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The Milkman's Picks for Best Jazz Albums of 2023

Updated: Jan 15

Was it six or seven years ago, when faced with the prospect of coming up with my Top Ten list for the Jazz Journalists Association website, that I defied the rules and posted an audacious Top 100 picks for the year. It's become a longstanding tradition for myself and other scribes who have adopted that notion of not being able to choose just ten. After all, we are flooded with product throughout the year. Already, just two days into the New Year, I've got three or four picks lined up for my Best of 2024 list. And the hits keep coming.

A quick note: The albums pictured above are not necessarily all in my Top Ten list. I included them in the photo to head up this column because they were albums that I happened to have CDs of, as opposed to just links to MP3s (which seems to be the way forward for most record companies). Rather than clipping album covers from Google and placing them into some configuration, I prefer to lay the "physical copies" (as the industry now refers to them) on a rug in my office and shoot them with my trusty iPhone. Real low-fi stuff here at Milkman Enterprises.

First, here's a dozen picks for my Best of 2023 (with YouTube clips), followed by another 88 recordings that I especially dug (in no particular order):

1. Wes Montgomery, Maximum Swing: The Unissued 1965 Half Note Recordings (Resonance Records) -- This collection of previously unreleased radio broadcasts from host Alan Grant's Friday Night "Portraits in Jazz" show on WABC finds the great guitarist in full-out stretching mode with the Wynton Kelly Trio (drummer Jimmy Cobb and regular bassist Paul Chambers alternating with subs Ron Carter, Larry Ridley and Herman Wright) on familiar vehicles like John Coltrane's “Impressions,” Miles Davis' "So What" and standards like "All the Things You Are," "I Remember You" and "Cherokee," along with Wes' signature tune, "Four on Six." The results are pulse-quickening and jaw-dropping as the great guitarist blows chorus after chorus on his solos (incrdibly, up to 26 choruses in some cases) in completely unbridled and joyful fashion, applying his usual three-tiered solo approach of single note lines-octaves-chord melodies along the way. Other treats in this 2CD set include Wes' slow, languorous reading of the David-Raksin-Johnny Mercer ballad “Laura,” from the 1944 Otto Preminger movie of the same name, a mellow rendition of Dizzy Gillespie's "Birks' Works," a buoyant reading of Wes' Latin-flavored “Cariba" and a rare solo guitar interlude, his delicate "Mi Cosa," to which Grant responds with, “Real pretty, Wes…a very beautiful thing.” This collection of previously unheard Wes Montgomery in full-on stretch mode includes live material culled from the private collection of Yoshio Tokui from the Wes Montgomery fan club of Japan. A very beautiful thing indeed.

2. ShaktiThis Moment (Abstract Logix) -- Led by 81-year-old guitar god John McLaughlin, this first Shakti studio recording in 46 years (since 1977's Natural Elements) is a revelation for it’s “elation, elegance and exaltation,” to borrow a phrase from John Coltrane’s liner notes to his monumental A Love Supreme. Add another ‘e’ word to that intriguing list — ‘exhilarating’ — to describe McLaughlin’s searing chops throughout this outstanding recording. In the presence of his Indian comrades Zakir Hussain (tablas), Selvaganesh (kajira, ghatam), Ganesh Rajagopalan (violin) and Shankar Mahadevan (vocals), McLaughlin unleashes with youthful energy and abandon on fleet-fingered, cleanly-articulated guitar solos to “Shrini’s Dream,” “Bending the Rules,” "Karuna” and “Sono Mama.” And the remarkably intense, rapid-fire konnokol vocal exchanges between Hussain and Selvaganesh on “Mohaman" are thrilling.The 7th Shakti outing since McLaughlin and Hussain launched the group 50 years ago, This Moment captures Shakti once again stretching the boundaries of Hindustani and Carnatic music while injecting Western ideas of harmony into its successful world music formula. McLaughlin further bends the rules through his judicious use of guitar synthesizer — triggering the sound of bamboo flute (bansuri) on “Shrini’s Dream” and “Bending the Rules,” then emulating a string section on the intros to his gentle “Karuna” and Hussain’s atmospheric, bluesy meditation, “Changay Naino.” And his electronica flavored synth bass groove on “Sono Mama” is something completely different from the original intent of the acoustic Shakti from the ‘70s. This super-group has clearly evolved over time as has embraced technology while incorporating other musical forms. And the legacy continues.

3. Christian McBride, Prime (Brother Mister/Mack Avenue) -- This pianoless outing by the resolute bassist's New Jawn Quartet (adventurous trumpeter Josh Evans, potent tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist Marcus Strickland and the remarkably melodic and conversational drummer Nasheet Waits) explores more avant garde territory than we associate with him (as on Waits’ “Moonchild,” Strickland’s “Prime,” Evans’ angular, "G.W."-ish “Dolphy Dust” and the leader’s two originals, “Head Bedlam” and the somber rubato number “Lurkers,” a showcase for Strickland's bass clarinet playing) while also paying homage to the elders with reverent renditions of  Larry Young’s burning “Obsequious,” Sonny Rollins’“East Broadway Rundown” and Ornette Coleman’s calypso flavored “The Good Life.”

4. John ScofieldUncle John’s Band  (ECM) -- The title of this 2CD set, his 50th as a leader or co-leader, has a double meaning. First and foremost, it is named for the Grateful Dead tune that closes out the collection. But it could also be referring to the goateed guitarist’s elder status as ‘uncle figure’ to the hordes of jam band fans half his age whom he has courted throughout his career, beginning with 1998’s Au Go Go (with jam band godfathers Medeski, Martin Wood) and continuing with 2000’s Bump, 2002’s Überjam, 2003’s Up All Night and 2011’s In Case the World Changes Its Mind (his reunion with MMW) right up to more recent collaborations with Phil Lesh, Gov’t Mule, Lettuce and Scary Goldings (led by Scofield's longtime colleague, organist Larry Goldings). Accompanied by bassist Vicente Archer and longtime collaborator, drummer Bill Stewart, the interactive trio demonstrates a high degree of flexibility and empathy, whether swinging effortlessly on Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is The Ocean,” Bud Powell’s “Budo” and Ray Brown’s “Ray’s Idea,” exploring new harmonic terrain on Neil Young’s “Old Man,” or putting a gentle, beguiling stamp on the Grateful Dead ditty, “Uncle John’s Band.” On their expansive version of Dylan's “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Scofield incorporates a backwards guitar loop throughout the nine-minute piece, a callback to his self-titled 2022 solo guitar outing on ECM. As the piece heads into adventurous rubato territory midway through, the guitarist wails freely. And while Scofield may burn with audacious flair throughout this collection of 14 tunes, he caresses ballads like “Stairway to the Stars” and Leonard Bernstein’s gorgeous “Somewhere” (from West Side Story) with uncommon sensitivity and elegance.

5. Chris PotterGot the Keys to the Kingdom: Live at the Village Vanguard (Edition) -- The most potent and impactful tenor saxophonist of his generation, Potter made a big splash with his 2020 lockdown album, There Is a Tide, recorded at home with him playing all the instruments himself. Here Potter joins bassist Scott Colley, pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Marcus Gilmore before an energized audience at NYC’s hallowed Village Vanguard. On the 14-minute opener, a funk-jazz re-imagining of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You Got To Move” (famously covered by the Rolling Stones on 1971’s Sticky Fingers), Potter pulls out his technically brilliant Brecker-ian chops in a Herculean display of tenor virtuosity. The intricate and hypnotic 12/8 vehicle “Nozani Na,” an Amazonian folk tune transcribed by Brazilian classical composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, provides a launching pad for some heated exchanges between tenorist and drummer. The quartet bring things down to an elegant hush on Billy Strayhorn’s darkly beautiful“Bloodcount,” then it’s off to the races on an uptempo swinging rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Klactoveedsestene.” Potter’s unrestrained wailing here, along with Gilmore’s rapid-fire exchanges with the leader, are scintillating. The title track, a gospel blues from 1929, is yet another showcase of Potter’s breathtaking command of his instrument.

6. Joshua Redman, where are we (Blue Note) -- A leading voice of his generation, saxophonist-composer Redman ventures into new territory on his Blue Note debut. While his previous 23 albums were all instrumental, he builds this ambitious program around vocalist Gabrielle Cavassa, co-winner of the 2021 International Sarah Vaughan Jazz Vocal Competition. At once intimate and captivating, her voice has an expressive, vulnerable quality that accentuates the drama of Redman’s “After Minneapolis (face toward mo[u]rning),” a tune he wrote in response to George Floyd’s murder. When she whisper/sings the words “knee on neck” at the beginning, it conveys a gentle yet riveting power. His cathartic blowing after her haunting vocal refrain conveys the horror of that tragic event.

Guests on this city-themed concept album include guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel on a soul-jazz take on Bruce Springsteen’s anthemic “Streets of Philadelphia,” trumpeter Nicholas Payton on “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” and vibraphonist Joel Ross on an uncharacteristically reflective “Chicago Blues,” which melds the familiar Count Basie-Jimmy Rushing tune to shimmering U2-like arpeggios. Cavassa conjures up comparisons to Billie Holiday on intimate readings of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and she shines on a sublime duet with Redman on “Stars Fell on Alabama.”

7. Kurt Rosenwinkel, Undercover (Live at the Village Vanguard) (Heartcore Records) — The most distinctive and influential guitarist of his generation brings a killer band of pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Greg Hutchinson into that hallowed subterranean space in the heart of Greenwich Village, and the results are next level. Not only is the playing throughout sparkling (including several outstanding solos by the leader), but five new Rosenwinkel compositions (particularly the opening “Cycle Five” and the urgent swinger “The Past Intact”) elevate the proceedings. Simply stunning.

8. Dave Liebman, Trust and Honesty (Newvelle Records) -- The NEA Jazz Master’s restlessly creative streak has resulted in him playing on more than 500 albums over the past 50 years, from solo sax outings like 1985’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner to various duo recordings with pianist and longtime musical partner Richie Beirach (culminating in 2021’s 4CD set, Empathy) to his 10 quintet recordings with Quest, his multiple Saxophone Summit projects with Joe Lovano and Michael Brecker or Ravi Coltrane, to purely free improv dates and encounters with the Frankfurt Radio Bigband. On this intimate drumless trio recording with guitarist Ben Monder and bassist John Hébert, Liebman summons up shamanistic powers on soprano sax. He imparts a luscious vocal quality on standards like “Lover Man,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Stella By Starlight,” with Hébert’s huge, woody tones and Monder’s warm, richly atmospheric chord voicings providing the ultimate sensitive backdrop. Liebman’s lone unaccompanied piece is a haunting extrapolation on the Bill Evans’ ballad “Blue in Green,” famously recorded on Miles Davis’ 1959 landmark, Kind of Blue. Monder also turns in a dramatic solo rendition of Evans’ “Time Remembered” that highlights his unique virtuosity. 

9. Ben Wolfe, Unjust (Resident Arts Records) -- The third in a trilogy of albums that bassist-composer Wolfe recorded in 2021 during three two-day blocks in the studio with multiple ensembles, Unjust is a brilliant work of melodic ensemble writing and superb playing by a stellar inter-generational crew. Things kick off in high-flying fashion with “The Heckler,” an uptempo number that has trumpeter Nicholas Payton and alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins taking turns wailing against a frenetic pulse laid down by drummer Aaron Kimmel and the leader. Vibraphonist Joel Ross’ minimalist comping creates an ethereal presence in contrast to the runaway burn here. The loping and moody “Hats Off to Rebay” has Ross and Wilkins uniting on a tight, angular head, a la Eric Dolphy’s “Out to Lunch,” before launching into individual riveting solos. “Lullaby in D” is a gorgeous, affecting ballad that showcases rising star tenor saxophonist Nicole Glover, who brings a luxurious, breathy quality that belies her young age; more Ben Webster than Michael Brecker. The tasty midtempo swinger “Bob French” finds the ensemble in a relaxed groove paced by Wolfe’s solidly walking basslines and features more inspired soloing from Glover and Payton, who engage in some blistering exchanges at the tag. “The Corridor,” a mysterious-sounding trio number showcasing Ross’s vibes playing, also features a rare solo turn from the bassist-leader. The angular “Mask Man” and Monkish title track, both pitting Payton and Glover on the frontline before turning each loose for freewheeling solos, are more sterling examples of this modernist ensemble’s unity and urge to swing.

10. Brad MehldauYour Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays The Beatles (Nonesuch) The Glenn Gould of our time tackles the music of the most universally beloved and harmonically sophisticated pop group of all time with equal parts reverence and audacious virtuosity. On a technical level alone, this album is spell-binding. Mehldau’s gift for reharmonization, reinvention and counterpoint is on full display here, particularly on his dissonant reading of "I Am the Walrus," a tune that he builds to Lisztian heights, on his extrapolation on "For No One" and his cascading contrapuntal arrangements of "If I Needed Someone." His re-imagining of “Baby’s in Black” takes on a ruminative, gospel-ish feel, underscored by a hypnotic pedal point. His delicate reimagining of “She Said She Said” is more Eric Satie than Beatles, while his gentle rendering of “Here There And Everywhere” is as affecting as any romantic ballad in the Great American Songbook. He delivers some passages of convincing stride piano playing on the bouyant title track and dips into some two-fisted barrelhouse boogie-woogie on "I Saw Her Standing There." And his interpretation of “Golden Slumbers” is positively rhapsodic. Even the upbeat “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” gets a reharmonized spin by maestro Mehldau on this stellar live outing from the Philharmonie de Paris September 2020.

11. Dan Wilson, Things Eternal (Brother Mister) -- A guitarist with jaw-dropping single-note facility rivaling six-string greats George Benson and Pat Martino, Akron, Ohio native Wilson’s tendency is to scorch the fretboard, as he did on “The Rhythm Section” from his stellar 2021 Mack Avenue debut, Vessels of Wood and Earth, and does again here on a blazing rendition of Freddie Hubbard’s “Birdlike” from his followup album, Things Eternal; both examples conjuring up memories of George Benson’s “The Cooker,” the opening track to 1967’s The George Benson Cookbook. But Wilson is hardly a one-trick-pony, as he once again reveals on his eclectic sophomore outing. His gift for melody comes across on renditions of Stevie Wonder’s “Smile Please” and Michael Brecker’s “Pilgrimage,” while his subdued comping behind vocalist Jessica Yafanaro on the alluring title track is patient and luxurious. Wilson’s ability to swing easily and in the pocket is apparent on renditions of McCoy Tyner’s waltz-time “For Tomorrow,” Herbie Hancock’s “Tell Me A Bedtime Story” and the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” while his deep-seated gospel roots come to the fore on an inspired, churchified reading of Sting’s “Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot.” A secret weapon throughout this session is the Fender Rhodes electric piano playing of Glenn Zaleski, who lends a decided ‘70s quality to the proceedings while matching Wilson stride-for-stride on some blazing unisons. Co-produced by Christian McBride, whose Tip City trio Wilson joined in 2017, Things Eternal includes a humorous voicemail at the outset of the opening track, “Sticology,” from the late organist Joey DeFrancesco, whose group Wilson also toured and and recorded with.

12. George Coleman, Live at Smalls Jazz Club (Cellar Music Group) -- A powerhouse player over seven decades, saxophonist Coleman is well known for his brawny tenor tone, irrepressible drive and show-stopping circular breathing technique. And he’s still blowing up a storm at age 88. With pianist Spike Wilner, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Joe Farnsworth, Coleman issues forth streams of notes from his horn while swinging mightily on this electrifying set. They kick it off with an unconventional reading of “Four,” which Coleman played on Miles Davis’ 1966 album, Four & More. On the luxurious rubato opening, the tenor titan caresses each note of the familiar theme before the quartet jumps into uptempo swing mode with Washington’s walking bass lines and Farnsworth’s insistent ride cymbal work setting the pace for Coleman’s deluge of ideas. Similarly, they open “New York, New York” as a ballad before launching into a breakneck jam fueled by Coleman’s potent wailing. Etta James’ soulful signature song, “At Last,” and “The Nearness of You,” both handled as loping mid-tempo swingers, find the leader digging into his hard bop roots. Then he fairly testifies on the earthy “Blues for Smalls.” And while Coleman’s burn is palpable throughout, his ballad playing on “My Funny Valentine” is as deep as it gets.

13. Lakecia BenjaminPhoenix (Whirlwind)

14. Kaisa's Machine, Taking Shape (Greenleaf Music)

15. Geri Allen/Kurt Rosenwinkel, A Lovesome Thing (Motema)

16. Ambrose Akinmusire, Owl Song (Nonesuch)

17. Steve Davis, Steve Davis Meets Hank Jones, Volume 1 (Smoke Sessions)

18. Mark Turner,  Live at the Village Vanguard (Giant Step Arts)

19. Sullivan Fortner, Solo Game (Artwork Records)

20. Ada Rovatti, The Hidden World of Piloo (Piloo Records)

21. Claire Daly & George Garzone, Vuvu for Frances (Daily Bread Records)

22. Freddie Bryant, Upper West Side Love Story: A Song Cycle (Tiger Turn)

23. Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band, Vox Humana (Jazzheads)

24. Chick Corea & Orcheestra da Camera Della Sardegna, Sardinia (Candid)

25. Ralph Towner, At First Light (ECM)

26. Wolfgang Muthspiel, Dance of The Elders (ECM)

27. Palle Mikkelborg/Jakob Bro/Marilyn Mazur, Strands (ECM)

28. Joe Lovano Trio Tapestry, Our Daily Bread (ECM)

29. Henry Threadgill Ensemble, The Other One  (Pi Recordings)

30. Jeff Coffin, Look for Water (Ear Up)

31. Kenny Wessel/Marc Mommaas/Jay Anderson, In the Briar Patch (Nonotes Records)

32. Davy Mooney, Way Back (Sunnyside)

33. Ratko Zjaca, Archtop Avenue: Solo Guitar (In-Out Records)

34. Mike Clark, Kosen Rufu (Wide Hive)

35. Mike Clark, Plays Herbie Hancock (Sunnyside)

36. Jim Campilongo/Steve Cardenas, New Year (Sunnyside)

37. Jason Keiser, Shaw's Groove (OA2 Records)

38. Michael Blake, Dance of the Mystic Bliss (P&M)

39. Itamar Borochov, Arba (Greenleaf Music)

40. Artemis, In Real Time (Blue Note)

41. Kenny Barron, The Source (Artwork Records)

42. Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Borrowed Roses (Top Stop Music)

43. Vijay IyerLove in Exile (Verve)

44. Bobo Stenson TrioSphere (ECM)

45. Eddie Henderson, Witness to History (Smoke Sessions)

46. JD Allen, This (Savant)

47. Jim Snidero, Far Far Away (Savant)

48. Eric ReedBlack, Brown and Blue (Smoke Sessions)

49. Superblue: Kurt Elling and Charlie Hunter, The Iridescent (Edition Records)

50. Dave Stryker, Groove Street (Strikezone Records)

51. Julian Lage, The Layers (Blue Note)

52. John Pizzarelli, Stage & Screen (Palmetto)

53. Fred Hersch & Esperanza Spalding, Alive at the Village Vanguard (Palmetto)

54. Kendrick Scott, Corridors (Blue Note)

55. Harold López-Nussa, Timba a la Americana (Blue Note)

56. Orrin Evans, The Red Door (Smoke Sessions)

57. Jeremy Dutton, Anyone Is Better Than Here (self-released)

58. Johnathan Blake, Passage (Blue Note)

59. Joe Chambers, Dance Kobina (Blue Note)

60. George Freeman, The Good Life (High Note)

61. Joe Farnsworth, In What Direction Are You Headed? (Smoke Sessions)

62. Eric Alexander, A New Beginning (High Note)

63. Walter Smith III, Return to Casual (Blue Note)

64. Wayne Escoffery, Like Minds (Smoke Sessions)

65. The Headhunters, Live from Brooklyn Bowl (Ropeadope)

66. Trio Grande, Urban Myth (Whirlwind Recordings)

67. Oz Noy, Triple Play (Abstract Logix

68. Oscar Peñas, Chicken or Pasta (self-released)

69. Thompson/Rob Piltch, Bells...Now and Then (Modica Music)

70. Joel HarrisonAnthem of Unity (High Note)

71. Max Light, Henceforth (SteepleChase)

72. Frank Kohl, Pacific (OA2 Records)

73. John Stein, No Goodbyes (Whaling City Sound)

74. Mason Razavi, Six-String Standards (OA2 Records)

75. Vin Venezia, The Venetian (Innervision Records)

76. Steve Smith & Vital Information, Time Flies (Wounded Bird)

77. James Brandon Lewis, For Mahalia, With Love (TAO Forms)

78. Naya Baaz: Rez Abbasi and Josh Feinberg, Charm (Whirlwind Recordings)

79. Sam Bardfeld Trio, Refuge (BJU Records)

80. Paul Wertico, Drums Without Boundaries (Da Vinci Classics)

81. Cécile McLorin Salvant, Mélusine (Nonesuch)

82. Jamie Breiwick, Awake: Volume 2, The Music of Don Cherry (Shifting Paradigm Records)

83. Ed Neumeister Quartet, Explorations (MeisteroMusic)

84. The Russ Johnson Quartet, Reveal (Calligram Records)

85. Nick Finzer, Dreams Visions Illusions (Outside In Music)

86. Ron Horton, A Prayer for Andrew (Newvelle)

87. Benjamin Koppel, White Buses, Passage To Freedom (Cowbell Music)

88. Canadian Jazz Collective, Septology: The Black Forest Session (HGBS Blue)

89. Linda May Han Oh, The Glass Hours (Biophilia)

90. Tyshawn Sorey, Continuing (Pi Recordings)

91. Myra Melford's Fire and Water Quintet, Hear the Light Singing (RogueArt)

92. Aaron Diehl & The Knights, Zodiac Suite (Mack Avenue)

93. Rudy Royston's Flatbed Buggy, Day (Greenleaf Music)

94. Pete Zimmer, Dust Settles (Tippin Records)

95. Jakob Bänsch, Opening (Jazzline)

96. Tineke PostmaAria (Edition Records)

97. Michael Dease, Swing Low (Posi-Tone)

98. Tim Ray Trio, Fire & Rain (Whaling City Sound)

99. Mendoz/Huff/Revels, Echolation (AUM Fidelity)

100. Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog, Connection (Knockwurst Records)

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