So… about 2018, Part I: Me and the NPR Music Jazz Critics poll


This was my sixth 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 2018 is now housed over at the NPR site.  This was the poll’s 13th edition, the 6th 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, and it is an honest source of pride for me to be included.  Of the many polls and composite end-of-year lists out there, I find the Davis/NPR poll to be one of the more thoughtful, inclusive exercises out there.

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 2018 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:


  1. Bobby Previte, Rhapsody (RareNoise)
  2. Walking Distance, Freebird by Walking Distance feat. Jason Moran (Sunnyside)
  3. Quin Kirchner, The Other Side of Time (Astral Spirits)
  4. Thumbscrew, Ours/Theirs (Cuneiform)
  5. Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings (International Anthem)
  6. Ambrose Akinmusire, Origami Harvest (Blue Note)
  7. Marije Van Dijk, The Stereography Project Feat Jeff Taylor and Katell Keinig (Hert)
  8. Roller Trio, New Devices (Edition)
  9. Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret, The Other Side of Air (Firehouse 12)
  10. Juan Ibarra, NauMay (self-released)


VOCAL:  Marije Van Dijk, The Stereography Project Feat Jeff Taylor and Katell Keinig (Hert)

DEBUT:  Quin Kirchner, The Other Side of Time (Astral Spirits)

LATIN:  Dos Santos, Logos (International Anthem)

I’m not going into the details of my list, since I pretty well fleshed out my thoughts and feelings in the official Best of 2018 list, as well as the various write-ups the albums received on this site and The Bandcamp Daily.

As I have every year (except for the first year I voted), I didn’t select anything for the historical/reissue category.  I just don’t have time to listen to that stuff.  There’s too much great new music out there for me to look back upon older stuff… especially considering that so much of the archival finds are typically mediocre live performances or studio sessions/tracks that were justifiably shelved back in the day.  Be that as it may, the music of John Coltrane may very well be my blood type for how important that music has been to my life, so I did write something for this site about Both Directions At Once.

The thing of it is, some of the archival finds and reissues of long-dormant recordings are actually pretty spectacular.  For me, this is especially true when it opens a window into the past, and in doing so, becomes more than just another audio tape covered in cobwebs, behaving, instead, as a postcard or time capsule to another place and time.  I wrote about one such recording for The Bandcamp Daily: The Valley of Search, by Alan Braufman.  I seriously considered making this my sole submission in the reissue/archival category, but chose not to.  It would have been disingenuous for me to forego listening to most reissue/archival material but then include a couple things I really liked for a best of list.  I would be guilty of the same criticism I level at some people voting in a best of list when the total new releases they’ve listened to number in the dozens or low hundreds.  As such, I withheld my vote in that category.  But definitely check out the Valley of Search recording.

Some thoughts about the amalgamated top ten recordings of 2018:

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

  • Wayne Shorter Quartet, Emanon (Blue Note) 259 (34)
  • Henry Threadgill 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg, Dirt . . . and More Dirt (Pi) 233 (36)
  • Andrew Cyrille, Lebroba (ECM) 193 (37)
  • Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings (International Anthem) 190 (29)
  • Ambrose Akinmusire, Origami Harvest (Blue Note) 177.5 (25)
  • Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (Pi) 174.5 (25)
  • Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret, The Other Side of Air (Firehouse 12) 166.5 (31)
  • Mary Halvorson, Code Girl (Firehouse 12) 164.5 (29)
  • Cécile McLorin Salvant, The Window (Mack Avenue) 135 (21)
  • Thumbscrew, Ours/Theirs (Cuneiform) 123.5 (23)

A rather novel experience for me is how much comparison there is between the amalgamated top ten and my own ballot.  Albums by Makaya McCraven, Ambrose Akinmusire, Myra Melford and Thumbscrew make an appearance in both mine and the NPR list.  And at the other end of the spectrum, only three of my top ten selections (Juan Ibarra, Marike van Dijk and Roller Trio) went unselected by any other critic.  That number has typically been twice that amount in previous years.  In truth, I expect it to be higher most years.  My site typically covers music that most other sites do not, which means the inclusion of that music on other writers’ top ten lists is unlikely to happen.  But that’s where I think this site provides value to the ecosystem of modern jazz and improvised music writing… discovering the hidden gems from the obscure places and self-produced and small label sources, and spreading the word as far as I can.  It’s a role I happily fill, and one that is endlessly rewarding.

This is the part of the year-end column when I continue to examine my ongoing struggle with the music of Mary Halvorson.

Mary Halvorson makes an appearance on the list both with her own Code Girl and the trio project Thumbscrew.  Writers’ preoccupation with her music appears endless.  That statement, apparently, also applies to me.  I continue to find her music confounding.

I also find it unpleasant at times while also experiencing an odd fascination by it.  She has about as singular a sound as any artist could possibly aspire to.  She does her own thing in her own way and her music is a direct reflection of that personal journey… and it’s something that has my undying and sincere respect.  But like Code Girl, it doesn’t end there… Halvorson gets involved in projects that see her stretching out further from her own unconventional sound in wide open, unexplored territories of unconventional music.  Code Girl is a prime example, both in how the music manifests but also with the birds-of-a-feather she collaborates with.  WTF is my response to this.  WTF?

I’ve have been listening to the music of Ornette Coleman for a great many years.  For a time, I was a bit addicted to it.  That addiction incorporated much of the classic free jazz recordings of the day.  Even that which I didn’t much take to, I felt a certain appreciation for.  But Mary Halvorson has my wondering what my reaction would have been like had I been alive and a full-functioning adult when the free jazz wave hit during the sixties.  I think perhaps my reaction to Ornette Coleman would not have been one of adoration, and would not have led to addiction.  I think I would’ve been typing about Coleman’s music on my blog with the exact same word usage and descriptive terms as I do that of Mary Halvorson.

That gives me some hope that, with time, more of Halvorson’s music will eventually connect with me.  It also has me increasingly convinced that the modern day Ornette Coleman is not a saxophonist at all… but a guitarist named Mary Halvorson.  I really hope Halvorson keeps doing what she’s doing, and I hope eventually her music and my ear achieve a sort of communion.  But even if that completeness isn’t achieved, I look forward to the experience… no matter how it shakes out.

That said, it’s obviously not complete alienation between us.  The Thumbscrew dual release Ours/Theirs was my site’s #4 album of the year, and like many of the albums slotted in the top ten, it received some consideration for album of the year.  All of these conflicted feelings and contradictory reactions make me very happy.  Some art should do that to us.  Sometimes the challenge presented is more subtle, and sometimes it’s a slap to the face.  As it should be.

I have to admit to my enjoyment of this exercise, annually working my way through my latest explorations of Halvorson’s music, and its continued status as eternal adversary.

Wayne Shorter Wayne Shorter Wayne Shorter.  It doesn’t particularly surprise me that the underwhelming Emanon received the top slot in the amalgamated list.  Shorter is a jazz giant, one of the all-time greats, so any new recording is going to get an obscene amount of attention.  And if it happens to be an event, like the multi-media project came to be, the pre-admiration of it is likely to be extravagant.  Overall, I found the album tedious.  There was moments to like, some moments shined bright, but, for me, the album just dragged along far too often.  The graphic novel that accompanied it was, well, pretty cheesy and strangely archaic.  It reminded me of the facile science fiction/fantasy stories of the 70s in magazines like Heavy Metal and Epic Illustrated… superficial tales attempting to make grand pronouncements and profound observations that the writers and artists simply weren’t up to the task to communicate.

But, shit, whatever, I’m glad Wayne Shorter is still out there making new music and trying new things.  He recently received Kennedy Center honors, and watching him regaled for all of his career work made me so happy.  I was teary-eyed seeing his reaction to it all.  It was just so gratifying to see this artist who had made so much great music receiving the recognition he so richly deserved.

I was having a pleasant evening eating dinner at J.Gumbo’s Lex, a cajun and creole restaurant in Lexington’s NoLi neighborhood.  I had a good book, a wonderful meal, a pint of beer from the nearby Rock House Brewing, and experiencing one of those sublime evenings where the simplicity of the details somehow add up to a subtle complexity of highly-charged emotional reactions that are best described as subdued magic.  That magic truly manifested when the restaurant put on a new playlist that began with Wayne Shorter’s “Night Dreamer,” a song that is indelibly woven in the fabric of my past and of comforting, happy memories.  That melody was the final ingredient to conjure up the spell that made my evening magical.  That’s what Wayne Shorter means to me, and a thousand Emanons won’t ever change that.  I stare at the album cover to Night Dreamer or Juju or Speak No Evil or hear any of that music, and windows open to past, wonderful memories that flood into my present consciousness, and fill my life with the residual happiness of days well lived.

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 2019 is the best year ever.