Best New Jazz/Improvised Music Albums of 2011

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This is the point at which I'm supposed to ponder the immediate present and near future of jazz and improvised music. Not gonna do it. No matter how dire the straits of the music industry, changing distribution and presentation, etc., this music will continue to be made because it has to be made, and artists feel compelled to keep it going despite travails. It's all about the music and its amazing power for catharsis, its ability to lift us and inspire us. So without further ado, here's what inspired me most in 2011.

1. Richie Beirach: Impressions of Tokyo (Outnote)

I was going to call this a comeback, but Beirach (above) hasn't exactly been gone, certainly not as far as recordings are concerned -- he's had 18 released under his name in the past 11 years, plus collaborations (one of those appears further down this list). I guess I think of it as a comeback because it's actually physically available here, unlike so many of the other 17; he hasn't had a release on a U.S. label since 1997, but at least Outnote (from France) shows up even in non-specialist stores. Anyway, this is a great, great album. There's a certain self-contained poise in Beirach's solo work that casts a special aura, perhaps because by himself his exquisite Impressionist harmonies and nobly elegant melodic sense can achieve their most unfettered expression. I haven't heard any more lyrical pieces from this year than "Haiku 2 - Butterfly" and "Haiku 12 - Shibumi." There's more to this album than prettiness, though. "Togashi-san" is a dark lament for the late Masahiko Togashi, a brilliant drummer (with whom Beirach worked on multiple occasions) who passed away in 2007. Other tracks are freer, more Expressionist than Impressionist; "Haiku 3 - Cherry Blossom Time" and "Haiku 11 - Tragedy in Sendai" recall Henry Cowell. In his four-decade career he's made several of the greatest solo piano albums in jazz history; this ranks with them and might even be my new favorite.

2. Matthew Shipp: Art of the Improviser (Thirsty Ear Blue Series)

Considering that Shipp is the greatest pianist of his generation and puts out at least an album a year, I don't write about him nearly often enough, or at sufficient length to do justice to the originality of his musical vision. He's always evolving; he has never been comfortable sitting still, finding a style and repeating himself. I'm always trying to catch up with him. Well, this two-CD set (one disc solo, one trio) finds him pausing just long enough to let me -- and perhaps a few of you as well -- catch up ever so briefly. That's no accident, I'm sure, as the title is something of a proclamation. Not "the art of the piano trio," or of any instrument, but of improvisation itself. It made me realize that there's a meta thing going on with him: Shipp improvises not only within a style, as so many do; he improvises his styles as well. He turned 50 last year, and as a summing up of his achievement so far, this album is a superb milestone.

3. Planetary Unknown: s/t (AUM Fidelity)

This new and, I hope, ongoing quartet consists of saxophonist David S. Ware, pianist Cooper-Moore, bassist William Parker, and drummer Muhammad Ali. All but the older Ali, who's from the first generation of free jazz players, have worked together for many years on the New York scene, and everyone meshes intuitively on this set of free improvisation. The later Ware/Ali duo track looks back to the duo album Ali's brother, drummer Rashied Ali, made with Coltrane. There are moments of invigorating energy, but also quietly beautiful passages, notably Cooper-Moore's crepuscular musing near the end of the 20-minute first track and his lyrical solo introducing the fourth track (it brings great joy hearing him back on his best instrument), followed by Ware's sopranino solo and then by beautiful duo interactions. Even though these guys are making it up as they go along, there is never any disjointedness or hesitation; these veterans organize their thoughts organically, instantly composing at speeds faster than thought. It's an approach that carries great risks, but with players such as these, even greater rewards, and everything works to perfection throughout this album. More Ware below.

4. Miles Davis Quintet: Live in Europe 1967 (Columbia Legacy)

This three-CD/one-DVD set, promisingly subtitled The Bootleg Series Vol. 1, captures one of Miles's greatest bands, perhaps THE greatest: the quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, three years after its formation and one before its dissolution. That we are given five concerts within an eleven-day period, with much the same material played each night, is no indication of redundancy; these guys made the material fresh every time out by practically reinventing it with their unbounded creativity, Shorter and Hancock in particular. This band's style reached the apex of jazz complexity. Don't pass this up thinking it's just for completist geeks. It's for anyone who wants to experience in-the-moment art at the highest level of imagination.

5. Tyshawn Sorey: Oblique-1 (Pi)

The young band -- alto saxophonist Loren Stillman, electric and acoustic guitarist Todd Neufeld, acoustic and Fender Rhodes pianist Jon Escreet, bassist Chris Tordini, and the leader on drums -- is excellent, but it's Sorey's knotty compositions with their elliptical melodies, sidelong harmonies, and asymmetrical rhythms that make this such a rewarding listen. This perfectly titled album is so much more than a "drummer's album" – there is even a solo sax track – and so much more than the sum of Sorey's more famous gigs (with Dave Douglas's Nomad, with Steve Coleman & Five Elements, with Anthony Braxton, with Vijay Iyer, and the list goes on and on); it's got so many moments of quiet beauty that even my non-jazzbo wife enjoys it.

6. David S. Ware: Organica (Solo Saxophones, Vol. 2) (AUM Fidelity)

This 77-minute CD contains two complete sets, and perhaps that is the way to listen: they are separate and complete experiences (each with one improvisation on sopranino and another on tenor), and the level of concentration required to follow along is high. There's a lack of comfort in this solo setting not only for the player, who can never slacken because there's nobody alongside him to pick up the slack, but also for the listener, who does not get to shift focus from one player/timbre to the next. There's no relaxing. I guess it's no news flash that an album of solo sax by a free improviser isn't easy listening. But it sure is engrossing. First of all, there's the sheer virtuosity of Ware's playing. He's a master, easily one of the top five living saxophonists. Part of that is the unceasing flow of inventiveness; it's not just that he can play so well, it's that on the spur of the moment he can keep coming up with fascinating ideas non-stop. And in this context, of course, it's that those ideas work without any accompaniment; they can stand alone. It's not just command of notes (or sequences of notes), but also timbre and articulation that lend a sense of variety, absolutely crucial to such an enterprise. In a way, the level of achievement here, given the difficulty and rarity of what's being attempted, is greater than anything on this list, including all the items listed above it.

7. Miles Davis: Bitches Brew Live (Columbia Legacy)

The material from Bitches Brew sounds very different in concert because rather than the expanded group he used in the studio, we get a quartet on the three tracks (24 minutes) from the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival (Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette; stuck in traffic, Wayne Shorter missed the concert) and a septet at the Isle of Wight the following year (Gary Bartz, Corea, Keith Jarrett, Holland, DeJohnette, and Airto Moreira). The previously unreleased (which is why I include this album here among otherwise new stuff) quartet set's smokin', and without Wayne, Miles has to play more often, always good news, and Corea feels compelled to fill in the textures with more notes, which sounds great in that context. Unfortunately, Holland's upright bass is often buried in the mix. This was solved in 1970 by his move to electric bass, which is one of the things that moved the music further towards heavy rock and funky R&B. Bartz is a very different player than Shorter, more acerbic and direct, more willing to go "outside." Jarrett's on organ, and with that filling the texture, Corea lays back more, making for an interestingly volatile dynamic that yields some thrilling clashes and complementary duels thanks to their contrasting timbres and rhythmic attacks. The generally intense, densely roiling septet occasionally has its thickness trimmed back in spacier passages, with Jarrett making his organ sound like a gritty synthesizer at times; Miles gets into some call-and-response with the keyboards; the level on which this by then finely honed band interacts is practically supernatural. This longer set was previously available complete only as part of a huge box set of Davis's complete Columbia recordings. This release is no mere appendix; it easily stands on its own as offering valid, stimulating alternatives in this repertoire.

8. Sonny Rollins: Road Shows Vol. 2 (Doxy/Emarcy)

Using a guitarist (Russell Malone on four tracks, Jim Hall on one) instead of a pianist spares us Sonny's odd preference in tinny keyboard timbre (compare Stephen Scott's sound on his own albums to his sound with Rollins). And that the track with Ornette Coleman forgoes any chording instrument, and also includes the equally ageless Roy Haynes on drums and, for all you purists who wish Bob Cranshaw didn't play electric bass, Christian McBride on acoustic. Trumpeter Roy Hargrove sits in on two other tracks. Is our hero's technical acumen what it used to be? Nope, but when you're as great as Rollins, that still leaves you plenty to work with. Certainly he's mellowed a tad, but his playing still flows with inspiring imagination. Cherish him.

9. Dave Liebman/Richie Beirach: Unspoken (Outnote)

Beirach and Liebman have been recording together since 1974, in bands and as a duo; this occasion is the latter, their sixth duo album. After a long time playing soprano saxophone exclusively, Liebman (who also plays wooden flute on one track here) made a welcome return to the tenor a few years ago (while still of course continuing to excel on soprano), and his tenor playing here is beautifully rhapsodic -- Beirach does bring out that side of him. There are also many profoundly emotional pieces, especially the closing track, which combines two Liebman themes, "Hymn for Mom" and "Prayer for Mike" (the late Michael Brecker, that is), so there's plenty of intensity to be heard. The high level of spontaneous, instantaneous interplay here is the very essence of jazz.

10. James Farm: s/t (Nonesuch)

James Farm is saxophonist Joshua Redman, keyboardist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer Eric Harland. Judging by the composer credits, it's a fairly democratic band: one for the drummer, three each for the rest. Despite that, and despite Redman being the biggest name by far, to me it revolves around Parks and his array of keyboards (acoustic piano, tack piano, celeste, pump organ, Fender Rhodes, Hammond organ); his deployment of timbres and his harmonic sensibility set the tone on most tracks. That said, Redman also shines (it's great to hear him taking chances in a more adventurous setting) and that's a heckuva rhythm section, and the writing is excellent; complex music that goes down easy.

11. Farmers by Nature: Out of This World's Distortions (AUM Fidelity)

The second album by this trio of drummer Gerald Cleaver, bassist William Parker, and pianist Craig Taborn opens with a beautifully moving elegy, "For Fred Anderson," dedicated to the memory of the great Chicago saxophonist who had died the previous day. For that track alone I would rank this as one of the year's best albums. It is nearly matched by the closing track, "Mud, Mapped," on which Parker bows a keening melody while Cleaver lays down a ritualistic rhythm on toms and Taborn intermittently strikes glinting tone clusters. Eventually it becomes more complex as additional patterns are interwoven, building hypnotic power. Like much of the music on this album, it is built around simple components that when combined exude a magical communal power that surpasses and transcends virtuoso display. This group wields a special alchemy.

12. Shift: Songs from Aipotu (Leo)

Shift consists of Frank Gratkowski (alto sax, clarinet, bass clarinet), Thomas Lehn (analog synthesizer), Philip Zoubek (piano), Dieter Manderscheid (acoustic bass), and Martin Blume (drums/percussion). They play freely improvised music that may or may not be "jazz" but is certainly exceptionally colorful music. Sometimes they are seemingly concerned only with timbre and, perhaps, free rhythm, making sonic sculptures that frequently involve using their instruments in non-traditional ways; the vast array of noises Gratkowski deploys is especially impressive, and Lehn wins the prize for "Wildest Jazz Synth Since Herbie Hancock and Dr. Patrick Gleeson in Mwandishi." At other times, especially when everybody plays, it sounds more like "traditional" free jazz; occasionally Gratkowski will even play a genuinely tuneful melody. All of these extremes can be found in the epic opening track, "introduction," which at 39:37 is nearly two-thirds of the album. Dynamics and textural density vary as widely as the timbres; there's more of a sense of an anything-can-happen than in most free jazz. If you aren't one of those people who insists on harmony and melody all the time, or a beat ever, you may find this just as compelling as I do.

13. Eli Keszler: Oxtirn (ESP-Disk')

Some would say it's a breach of journalistic ethics for me to include this here, because I handled the publicity for it, but damn it, it's too good to leave off. Quoting my PR: Keszler's ESP-Disk' debut and most widely distributed album after prolifically self-releasing micro-edition CDRs, tapes, and vinyl via his label REL Records. On Oxtirn, Keszler plays drums, guitar, piano, prepared piano, motors, cymbal, crotales (bowed and unbowed), snare drum, prepared/riveted sheet metal, spring harp, bass board, and microphones. He's joined by clarinetist Ashley Paul (his partner in Aster) on two tracks, plus Andrew Fenlon (trumpet, tuba, French horn, trombone) and Sakkiko Mori (prepared piano) on one track each. There are few musical analogies to what Keszler is doing here. It might sound like freely improvised noise, but it's actually meticulously organized – and if you don't believe it, you can check out his graphical-notation score for all three tracks, included on a six-panel fold-out. The Italian Futurists of the 1920s would have loved this magnificent din, so full of startling timbres and arresting textural combinations, like a cross between Xenakis and free jazz.

14. Donald Harrison/Ron Carter/Billy Cobham: This Is Jazz: Live at the Blue Note (Half Note)

Harrison is no "young lion" anymore; his recording career is now a quarter century long. But the alto saxophonist has earned the right to the exclusive company he's been keeping in this three-generation trio, now on its third album together. Needless to say, Harrison respects his elders enough that this is an equal collaboration, not a sax showcase. Two-thirds of the program is Carter-related: two of his compositions, plus "Seven Steps to Heaven" (the longest track), which he of course played while in Miles Davis's quintet., and a riveting five-minute solo bass version of "You Are My Sunshine." The program continues with an obligatory but always welcome ballad, "I Can't Get Started," and closes with Harrison's funky nod to his New Orleans roots, "Treme Swagger." Carter's at the top of his game, with his agility and perfect time undiminished and his intonation and tuning, occasionally a slight problem in the past, mostly top-notch here. Cobham, in this relatively straight-ahead context, grooves hard while also displaying dexterous polyrhythms. He drives "Treme Swagger" so masterfully, he almost steals the piece from its composer (the double-stop slides Carter throws in are pretty awesome as well), but Harrison's at his most fluidly creative on his solo here -- this track is the highlight of the album. While Harrison is not as much of an innovator as the bassist and drummer, "Treme Swagger" shows his distinctive style moving jazz into the 21st century. Elsewhere he's fully conversant in their styles, his energy and enthusiasm -- combined, of course, with his considerable adeptness -- is positively infectious, and the little classic quotes that he occasionally drops into his solos are endearing. This album is too much fun to resist.

15. Tom Harrell: The Time of the Sun (HighNote)

Trumpeter/flugelhornist Harrell, now a grizzled veteran, makes consistently interesting albums. His compositions (he wrote everything here) are quite original in a distinctive funky, slightly fusiony post-bop style. The title track in particular is a masterpiece; most immediately striking are what sound like synthesizer riffs, but are actually "recordings of the musical harmonies produced by the magnetic field in the outer atmosphere of the sun"; it's also built on a 12-note bassline, yet sounds vaguely modal nonetheless; it's got a funky groove enhanced by Fender Rhodes. Fortunately Harrell's working quintet of five years with Wayne Escoffery (tenor sax), Danny Grissett (piano, Fender Rhodes), Ugonna Okegwo (bass), and Johnathan Blake (drums) have strong enough personalities, matched with familiarity with the music and each other, to grant the flavorful compositions their full-bodied due in characterful, seamlessly realized interpretations.

16. Umberto Petrin: A Dawn Will Come (Leo)

This Italian pianist has not made much of a mark in the U.S., though some may know him as a member of the slightly more famous Italian Instabile Orchestra, or as sideman to Lee Konitz, Steve Lacy, and other luminaries. He is just as free a player in the solo role he takes here as in the IIO, but as this CD shows, will occasionally throw in a little lyrical songcraft a la Keith Jarrett, a brooding bit of bluesiness reminiscent of Paul Bley or Dave Burrell, and, on the final track, a rollicking interpretation of Monk's "San Francisco Holiday." Recommended to fans of adventurous pianism that frequently crosses stylistic boundaries.

17. Cedar Walton: The Bouncer (HighNote)

Lest you think I have no love for good ol' bebop, here's an excellent session led by a mainstay of the New York scene since the late '50s. Now 77 years old, he's not only a superb pianist, he's an excellent composer, and one of the joys of this effervescent album is hearing his six originals. He also plays "Lament" by J.J. Johnson, whose group he joined in 1959, and "Got to Get to the Island" by David Williams, the bassist on this swinging album. If not quite an all-star group, this is at least a bunch of guys who have all finished paying their dues and established respected reputations. Drummer Willie Jones III rounds out the core trio; Vincent Herring (alto and tenor sax, flute) plays on five tracks, trombone star Steve Turre plays on two of the tracks, and Ray Mantilla adds percussion on "Underground Memoirs," a bossa that includes Turre and Herring; the trio tracks are the aforementioned "Lament" and "Willie's Groove," written in honor of Jones and giving everybody in the rhythm section time to shine. Still sounding fresh and unhackneyed, Walton and friends are as good as bebop gets nowadays.

18. Ivo Perelman Quartet: The Hour of the Star (Leo)

This reunites the leader with two greats he's recorded with before: pianist Matthew Shipp, who was on several of Perelman's '90s albums, and bassist Joe Morris, with whom Perelman made a duo album on Leo. The quartet here is rounded out by Shipp's frequent collaborator Gerald Cleaver (drums). Multi-instrumentalist Perelman sticks to his main axe, tenor sax; while he has never quite developed a fully distinctive voice on it in a pure free jazz context (though, on other records, his mixture of free jazz and Brazilian folk melodies has been striking), he more than compensates with fiery, passionate intensity. That intensity serves him well in this setting. Given the ferocious energy here, and the fact that the music is jointly credited to all four men, I'm assuming this is all freely improvised. In a blindfold test, the title track (and moments of other tracks) could be mistaken for the old David S. Ware Quartet; certainly Shipp reverts to the familiar and much-loved big sound he featured for so long in that context, though Cleaver offers a bit more of a regular groove than many of Ware's drummers (to call him "not a muscular drummer," as Fabricio Vieira does in the booklet notes, is odd -- Cleaver has all the power he needs, but only uses it when appropriate). Since the Ware Quartet is one of my favorite groups ever, I'm not complaining, just making an observation -- and gladly welcoming the magnificent results. Perelman is a bit more his own man on some other tracks, especially "The Right to Protest," a relatively short duo with Shipp, and the quieter, elliptical "Whistling in the Dark Wind," which puts a lot more space between the notes outside of its ferocious middle section.

19. William Parker: Crumbling in the Shadows Is Fraulein Miller's Stale Cake (Centering)

Yup, I'm including a three-CD set of solo bass improvisations (the third disc is a reissue of his album Testimony, recorded in 1994). Of course, if there's anyone who can make that format fascinating, it's the endlessly inventive Parker, long the bassist of choice on the N.Y.C. free jazz scene. This is also the only album I list here whose booklet is a major attraction; Parker's also an excellent writer, and the poetry, stories, and vignettes in the 48-page booklet range from mystical proclamations to warm humor to fictionalized ruminations on the essence and necessity of improvised music.

20. Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra Featuring Lew Takackin: Last Live in Blue Note Tokyo (Wounded Bird)

True, this came out in 2004 on Warner Japan, but not until 2011 did this eclectic reissue label make it available in the U.S. It has been decades since Akiyoshi received her due in the U.S., alas, in spite of having lived here since the '50s. (RCA, please reissue her classic '70s LPs! Yeah, that'll happen. If we're lucky, they'll at least license them out.) My inclusion of this item is partly a protest of that neglect, but it's also because it's excellent music. Akiyoshi was the last great jazz composer to primarily concentrate on the big band format, drawing on Ellingtonian precedents modernized with a personal style of extreme harmonic richness (not too modern, though -- she rarely ventures into extensive dischord, and only programmatically; none of that is included here), and with elements of Japanese music occasionally added. Alas, after the concerts this album is drawn from, she disbanded the orchestra. One of its features was the constant presence of her husband, tenor saxophonist and flutist Lew Tabackin, whose warmth radiates from every solo but is especially distinctive when he plays flute, so rarely featured in big bands. The rest of the band is top-notch, and Akiyoshi's bebop-derived piano style is also a treat. - Steve Holtje 

When I submitted my ballot for the Village Voice's annual PazzNJop poll, I had Shipp ranked ahead of Beirach. Now I have them reversed. Why? As I repeatedly listened to the Beirach for the review here, it rose in my estimation. It's that simple. I've put a few things ahead of Sonny Rollins's album since then too (I didn't include the Miles Davis albums on my ballot then because for that poll I stuck to material of recent vintage). Don't take rankings too seriously. I'm not even sure I should use numbers, but I continue to merely because it makes it easier to tell people where to look for something. - Steve Holtje

steve-holtje

Sierra ClubMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer whose song cycle setting tanka by Fumiko Nakajo is finally complete at twelve songs. It is the most depressing set of songs since Mahler's Kindertotenlieder.