So… about 2017, Part I: Me and the NPR Music Jazz Critics poll


This was my fifth 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 2017 is now housed over at the NPR site.  This was the poll’s 12th edition, the 5th since switching residence to NPR.  I’m no less flattered today than I was the first time around I was asked to submit a ballot.  I’m amazed it’s already been five years for me.  When I first began putting this column together, I was thinking maybe three years.  Time does slip on ahead whether or not you’re paying attention, don’t it?

The amalgamated results feature the top ten and list 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.  Also, Davis talks further on 2017 in jazz and his own ballot with a separate column on the NPR site.  I’ve embedded some music that appears on his list and the amalgamated list throughout this column.

Also, the individual ballots are compiled and maintained by Tom Hull over on his site, Hullworks.  In addition, there’s a list of all of the jazz critics, with links leading to their specific ballots.  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.

Here was my ballot:

Album of the Year

  1. Yazz Ahmed – “La Saboteuse” – (Naim Records)
  2. Jaimie Branch – “Fly or Die” – (International Anthem)
  3. Brooklyn Raga Massive – “Coltrane Raga Tribute” – (Self-Produced)
  4. Nicole Mitchell – “Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds” – (FPE Records)
  5. Collectif Spatule – “Le vanneau huppé” – (Aloya Records)
  6. Marco Santilli’s CheRoba & il Fiato delle Alpi – “La Stüa” – (Unit Records)
  7. Anne Quillier 6tet – “Dusty Shelters” – (Label Pince-Oreilles)
  8. Red Planet with Bill Carrothers – “Red Planet with Bill Carrothers” – (Shifting Paradigm Records)
  9. Irreversible Entanglements – “Irreversible Entanglements” – (International Anthem)
  10. Hvalfugl – “By” – (Self-Produced)

Best Debut:  Jaimie Branch – “Fly or Die” – (International Anthem)

Best Latin Jazz:  Fabian Almazan & Rhizome – “Alcanza” – (Biophilia Records)

Best Vocals Jazz:  Irreversible Entanglements – “Irreversible Entanglements” – (International Anthem)

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 2017 list.  Well, except for one thing.  The number six slot on my NPR submission and this site’s Best of 2017 went to Marco Santilli and his CheRoba ensemble.  Except on the NPR submission, I chose his excellent La Stüa, whereas for Bird is the Worm, I went with L’occhio della betulla.  Both albums came out in 2017, and both are brilliant, though in different ways.  The thing is, I’m not going to call a “tie” and name both to a single slot, nor will I give two slots to the same musician in the top ten… at least, not unless the musician makes two wildly different albums with two wildly different ensembles… maybe then I would.  In any event, I decided to name one of the albums to the NPR ballot and the other for Bird is the Worm.  That way both albums gets some special end-of-year attention, and I get to retain a small remnant of my sanity.

As with recent tradition, 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.  It’s not an easy decision to make, since I do see some interesting stuff passing through the “new releases” section.  One in particular that caught my attention was an archival find of the Thelonious Monk soundtrack to Les Liaisons Dangereuses.  These were tapes that had gone lost until quite recently.  Monk, as I’ve stated a number of times, is one of my top three musicians (any genre), and is arguably the musician who first got me hooked on jazz.  It was pretty damn exciting to get the opportunity to hear “new” Monk tunes.  However, I found it a bit underwhelming.  There’s nothing wrong with it, and the physical production of the CD… liner notes and photos and all that good stuff… is outstanding.  But many of these archival finds, in my opinion, don’t often live up to the excitement.  On the other hand, Resonance Records has been chugging along with new productions of old music, and there’s plenty of good stuff to be scooped up from their catalog.  Lately I’ve been enjoying their 2016 release of Larry Young’s Paris stint.

Of the ten albums I selected for album of the year, six of those recordings didn’t receive a vote other than my own.  Much to my surprise (and, honestly, disappointment), only one other person voted for my selection for album of the year:  Yazz Ahmed‘s La Saboteuse.  Interestingly enough, that person (Phil Freeman of Burning Ambulance) also chose it for the top slot.  I am genuinely surprised the album didn’t get more attention.  Two people other than myself put in a vote for the excellent Irreversible Entanglements.  Eighteen other critics joined me in recognition of Jaimie Branch‘s thrilling Fly or Die and a whopping 23 other critics also voted for Nicole Mitchell‘s visionary Mandorla Awakening II, which I believe is the first time one of my top ten selections also fell in the amalgamated list top ten.

Some thoughts about the amalgamated top ten recordings of 2017:

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

  1. Vijay Iyer Sextet, Far From Over (ECM) 347.5 (53)
  2. Steve Coleman’s Natal Eclipse, Morphogenesis (Pi) 208.5 (28)
  3. Tyshawn Sorey, Verisimilitude (Pi) 183 (31)
  4. Craig Taborn, Daylight Ghosts (ECM) 158.5 (25)
  5. Nicole Mitchell, Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (FPE) 150 (24)
  6. Cécile McLorin Salvant, Dreams and Daggers (Mack Avenue) 135.5 (22)
  7. Roscoe Mitchell, Bells for the South Side (ECM) 133.5 (20)
  8. Matt Wilson, Matt Wilson’s Honey and Salt (Palmetto) 127 (21)
  9. Charles Lloyd New Quartet, Passin’ Thru (Blue Note) 113 (20)
  10. Ambrose Akinmusire, A Rift In Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note) 110 (23)

So, in addition to Nicole Mitchell’s album appearing on my own ballot (and, naturally, my site’s Best of 2017 list), the Tyshawn Sorey Verisimilitude received a slot on Bird is the Worm’s Best of 2017.  Steve Coleman’s Morphogenesis was one of my Best of Bandcamp Jazz selections, and one of the final cuts from the Best of 2017 list.  Other than Vijay Iyer‘s Far From Over, I didn’t write about any of the other albums for Bandcamp or Bird is the Worm (though there is a draft out there for Matt Wilson‘s interesting ode to Carl Sandburg).  Read into that whatever you want.  That said, ignoring 2017 recording output, if you were going to put together a list of the top musicians on the scene, all of those represented in the list above would be obvious inclusions.  There isn’t a musician on that list who hasn’t at some point lifted me up with some glorious music.

As per usual, both Blue Note and ECM Records are severely over-represented on these year-end polls.  Look, Blue Note & ECM… if you’re out there reading this… I love you.  I really do.  You and me, we go waaaaaay back to when jazz first blessed my life.  If either of you showed up on my doorstep and stabbed me in the heart, my dying words would be either Thank you for Dexter Gordon’s One Flight Up or Thank you for Codona III.  But, damn, critics need to get out of the house more and explore the wilderness of the new releases section.  This list makes it look like these two labels are the only ones making quality jazz these days, and I can prove beyond any doubt that is not the case.

But all that said… were you to go scoop up any one of the albums on that list, you can have the peace of mind that you’re buying some quality stuff.  There ain’t nothing cheap about the talent or the music on that list.  Any negativeness you may be picking up in my words is only reflective of my desire that these lists become more inclusive and better represent the breadth and depth of the modern jazz scene, in any way you want to measure it.

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.  Or, inconceivably, albums I might not have sufficiently recognized for their genius and joy.

Thanks again for stopping by.  I hope 2018 is the best year ever.