1st Annual Jazz Critics Poll: 2006

Harmolodic Convergence

by Francis Davis

Along with unimpeachable swing and blues sensibility to spare, Ornette Coleman possesses other jazz essentials today's institutional guardians leave out, beginning with individuality, or what some might call personal eccentricities--in his case, and arguably all cases, they amount to the same thing. Jazz's closest equivalent to the old, weird Dylan figured to win best album in the First Annual (?) Village Voice NY-and-Then-Some Jazz Critics' Circle Poll. The surprise was the margin of victory for Sound Grammar, Coleman's first new release in nine years and the first on his new vanity label of the same name, not to mention the eagerly anticipated recording debut of the dazzling two-bass quartet he's been performing with in concert since 2003. Top choice on 10 of the poll's 25 properly ranked ballots (including mine), Sound Grammar outpolled Andrew Hill's Time Lines (Blue Note), a strong favorite almost any other year, by better than two to one, 189-89. (Though voters were requested to assign their top-10 points in descending order--10 points for their 1, one point for their 10--five entrants, undeterred by a wag of my finger, chose to distribute points equally.)

The Circle consists of critics currently living in New York and/or writing for New York-based publications, along with a few from elsewhere who figured to add spice. (A different rotation of outsiders might be called on next year.) Thirty respondents voted for 10 new releases and three reissues in descending order, plus one vocal record and one debut. You can see their ballots at [URL], along with the complete results. More than 200 CDs received votes in the four categories--whether this reflects a true embarrassment of riches or just a lack of consensus beyond Ornette is a question for a later occasion. One thing I learned for sure, in my position as this poll's self-appointed poobah, is how many mailing lists I'm not on.

Placing somewhere on two-dozen of the 30 lists--compared to 13 for Hill and 11 for Sonny Rollins's third-place Sonny, Please (Doxy)--Sound Grammar still would have won handily counting only those ballots that didn't pick it.

1. Even if you consider that Wilco guitarist Nels Cline's New Monastery (Cryptogramophone), a surprising fourth-place finisher, is subtitled "A View into the Music of Andrew Hill," adding its votes to those for Time Lines would do no more than reduce Coleman's margin of victory to just over 50. Ornette was the clear winner among radicals and conservatives, and in every age and racial demographic. If a certain New Yorker on loan to Kansas hadn't pulled out at the last minute--after e-mailing me that he despised polls, but was looking for forward to voting for Ornette--I'd be telling you Grammar even carried the red states. This is what critical consensus looks like, folks, and for it to be forming behind a figure portrayed as a barbarian at the gate nearly 50 years ago isn't ironic--it's the way evolution is supposed to work, only it's not supposed to take so long.

Time Lines, an even thornier and more densely lyrical effort than usual from another maverick absorbed into the mainstream and on a roll, is also

2. on my list. But after Hill is where the Circle and I went our separate ways, with only Rollins in common. Here are the rest of my choices, along with how they fared in the poll at large, ranked up to 40:

3. Theo Bleckmann and Fumio Yasuda, Las Vegas Rhapsody--The Night They Invented Champagne (Winter & Winter). The most transcendent vocal album in many a moon (for my money, anyway) reminds me of Björk's Selmasongs. Bleckmann's voice and Yasuda's orchestrations have the same blissfully troubling emotional pull. (Unranked)

4. Odyssey the Band, Back in Time (Pi). The electric-hoedown bottom half of the straight harmolodic ticket, reuniting James Blood Ulmer with his compelling, short-lived trio of the early '80s. (39)

5. Sonny, Please (Doxy). Riff tunes, ballads, a calypso, and an oddball pop selection--the same formula as before, but a full-bodied sound and the Colossus at the top of his game make all the difference. (3)

6. Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra: MTO, Volume 1 (Sunnyside). Avant covers ranging from Cecil Scott and His Syncopated Serenaders to the Dead and Prince, with fastidious musicianship only adding to the fun. (13)

7. Odean Pope Saxophone Choir, Locked & Loaded (Half Note). Sax-section voicings as in-the-clouds as Ellington's or Benny Carter's, plus Pope, Michael Brecker, James Carter, and Joe Lovano's post-Coltrane speaking-in-tongues --either way gets you to heaven, but both earn you wings. (16)

8. Andy Biskin, Early American--The Melodies of Stephen Foster (Strudelmedia). Foster deconstructed in the new old-fashioned way, but with his defining doo-dah blessedly intact. (Unranked)

9. Houston Person with Bill Charlap, You Taught My Heart to Sing (HighNote). Melodious duets representing a young pianist's coming of age and a veteran blue-collar tenorist's apotheosis. (25)

10. Steve Swallow and Robert Creeley, So There (Xtrawatt/ECM). The greatest love poet of the second half of the 20th century (when love got really difficult) lived long enough into the 21st to lay down tracks for what proved to be good friend Swallow's moving, high-spirited eulogy. (Unranked)

My rule limiting the field to CDs released between last Thanksgiving and this year's prohibited me from honoring Anthony Brown's sagely multicultural Rhapsodies (Water Baby), an '05 release that found its way to me only this spring. My other Honorable Mentions (because convening the Circle and tabulating the votes should bring some privilege): Harry Allen & Joe Cohn's Hey, Look Me Over (Arbors Jazz); Art Ensemble of Chicago's Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City (Pi); Satoko Fujji's Undulation (PJL); Billy Hart's Quartet (HighNote); Lee Konitz-Ohad Talmor String Project's Invention (OmniTone); John McNeil's East Coast Cool (OmniTone); Peter Madsen's Prevue of Tomorrow (Playscape); The Source (ECM); and David S. Ware's Balladware (Thirsty Ear). And I'm pulling your coattails, not your leg, when I tell you Bruce Springsteen's The Seeger Sessions: We Shall Overcome (Columbia) is the best Dixieland album since the 1950s and might have gotten my vote for best vocal if not for Bleckmann.

Back to the poll results. Rewarding genuine rarity over lavish repackaging, the Circle voted Charles Mingus's unruly but worth-it Live at UCLA (CME/Sunnyside) the year's best reissue. It was my choice as well, followed by Seven Men With Neckties and Surrealistic Swing, Cuneiform's two-double-disc Microscopic Septet retrospective (the Circle ranked it 10), and the overall unranked Jimmy Raney With Bob Brookmeyer (Verve), '50s postbop lyricism personified.

One model for the poll was the one conducted by Jazz from 1964 to 1971, by which point the magazine had morphed into Jazz & Pop and the poll into the prototype for Pazz & Jop. J&P used to name winners for best piano album (meaning solo or trio sans horns) and best big-big or large-ensemble recording (meaning, oh, let's say eight or more instruments) extrapolated from the general results. Following that tradition, this year's respective winners are Keith Jarrett's The Carnegie Hall Concert (ECM, 7 overall) and Joe Lovano's Streams of Expression (Blue Note, 10).

Given the indifference, if not contempt, many critics feel toward singers, they needed their own category. ("Hate jazz vocals--always have," one critic explained, leaving the line blank.) Unheralded veteran Nancy King's Live at Jazz Standard (Maxjazz) won the nod 4-3-3 over perennial critics' favorite Cassandra Wilson's Thunderbird (Blue Note) and newcomer Roberta Gambarini's Easy to Live (Groovin' High), with a few critics taking advantage of the option I gave them to substitute a CD featuring spoken word.

Looking at the ages of the musicians in the poll's Top 10--five of them over 70, with Cline the youngest at 50--you can see why I initiated a debut category designed to favor performers in their twenties and thirties. The lukewarm response to this category raises the question of whether the fetish for tradition (as opposed to innovation) that took hold in the '80s has had the long-term effect of chasing younger players, as well as younger audiences, away from jazz, despite that decade's parade of young faces following Wynton Marsalis. The good news is that drummer Francisco Mela's Melao (Viya) garnered six votes, an impressive total when compared with the two votes apiece for four other CDs, including trombonist Curtis Hasselbring's The New Mellow Edwards (Skirl), my pick for its inspired mix of rambunctiousness and whimsy. The victory by a Cuban-born musician suggests a deep new talent pool as well as an enduring musician. Which perhaps this poll will become.

December 19, 2006, The Village Voice