Jan 1 2017
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
- Taylor Ho Bynum – “Enter the PlusTet” – (Firehouse 12 Records)
- Jon Armstrong – “Burnt Hibiscus” – (Orenda Records)
- Eric Hofbauer Quintet – “Prehistoric Jazz Volume 3 (Three Places in New England)” – (Creative Nation Music)
- Michael Blake – “Fulfillment” – (Songlines)
- Jonathan Finlayson & Sicilian Defense – “Moving Still” – (Pi Recordings)
- Laurent Rochelle Okidoki Quartet – “Si tu regardes” – (Linoleum Records)
- 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)
- Psychic Temple – “Plays Music for Airports” – (Joyful Noise Recordings)
- Ian Carey – “Interview Music (A Suite for Quintet+1)” – (Kabocha Records)
- 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 Worm. We 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.
January 2, 2017 @ 8:07 am
Two quick points: very pleasantly surprised to see Enter the PlusTet as your album of the year. It was one of the standout albums of the year for me and i was surprised to see it so low on the NPR poll.
Regarding Threadgill as number one on the NPR poll… i think that last time i commented on your blog it was in agreement on your ambivalence regarding Halvorson’s Meltrame and it’s high position in the NPR poll… well, my comments (from memory) on Meltframe then pretty much mirror my comments on Old Locks now. I’m a huge Threadgill fan and have really enjoyed his output on Pi (TBUT Vol 1 is an all time favourite) but i’ve found myself to be terminally unenthusiastic about Old Locks. It’s objectively very good, and i’m sure i’ll revisit it in years to come, but as it stands i’ve spun it from start to finish twice at most. Yeah not every album has to be on high rotation and it’s not a measure of quality by any stretch, but lets be honest: not being that excited to listen to something is telling. I wasn’t surprised to see it noted as one of the best of the year on the NPR list as it’s absolutely worthy but i was extremely surprised to see it at number one.
Anyway, cheers and all the best for 2017.
January 2, 2017 @ 9:12 am
Hey, Chris. Really good points. One especially mirrors my own reaction to the new Threadgill… I was surprised by how unenthused I was to revisit it. I still plan to give it another spin (or three) down the road, but it’s more out of a sense of obligation than anything I heard the first times around. If it weren’t for my adoration of some of his earlier works, the cd would be in a stack somewhere out of sight.
January 3, 2017 @ 9:58 am
First, thanks for the great work you do – I can affirm that, at least in my case, that your reviews and columns make an impact into the jazz I listen to, and I appreciate that you spend time on labels and artists that often would otherwise slip through the cracks. Regarding the NPR list, I had a reaction similar to yours, and it got me wondering: Why do these albums and artists consistently dominate end-of-year “best of” lists? Is it simply the greater exposure that comes with the major label affiliations? Is it a bandwagon effect that smacks just a bit of elitism (where choosing “difficult” music from long-acknowledged masters somehow differentiates the reviewer from the “commoners”?) Or do these critics really listen to these albums a lot and enthusiastically love them?
The downside of the NPR poll, from my perspective, is that it tends to end up emphasizing only a very narrow stylistic lane of jazz, and one that is unlikely to attract many new listeners. If the reviewers really love the albums they rank so highly, more power to them, regardless of what others think. But a lot of these lists seem predictable and a bit lazy. It’s why I so enjoy yours instead… 🙂
Keep up the good work in 2017!
January 3, 2017 @ 7:31 pm
It’s always great to hear that people are discovering music on my site that they wouldn’t otherwise stumble upon. Thanks for the kind words. It’s always appreciated.
As far as the NPR best of lists go… it’s hard to determine exactly why the lists end up the way they do. An essential piece of information would be how many new releases do each of the critics listen to each year. If it’s just a handful, then, yes, I imagine you’re seeing how musicians/labels with strong PR pushes are having an influence, because if a critic is only listening to a small number of new releases per yer (say, less than 100), then they’re likely not out searching for new releases and simply listening to those albums that get dropped in their laps. Unfortunately, I don’t really belong to any insider circles or writer cliques or groups, so I can’t provide any insight into what most of the NPR participants listening habits are like. But I do feel pretty certain that in most instances, the critics do genuinely enjoy the music they’re voting for. There could definitely be some votes getting generated on musician reputation alone, but I doubt that anyone is voting for an album they dislike for that reason.
But it does sometimes disappoint me that I’m one of a small handful (or the only one) writing about some of the more obscure non-NYC artists out there making great music. On the other hand, it’s a role I can fill in the jazz ecosystem, and I’m happy to take that role on. It just means there’s more opportunities available to me to introduce people to great music.
Thanks for stopping by to shoot the breeze, and I hope your new year is off to a great start.