by Scott Yanow
There are so many jazz releases each year (a minimum of 200 per month) that compiling a “Best Of” list that everyone would agree upon is difficult if not impossible. Many other writers, when compiling their “Best Of” lists, tend to emphasize cutting edge and avant-garde jazz. I prefer to cast a wider net, including releases that are creative within the context of many styles and approaches from trad jazz, swing, bop, and post-bop to vocalists and Latin-flavored jazz.
Below (in alphabetical order) are my picks for 2023: 25 new releases and 20 albums of reissues and historical music (some of which were previously unreleased). Readers can certainly argue for the inclusion of dozens of other superb recordings for there are hundreds that I would recommend as well worth owning. Suffice it to say that these 45 albums are among my favorites and are each memorable in their own way.
Benny Benack III. – Third Time’s The Charm – Bandstand Presents
Kris Berg – Perspective – Summit
Laila Biali – Your Requests – Imago
Jane Bunnett and Maqueque – Playing With Fire – Linus Entertainment
Gunhild Carling – Good Evening Cats! – Self-Released
Emmet Cohen – Uptown In Orbit – Mack Avenue
George Coleman – Live At Smalls Jazz Club – Cellar Music
Chick Corea Elektric Band – The Future Is Now – Candid
Antoine Drye – Retreat To Beauty – Cellar Music
Kent Engelhardt & Stephen Enos – Central Avenue Swing/Our Delight – Madd For Tadd
Noah Haidu – Standards – Sunnyside
Connie Han – Secrets Of Inanna – Mack Avenue
Anthony Hervey – Words From My Horn – Outside In Music
Aline Homzy – Eclipse – Elastic
Danny Jonokuchi Big Band – Voices – Outside In Music
Jon-Erik Kellso and the EarRegulars – Live At The Ear Inn – Arbors
James Brandon Lewis – For Mahalia, With Love – Tao Forms
Oz Noy – Triple Play – Abstract Logix
Planet D Nonet – Blues To Be There – East Lawn
Quartet San Francisco & Gordon Goodwin – Raymond Scott Reimagined – Violinjazz
John Scofield – Uncle John’s Band – ECM
Veronica Swift – Veronica Swift – Mack Avenue
Ohad Talmor – Back To The Land – Intakt
Sam Taylor – Let Go – Cellar Music
JD Walter – What The World Needs Now – Arkadia
Toshiko Akiyoshi – Toshiko’s Blues 1953-1957 – Fresh Sound
Walter Bishop Jr. – Bish At The Bank – Reel To Reel
Dave Brubeck Quartet – Live From The Northwest 1959 – Brubeck Editions
Sonny Clark – The Complete Blue Note Sessions – Mosaic
John Coltrane with Eric Dolphy – Evenings At The Village Gate – Impulse
Miles Davis – In Concert at the Olympia Paris 1957 – Fresh Sound
Bill Evans – Treasures – Elemental Music
Digby Fairweather – Notes From A Jazz Life Volume 3 – Acrobat
Bill Henderson – Senor Blues – Complete Recordings 1958-1961 – Fresh Sound
Jazz At The Philharmonic – The Complete Jam Sessions 1950-1957 – Mosaic
Dan Levinson – Celebrating Bix – Turtle Bay
Loren McMurray – The Moaninest Moan Of Them All – Archeophone
Jay Migliori – Equinox – Omnivore
Mulgrew Miller – Solo In Barcelona – Storyville
Boots Mussulli – 1954-1956 Quartet Sessions – Fresh Sound
Roy Palmer – The Almost Forgotten New Orleans Hot Trombonist – Upbeat
Michel Petrucciani – The Montreux Years – Montreux Sounds/BMG
Sonny Rollins – Go West! – Craft Recordings
Hazel Scott – Collected Recordings 1939-57 – Acrobat
Ethel Waters – Stormy Weather – Acrobat
Pianist Emmet Cohen, who first recorded as a leader in 2010 when he was still a college student, really came to the attention of the jazz world when he began his Masters Legacy Series in 2015. It has thus far resulted in five recorded meetings with older jazz artists including Jimmy Cobb, Ron Carter, Benny Golson, Albert “Tootie” Heath, George Coleman, and most recently Houston Person. A masterful pianist, who while bop-based, can play creatively in nearly every jazz style from stride to free, Cohen kept busy during the COVID pandemic and beyond by broadcasting a very popular series of hour-long livestreams called Live From Emmet’s Place. The shows feature Cohen’s trio with notable guests on a weekly basis and was particularly valuable in helping to keep the morale and spirit of jazz fans alive during the shutdown.
Emmet Cohen performed recently at Catalina Bar & Grill before a packed house on a Wednesday night in a trio with bassist Philip Norris and drummer Herlin Riley. With the drummer playing a major role throughout and clearly inspiring Cohen with his creativity, the trio performed such numbers as “Hi-Fly” (which was given a strong New Orleans flavor), an Ahmad Jamal-inspired uptempo version of “It Could Happen To You,” “Poinciana,” Riley’s “Harlem Shuffle” which had the drummer and Cohen sounding a bit like Art Blakey and Bobby Timmons during their extended tradeoffs, Riley’s “Shake Off The Dust,” “Caravan,” and finally as encores “Where Is Love” and “Satin Doll.”
The colorful and often-witty playing of the three masterful players was a joy to hear throughout the memorable evening and Emmet Cohen showed once again that he ranks as one of the most important and brilliant jazz pianists of today.
Nutty is a unique group that is always fun to see perform. The group lives up to its name by playing mashups of jazz and rock tunes. Quite often the three-horn septet begins by playing part of a jazz standard that leads somehow to its co-leader Sonny Moon singing a completely unrelated rock song. Their performances then go back and forth between the two songs while often quoting other tunes. With Sonny Moon being a genial host between tunes in the humorous style of Dean Martin, the performances are quite unique.
At the Write-Off Room on Ventura Blvd, Nutty performed a typically eclectic show. The group included co-leader bassist Guy Wonder, trumpeter Ian Holmquist, Edmund Velasco on tenor and flute, baritonist Mike Reznik, pianist Dan Spector, drummer Dave Tull, and percussionist Scott Breadman. During Nutty’s night, the Yardbirds met James Bond, Mingus teamed up with Deep Purple, Lalo Schifrin collaborated with Jethro Tull, Nat Adderley (“Jive Samba”) coexisted with Heart (“Barracuda”) and “Intermission Riff” somehow segued logically into “My Little Red Book.” Other mixtures included Wayne Shorter and the Zombies, Miles Davis and the Who, and Dave Brubeck and the Moody Blues.
Beyond the novelty aspect, the high musicianship of the band (Holmquist’s trumpet solos were particularly exciting), Sunny Moon’s colorful singing (he has developed into a top-notch scat singer), and the general atmosphere made Nutty’s two sets particularly memorable. While they have several recordings available, Nutty has to be seen to be fully enjoyed and appreciated. Catch them when you can. Where else does Ozzy Osbourne meet Antonio Carlos Jobim?
Guitarist Pat Metheny has led a series of classic bands through the years including several versions of the Pat Metheny Group with the late keyboardist Lyle Mays and all-star units. However at Royce Hall, Metheny was the only musician onstage. During a 2 ½ hour set, Metheny put on quite a show all by himself.
He began by playing a medley of his compositions on acoustic guitar at a slow and thoughtful tempo. Metheny, who usually does not say much on stage, surprised many by then talking about his beginnings in an interesting and witty fashion, telling stories about his early days. He talked quite a bit during the first half of the night, sounding quite natural whether discussing his guitars or mentioning some of his musical experiences. It is a pity that he stopped doing that during the later section of the concert.
There was more variety than one would expect during his one-man show. Metheny remembered bassist Charlie Haden and the duo album that they made (Beyond The Missouri) during a medley of songs from that project including “First Song.” He surprised the audience by next playing a thunderous free form piece before switching to his orchestral 42-string Picasso guitar for a soothing number. He played his baritone guitar on medleys that included “Alfie,” “Rainy Days And Mondays,” “The Girl From Ipanema,” “Everything Happens To Me,” “Willow Weep For Me,” and “Song Of The Carnival.” Then, using electrical devices that allowed him to add other instruments including a rhythm guitar and walking bass, he cooked on a medium-tempo blues. Metheny also utilized his Orchestrion on a few numbers.
Viewing Pat Metheny onstage utilizing electronics and his machines was sort of like watching a magician as one tried guessing in vain as to how he achieved the wide variety of sounds. While it is surprising that he did not talk about his Group or Lyle Mays, he never lost one’s interest or stopped being creative during his very impressive marathon workout.
One of the top jazz pianists of the past 30 years, Brad Mehldau and his long-time trio with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard performed a high-quality show at Disney Hall.
Mehldau was at his best creating fresh versions of standards, starting with “I Hear A Rhapsody” which had the trio floating together rather than stating the time. In addition to the originals (which included a soothing ballad, a warm jazz waltz that utilized a pattern played by Mehldau’s left hand, and “Seymour Reads The Constitution”), the band also played some classic bebop on Charlie Parker’s “Cheryl.” The highpoints of the night took place during an extended version of the Beatles’ “And I Love Her” (during which Ballard gave the piece a groove reminiscent of Ahmad Jamal), a surprising uptempo version of the ballad “Long Ago And Far Away,” and a beautiful melodic rendition of “The Folks Who Live On The Hill.”
With the variety of tempos and grooves and the constant creativity, Brad Mehldau and his trio were heard playing at their very best throughout the night.
I have a new book that is available from amazon.com. Life Through The Eyes Of A Jazz Journalist. It is subtitled My Jazz Memoirs and is my 12th book and first in a few years. I discuss in an often-humorous fashion my early days and discovery of jazz, my period as the jazz editor of Record Review, the story behind my involvement with the All Music Guide, and I reminisce about some of my adventures as an amateur musician. Included are vintage interviews with Freddie Hubbard, Chick Corea, and Maynard Ferguson, encounters with Clint Eastwood, summaries of the Monterey and Playboy Jazz Festivals (including a full-length review of the 1985 Playboy Festival), memories of other events (such as the IAJE Conventions), and brief snapshots of many memorable club and concert performances. There is also background information about my other books, evaluations of the jazz critics who inspired me early on, and my thoughts on jazz criticism which includes advice to up-and-coming jazz journalists. Rounding out the book is a chapter on how the jazz writing business has changed over the past 50 years, and appendixes that include the jazz greats of the past, 86 jazz giants of today, 21 young performers to look for in the future, jazz books and DVDs that everyone should own, and a dozen enjoyable Hollywood jazz films.
Life Through The Eyes Of A Jazz Journalist, a paperback book, sells for $26 through Amazon.com Signed copies (which will take 2-3 weeks) are also available for $30 (which includes free postage) by sending the money via Pay Pal to firstname.lastname@example.org and by sending your mailing address to that E-mail.