Best New Jazz Albums of 2012


When I was putting together my best jazz albums of 2012 article, Ivo Perelman's productive year had him dominating the list, so I made him artist of the year and then compiled a separate top ten of new recordings and a top five of older recordings mostly given their first releases this year. There were still plenty of excellent jazz albums to choose from. Jazz isn't dead, it just has to live on a fixed income.

Artist of the Year: Ivo Perelman

Brazilian tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman's album The Hour of the Star was #18 on my Best New Jazz of 2011 list. He was just warming up for an amazing 2012 in which Leo Records released six -- SIX!!! -- Perelman CDs. All of them are excellent (and none of them, alas, are on iTunes yet).

Ivo Perelman/Matthew Shipp/Gerald Cleaver
The Foreign Legion
Ivo Perelman/Matthew Shipp/Whit Dickey
The Clairvoyant
Ivo Perelman/Matthew Shipp/Michael Bisio
The Gift
Perelman and Shipp (more from him below, by the way) have been working together at least since 1996, when they made the duo and trio albums that were where I first heard the saxophonist. It was Perelman's happiness with how The Hour of the Star (with Shipp, Joe Morris, and Cleaver) and their subsequent gigs turned out that inspired much of the spurt of creativity that gave us five of his six albums this year working with permutations of those players (with substitutions on two of these trio albums ). Both Perelman and Shipp have gone through much evolution since their first collaborations, and both bring more to the table now. Shipp's style has expanded, but there are still returns -- for instance, the magnificent full-toned bell chords that often ring out -- of the sound I first came to love over two decades ago. All of these albums are unfettered free jazz, created totally in the moment. Perelman is particularly adept at altissimo effects (playing in his instrument's highest register), but for all the honks and shrieks and bellows he unleashes, there's also a level of complete virtuosity involved that makes it clear that there's nothing cheap or random about his effects; it's as though, when he's wailing away up there, he's expressing microtonal melodies that are like condensed forms of the flurries of notes he lets fly in the tenor's middle register. (And now I see engineer Jim Clouse's note to The Clairvoyant: "The man practices Baroque trumpet exercises so that when playing two octaves about the end of the normal saxophone range, he can freely articulate any musical thought he hears.") The image that comes to mind when I try to characterize the difference between Cleaver and Dickey is that Cleaver paints in broad strokes and Dickey is a pointillist, but those are just generalizations; Dickey also deals in larger gestures and Cleaver also works on fine levels of detail (nowhere moreso than on "Paul Klee," the quietest track on The Foreign Legion). Nonetheless, it's not unfair to say that their respective inputs probably help to explain why The Foreign Legion and The Clairvoyant (recorded just months apart) sound so different, with the latter having a more intimate sound. As for Bisio, to me it sometimes sounds like he is taking the role of drummer; he will repeat a single note in a rhythmically pulsing manner that drives the trio just as a drummer would. That said, he can also "walk" in a free way (notably on the title track, which between Bisio and Shipp grooves more than anything else on any of these albums) or lay down a lush carpet of sound as bassists more normally do. There is certainly no energy lost from playing without a drummer on The Gift.
Ivo Perelman/Joe Morris/Gerald Cleaver
Living Jelly
Family Ties
You all probably know by now how much I like guitarist Joe Morris (who reappears lower down in this article). Living Jelly isquite a surprise; I think Morris play more chords here than throughout the rest of his recordings combined. They're rarely triads, though, and tend to be dissonant, and seemingly spur Perelman to especially fervid free improvisation. When Morris solos, he returns to the knotty, asymmetrical lines and rhythms he usually favors; when they solo simultaneously, it's positively orgasmic (not for nothing does Morris refer to Perelman in the booklet notes as "the passionate abstractionist"). Of course, Cleaver's a big part of the album's success as well, contributing complex, nearly indefinable pulses that energize the proceedings without settling into regular beats. Morris switches to double bass onFamily Ties, and without a chordal instrument, it sounds rather different both from and from 2011's The Hour of the Star, which included this trio plus Shipp. Perelman is much more to the fore, and has much more space in which to move. At times he even leaves much of that space open, and though this is, again, a freely improvised album, he allows his melodic side more play (of course, sometimes he also fills up all the space and goes wild). He also expands his timbre options by playing just the sax's mouthpiece at times, with surprising adeptness and pitch control, and throws in kazoo as well. Cleaver's contributions also have more room to stand out, though with much the same character as elsewhere.
Ivo Perelman with Sirius Quartet
The Passion According to G.H.
Sirius Quartet consists of Gregor Huebner and Fung Chern Hwel, violins; Ron Lawrence, viola; Jeremy Harman, cello. Seeing that he was working with a string quartet, I expected meant arrangements, music written in advance. Nope, everything here was improvised. It often doesn't sound like the string players are improvising, because their parts coordinate so well, but once I thought about it, that's sort of in the nature of string quartets. At times this feels like a duo album rather than a quintet, like the saxophonist is dueting with a single entity. This is all quite different in effect from the five albums above, not least in its completely different textural effect, and yet it arises from the same sort of creative spirit, a spirit that lately has been gushing forth from Perelman like an unstoppable force of nature.

Non-Perelman Top Ten New Recordings:

1. David S. Ware & Planetary Unknown: Live at Jazzfestival Saalfelden 2011 (AUM Fidelity)

When I reviewed this album on, Ware was still alive; if this was his swan song, he went out at the top of his game. As I wrote,"The infinitely inventive, always powerful Ware may seem to dominate (his solo after the six-minute mark of track 3 is especially haunting)...." Full review here.

2. Simon Nabatov: Spinning Songs of Herbie Nichols (Leo)

Others have paid tribute to Herbie Nichols before Nabatov. This speaks not of a lack of imagination on Nabatov's part; rather, Nichols was such a fine composer that one wonders why there haven't been more tributes. Well, considering how many crappy, uninspired tributes Thelonious Monk receives from musicians who seem to misunderstand what makes his music great and thus record albums from which all eccentricity has been bleached and all rough edges have been sanded down, maybe it's a blessing that only devoted fans who "get" what makes Nichols great devote themselves to his music for an album's time (or, in Nabatov's case, two albums, though with much the same repertoire). This album documents a 2007 solo concert by the Russian-born pianist, who clearly grasps the strengths of Nichols's compositions. He uses those strengths in two ways, either accentuating them or letting them fend for themselves – which, as he trusts, they can do -- as he uses them as launching pads for improvisations that can sound avant-garde or Impressionist. I have not heard such a stunningly imaginative album-length tribute from one jazzman to another since Giorgio Gaslini's Ayler's Wings (Soul Note) over twenty years ago. Also not on iTunes, but well worth seeking out.

3. Vijay Iyer Trio: Accelerando (ACT)

Speaking of Herbie Nichols, Iyer plays his "Wildflower" here, along with a Henry Threadgill tune and Duke Ellingto'sn rarely heard "The Village of the Virgins," along with even less expected material by electronica artist Flying Lotus and '70s R&B band Heatwave. Miles Davis beat him to "Human Nature," but Iyer makes it more intricate. The other five tracks are Iyer compositions, always welcome; he's managed to create a distinctive new style that merges the harmonies of modal jazz with the hypnotic pulse of electronica (perhaps via Minimalism) and the melodicism of indie rock. He's one of the most interesting pianists of his generation, working within a trio that's honed its interactions for years.

4. Matthew Shipp: Elastic Aspects (Thirsty Ear)

Shipp often plays in a ruminative style here, or at least quietly, including a track where he plays the strings inside the piano. Of course, he is still capable of thrilling eruptions of notes even at low volume, and he does amp up with the emphatic chords and clusters of "Explosive Aspects." Only three tracks last longer than 5 minutes; it's all about variety and contrasts, and as Shipp enters his third decade as a recording artist, he's built up such a wide range of approaches that he hardly repeats himself even conceptually (and certainly not in actual notes; he's one of the great free improvisers) across the album's kaleidoscopic development. As he teases his motivic kernels, probing them and gradually growing them into surprisingly resilient structures, the effect is of continual discovery. That he handles his materials with such a sense of brooding soul, though, is what makes the results so compelling.

5. Joe Morris/William Parker/Gerald Cleaver: Altitude (AUM Fidelity)

Morris is my favorite living jazz guitarist. This album catches him live one night last year at The Stone, creating long free improvisations with excellent collaborators. A bit surprisingly from such staunch avant-gardists (especially Morris), there are even moments that groove; these "free jazz" players retain the freedom to play whatever feels good, including tonality and beats on occasion. Despite the complexity of the music-making, its visceral impact easily carries listeners along on the journey the players are discovering and revealing in the moment.

6. Tim Berne: Snakeoil (ECM)

After a few projects with Michael Formanek on ECM, Berne gets his first album as a leader on the German label and uses it to debut a new group: himself on alto sax, Oscar Noriega on clarinet and bass clarinet, Matt Mitchell on piano, and Ches Smith on drums (no bass). I was sort of under the impression that Berne's productivity had slowed, but when I looked into it, it turned out he was just issuing albums I wasn't getting or hearing about, but a move onto ECM certainly helped that situation. And for that move, he made an ECM-ish album, more structured and less dense and frenzied than, for instance, his many albums with his Bloodcount band. There's a haunting quality to many of his themes here, and though he's playing more calmly, the angularity of his improvisations remains, and is even set into higher relief. Much of the coolness of the album comes from Mitchell's spare style on piano, but also from Smith's relative restraint and the timbres Noriega's clarinets lend the project. Here's hoping this gives Berne, one of New York's top saxophonists for over a quarter-century, the higher profile he deserves.

7. David Gilmore: Numerology: Live at Jazz Standard (Evolutionary)

It always bears repeating: New York jazz guitarist David Gilmore should not be confused with Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. The NYC Gilmore came out of the M-Base circle and has played everything from edgy pop music (with Me'shell N'Degeocello) and straight-ahead jazz (Wayne Shorter's band) to fusion (Lost Tribe), plus whatever you would call what drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson plays. He's got chops galore and is equally at home shredding or playing densely complex music. Hell, he shreds over densely complex music, which is what he often does here. The band on Numerology is pretty hot: alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon (how many jazz musicians get MacArthur "genius grants"? he did), pianist Luis Perdomo (Ravi's pianist, better check him out), bassist Christian McBride, drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, and occasionally wordless vocalist Claudia Acuna. Of course, to handle Gilmore's complex compositions -- in concert, I remind you -- they've gotta be hotshots. This is Polyrhythm City here, so Watts and McBride holding down the rhythm are especially crucial, and I've never liked Watts more than I do on this album. Most of all, I like Gilmore's compositions. You've heard of math-rock? This is math-jazz, which takes the concept way further in terms of both rhythm and virtuosity. Recommended just as much to prog-rock fans as to jazz fans.

8. Mike Stern: All Over the Place (Heads Up)

Speaking of fusion and guitarists, here's a smokin' album from one of the greats. The personnel vary from track to track; among the "names" are saxophonists Chris Potter and Kenny Garrett, trumpeter Randy Brecker, multi-keyboardist Jim Beard, guitarist Leni Stern, bassists Victor Wooten, Esperanza Spaulding, Dave Holland, Will Lee, Richard Bona, Anthony Jackson, and Victor Bailey; and drummers Dave Weckl and Al Foster. This is not one of Stern's more ambitious projects; it seems like he just went into the studio determined to rediscover the fun of classic late-'70s/early '80s fusion with groups of like-minded instrumental aces. Good plan.

9. The Cookers: Believe (Motema)

There's a sense of twilight on most tracks, which stylistically are firmly based in the intense and adventurous modal post-bop of the mid-'60s, a style which has aged so well that I'd even say it hasn't aged at all. I love this all-star band for featuring Billy Harper, one of the most underrated tenor saxophonists and jazz composers on the scene, and the other band members -- trumpeters Eddie Henderson and David Weiss, alto saxophonist Craig Handy, pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Billy Hart -- also make strong contributions. Unlike most all-star bands, this one focuses on the members' compositions, with intricate horn charts and no rote jams.

10. Ravi Coltrane: Spirit Fiction (Blue Note)

Ravi has come into his own in recent years, and this album in particular is stunningly assured and quietly enrapturing. Ravi rather understandably started out sounding somewhat like dad, but -- though his tone can still recall John's -- has arrived at a fairly different style that sounds like a mix of Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter melodically, and Steve Coleman rhythmically, a little. The album is split between two accompanying groups: his working quartet with pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer E.J. Strickland, and a reunion with the quintet on his second solo album from twelve years ago, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, pianist Geri Allen, bassist James Genus, and drummer Eric Harland. Fellow saxophonist and new labelmate Joe Lovano guests on two tracks that speak of interesting possible influences: Ornette Coleman's "Check Out Time" and Paul Motian's "Fantasm." Moody, shadowy, prone to counterpoint, this is a darkly compelling album.

Top Five Historical Recordings:

I think it's not fair to contemporary artists to make them compete (even if only on some stranger's list) with decades' worth of past giants, and it also says nothing useful about 2012 to have a Miles Davis album atop the list. So even though (aside from two-thirds of #4) the below recordings were released for the first time this year (officially; the Miles stuff's been bootlegged before), I'm sequestering them here. But, needless to say, they are too good, and brought me too much joy in 2012, to go unnoted.

1. Miles Davis Quintet: Live in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series vol. 1 (Columbia Legacy)

To quote a few pieces of my review in The Big Takeover, "This three-CD/one-DVD set documents five concert sets, across an 11-day period, by one of the greatest bands in jazz history, Miles's group with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams. Though the same four compositions…in the same order start all three of the shows on the CDs, in no other way do these guys repeat themselves; the pieces are different every time.... And since all of these concerts were recorded for radio or TV broadcast, the sound quality is far above normal bootleg level."

2. Keith Jarrett/Jan Garbarek/Palle Danielsson/Jon Christensen: Sleeper: Tokyo, April 16, 1979 (ECM)

Jarrett's "European Quartet" captured "live" is a considerably more passionate and freewheeling experience than on its studio albums, which were hardly cold and stilted to begin with. No surprise, then, that ECM has repeatedly documented the group's Spring 1979 tour, first with Nude Ants, then with Personal Mountains, and now with this two-CD set, which like Personal Mountains was recorded in Tokyo. Of course, the repertoire overlaps, but in concert, they stretched out so much ("Personal Mountains" is 21 minutes, "Oasis" is 28 minutes, and everything except "New Dance" is in the 10- to 15-minute range) and took so many chances (including Garbarek playing some kind of flute, perhaps something ethnic and wooden) that, like the Miles Davis group above (and, of course, Jarrett played with Davis), they don't repeat themselves. They are very different, though, especially when Garbarek plays soprano sax with his uniquely keening tone and strong sense of melodicism. Even when the volume, density, and rhythmic heat are lowered, as on the aptly named "Oasis," there's a penetrating intensity to their interactions that's absolutely riveting. For some reason this band never released anything recorded after 1979, so this catches it at its magnificent peak.

3. Frank Wright Quartet: Blues for Albert Ayler (ESP-Disk')

Frank "The Reverend" Wright was one of the most powerful avant-garde saxophonists to come out of the '60s, which is saying something. This 1974 Wright gig's a rarity in that it took place in the United States --  his only released U.S. recording between his second ESP-Disk' album in 1967 and a 1978 cameo on a Hannibal album. It's quite the freewheeling affair. The fiery power of this set with guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer, drummer Rashied Ali, and bassist Benny Wilson is astounding. Recorded at Rashied Ali's club, Ali's Alley, it has the welcome sonic clarity we've come to appreciate from that venue, so don't worry that this is some dimly recorded bootleg-quality release. Full review here.

4. Terje Rypdal: Odyssey: In Studio & in Concert (ECM)

When ECM first issued Odyssey on CD, it was as a single disc that omitted the album's last and longest track, "Rolling Stone." This year, ECM answered 18 years' worth of fans' prayers with this three-CD set, on which the long-missing "Rolling Stone" is restored to its rightful place and we get a third CD with a previously unreleased big band session. Full review here.

5. Magico: Carta de Amor (ECM)

Magico was the trio of Norwegian soprano saxophonist Jan Garbarek, Brazilian guitarist/pianist Egberto Gismonti, and American bassist Charlie Haden, heard in concert in April 1981 on the previously unreleased two-CD Carta de Amor. It's more intimate and contemplative experience than Garbarek's work a couple of years earlier with Jarrett (above), but just as intense in its own way. They do occasionally work up sweat, as on Gismonti's "Cego Aderaldo," and there is plenty of variety across the over two hours of music here. Aside from a lengthy workout on Garbarek's "Spor," his pieces here are folk-song arrangements, though non-Norwegians will probably not recognize them. Gismonti's the dominant composer here, and there's a quietly edgy quality to his compositions that keeps attentive listeners from feeling too comfortable no matter how beautiful his intricate fingerpicking guitar parts get. Haden adds a certain aching soulfulness with his two pieces and with his sensitive, rich bass base. Their multi-national collaboration is an undeniable example, though, of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here. He has occasionally done some work for ESP-Disk', though not during the period when the Frank Wright album above was issued; nonetheless, consider yourself warned of this conflict of interest.