Me and the 2014 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.  This was the poll’s 9th edition.  I was flattered to be included again this year, my second time to cast a vote.

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, Steve Lehman Mise en Abîme.

Also, the individual ballots are compiled and maintained by Tom Hull over on his site, Hullworks.  Here’s a LINK to view them.  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.

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

(From Andrea Keller’s Wave Rider)

I have some thoughts on the results, you betcha.

So, not unlike the comparison of results from last year, my selections for the 2014 poll didn’t match up with the amalgamated list or, really, the list of anybody at all.

Here’s my ballot, beginning with my top album of the year.

  1. Fire! Orchestra – “Enter”
  2. Rob Mazurek & Black Cube SP – “Return the Tides”
  3. Rafael Karlen – “The Sweetness of Things Half-Remembered”
  4. John Ellis & Andy Bragen – “MOBRO”
  5. Diego Barber – “Tales”
  6. Hans Feigenwinter ZINC – “Whim of Fate”
  7. Andrea Keller – “Wave Rider”
  8. Angles 9 – “Injuries”
  9. Masaa – “Afkar”
  10. Roberto Negro – “Loving Suite Pour Birdy So”
  • Latin Jazz selection:  Danilo Perez – “Panama 500”
  • Debut selection:  Gonzalo Levin Octeto – “Gonzalo Levin Octeto”
  • Vocal selection:  Masaa – “Afkar”


  1. John Coltrane – “Offering”
  2. Jarrett/Haden/Motian – “Hamburg ’72”
  3. Jimmy Giuffre – “New York Concerts”

Not unlike the 2013 poll, most of my selections for New Releases only received a vote from myself.  My 4th selection, Barber’s “Tales” received three votes other than mine.  My 8th selection, Angles 9’s “Injuries” received two votes other than mine.  But that’s it.  My other eight selections had to settle for me being the only one to recognize their brilliance.

I’m not really surprised, though there’s a few, like Fire! Orchestra, Rob Mazurek, and John Ellis, where I would’ve expected to see a few others follow my wise lead of selecting them for consideration.  But all joking aside, it’s my sincere belief that the Jazz Critics Poll provides the opportunity for those albums to receive a second look by other critics.  The albums definitely deserve it.  And I’m thrilled to be given the additional platform of the NPR poll to provide that opportunity.

And much like last year, my selections for the various sub-categories were a mixed bag.  On the Reissues, I was in line with the critics, and that probably is due to a combination of there being less reissues than new releases, plus my own interests don’t lie in reissues, and so my experience with what’s out there isn’t as comprehensive.  I like my selections, though.

My choice for Latin Jazz, Danilo Perez’s excellent “Panama 500” made the list in 4th place.  My selections for Vocal and Debut didn’t rate on anybody else’s list.  Last year, my selection for Debut of the year, Jaimeo Brown’s “Transcendence” fell in line with other critics.  It was also my Album of the Year for 2013.

(From Diego Barber’s Tales)

So, how about that Jazz Critics amalgamated top ten?  Here’s some quick thoughts on each of them.  Some of my comments are going to be critical… harsh, even.  The thing I want each of you to take away is, please, go check these albums out for yourself.  What matters is whether you enjoy them or not, and while I may be critical about some of the albums in the Critic’s amalgamated top ten, there isn’t a one on the list that I don’t think deserves your attention.  All of them initially appeared on my own list of “potentials” when I first began creating my Best of 2014 list.  Well, except for the Sonny Rollins, but that’s a different issue I address further on down the column.  But even that wasn’t a question of music quality.

Let’s begin…


1.  Steve Lehman Octet – Mise en Abîme

This one got slotted at #18 on my own Best of 2014 list.  It’s a fascinating album, and it definitely possesses a cerebral quality that I look for.  But it really sort of ends right there.  Not terribly evocative from an emotional standpoint.  I find myself returning to this album quite a bit.  I’m always finding something new that amazes me.  But where it captures the imagination, it doesn’t do that so much with the heart.  That said, it’s one of the more amazing album to get released in 2014, and quite frankly, there’s very little that separates an album slotted at, say, #6 vs. #18.  I’m unsurprised to see it get the #1 slot on the amalgamated list, and the album does the jazz community proud by representing it as the champion of 2014 on the NPR Jazz Critics poll.

2.  Wadada Leo Smith – The Great Lakes Suites

Some strong musicianship on this recording and I love seeing Henry Threadgill get back in the mix (he’s one of the musicians to first get me into Jazz and modern jazz, too).  Trumpeter Smith puts out one huge project after the other, and this tribute to, yes, the Great Lakes here in the U.S., is no different.  This double-disc project didn’t make my Top 30, and was one of the early cuts of those albums under initial consideration.  This is such a joyless album.  There are some stunning moments from a perspective of technical proficiency, and the album does have heart, but the blood that flows through it is sort of lifeless and sad.  Even when the quartet shifts gears or tone, it’s not much of a sea change in comparison to what came before… it’s the kind of thing that leads to tedium.  And two CDs of this just gets to be too much.  Again, this isn’t a bad album, and as far as a music achievement, its inclusion in the amalgamated Critics list doesn’t offend me or seem out of place.  I can see why this album might capture the ear of other listeners.  But there were too many times that listening to the album became a drag, and it was easy enough to cross off the list.

3.  Ambrose Akinmusire – The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint

This excellent album didn’t make my Best of 2014 list, but that’s a reflection of the depth of the modern jazz landscape and not the quality of this recording.  Follow the LINK to my recommendation of the album (on this site).  I can’t recall exactly when I cut this album from consideration during the process, but if my Best of 2014 list covered 50 albums (instead of 30), I’m pretty sure this one would have snuck in.  Definitely check it out.  I think it was my Wondering Sound Pick of the Week when it was first released.  Gotta love the Mingus-y album title.

4.  Sonny Rollins – Road Shows, Vol.4

See below.

5.  Mark Turner Quartet – Lathe of Heaven

I liked this album well enough, though I don’t think I ever gave it serious consideration for my own Best of 2014 list.  It’s a good album, solid, but not exceptional.  Follow the LINK to my recommendation of the album (on this site).  That said, if I were to create a Best Jazz Artist of 2014 column, Turner would be at or near the top of the list.  In addition to my recommendation to check out this album, find anything else he contributed to in 2014 and give that a listen, too.  It just seemed like all of 2014 I was writing about albums where I was noting Turner’s excellent contributions to the music.  Turner had a strong 2014.

6.  Marc Ribot Trio – Live at the Village Vanguard

Likable album with some strong moments performed by strong musicians.  I like that he touches upon Coltrane’s “Sun Ship” on the same album as he performs a cover of “Old Man River.”  I never wrote about the album for Bird is the Worm, but there’s a lot of good albums that I just don’t have the time or space for.  I liked the album well enough, but I’m surprised to see it fall into the Critics’ top ten.  But the live performance electricity really comes through nicely on the recorded medium, and add to that the artists imaginative takes on the music, I’m unsurprised to discover it resonated with a lot of other listeners.  Yes, I’m surprised to see it here, but I have no qualms about its appearance.  Quality music is quality music, which means it always has a valid claim to critical praise on Best Of lists.

7.  Jason Moran – All Rise:  A Joyful Elegy to Fats Waller

This is one that I’ve been listening to regularly ever since it first came out.  It was one of the last 10 cuts when I pared my list down to the final 30.  I’ll be publishing a recommendation for it in January.  I kept thinking my perspective on the music would change, one way or the other, but I still enjoy this recording the same way since the first listen.  If you get a chance to see this project performed live, go.  I was fortunate to catch Moran do the Waller thing at the Chicago Jazz Fest a couple of Summers ago, and it’s still one of the best things I’ve seen on stage in a while.

8.  Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band – Landmarks

This one is an overreach.  I enjoy this album, and Brian Blade’s Fellowship albums are some of the very best things to ever happen to the modern jazz scene.  If I begin talking about Fellowship albums like Perceptual and Season of Changes, I will get seriously fanboy without the least bit of provocation.  Buy all four of the Fellowship albums immediately.  Follow this LINK to my recommendation of Landmarks, which is the fourth of Blade’s Fellowship recording.  Buy it.  It’s a really good album.  But it’s a step down from the excellent Season of Changes, and it also pales in comparison to Perceptual.  It’s the Fellowship band making a very Fellowship-ish album.  It’s more of the good stuff, but the good stuff doesn’t necessarily get you on a Best Of list.  Brian Blade is one of the best things on the modern scene and taken as a whole, his Fellowship albums are amazing.  But viewed individually, Landmarks doesn’t quite reach the bar set by previous recordings.  But, seriously, still buy it.  Just get Season of Changes and Perceptual first.

9.  Kenny Barron & Dave Holland – The Art of Conversation

I mean, yeah, okay, it’s a nice enough album.  You’ve got two jazz giants recording a duo collaboration in the studio, so it’s going to have some solid moments.  It just gets a little dull at times.  I think this one gets up there more on the reputation of the artists than the album itself.  Did I enjoy listening to it?  Yes, definitely.  Do I ever pine to listen to it again?  No, not really.  To my mind, if an album doesn’t have staying power, if it isn’t the kind of recording you feel compelled to return to even when your listening queue is overwhelmed with new releases, then it’s probably not a Best Of recording.

10.  Jane Ira Bloom – Sixteen Sunsets

I liked this album well enough when I first sat down with it, but nothing about it ever would’ve prepared me for seeing it receive a pretty strong consensus as Best Of album.  There are some gorgeous moments on the recording, but there are also some lulls in the action.  I first became aware that something was up when the excellent jazz critic Kevin Whitehead first vouched for it during the creation of the Wondering Sound 25 Best Jazz Albums of 2014 list.  But I can see how a sublime soprano sax album can grab the ear of a listener.  However, I was caught off guard seeing it grab so many critical ears.  I’m thinking maybe I need to revisit this one.  Interesting.

(From Hans Feigenwinter ZINC’s Whim of Fate)

Now, on to that Sonny Rollins album…

This year saw the clarification of what gets considered a New Release vs. what is considered a Reissue/Archival selection.  I’m going to refer to it as the “Sonny Rollins rule.”  The last handful of years, the jazz legend, thankfully, has been releasing some cherry-picked live performance recordings from tours that occurred over the last ten years or so… entitled Road Shows, with Volume 3 getting a 2014 release.

As you’ll notice, the third installment got slotted at #4 on the amalgamated critics list.  Y’know, whatever.  The third volume pales in comparison to the first two volumes.  It begins slowly.  The first couple of tracks are nothing special… it only picks up steam (and a lot of it) in the second half.  That alone would disqualify it from consideration from my own list.  But it also covers material that’s over ten years old.  How are you going to call that a new release?  And it’s not even the same concert.  It’s a de facto compilation album.

And what does it say about the state of jazz when you’ve got well-respected critics saying that the best Jazz in 2014 are cherry-picked songs from concerts held between 2001 and 2012 by an artist whose best work was performed in the 1960s?  It’s great that Rollins is releasing this music and it’s great that the jazz community is celebrating this jazz legend.  And there’s nothing wrong with loving any of the Road Shows volumes and there’s nothing wrong with saying, hey, this is one of my favorite things to come out in 2014… but, damn, slot it in the Re-issues/Archival section and leave the New Releases section for actual new releases.

Well, the clarification says that anything recorded within the last ten years counts as a new release, which allowed many people to include Volume 3 in their “current” releases list.  It bugs me.  I mean, look, even though I don’t agree with the rule and don’t agree with the inclusion of Road Shows Vol.3 in the Best of 2014 new releases list, I’m not going to have any problem learning to live in a world where the rule exists.  Besides, Rollins certainly has earned all of the attention and praise that he’s getting… there’s no controversy there.  It just bugs me is all.  I imagine it’s not unlike the supreme irritation that some people suffer when they see a Best Of list like mine and say, dammit, most of those albums aren’t even Jazz!  I guess there’s plenty of differing perspectives to go around.

I want to end this section by stressing that you should go check out all of those Road Shows albums, beginning with the first volume.  They’re all really really good, and you owe it to yourself to see if they float your boat.  There’s some seriously majestic playing on those albums.

About those perspectives on Jazz…

A question I am perpetually haunted by is an old one- “Is this even Jazz?”  It’s a query that could be applied to many in my Top 30… many in my top ten, even.  NPR’s Patrick Jarenwattananon was interviewed about the 2014 Jazz Critics poll on WBGO’s The Checkout podcast, and the interviewer seemed particularly exasperated that producer Flying Lotus’s electronica/fusion/beyond genre 2014 release wasn’t included on the NPR list, referring to the fact that many jazz musicians perform on the recording and that it has some similarities to Miles Davis’s fusion period of the 70s/80s.

This kind of justification is not uncommon.  However, the presence of jazz musicians on an album doesn’t make the music jazz… most jazz musicians possess an abundance of training, talent and experience that they can attain a level of excellence in any number of music genres.  The other flaw in that argument is tracing lineage back to music that was already a jazz outlier, I.E. well, this is similar to this which is similar to this which is similar to this, which kind of sounds like traditional jazz.  How long does the trail of breadcrumbs need to extend out from Jazz center before it just stops being Jazz?

With much on the modern scene, I believe we’ve surpassed that distance, and I had to quickly check my own exasperation at the Flying Lotus suggestion because, hey, I do the same thing… All. Of. The. Time.

Listen through my Best of 2014 list.  How many of those recordings are truly Jazz albums?  How many of them have a foundation in the blues?  How many of them adopt a sense of swing?  The strongest tie to traditional forms of jazz music these albums possess is heavy improvisation.  But this is one of those dog-chihuahua things… jazz requires a certain amount of improvisation but improvised music is not necessarily jazz.  And, yet, here I am lauding this great music (and it is great music) as the Best Jazz of 2014.  It’s not entirely accurate and it is a perpetual struggle within me… the jazz purist vs. the big-tent-jazz-is-music-meant-to-evolve battle.

Sometimes I regret even pigeonholing my site by using the word Jazz.  Sometimes I think I might be doing Jazz more harm than good by taking the Big Tent approach.  Ultimately, though, I just want to find the best music out there, no matter how tenuous its ties to traditional Jazz, and help get the spotlight on it.  That’s what matters most to me, and if you take anything away from this column at all, it should be that the only question that matters is: “Do I like this album?”

You come to my site and check out everything I recommend.  You like what you like and take a pass on the albums you don’t.  Easy peasy.  Matters of categorization and genre and tradition should only be a secondary concern.  I just felt like mentioning that it’s something I think about, and since this kind of blog-y Year In Review column seems to bring out the cerebral babbler in me, well, here I am typing about it.

I love my Best of 2014 list.  It’s the best collection of music you can find… no matter what you or I decide to call it.

For tomorrow’s column, I’ll talk a little bit more about my Best of 2014 list, the year of 2014 in general and what’s on the horizon in January 2015.