned percussion.
Anna Webber continues demonstrating fascinating ways to meld ideas from contemporary music within an expansive conception of jazz, consistently developing some of the most rewarding and distinctive musical collisions of the last half-decade. I got to hear Shimmer Wince in Chicago back in April, and the quintet’s self-titled debut only reinforced the stunning music I heard then. Webber spent a season during the pandemic in Berlin studying just intonation, but over time she realized its greatest use would come as a tool within a larger context, which just happened to become the strongest, most human, and enjoyable music she’s ever created. Her writing is exquisite, with beautiful melodies nimbly arranged for a fantastic band—trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, cellist Mariel Roberts, drummer Lesley Mok, and keyboardist Elias Stemeseder—that manipulated buoyant post-bop tunes with intervals derived from polyrhythms used in the material. It takes some adjustment on the part of the listener, getting used to the JI elements, but it’s a worthwhile effort because I don’t know of another record of such exponential delight and rigor. I mean, I haven’t said a thing about the fantastic improvising all across the album. It’s there, but so are a lot of other utterly compelling things.
Pianist and composer Eric Wubbels has maintained a trio with violinist Josh Modney and cellist Mariel Roberts for a number of years, and its rapport and shared vision enables him to produce something as magnificent of If and Only If, an eight-movement work that finds them moving through a variety of ideas and approaches, including some mind-warping use of just intonation. The writing is in constant flux, and so are the tuning systems, with the trio functioning orchestrally, as Wubbels deftly pits different instrumental combinations against one another. This shit is dense but exhilarating, and every spin yields freshly discovered details I missed in previous listens—it keeps on giving.
Drummer Jim White and Cretan lute player George Xylouris have never made a bad record, deftly capturing the white knuckle thrills of their live shows, but working with producer Guy Picciotto they convincingly expanded their sound world on The Forest in Me. It’s a decidedly muted affair, highlighting a different side of the project’s work. The music is often more restrained and meditative than the raucous jams they kick out on stage, with the producer pitching in the subtlest of ways to widen the palate. “Latin White” has overdubbed fiddle dancing over a chattery drum pattern and loose string arpeggios, while “Seeing the Everyday” is gorgeously restrained as it carves out big patches of space. I can’t say the pivot surprises me given the openness of the participants, but at the same time I wasn’t expecting anything like this.