It’s officially 2023 year-end list season, and the staff-wide BrooklynVegan list of our favorite albums of the year is just around the corner, but first, here’s a list of 10 jazz albums from this year that are not to miss. We say it just about every year but it bears repeating: the modern world of jazz is so much more than decades-old standards and something you study in school. It continues to be innovative, adventurous, rebellious music, and it shows up in so much current popular music, from hip hop to electronic music to various forms of rock and metal. Maybe you’ve heard that one of the most beloved rappers of all time made a jazz album this year, and (spoiler) that’s on this list, along with nine other fantastic records that honor jazz traditions but are dead set on pushing this music forward.
Read on for the list, in alphabetical order…
Alfa Mist – Variables
Alfa Mist’s music knows no bounds. On his fourth album Variables, the UK musician casually weaves between jazz, hip hop, and soul, with flashes of various other styles of music along the way. Sometimes the album offers up sprawling jazz odysseys, other times it offers up concise rap and R&B songs, and most of the time it’s somewhere in between. Alfa Mist gets help from soul singer/frequent collaborator Kaya Thomas-Dyke and South African folk singer Bongeziwe Mabandla, and the album features some of his own rapping too. It’s got a great sequence that mixes things up between vocal-oriented songs and instrumentals, and between lively improvisation and head-nod-inducing grooves. It’s an album that never chooses between jazz-influenced hip hop and hip hop-influenced jazz; it’s somewhere in the middle, creating something new that sounds like neither and both all at once.
André 3000 – New Blue Sun
With fame comes pressure to remain at least remotely within the realm of the thing you’ve become famous for, and with New Blue Sun, André 3000 has reminded the world that great art can and often does come from breaking free of those limitations. Nearly 30 years since the first OutKast album, André has made an 87-minute ambient jazz album where he doesn’t rap (or do any vocals) at all. And he wants you to know: it’s not a gimmick, it’s not a troll move, it’s not a side project; it’s the album he wanted to make, and he really means it. He made it with three regulars from the modern indie-jazz world–percussionist Carlos Niño, guitarist Nate Mercereau, and keyboardist Surya Botofasina–and it’s in a similar ballpark as other recent ambient jazz albums like the Floating Points/Pharoah Sanders album and the Shabaka Hutchings solo EP. It’s a great album, and it feels like one we’ll be appreciating long after the initial shock wears off.
Angel Bat Dawid – Requiem for Jazz
Angel Bat Dawid’s latest album is one of her most ambitious projects yet. It was inspired in part by dialogue from Edward O. Bland’s 1959 film The Cry of Jazz, a film that critiqued racial politics in the USA and featured live footage of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, and it began its life when Angel premiered music from the album at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in Chicago in 2019 with a 15-piece ensemble featuring singers from Damon Lock’s Black Monument Ensemble. (Damon also designed the album artwork.) Angel then mixed and post-produced recordings from the performance, adding in interludes, vocals, and “additional sounds,” and Sun Ra Arkestra’s Marshall Allen and Knoel Scott contributed as well. The result is a sprawling album with everything from avant-garde jazz passages to electronic hip hop beats to operatic gospel vocals to found sounds and much more. “I want us to have this very wonderful conversation that Ed Bland started over 50 years ago,” Angel says. “I want to continue the conversation; because this is a loving conversation that we need to have with each other.”
Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer, Shahzad Ismaily – Love In Exile
Arooj Aftab (vocals), Vijay Iyer (pianos, electronics), and Shahzad Ismaily (bass, Moog synth) hit the studio one day with very little planning beforehand, and what happened that day is basically what you hear on Love In Exile. It’s a heavily improvisational, barely edited recording and it captures so much magic. “Vijay and Shahzad were so locked into each other, and it was unclear whether they were doing what I was doing or I was doing what they were doing,” Arooj says. “We were like a school of fish.” The songs are lengthy, and various musicians take the spotlight at different points; sometimes it’s Arooj’s gorgeously soaring vocals, sometimes it’s Vijay’s meandering keys. It touches on most of those aforementioned styles of music, but it never really fits into any of them; it’s just living, breathing, serene music and it’s very worth listening to.
Irreversible Entanglements – Protect Your Light
There’s always an urgency to Irreversible Entanglements, the free jazz group with Moor Mother on vocals. Their latest album and first for Impulse!, Protect Your Light, was recorded earlier this year in just three days, and you can feel in these songs the band’s desire to get it done and get it out into the world as quickly as possible. One of the songs, “root <=> branch,” is a tribute to likeminded artist and onetime labelmate jaimie branch, who died last year and just had her posthumous album released two weeks ago. Other moments on the album celebrate love and decry the dispossession of land of those who then live in struggle. The album feels live, not just in the sense that the band is really jelling, but in the sense that the music feels like it’s taking place right now, right in front of you, whenever you listen to it.
For more, read 10 things that inspired Irreversible Entanglements’ Protect Your Light.
jaimie branch – Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war))
The extraordinarily talented jazz/experimental musician jaimie branch died at age 39 last year, and before her passing, she and her band Fly Or Die had almost entirely finished their third album together, Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war)). Since her passing, her bandmates–Lester St. Louis (cello), Jason Ajemian (bass), and Chad Taylor (drums)–put the finishing touches on the album, and it gets released this week, to honor the one-year anniversary of jaimie’s passing. The band says, “This album is big. Far bigger and more demanding — for us, and for you — than any other Fly or Die record. For this, jaimie wanted to play with longer forms, more modulations, more noise, more singing, and as always, grooves and melodies.” That all comes across on this album, whether it’s through the fiery horn lines and hypnotic hip hop beats of “Borealis Dancing,” the shouted vocals and Afrobeat polyrhythms of “Take Over The World,” the bustling arrangements and purposeful singing of “Burning Grey,” or the way jaimie and Jason duet on a rustic re-imagining of the Meat Puppets’ “Comin’ Down” (retitled “The Mountain”). The album breaks down so many musical barriers, and it never allows for passive listening. These are big, lively songs that jump out and grab you. It’s a blast to listen to, and it’s a reminder that jaimie had just kept pushing forward all the way up to her very last days.
Kassa Overall – Animals
Kassa Overall’s third album and Warp debut is all over the place in the best way possible. It’s got everything from real-deal jazz instrumentation to hard-hitting rap songs to avant-garde psychedelia to floor-shaking beats, and it’s loaded with an insane cast of guests. Modern jazz greats like Theo Croker and Vijay Iyer help flesh out the instrumentation, Laura Mvula lends her powerhouse pipes, and we get uniquely great rap pairings like Danny Brown and Wiki (“Clock Ticking”) and Lil B and Shabazz Palaces (“Going Up”). And those are only about half of the musicians featured. It might sound overwhelming on paper, but Kassa Overall ties up every possible knot. Animals is a journey and it’s very well worth taking.
London Brew – London Brew
As the name implies, London Brew features some of the brightest voices in and around the UK jazz scene–including Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings (Sons of Kemet, The Comet Is Coming, Shabaka and the Ancestors), Tom Skinner (Sons of Kemet, The Smile), Theon Cross (Sons of Kemet), Dave Okumu (The Invisible), Benji B–coming together to make music inspired by Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew as well as the city of London–its creativity and its struggles. It’s not a covers album or a tribute album; it’s an entirely new album (with some Miles samples) that carries on the spirit of one of Miles’ most beloved works. It takes you on a vast journey off the bat, opening with a 23-minute song, and it covers so much ground, from improv jazz to psychedelic rock to hip hop production.
Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter Five: In The Garden...
The fifth installment of Matana Roberts’ Coin Coin series is among the most stirring, chaotic, indescribable music released this year–even just calling it “jazz” only tells a portion of its story. There’s folk music, spoken word, post-rock, and an adaptation of a traditional African American plantation lullaby. Rattling percussion from Ryan Sawyer (Thurston Moore, John Dwyer) and Mike Pride (Pulverize The Sound, MDC) go up against zig-zagging alto sax lines from Darius Jones as Matana tells the story of an ancestor who died following complications from an illegal abortion. With production from TV On the Radio’s Kyp Malone (who also contributed synths), the album constantly comes at you from opposing directions. It’s music that should be unsettling, and it absolutely is.
Yussef Dayes – Black Classical Music
Brownswood / Nonesuch
A longtime staple of the UK jazz scene, drummer and composer Yussef Dayes released one of the most widely-loved jazz albums of the past decade as one half of Yussef Kamaal (with Kamaal Williams) on 2016’s Black Focus, and–following a 2020 album with Tim Misch, a live trio album that same year, and more–he finally released his first proper album as a bandleader with 2023’s Black Classical Music. It’s one of the most gorgeous, sprawling albums of the year in any genre, with lush, organic instrumentals and forays into electronic music, funk, reggae, R&B, and more. Fleshed out with contributions from Shabaka Hutchings, Chronixx, Masego, Jamilah Barry, Rocco Palladino, the aforementioned Tom Misch, and a handful of others, the 19-song, 74-minute album is a total journey. It’s rooted in both the past and the future. It connects the dots between an array of musical inventions of the African diaspora. Black Classical Music is the perfect title.
* 10 Great Jazz Albums from 2022
* More 2023 year-end lists
Top photo of Arooj Aftab by Ellen Qbertplaya at The Met’s Temple of Dendur in 2022. More here.