BEST JAZZ The Best Jazz on Bandcamp, November 2023 By Dave Sumner · November 30, 2023

As we bid the 2023 release schedule farewell, we find it exhibiting the same dynamic spirit it had when it first kicked off in January. And the same diverse points of origin, too: This month sees albums from Germany, Japan, Belgium, Norway, and beyond.

Sunny Kim, Vardan Ovsepian, Ben Monder
Liminal Silence

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD)

This is an album with a striking personality. Melodies smolder and hang in the air seductively, a lingering presence. There’s an icy ambience, even when the musicians kick up the heat. Hints of this sound can be heard on Sunny Kim’s 2011 release Painter’s Eye, specifically in the way Kim’s voice syncs up, to dramatic effect, with Ben Monder’s guitar in the scheme of a larger ensemble. But on this trio session, the effect is amplified. Vardan Ovsepian’s approach on piano—a directness that’s balanced by moments spent circling the target before zeroing in—snaps into place. Some live processing, keyboards, and effects frame the interludes of silence, making them that much more stunning by way of comparison and transition.

Jasper Høiby
Three Elements: Earthness

Considering the formative years he spent collaborating with fellow members of Phronesis, it’s small wonder Jasper Høiby would return to the trio format, even as he continues cultivating his individual sound. This modern set with pianist Noah Stoneman and drummer Luca Caruso, though straight-ahead, often embarks on a winding path. Sometimes, the trio allows the path to lead them to a destination; other times, they simply blaze their way around the trail’s head. This is one of several planned trio recordings on Høiby’s docket, diving deep into the permutations of sound inherent to a bass-piano-drums combo.

Myra Melford’s Fire and Water Quintet
Hear the Light Singing

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD)

One of Hear the Light Singing’s many appealing qualities is the way its abstract melodicism charts a circuitous route while still maintaining a discernable path—providing a glimpse into improvisational freedom. Those interludes when it all comes together out of the blue are simply jaw-dropping. It’s a performance where the journey brings as many thrills as the arrival. For those of you with listening habits firmly entrenched in the ‘60s avant-garde scene, I feel compelled to mention that this recording hit me much in the same way as the first time I heard John Handy’s Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Thematically, this recording ties into the Fire & Water Quintet recording preceding it, and is built upon an interpretation of the artwork of Cy Twombly. With one exception, the personnel for that recording also contribute to the latest, with pianist Myra Melford, guitarist Mary Halvorson, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, cellist Tomeka Reid, and (instead of Susie Ibarra) drummer Lesley Mok.

Mark Solborg

Merch for this release:
Vinyl Box Set

Mark Solborg centers his newest recording on how language shapes perception, both in the microcosm of two people interacting and the totality of all voices on the planet in concert with one another. Interspersed with spoken interludes of people describing themselves, the guitarist—joined by trumpeter Susana Santos Silva, clarinetist Francesco Bigoni, bass clarinetist Anders Banke, pianist Simon Toldam, and drummer-percussionist Peter Bruun—counterbalances the spoken sections by utilizing different music languages to amplify the effect of comparatives and contrasts commingled into something not unlike a collective. The music is beauty intensified, displaying characteristics that could be described as tranquil and emotionally charged—serene at times, even when tremors of volatility shake the foundation. I have been unable to stop listening to BABEL. It has its hooks in me deep.

Yuhan Su
Liberated Gesture

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD)

If Liberated Gesture were viewed as chapters in a book, and the melodies as the device for plot development, then Yuhan Su has written a novel that begins deceptively as a work of fiction set in the modern world, then slowly reveals a fantasy landscape hidden beneath. At the outset, the melodic development charts a straight-ahead path through modern jazz. But by the time fourth track “Didion” comes along, you start to get a sense of where the winding paths have taken you. It’s a transformative moment. Stunning, actually. Assisting the vibraphonist in this world-building is alto saxophonist Caroline Davis, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Marty Kenney, and drummer Dan Weiss.

Thandi Ntuli with Carlos Niño
Rainbow Revisited

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)

The genesis of this laid-back session was Thandi Ntuli’s first live gig in L.A. That was when the Johannesburg-based pianist first collaborated with percussionist (and producer extraordinaire) Carlos Niño. It wasn’t long after that the seeds of Rainbow Revisited were planted. This music has the serenity of raindrops gently falling after the worst of the storm has passed—of sunlight dappling the trees at the height of autumn, of the comforting hush of a city still asleep as the sun inches up over the horizon. Ntuli’s vocals are set to lullaby mode, hitting that perfect balance of soothing and tuneful. Niño locks in perfectly, his percussion giving the impression of sounds carried along by a gentle breeze.

Sophie Tassignon

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)

German vocalist Sophie Tassignon hadn’t set out to record an album in Arabic. Her study of the language was borne from the desire to assist Syrian refugees who’d landed at a shelter near her home, and she took it upon herself to bring a little familiarity to people who had just arrived in a foreign land. Years later, and after an immersion into their culture, Tassignon brings together Arabic vocals and Belgian jazz, and the results are both sublime and enchanting. Tassignon’s voice commands attention, and the accompaniment of saxophonist Peter Van Huffel, guitarist Hub Hildenbrand, electric bassist Roland Fidezius, drummer Matthias Ruppnig, and guest trumpeter Lina Allemano brings a harmonic presence that’s like the sea swelling up into waves that crash the entire horizon line.

Joe Santa Maria
Echo Deep

Echo Deep is an endless succession of big reveals. Joe Santa Maria brings to light the album’s true core personality with a grand, sweeping gesture. The wind instrumentalist keeps at it as the album goes on, and the personality traits start to add up—it’s got a pulse not unlike electronic music, and harmonic cascades that are reminiscent of a chamber jazz recording. The ensemble kicks up some dust, like it’s a post-bop session, and mesmerize via melody, like heady post-rock. Gradually, it becomes evident that Echo Deep is far more complex than one succinct facet, its personality too deep to be identified with a solitary point of the finger. With a large ensemble of contributors on trumpets, reeds, trombones, strings, drums, bass, and guitar, Joe Santa Maria leaves his mark on 2023 with one of the year’s best releases.

Koma Saxo
Post Koma

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)

Petter Eldh’s talent for arranging live performances and studio sessions into entirely new sonic collages—cross-pollinating like a gardener building a new ecosystem from scratch—serves him (and us) well on Post Koma. Assisted by Koma Saxo band members—vocalist Sofia Jernberg and an army of woodwind instrumentalists via Jonas Kullhammar, Otis Sandsjö, Mikko Innanen, Maciej Obara, and drummer-percussionist Christian Lillinger—the Swedish bassist makes his studio calculations sound like spontaneous improvisations by the musicians in a live setting. The uptempo tunes are likely to garner the largest share of the applause, but those sighs of melody when the music settles into an easy saunter is the kind of stuff that feeds the heart.

Trond Kallevåg

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)

Place always sets the context for the music of Trond Kallevåg. The chosen patch of earth serving as an album’s theme traces the roots of its musical influence, with an eye toward sussing out the mythology from the historical details. The latest pin on the world’s map is America, framed in the context of the Norwegian migration to the States. With collaborators on strings, accordion, percussion, and harmonium, he brings the same potent serenity as he did the last time he drifted close to America’s shores—Kallevåg’s 2019 release, the dreamy Bedehus & Hawaii.

Jeremy Udden
Wishing Flower

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD)

I like how this album brings out a different element of Jeremy Udden’s music. I could spend years—actually, I have spent years—savoring his folk jazz recordings, music that is supremely peaceful even during those moments when dissonance creeps in or a collaboration leads to a shared vision. The saxophonist is also quite adept at channeling a more conventional post-bop sound, adding punch and muscle. Wishing Flower is a celebration of motion—the dance of fireflies, the skip and hop of children, of leaves drifting down to earth. It’s also one of electricity, with a clean charge and smooth flow. And while “Lullaby” shows us that Udden is always going to circle back to serenity, it’s a boundless energy that prevails on his latest. The alto saxophonist, who also utilizes a Lyricon wind synthesizer for this session, is joined by electric guitarist Ben Monder, acoustic bassist Jorge Roeder, and drummer Ziv Ravitz.

Ned Rothenberg
Crossings Four

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD)

The music of Crossings Four is a winding staircase, non-continuous, where some steps are merely implied, and gaps require a leap of faith. Ned Rothenberg, as always, finds like-kind birds of feather to see it through, enlisting an all-star cast of pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, guitarist Mary Halvorson, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. Melodies have a sinewy quality—a certain toughness that, while rough around the edges, imbues them with the appealing trait of endless potential shapes. From a rhythmic perspective, the sense is one where subtext drives meaning, and interpretation left to the listener is a gift, not a challenge.

Rob Clearfield
Ashes and Diamonds

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD), Sheet Music,

The theme of transformative changes is the foundation of Rob Clearfield’s latest. It falls naturally that this would also signal a change in his sound (a pronounced classical influence) and a change in presentation (a long-form suite, rather than individual pieces). It also makes sense the theme would be tethered to the pandemic, as it’s become common to view our lives now in stages of pre- and post-. This is especially relevant to this recording in light of the fact that Clearfield composed an essential component of the suite while laid up sick with the virus. Interludes of stillness and sudden surges of volatility mark the five-part suite—a characteristic that can be viewed as both symbolic and actual. Joining the pianist are alto saxophonist Greg Ward, bassist Sam Weber, and drummer Quin Kirchner. This also provides me the opportunity to remind listeners of Islands, Clearfield’s exquisite 2016 recording—an album I’m still enamored with all these years later.

Emma Johnson’s Gravy Boat
Northern Flame

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD), T-Shirt/Shirt

There are some cinematic flairs to Northern Flame—subtle, but resonant—and they imbue the music with a dreamy quality that makes modern straight-ahead sound like a whole new direction. Emma Johnson’s ensemble (which includes electric guitar, piano, double bass, and drums) sinks into the embrace of a melody like disappearing into a thick blanket on a winter morning, and it spends the entirety of a piece luxuriating in its harmonic warmth. The path often charted by the saxophonist’s quintet is one that speaks to the heart of the storyteller—some pieces flirt with an epic quality, like the way in which an album track nearly picks up where the previous one left off, and the impression that the flow of music was composed for the album as a whole rather than as a collection of individual pieces. Tangentially, one of my favorite Bandcamp Daily columns was The Merch Table, which highlighted the neat, curious, and oddball items retailed by artists. In the spirit of that column, I’ll gleefully point out that Emma Johnson has a gravy boat to sell you for all of your gravy needs. Outstanding.

Espen Berg
Water Fabric

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD)

Personally speaking, Water Fabric was quite unexpected. Not just conceptually, either, but in actual experience. I’ve always liked the music of Espen Berg. The pianist’s crisp melodicism and talent for making a solemn tone and a cheerful one seem like two sides of the same coin are pretty likable qualities. His voicing of the modern jazz trio—a blend of Nordic jazz and NYC-style post-bop—gave it a universal quality appropriate to any listener mood or moment in time. Even the guest spots from a trumpeter and tenor saxophonist that were layered into his typical piano-bass-drums line-up on 2022’s Fjære did little by way of shaking things up. So I didn’t blink when I got the promo for Berg’s latest and read the comment about a “new chamber jazz direction,” and a line-up built with that goal in mind. But the fullness of sound, the harmonic depth, and the melodic explorations of the pianist’s collaboration with trumpeter Hayden Powell, violinist Harpreet Bansal, violist Ellie Mäkelä, cellist Joakim Munkner, and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen will doubtlessly cause a sea change in opinion for what qualifies as Espen Berg’s “sound.” This music comes off as bigger than what one would expect from a quintet, and more delicate than what is typical except in a solo session. The heart of Berg’s melodicism can still be fathomed, but with a richness of expressionism that is as welcome a development as it is a surprising one.

Innanen, Pasborg, & Piromalli
Can You Hear It?

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD)

This session from the trio of Mikko Innanen (sopranino; alto and baritone saxophones; and oboe), Cedric Piromalli (Hammond organ), and Stefan Pasborg (drums) is a stiff shot of inside-out jazz, but where the inside falls more in 1960s soul jazz territory and the out in the modern fusion of the European scene. It’s an album that’s got an old soul and is quick with a smile.

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