For the past few years, our introduction to this annual tradition has followed a familiar theme: It’s been a tough year, but the city’s musicians — and the recordings they’ve put out — have given us reason for hope and proof of resilience.
Now, almost four years after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, we can confidently say that the scene has bounced back — although it has been profoundly changed. Stalwart venues like Jojo and Takoma Station continue to present this music multiple nights a week; some old haunts have managed to keep the beat going even after changing ownership; and all the while artists have kept on finding new rooms to claim for jazz, setting up weekly residencies at spots like The Artemis on 14th Street NW and Morgana Wine Bar in Adams Morgan
This is a wide-open and exciting moment for jazz and creative music nationwide — and in D.C., many creative flowers are in bloom. Maybe the best way to measure the breadth of what’s happening on the scene is by surveying the crop of recordings released by DMV-based bandleaders in the past 12 months. So many great records were released, this was probably the toughest year yet for us to put together this list. There were simply too many captivating, imaginative and compelling recordings to consider. The level of artistic quality on this scene has rarely been higher.
So let’s take a moment to shout out some of the very-worthy records that are not on the list below. Guitarist Anthony Pirog released two excellent albums: BEAT tm, a hypo-industrial solo album, and The Nepenthe Series Vol. 1, a series of ambient duets with fellow guitarists and electronic musicians, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante and the Police’s Andy Summers. Nataly’s Jazz on Bones, a bracing and fervid record by violinist Nataly Merezhuk, borrows from the French “hot jazz” of Stephane Grapelli, the protest-music traditions of Russia and beyond. And DuPont Brass, D.C.’s answer to the New Orleans brass band tradition, last month released a joyful holiday album, A DuPont Holiday. Over on the Baltimore scene (which we frequently cover on CapitalBop, and whose albums are always considered in this year-end poll), pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn teamed up with drummer Ryan Sawyer and clarinetist Patrick Holmes on From Union Pool, a tone-smearing live set of energizing free improvisation.
Scroll on for the top five D.C. jazz albums of 2023, which were chosen by an eight-voter panel of DMV-based music critics, scholars and advocates. Further down, you’ll find a long list of “honorable mentions,” as well as information on how the vote was conducted.
Happy holidays, happy listening, and happy New Year!
5. Blacks’ Myths, ‘For Mdou’
Blacks’ Myths deliver another mind-bending audio adventure with the short-and-succinct For Mdou. This twenty-minute, single-song offering features longtime collaborators Luke Stewart (bass, electronics) and Warren “Trae” Crudup III (drums) conjuring a realm of dreamlike sounds over spirited, percussive phrases. The piece opens with Stewart’s bass playing via distorted static pedal, rendering an eerie yet regal anthem of echoed, mysterious sounds. Crudup’s intentional cymbal work and percolating percussion pair well with the swelling of Stewart’s electronic improvisation.
Throughout the piece, Stewart’s whirring and vibrational expressions take on lives of their own — seemingly ushering additional characters into this abstract commentary. The two players’ contributions, occupying the same space, are similar yet opposite, heightening the listening experience. While Stewart’s instrumental dialogue is trancelike and fluttering, Crudup’s percussive voice is distinctive and outlined. For Mdou is a riveting conversation between two masterful instrumentalists that warrants repeated listening and further exploration.
Disclosure: Luke Stewart is CapitalBop’s co-founder and Director of Presenting; he did not participate in this vote, nor in writing this article.
4. The Howard University Jazz Ensemble, ‘Nefertiti’
For nearly 50 years, the Howard University Jazz Ensemble — still under the leadership of its founder, Prof. Fred Irby III — has served as a training ground for some of the finest jazz musicians in the world. The group’s commitment to musical excellence is beautifully reflected on Nefertiti, its newest album, offered as a tribute to the recently departed saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter.
With a lineup including current students, alumni like bassist Eliot Seppa and tenor saxophonist Antonio Parker, and other D.C. luminaries like trombonist Greg Boyer, the tracks on Nefertiti channel Shorter’s vibrant harmonies and dynamic melodic development, which garnered him a reputation as one of the preeminent composers in jazz. The ensemble artfully handles the subtle complexities in the music. On the title track, for example, the woodwinds and the brass treat Ron Horton’s lush arrangement like runners trading spots in a race, rising and falling through one another, all the while punctuated by melodic peaks and well-placed strikes of a vibraphone or triangle. On Thelonious Monk’s “Green Chimneys,” the angular chords soaring upwards, with the thrust of all those horns, shine like starlight in the cosmos.
Note: This album is not available for sale or streaming online. Anyone interested in buying the LP should contact Prof. Fred Irby at [email protected].
3. Christie Dashiell, ‘Journey In Black’
This is not music for gatekeepers. Journey in Black offers sound as a reward. As a paean to Christie Dashiell’s Blackness, it is return. We march through ancestral rhythm and melody, guttural and heavy with memory and potential.
The world of “jazz” is often more attuned to conservatism. Over there, the expectation is that artists must master standards, to the delight of the purists. Dashiell, of course, is more than capable of interpreting the songbook in new and exciting ways (which she also does here). Yet it is her work as composer that shines the brightest throughout this record. From the melodies to the spoken word, she is creator of a new standard. And that’s what is so rewarding. Over nine tunes, seven of them originals, Dashiell invites us to consider the depth of who we are even as we experience the travails of love, the moments of reprieve and solace we may or may not find in each other, guided by a spirit of vulnerability. As she intones on “Grief,” the point is to access the depth of truth. This is not music for gatekeepers; this voice is an opening.
–– Joshua Myers
2. Stephen Arnold and Sea Change, ‘Until Now’
With the release of Until Now, Stephen Arnold solidifies his reputation in D.C. as a first-call bassist, composer and bandleader. Though Arnold and his band Sea Change have performed together for several years (their debut release was featured in CapitalBop’s roundup of 2020’s best D.C. jazz albums), this sophomore record is elevated by a fruitful collaboration between Arnold and Sarah Marie Hughes (on saxophones). In the album notes, Arnold writes, “Until Now is a retelling of Sarah’s and my story from December 2021 to October 2022.” The resulting sound is delicately immersed in a range of compelling sonic spaces.
On the opening track, “Kindred,” Arnold and Hughes establish their bona fides as improvisers while setting a meditative, heartbeat-like pulse; this blends seamlessly into “True Love,” the most tender track on the record. On “Sarah’s Steps” Hughes demonstrates her vitality to the group’s more developed sound, with an extended solo beautifully accompanied by Federico Gonzalez Peña’s piano. Two of Arnold’s bandmates from ¡FIASCO! — guitarist Nelson Doughtery and drummer Keith Butler Jr. — join Peña to anchor the group with unyielding clarity and dynamic sensitivity throughout.
–– Lyla Maisto
1. Lafayette Gilchrist, ‘Undaunted’
Thirty-one seconds into Undaunted’s eponymous opener, and there it is: that distinctive go-go beat, courtesy of conguero Kevin Pinder. D.C. in the house, y’all.
It recurs at some point on all of pianist, experimenter and native Washingtonian Lafayette Gilchrist’s albums. But Undaunted doubles down on that groove-centricity, offering a feast of Latin and earthy soul rhythms — from the hard-edged bounce of “Undaunted” to the rumbling clave ostinato of “Into the Swirl” to the ribald salsa of “Metropolitan Musings (Them Streets Again).” It’s music to listen to with your feet.
That, of course, is a DMV specialty, and Gilchrist achieves it with help from some of the finest musicians D.C. and Baltimore can muster. He supplements his brilliant working trio (bassist Herman Burney and drummer Eric Kennedy) with percussionist Pinder, another regular collaborator; tenor saxophonist and stylistic chameleon Brian Settles, whose soulful solo on “Undaunted” is one of his finest on record; and trombonist Christian Hizon, whose capacity to find gorgeous introspection shines in “Ride It Out.” Gilchrist feeds ravenously upon these inspirations and seems able to channel them all at once into his own solos. His work on “Metropolitan Musings” is a masterclass of meditation, derring-do, and hook after danceable hook. If D.C. has its way, Undaunted suggests, these ‘20s are going to be roaring, too.
- Sarah Marie Hughes, Zara: sonic experiments guided by this saxophonist and multimedia artist
- Alex Hamburger, What If?: nine new, original songs from a young flutist and vocalist
- Erin Connelly Quartet, Fruitful: patient, swelling, swooping group improvisations by a chordless quartet
- Veronneau, Live at Blues Alley: crowd-pleasing alchemists of cool jazz, bossa nova and folk, at a familiar stomping ground
- Luke Stewart Remembrance Quintet, Do You Remember: a haunted, shivery album devoted to intergenerational exchange and embodied memory**
- Idol Beings, Universe: vocalist Akua Allrich and bassist Kris Funn continue their musical partnership**
- Tyson, Domestic Sunsets: ambient textures and slow sonic migrations
- Janel Leppin, The Brink: a solo record from D.C.’s most renowned improvising cellist
- Bobby Muncy, Bad Reception: full-blooded jazz-rock fusion by a longtime D.C. saxophonist and composer
- Alison Crockett, Echoes of an Era Redux: My Fathers Record Collection Vol. 1: a live set by the world-traveled vocalist, stitching together classic jazz fare and childhood recollections
- Warren Wolf, Chano Pozo: Origins: blazing post-bop and Latin jazz from the Baltimore-based vibraphone star
- Mark G. Meadows, Only Time: feel-good soul fusion, tightly rendered and smoothly sung
- Abe Mamet Ensemble, The Thing We Fought For: somatic soundings from a nine-piece group of free improvisers**
** Disclosure: Stewart is CapitalBop’s co-founder and director of presenting; Allrich is a CapitalBop board member; and Mamet is CapitalBop’s assistant editor. None of them played any part in selecting these albums, nor in writing or editing these reviews.
The list above was compiled using a ranked-choice voting system by a panel of eight CapitalBop contributors and close observers of the D.C. jazz scene, all of whom voted by secret ballot: Kelsye Adams, Keanna Faircloth, Majeedah Johnson, Lyla Maisto, Joshua Myers, Giovanni Russonello, Jackson Sinnenberg and Michael J. West. The ranking is an exact reflection of the tallied vote. Each album in the “honorable mentions” category received at least one vote from at least one panelist.
The members of CapitalBop’s core staff who double as working musicians — Luke Stewart, a co-founder and director of presenting; Jamie Sandel, our creative media lead; and Abe Mamet, our assistant editor — did not participate in the voting process.
Cover image by Jamie Sandel