Compared to last year I guess I was kind of a new music listening slacker in that I ONLY averaged about 5 full albums and 5 more partial albums each week. A couple hundred of these were considered for this post, so as always there is a lot of music I enjoyed that it pains me to neglect discussing. As always, I make no claim that these are even the “best” albums I listened to (and indeed find the idea of such claims patently ludicrous), never mind any broader kind of “best” of anything (with #1 on the list being a notable exception) given the tiny percentage of new releases I (or for that matter anyone, including professional critics) could possibly hear.  

Even with all the spreadsheet crunching I did throughout the year, I debated whether to do one of these this year, out of respect for both the musicians who find such lists (even with all the caveats about subjectivity etc.) distasteful symbols of competitiveness and all the folks who are suffering to a degree that makes something like this feel trivial by comparison. In the end, though, if I can share some moving music that uplifts the listeners and reminds the creators that they matter, I still think that’s a net positive to the ecosystem of humanity.  

Anyway, these are a few that I found particularly “sticky” in my own listening, presented in no particular order. As always, I omitted projects in which I was substantially involved personally, which this year includes the debut album by Stankeye Jones and the Vagabond Librarians. So, without any further ado . . .

1 ) Kenny Barron: “The Source”

In another year the solo piano records by Denny Zeitlin or Sullivan Fortner would be at or close to the top of my overall list, and I also really enjoyed those released by Harry Pickens, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Jean-Michel Pilc, and Brad Mehldau. But when Kenny Barron releases a solo piano record, it’s an event. And it just so happens that (as I break momentarily from the spirit of “these are just my favorites, I’m not trying to make critical judgments”) it is one of the deepest and most downright happening solo piano records ever. Period. Alongside Art Tatum and Monk and Jaki Byard and everyone else who has put out genre-defining solo jazz piano music. It’s that heavy.

2 ) Chris Dingman: “Journeys Vol. 2”

Meanwhile, I spent a lot of time this year getting healing vibes (a statement that could be interpreted multiple ways) from this profound and moving work by vibraphonist Chris Dingman. There were other wonderful solo-instrument records this year by Andrew Cyrille, Ralph Towner, and Mark Dresser, as well as some exceptional vibes-out-front albums, including those by Chris’s mentor Jay Hoggard (two, if you count his compilation record) and Joe Locke, and I could have picked any of these too.

3 ) Sunna Gunnlaugs: “Becoming”

There were a number of standout piano trio records this year, including those by Tyshawn Sorey (with Aaron Diehl on piano), Bennett Paster, Eric Reed, and Kevin Hays, not to mention other great piano-led jazz records by the likes of Miki Yamanaka, Jason Moran, and Orrin Evans. Sunna’s trio (featuring Scott McLemore on drums, an important composer/bandleader in his own right) presents another stone classic in that vein, moody yet uplifting, hip yet earthy.

4 ) Sam Bardfeld: “Refuge”

Meanwhile there were some other fabulous trio records in less-common configurations, with my favorites including releases by Kendrick Scott, Jo Lawry, Andrew Gould, and Ambrose Akinmusire. Violinist Bardfeld’s album (with Jacob Sacks on Piano and Michael Sarin on drums) is full of beautiful and fun compositions, beautifully rendered without ever suggesting that anything (i.e. a bassist) is “missing.”

5 ) Fred Hersch & Esperanza Spalding: “Alive at the Village Vanguard”

There were some wonderful jazz duo records this year, including those by Gretchen Parlato/Lionel Loueke, Miguel Zenon/Luis Perdomo, and Sam Newsome/Dave Liebman, as well as many jazz (or jazz-adjacent) vocal records that knocked me out, including albums by Magos Herra, Christie Dashiell, Nicole Zuraitis, Veronica Swift, and Michelle Lordi. But wow, Esperanza Spalding (eschewing the bass on this performance) and Fred Hersch give an absolute clinic in virtuosity, interactivity, creativity, and flat-out fun.

6 ): Rudy Royston: “Day”

What a year for drummer-led records. Brian Blade, Vince Ector, Mareike Wiening, Curtis Nowosad, Joe Chambers, Sanah Kadoura, Johnathan Blake, and Allison Miller all put out records I loved. The one I went back to the most was the utterly distinctive sounds of Rudy Royston’s latest project with his group Flatbed Buggy (with Hank Roberts on cello, Gary Versace on accordion, Joe Martin on bass, and John Ellis on bass clarinet) – he’s a first-call drummer for a reason, but I really look forward to him getting his due as a bandleader and composer.

7 ) Anthony Branker: “What Place Can Be for Us? – A Suite in Ten Movements”

Speaking of composers, what a year for jazz records revolving around compositional ambition, including lovely and moving work by Darcy James Argue, Freddie Bryant, Brian McCarthy, Patrick Cornelius, and Alan Ferber. I’ve been a fan of the criminally underrated composer Anthony Branker for years, and his twin penchants for social commentary and incisive compositions are in particularly robust form on this release.

8 ) Harold López-Nussa: “Timba a la Americana”

“Latin jazz” is hardly a monolith, so it’s somewhat sheepishly that I lump together some of my favorite records in that vein from 2023, including those by Hilario Duran, Doug Beavers, and the Rodriguez Brothers. Pianist López-Nussa, collaborating on many of the compositions with bassist and album producer Michael League, offers a record full of infectious textures in grooves that has made me smile each time I’ve listened.

9 ) Finding Frances: “For Flowers yet to Bloom”

I’ve got a particular soft spot for debut records even when they’re not actually all that good, simply because I’m so acutely aware of what a milestone that represents. Fortunately there were plenty this year that were indeed quite good, with some of my personal favorites including those by Jack Warnock, Marty Isenberg, and Emmett Goods. The biggest standout to me was the debut by this collective of jazz-educated singer-songwriters, using their prodigious chops judiciously to tell one emotionally compelling story after another.

10 ) Allison Russell: “The Returner”

Speaking of storytelling, it’s time to move to the realm of the singer-songwriter, which I’ve fairly arbitrarily divided into artists older than I am and younger than I am. On the latter front, I went back repeatedly to albums by Corinne Bailey Rae, Brandy Clark, and Ayanna Witter-Johnson and in particular the sophomore solo album (i.e. not counting the all-time classic album by the Our Native Daughters project) by the eclectic, vulnerability-oozing powerhouse that is Allison Russell.

11 ) Ivan Neville: “Touch My Soul”

On the “older” singer-songwriter front I could easily have spotlighted the brilliant return-to-form of Peter Gabriel or the lovely records by Paul Simon or Natalie Merchant. What stood out to me most was this new one by Ivan Neville, who I first heard on the radio in the late ‘80s and live in the early ‘90s as an opening act for the Neville Brothers (co-led by his father Aaron and his uncles Charles, Cyril, and Art). I’ll admit I kind of lost track in between, so when this album (his first under his own name in almost 20 years) came out I went into it from a place of nostalgic curiosity. But boy did he exceed expectations – his voice and piano playing are as strong as ever, the production is infectious, and these are some of his most compelling songs.  

12 ) Taylor Simone Harvey: “Everybody’s On Stage”

I always feel like a bit of a poser talking about contemporary R&B and hip-hop given how many of my colleagues and students spend way more time listening to it than I do. But I nonetheless want to shout out some of those I enjoyed most, by Genesis Owusu, Black Thought, Black Pumas, and Noname. Taylor’s record, meanwhile, was the one to which I kept going back, at once modern and timeless both in aesthetic and in the sort of creativity and emotional potency that never ages.

13 ) Ameen Mokdad & Cuatro Puntos Ensemble: “The Curve Live from Hartford”

While I’m apologizing for my sub-categorization, I’ll acknowledge the Western-centric viewpoint by which I could lump together such a diverse group of “ethnic hybrid” music as the albums by Oghlan Bakhshi, Debashish Bhattacharya, Lost Tribe, Cyro Baptista, Tony Allen (with Jazz Is Dead), and Shakti. I was a bit late to the party of learning about the extraordinary violinist/composer Ameen Mokdad (who wrote this suite while under ISIS occupation in his home of Mosul, Iraq) but am very grateful to finally have gotten to check the life-affirming suite out both live and via this potent recording.

14 ) Selwyn Birchwood: “Exorcist”

There were a number of blues records I loved this year, including albums by Coco Montoya, Joe Louis Walker, Joanna Connor, and Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. I’ve been a fan of Selwyn Birchwood for years now, since being turned on by friends, and this collection of his gnarly performances of witty and insightful original material is my favorite to date.   

15 ) Shirley Scott: “Queen Talk: Live at the Left Bank”

There were a number of wonderful historic albums (i.e. unearthings of previously unheard or overlooked material) and I both learned and derived enjoyment from such recordings by Ali Farka Toure, Joni Mitchell, Clifford Jordan, Terri Lyne Carrington, John Coltrane & Eric Dolphy, Roy Hargrove, Kurt Rosenwinkel & Geri Allen, Hank Jones (with Steve Davis), and Pharoah Sanders, as well as a superlative example of Nina Simone performing live. That one would’ve likely been the winner but what particularly knocks me out in this vein is when I hear another side of an artist I love, and that’s what happened with this 1972 live recording from Shirley Scott. She’s always been among my favorite organists, with a sonic identity largely setting her apart from peers like Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack McDuff, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Charles Earland and so on. As such I would not typically use words like “fierce” to describe her playing, but hearing her go toe-to-toe with George Coleman here flips that perception on its ear.  

Bonus round: 15 wonderful singles and/or tracks from albums not already mentioned here:

Postmodern Jukebox: “Angel”

Zach Bryan (w the War & Treaty): “Hey Driver”

Kurt Elling and Charlie Hunter: “Lonely Woman”

Acoustic Station: “Narrow Line”

Grupo Um: “Onze por Oito”

Katherine Paterson: “Bloom”

Jon Batiste: “Butterfly”

Abraham Alexander: “Blood Under the Bridge”

Marni Loffman (with Suhail Yusuf Khan): “Inner Voice”

T-Pain: “War Pigs”

Fantastic Negrito: “Highest Bidder”

Susanna Hoffs: “the Deep End”

Tracy Walton: “Better Man”

John Scofield: “Uncle John’s Band”

Laurie Kenney: “Richard”


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