Me and the 2013 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll


BitW square avatarIt was my honor to participate in this year’s Jazz Critics Poll.  Begun originally by respected jazz critic Francis Davis, who used to set up shop at the Village Voice, and has now moved the entire dealio over to the NPR site, just in time for its 8th edition.  I was flattered to be included this year.

Here is a LINK to the amalgamated results, showing the top ten and also the top fifty, 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, Wayne Shorter Without a Net.

Also, the individual ballots are compiled and maintained by Tom Hull over on his site, Hullworks.  Here’s a LINK to view them, of which mine is one (I’m on Ballot #6, Sumner).

I can only imagine how exhausting it must’ve been to coordinate and compile all the lists.  My genuine respect for the work Davis and Hull put into this.

I have some thoughts on the results.  Of course I do.

Some of you may be wondering why the poll winner… Wayne Shorter‘s Without a Net… wasn’t anywhere in my Best of 2013 list.  Well, it’s a fine album, and Shorter is one of the all-time greats (I’m still drawn in by the opening to his wonderful 1964 release JuJu), but there are too many weak spots on this recording for it to rank as highly as it did.  You should still consider buying it (if it floats your boat), and there’s nothing wrong with anyone who adores the album above all others, but there was way more engaging and inventive jazz released during the year.

Should that Craig Taborn album get slotted in the top ten?  Eh, not so sure, but I don’t really have any qualms about seeing it there.  It’s one that I can easily see justified, and really, that’s all that can be asked, since so much of this is subjective.  And, besides, as I’ve mentioned previously, Taborn has developed into one of those musicians that is pretty much an auto-purchase if you see his name listed in the album’s personnel.

Ditto on Jason Moran.  In fact, times 100 with Moran.  He’s one of the more exciting guys on the scene right now, and putting out music to prove it.  I’ve heard rumor that he has a Fats Waller tribute album coming out in 2014, and if true, then that is going to be something to hear.  His Fats Waller performance at the Chicago Jazz Festival was one of the highlights of the entire event.  And what about this particular album with Charles Lloyd?  Again, not one that I ranked in the top thirty of my Best of 2013 list, but at the same time, I enjoyed the album very much, and it’s the kind of recording (duo collaboration between piano and reeds) that often presents sublime music that can get its hooks into a listener and never let go.  It’s a fine album, and you won’t go wrong for picking it up.  Though I preferred Moran’s work with Trio 3, on their excellent 2013 release Refraction-Breakin’ Glass.

ECM Records releases were a bit overrepresented in this year’s poll.  ECM is definitely one of the stronger labels out there, and they put out some amazing music year in and year out, but I think some of their recordings are esteemed a bit highly based on reputation more than the music actually presented.  I am enjoying their strong move, of late, signing established artists who don’t typically fall inside their strike zone of Nordic Jazz/Chamber-Folk-Jazz/stuff that really isn’t Jazz at all but pretty damn engaging no matter how you slice it/etc.

It just occurred to me that I didn’t have one ECM Records album in my Best of 2013 list, which, actually, in terms of representation, that would be described as under-represented.  However, in my Best of 2013 Addendum: Beyond Jazz, I do mention that Christian Wallumrod‘s Outstairs is one of the best things released in 2013, but it just didn’t happen to be Jazz… so ECM got in there anyhow.  Overall, ECM Records released a lot of very good albums in 2013.

Speaking of jazz labels, it’s nice to see Blue Note Records return to a level of prominence.  One of the all-time great labels, during the 50s and 60s, they released some of the greatest jazz albums ever recorded.  Things started going downhill after that, with the quality of music released getting increasingly bad, and then getting to where, in the new century, they were releasing non-jazz recordings, and some awful ones at that.  It was like watching some great actor reduced to a comic relief bit on something pathetic like The Expendables or a walk-on role on some god-awful show like Drop Dead Diva.  But now, under the guidance of Don Was, Blue Note has been releasing some respectable albums yet again, and for me personally, a man who has so much nostalgia tied up in Blue Note, of so many great albums discovered when I was first getting into Jazz, it’s nice to see the turn-around.

But Jazz is decentralized now when it comes to labels, and despite the Jazz Critics Poll giving the impression that the best music is being released by just a couple of labels, that’s not the case.  The best jazz is being released by small labels, many who don’t release more than a dozen albums in a year.  And in some instances, the best music is self-produced, as more and more musicians take advantage of the opportunities that technology offers them for recording and editing their music, and the internet for selling and promoting it.  The brilliant upside to this development is that there is lots of great music getting released that might not otherwise see the light of day if it were up to a small pantheon of established labels.

Two of the Critics amalgamated Top Ten made my Best of 2013 list.  I slotted Darcy James Argue‘s Brooklyn Babylon at #16, and Mary Halvorson‘s Illusionary Sea received the #15 spot on my list.  Also, Jaimeo Brown’s Transcendence, which I selected as my Debut of the Year (as well as my best overall of 2013), tied for second in the collected critic’s list in the Debut category.  And then there’s Nilson Matta‘s Black Orpheus, which received many votes for Latin Jazz album of the year.  I actually chose Pablo Ablanedo‘s ReContraDoble as my Latin Jazz album of the year, and placed his album at #12 on my Best of 2013 list.  Matta’s Black Orpheus placed one slot behind at #13… so, you can see, it was pretty much a dead heat between those two.

I believe that in the instance of seven of my top ten selections, I was the only person to vote for that album.  I’d have to confirm this, but I believe Jaimeo Brown, Nicole Mitchell, and Ben Goldberg were the only artists who had albums in my top ten, who also were selected by at least one other of my fellow reviewers.  This is not a new experience for me.  It’s not a rare occurrence for me to rave about a recording, just to discover that my review is about the only one out there on the entire internet.

I don’t set out to achieve this.  Actually, it often saddens me a wee bit to see that other writers aren’t as excited about the music that I am so deeply affected by.  On the other hand, I seek out certain qualities in music, and I definitely have a very long reach when it comes to finding the music no one else is discovering, so I’ll admit to a certain pride in being the guy that brings music to light that might not otherwise receive any critical attention whatsoever.  I would like to think that I am establishing just such a reputation.  And I am thrilled to have received the opportunity to shed light on these ten excellent recordings on a big time platform like NPR’s/Francis Davis’s Jazz Critics Poll.

There are several in the Critics’ top fifty that are wonderful albums which didn’t quite make the cut on my own Best of 2013 list… much to my exasperation/disbelief/chagrin/bemusement/etc.  Each time I compile my list, I’m amazed by the quality music that, inevitably, gets left off.  When I look over the various artists and albums that the Critics chose on their own respective ballots, I’m genuinely happy to see that other people are mentioning many of the albums I couldn’t make room for on my own ballot.  And that leads into my final observation about the poll results, an observation that is the most important of all…

The variety of albums represented on the list, no matter where I or anybody feels like they should’ve been ranked, display the remarkable diversity and strength in jazz today.  So many wonderful recordings affecting so many astute listeners, and all in different ways.  There’s so much out there for you to listen to, and there’s so many avenues at your disposal to get started.  You can’t do anything wrong.  There’s no incorrect way to begin.  Just pick one, hit the play button, and if you like it, scoop the recording up and listen to even more.  If you don’t like what you hear from that sample track, move on to the next one.  It’s really that simple.  Enjoy!  It’s just music, and it’s nothing but fun!

Unless, of course, you try to make a Best-Of list.  Those are nothing but pain, despair, and angst.