So… about 2015 (Chapter 1): Me and the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll


BitW square avatarThis was my third 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 2015 is now housed over at the NPR site.  This was the poll’s 10th 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 (a tie) between Rudresh Mahanthappa for Bird Calls and Maria Schneider for The Thompson Fields.

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.

So, about those results… As you may have guessed, I have an opinion or two, oh yes.  Also, I’m gonna embed some music from my favorite albums of 2015 for you to listen to as you read.


Here’s my ballot:

1.    Chris Lightcap, Epicenter (Clean Feed)
2.    Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bird Calls (ACT)
3.    Kamasi Washington, The Epic (Brainfeeder)
4.    PRISM Quartet, Heritage/Evolution Volume 1 (Innova)
5.    Giovanni Francesca, Rame (Auand)
6.    Tomoko Omura, Roots (Inner Circle)
7.    Greg Foat Group, The Dancers at the Edge of Time (Jazzman)
8.    Eric Hofbauer, Prehistoric Jazz, Vol. 1: The Rite of Spring (Creative Nation Music)
9.    Reijseger Fraanje Sylla, Count Till Zen (Winter & Winter)
10.  Ghost Rhythms, Madeleine (self-released)

Vocal:   Charenee Wade, Offering: The Music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson (Motéma)
Debut:   Kamasi Washington, The Epic (Brainfeeder)
Latin:   Carlos Henriquez, Bronx Pyramid (Blue Engine)
Reissue/Archival:   No submission

In what some might refer to as a surprising turn of events, a few of my selections actually correspond to the amalgamated list.  In previous years, that wasn’t the case.  In fact, this may be the first year when any of my top ten selections appeared in the amalgamated top ten.  My #1, #2 & #3 selections (Chris Lightcap, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Kamasi Washington) were #10, #1 and #4 in the amalgamated list.  In addition, my #23 album of the year (Charles Lloyd) received the #9 slot on the amalgamated list, and my #21 selection (Mike Reed’s PP&T) got the #23 slot on the NPR poll.

For the sub-genre categories, my choice of Kamasi Washington as having the Debut of the year was in line with the amalgamated list.  I was joined by two other critics in choosing Carlos Henriquez for the Latin Jazz category.  Worth noting that several of the albums that received more votes in Latin Jazz were receiving serious consideration from myself, too, as I put together my ballot.  And I was joined by three other critics on my choice of Charenee Wade in the Vocal category.  Her album Offering: The Music of Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson also received the #29 slot on my Best of 2015 list.

I didn’t make a selection in the Archival/Reissues category.  I had in previous years, despite my focus on only new music, but that was primarily due to my weekly recommendations column for eMusic and Wondering Sound, which, obviously, didn’t have any qualms with focusing on archival material.  So, as a result, I kept on top of older music being reissued (or issued for the first time).  But that column ended this year, and so I just didn’t feel as compelled to to keep abreast with what was being released by way of old stuff, and, consequently, I didn’t feel like I should cast a vote.  I mean, I feel like if I’m gonna cast a vote, it’s gotta be because I have listened to a wide swath of that particular music category and can offer an experienced opinion on what’s what.  Otherwise, it’s just a list (or selection) of what I’ve listened to and not any kind of qualitative assessment.  But that’s just what I think.

But even though some of my choices corresponded to the amalgamated list, overall, however, many of my selections received a vote only on my ballot.  Recordings by Giovanni Francesca, Ghost Rhythms and Reijseger/Fraanje/Sylla had only me vouching for them.  I was joined by an additional critic, however, in casting a vote for albums by Tomoko Omura, Prism Quartet and Greg Foat Group.  Eric Hofbauer only received my vote on this year’s poll, but someone gave his The Rite of Spring a vote on the 2014 poll.  It’s album album that came out right on the cusp of my “voting year” cutoff (Nov. 1 – Oct. 31).  It’s very likely that whoever voted for it last year may have received a copy of it sooner than I and had enough time to absorb the music and judge it.  So, really, the Hofbauer counts as having received two votes.

I don’t mind that the albums I’ve chosen aren’t getting the recognition they deserve (yet).  As I’ve stated previously, 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.

Let’s go over some of the albums that made the Critics top ten list.  As with previous years, what I write below may be kind of harsh… about the only time you’ll see me taking that tone about music on this site.  These year-in-review posts are the only time I really indulge that kind of negativity.  That said, it’s so very important to remember that each of you should decide on your own what you think about these recordings.  The NPR site article includes embedded audio for you to give a listen yourself.  It’s also worth noting that each of them were included in my weekly recommendations column, so it’s not like there’s an album on the Critics top ten list that is so offensive as to incur a beating.  But, yes, I have an opinion or two.

1.  (Tie) Rudresh Mahanthappa Bird Calls and Maria Schneider The Thompson Fields

Mahanthappa received the #2 slot on my Best of 2015 list, so there’s no reason for me to go into this selection.  Just read what I wrote for his album on my own list (LINK).  I really like the Schneider recording, and though it didn’t make my top thirty Best Of list, it did receive some consideration, and I can see how it would captivate the ears of other critics.  As I wrote back when it first came out, it has “an expansive sound possessing a sightline that just seems to go on forever.”  Plus, a new Maria Schneider recording has become something of an event in jazz circles (deservedly), so that’s gotta play a factor in it, too.  Am I surprised to see this album receive a share of the top slot?  No, not really, not really at all.

3.  Jack DeJohnette Made in Chicago

Okay, whatever.  I just don’t see it.  It’s a live performance of some serious jazz giants that came holding some AACM action.  But it’s often muddled, and too many times I found the music’s dramatics a little bit dull.  If you told me you were at the show and it was one of the best things you’ve ever heard, okay, I believe that, but if it’s gonna get put on a recorded medium, that electricity sure as hell better come through when I’m sitting at home and hitting the play button.  Honestly, the only reason I included it in my recommendations column was because I sort of felt like I should in consideration of the talent pool contributing to the recording, and figured, hey, it might float the boat of one or three readers.  But here it is on a critics top ten list.  Let’s move on.

4.  Kamasi Washington The Epic

9.  Charles Lloyd Wild Man Dance

10.  Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth Epicenter

I’m not gonna talk any about the above three since they all appeared on my site’s Best of 2015 list top thirty, so there’s no real disagreement between me and the Critics.  But I will add that my statement about a live performance recording and electricity… that’s something that Charles Lloyd and crew definitely understood when they put together their Wild Man Dance recording.  That album delivers all kinds of heavy voltage to the listener at home, oh yes.

5.  Vijay Iyer Trio, Break Stuff

Iyer is about as talented as they come on piano.  I probably enjoyed Break Stuff more than any of his other recordings.  It’s a good album, but that’s about as strong a reaction as the recording elicits from me.  That’s how it is for me now and it’s how it was for me when I wrote something about it when it first came out.

6.  Henry Threadgill Zooid In For a Penny, In For a Pound

This album may be one that I regret not giving a slot on my site’s Best of 2015 top thirty list.  It was my Album of the Week when it first came out (LINK), and I still like the recording very much today.  But me and Threadgill’s music go way back, as far back as to when I first started getting into modern jazz, and there’s always been a slow acclimation process for me warming to any one of his particular albums.  In a year, maybe more maybe less, as I continue to listen to this nifty album, the connections between me and the music may continue to strengthen, and I get to where I think, yeah, probably should’ve given this album one of the thirty slots on my Best of 2015 list.  But that’s par for the course with these lists… time always nudges things around.

7.  Mary Halvorson Meltframe

I’ve got some strong feelings about this album and about the musician.  I don’t see how this album gets anywhere close to a top ten list.  I don’t even think this album is Jazz.  Unless I’m wrong.  And I could be.  I really really really might be wrong.  But I don’t think so… at least, not now.  Halvorson and her crazy guitar action might require, say, thirty to fifty years (conservatively) before I or anyone else who isn’t insane can figure her music out.  Y’know what, go and read what I wrote about this album, because I think it adequately captures what I’m trying to say here (LINK).  But the point I want to get across is that if you are reading this and you are a critic and you are one of the critics who voted for Meltframe, then I think you are insane, because no reasonable person would listen to this album and think, “Oh, hey, sure, I get what this album is trying to say and now I’m going to make a logical, level-headed assessment of it and measure how it stacks up to other albums in the context of the modern jazz environment and then give it a numerical value, voila!”  No freakin’ way.  Come talk to me in thirty years and maybe we can figure this album out together.

8.  Steve Coleman and the Council of Balance Synovial Joints

A real nice album that possesses equal amounts of sharp intelligence and raw emotional power.  It was one of the final cuts for my top thirty Best of 2015 list, and it was one that pained me considerably when I finalized the list and saw that it was standing on the outside looking in.  The way my sliding ratios work when constructing the list gave it a possible value as high as #15, which just proves how slight the difference is between a #15 and #35 album.  No issues with this receiving a top ten slot on the Critics list.  Here’s a LINK to when I first wrote about the album around its release date.


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’ll be writing a couple more Year In Review columns over the next couple days.  Check back in tomorrow for another.