So… about 2016 (Chapter 1): Me and the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll


This was my fourth year to be invited to participate in the Jazz Critics Poll at NPR Music.  Begun originally by respected jazz critic Francis Davis back when the Village Voice was his home turf, this nifty compilation of Jazz’s best of 2016 is now housed over at the NPR site.  This was the poll’s 11th edition.  I’m no less flattered today than I was the first time around I was asked to submit a ballot.

Here is a LINK to the amalgamated results, showing the top ten and also the top sixty, as well as some sub-categories.  It includes comments from Davis on each of the top ten results.  They also have sample tracks from each of the albums that fell in the top ten, and links to various other articles about the artists.

Davis talks about this year’s results in a column on the NPR site HERE, with an expanded take on this year’s winner Henry Threadgill.

Also, the individual ballots are compiled and maintained by Tom Hull over on his site, Hullworks.  Here’s a LINK to view the entire list of albums that received votes.  In addition, there’s now a list of all of the jazz critics (LINK), with each leading to their specific ballot.  My ballot (Dave Sumner) can be found HERE.

Every year that I compile and create my own site’s year-end Best Of list reinforces my genuine respect for the work Davis, Hull and the NPR staff put into making this thing happen.  It’s a mammoth undertaking to be sure.

Here was my ballot:

Album of the Year

  1. Taylor Ho Bynum – “Enter the PlusTet” – (Firehouse 12 Records)
  2. Jon Armstrong – “Burnt Hibiscus” – (Orenda Records)
  3. Eric Hofbauer Quintet – “Prehistoric Jazz Volume 3 (Three Places in New England)” – (Creative Nation Music)
  4. Michael Blake – “Fulfillment” – (Songlines)
  5. Jonathan Finlayson & Sicilian Defense – “Moving Still” – (Pi Recordings)
  6. Laurent Rochelle Okidoki Quartet – “Si tu regardes” – (Linoleum Records)
  7. Moonbow – “When The Sleeping Fish Turn Red And The Skies Start To Sing In C Major I Will Follow You Till The End” – (ILK Music)
  8. Psychic Temple – “Plays Music for Airports” – (Joyful Noise Recordings)
  9. Ian Carey – “Interview Music (A Suite for Quintet+1)” – (Kabocha Records)
  10. Stijn Demuynck – “Pouancé” – (Self-Produced)

Best Debut:  Stijn Demuynck – “Pouancé” – (Self-Produced)

Best Latin Jazz:  Edward Simon – “Latin American Songbook” – (Sunnyside Records)

Best Vocals Jazz:  Jon Armstrong – “Burnt Hibiscus” – (Orenda Records)

Reissue/Historical:  No submission

There’s no sense talking about any of my Album of the Year selections, since I covered that territory on my Best of 2016 list.  My vote for the Latin Jazz category went to Edward Simon’s excellent 2016 session; It, too, made the Best of 2016 list.  This is the second year in a row that I didn’t vote for anything in the Reissue/Historical category.  I just don’t have time to dig into that stuff.  I’m focused on music being made today, not on music from the last century.  Besides, there’s certainly no shortage of writers who are focused on Jazz’s past.  That said, I remember when Resonance Records began issuing older recordings a few years back.  I would touch upon them now and again for my eMusic and Wondering Sound columns.  Based on this year’s poll, it would appear that their impressive streak is continuing on.

Of the ten albums I selected for album of the year, six of those recordings didn’t receive a vote other than my own.  Two of the albums (Eric Hofbauer and Michael Blake) received a vote from one other critic than myself.  And two albums (Bynum and Finlayson) received multiple votes in addition to my own.  This disparity between my own ballot and those of the other critics is consistent with that of prior years.

Some thoughts about the amalgamated Critics top ten recordings of 2016

Here’s the Critics amalgamated list (with total points and total voters following each):

  • Henry Threadgill Double Up Ensemble, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi) 257.5 (41)
  • Wadada Leo Smith, America’s National Parks (Cuneiform) 233 (35)
  • Jack DeJohnette-Matt Garrison-Ravi Coltrane, In Movement (ECM) 194.5 (28)
  • Mary Halvorson, Away With You (Firehouse 12) 183 (29)
  • Michael Formanek Ensemble Kolossus, The Distance (ECM) 172.5 (27)
  • Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke (ECM) 170 (27)
  • Nels Cline, Lovers (Blue Note) 165 (23)
  • Matt Wilson’s Big Happy Family, Beginning of a Memory (Palmetto) 131.5 (22)
  • Charlie Haden/Liberation Music Orchestra, Time/Life: Song for the Whales and Other Beings (Impulse!) 128 (20) *
  • Steve Lehman, Sélébéyone (Pi) 127 (20)

Henry Threadgill is a brilliant artist.  I’ve raved about some recent recordings, though it’s his older stuff that still holds the greatest appeal to me.  His newest never really connected with me, and it didn’t strike me as particularly notable or special.  But Threadgill can be difficult to warm to, even for fans of his music (ie, me), so it’s possible one day I’ll give it another listen and think, wait, why didn’t that make my top ten?

Wadada Leo Smith placed two albums in the amalgamated top ten list.  Smith is something like the Ken Burns of jazz.  He picks a huge subject and then builds an epic recorded piece around it.  National Parks was the latest subject.  The album has its moments, but just gets listless at times, and comes off as empty and distant.  I’ve had this issue with other Smith recordings.  Sometimes his music is like gazing into someone’s eyes and you can just tell from their vacant stare that they’re off somewhere else.  His collaboration with Vijay Iyer is nice enough, but nothing that ever received any consideration when I put together this site’s Best Of list.

I really enjoyed the Coltrane-DeJohnette-Garrison recording.  It has one of my favorite tracks from 2016.  I included this album is one of my recent ECM Records rundowns.  The album got a little bit of consideration for this site’s Best Of list.  I’m not surprised to learn that other people also were excited by this fun live recording.

As I’ve expressed previously on this site, I have some strong feelings about the music of Mary Halvorson.  I’m not gonna rehash them here.  But I did enjoy her 2016 release very much.  I wrote some words about it (LINK).

If there’s one album that haunts me for not making this site’s Best Of list, it’s that Michael Formanek.  It was the very last cut before finalizing the top thirty.  I’ll be writing something about that album in the upcoming weeks.  I’m still taking it in.  Just when I think I’ve fully absorbed it, something new makes me take a different perspective on what I’m hearing.

The Matt Wilson, LMO and Nels Cline recordings are all nice albums.  Each has qualities that will make them enjoyable listens.  None received any consideration for this site’s Best Of list.  On the other hand, that Steve Lehman recording did receive some consideration.  Quite a bit, actually.  If a musician makes a statement with their recording, that can go a long way to earning them a slot on the list.  Lehman definitely makes a statement with Sélébéyone.  I wrote about it for Bandcamp (LINK).

Of the amalgamated list, the three major labels owned and/or distributed by Universal Music Group (Blue Note, Impulse and ECM) claimed half of the top ten slots.  Blue Note Records has found an intriguing way of reinventing itself.  ECM Records had, in my opinion, a very strong year in comparison to the last handful.  In every way that Blue Note is succeeding, Impulse Records is flailing.  Someone needs to put that once-great label out of its misery.  I’m tired of seeing it flopping around like a fish stranded on the shore.  Either that, or someone needs to figure out how to get it swimming again.  But the point I was going to make here is not to get the wrong impression that the best jazz being made today is on UMG labels.  The landscape for labels is too diverse for any one label to dominate a list like that.  Of my top thirty, no one label has more than two inclusions on the list.  That’s not by design; it’s the reality of the talent pool.  And that’s not even taking into account all the solid self-produced recordings.  It’s the smaller labels like Cuneiform, Hubro, PI Recordings, For-tune, Auand, Underpool, El Negocito, Edition Records, PJCE, Whirlwind, Firehouse 12 Records and Traumton putting out the cutting music of today.  And not one of them has a leg up on any other.  The days of the major labels dominating the landscape are gone… no matter the distorted view given by the NPR list.  But you don’t have to go searching all of those labels (and more, believe me, there are many more)… that’s what we do for you at Bird is the WormWe Search.  You listen.

And that about wraps it up for today.  Remember, as I stressed previously, go to town on that NPR Music Jazz Critics list… and not just the top ten list, but all the albums that received votes.  Many of them have been written about on this site, but this is a great opportunity for you to revisit some albums that maybe you didn’t give enough attention before.

I may be writing a couple more Year In Review columns over the next couple days.  I always have plans to do some year-end extravaganza, but just compiling the year-end Best Of list wipes me out, and then suddenly I’m faced with all of the new albums about to be released in the new year.  So, we’ll just see how it goes.

Thanks again for stopping by.  I hope 2017 is the best year ever.