3rd Annual Jazz Critics Poll: 2008

Sonny Rolllins Rules the Third Annual Voice Jazz Critics Poll

by Francis Davis

Believe it or not, Albert Goldman once had a good idea. Uninterested in rock except as a form of cultural pathology, the author of demeaning biographies of Elvis Presley and John Lennon was a lifelong jazz buff who despised his subjects for stealing glory from master craftsmen like Elvin Jones and Zoot Sims. Jazz was flatlining commercially post-Sgt. Pepper's, and Goldman thought he knew how to shock it back to life. Inasmuch as the essence of jazz was improvisation--laying everything on the line in the heat of the moment--why not capitalize on that? Forget studio recording altogether, and instead of issuing live albums to commemorate specific engagements, trail a chosen musician from gig to gig, all the while releasing the best stuff at regular intervals on LPs that would have the eavesdrop appeal of that era's Dylan and Stones bootlegs.

I could offer a strong counterargument in favor of studio recording, but this isn't the time. Independent of Goldman or anybody else (except maybe an audiophile and virtual doppelgänger named Carl Smith, who made available his stash of clandestine concert tapes), Sonny Rollins this year seized on a similar idea to overcome his well-known wariness toward recording, studio or otherwise. But leave it to Rollins to take his sweet time culling. The never-before-issued performances on Road Shows, Vol. 1--voted Record of the Year in the third annual Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll, and my top choice as well--span 27 years, not to mention the globe, ranging from a pair of 1980 performances in Europe and Scandinavia to the spartan trio version of "Some Enchanted Evening" with drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Christian McBride that had me walking on air at Carnegie Hall in September 2007.

Road Shows isn't perfection. The audio quality varies from location to location, and the accompaniment is rarely up to the level of that provided by Haynes and McBride on the lone performance from Carnegie to make the cut. But just be grateful. Rollins is on fire throughout, and although the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune is as magnificent as I remembered, here it's merely the obligatory encore--the track I keep returning to is "Best Wishes," the blistering opener from Tokyo in 1986, with Rollins racing a riff through a labyrinth for chorus after chorus. For close to four decades now, since he returned from his third and final sabbatical in 1972, we've judged each new Rollins release wanting, not just compared to his '50s and '60s albums, but also measured against what experience tells us he's capable of live on any given night. Yet more often than not, we also come away from his concerts disappointed, haunted by the memory--or maybe just the inherited memory, but one way or the other, the expectation--of an even better night. Rollins is notorious for holding himself to an even more impossible standard, and Road Shows is his dream of the best of all possible nights--and our dream now, too.

Road Shows outpolled alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa's Kinsmen, the surprise runner-up, 208.5 to 118.5 (those nagging half-points residue from a handful of ballots listing 10 choices alphabetically, rather than in order of preference), and the margin might have been even wider if not for a philosophical disagreement. A little bit of backstory is necessary here: In 2005, the average age of the top three finishers in JazzTimes magazine's annual year-end poll--Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and John Coltrane--was deceased. Downbeat, fearful that the winners' circle in its mid-year poll the following summer also figured to read like an R.I.P. list--sending a message to potential subscribers that jazz itself was dead--changed its rules to divert votes for previously unissued vintage material into the reissue category, which it renamed "Reissue/Historical." JazzTimes did likewise the following year.

I see the logic, but unlike "reissue," which can be defined precisely, "historical" leaves an awful lot of wiggle room--and, in any case, what sense does it make to treat as a relic an album by a living artist featuring two performances from just last year? Nevertheless, I gather this is how JazzTimes is categorizing Road Shows, and several critics who vote in both polls wanted to play by that publication's rules. My greatest concern in disallowing votes for it as a reissue--besides the fact that it plain isn't--was to prevent the absurdity of it or any other album finishing in the top tier of both categories, but first in neither. In protest, several voters left it off their ballots altogether.

Did I sense in all of this a desire to kick Rollins upstairs--a move to declare him unfair competition? A poll in which he bests the nearest competition almost two to one, even with a handicap, suggests he might be. But in the months leading up to this year's presidential election, how often did we hear that an opinion poll is merely a snapshot of prevailing sentiment at any given moment? A poll such as this one doesn't so much predict what lies ahead for jazz as it reflects what critical consensus happens to be right now. Sonny Rollins's greatness is about all that we agree on; if the rest of the figures confirm an absolute lack of consensus regarding anyone else, so be it.

That said, just below Rollins in the standings lies evidence of a remarkable--or perhaps just inevitable--trend. The top 12 includes five musicians--Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer (#4), Donny McCaslin (#8), Guillermo Klein (#10), and Lionel Loueke (#12)--who recorded their first albums as leaders and/or only began to gain recognition in this decade. But that shouldn't be all that leaps out at you. Remember the old joke about the square asking the bandleader how many musicians there were in the quartet? The new joke could be asking how many African-Americans and how many white guys are in the quartet. The trick answer would be one of each. Iyer's piano and synthesizer contribute greatly to Wadada Leo Smith's Tabligh (#5), which, added to Mahanthappa's Kinsmen and his own Tragicomic (featuring Mahanthappa as a sideman), gives American-born musicians of Indian descent three rungs in the top five. The top dozen also includes a French-Algerian pianist (Martial Solal, #11), a West African guitarist (Loueke), a black American Rastafarian (Smith), and an Argentine pianist and composer with a surname that could be either German or Jewish (Klein). I know, I know: Sometimes, diversity is what you wind up with when you aim for multiculturalism and fall short. But the music that these people and others are creating isn't just the same old bebop with a dialect. Or even the same old free jazz.

In headlining 2007's poll "The Year of the Woman" in honor of the winner, Maria Schneider, and other female instrumentalists who finished among the runners-up, I was also playing off the widespread assumption that Hillary Clinton was no worse than even money to be elected our first female president. As it turned out, history had something even better in store for us. A television image from this year that sticks in my mind is of Bruce Springsteen singing "This Land Is Your Land" on a podium with Obama at a rally in Ohio a few days before the election. Seeing black and white together on the campaign trail was no more unusual than seeing them together at a wedding or bar mitzvah--but for once, the white guy was the one there as the entertainment. There's America 2008 in a snapshot for you. In its modest way, this poll is another.

For what it's worth, this year's highest finish for a female instrumentalist was #21, for guitarist Mary Halvorson's Dragon's Head. But 2007 didn't necessarily guarantee that women other than singers would place high year after year, just that it will no longer come as a surprise whenever they do. And for those keeping count, including singers, there are eight women in this year's top 50, the same number as last year.

In other results, the vote for Best Reissue went overwhelmingly to Anthony Braxton's eight-CD The Complete Arista Recordings, an invaluable look back at a germinative period in the 1970s not just for the alto saxophonist, but for much of what followed under the banner of the jazz avant-garde. (This actually appeared on more ballots than any new release; Tom Hull provides more analysis elsewhere in this issue.) The vocal winner was Cassandra Wilson for Loverly--also #6 in the general standings and her best album ever for my money, although my vote went to Sentimental Streak by Catherine Russell, a veteran former backup singer who swings as if to the manner born (as well the daughter of Luis Russell should). The ageless pianist Bebo Valdés won Latin for Live at the Village Vanguard, featuring his touch-sensitive duets with bassist Javier Colina. Tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger's Dry Bridge Road was voted Best Debut, and would have snared my vote if not for Ideal Bread's The Ideal Bread--a New York-based quartet utilizing Steve Lacy tunes as a springboard for free improvisation, much the way Lacy once did with Monk.

Here's my ballot, with the album's overall poll standing in parenthesis.

Sonny Rollins, Road Shows, Vol. 1 (Doxy/Emarcy). If nothing else, admire the self-confidence of a 78-year-old man daring to juxtapose current performances with ones from when he was merely 50. (#1)

Fieldwork, Door (Pi). Iyer again, with drummer Tyshawn Sorey and altoist Steve Lehman playing Sunny Murray and Jimmy Lyons to his Cecil Taylor. (#77)

Tony Malaby, Warblepeck (Songlines). The tenor saxophonist's combustible chamber trio with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummer John Hollenbeck. (Unranked)

Rudresh Mahanthappa, Kinsmen (Pi). A breakthrough for the leader, as well as an Indo-jazz fusion with something personal at stake for a change. (#2)

Bill Dixon, 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur (AUM Fidelity). Spidery trumpet amid massive blocks of sound. And won't somebody please reissue his 1966 Intents and Purposes and his '62 quartet LP with Archie Shepp? (#29)

Microscopic Septet, Lobster Leaps In (Cuneiform). "Money, Money, Money" has been bouncing around my brain since hearing them introduce it at a dump across Cooper Square from the Voice 20 years ago, and now that they've reunited to record it and other gems they never got around to the first time. I swear it's never going away. (#55)

Mary Halvorson, Dragon's Head (Firehouse 12). Lyrical barbed wire. (#21)

Paul Bley, About Time (Justin Time). And about ritardondos and arpeggios as well. A masterful, extended, free-piano improvisation that flirts with "All the Things You Are," followed by an encore that does shamefully more than flirt with a certain Sonny Rollins waltz. (Unranked)

Charlie Haden, Rambling Boy (Decca). Hillbilly and proud of it. An Ornette Coleman cameo would have completed the circle nicely, but even then, I bet I'd still be raving about Bruce Hornsby's vocal on "20/20 Vision," to say nothing of Haden's opening bass solo, with its allusions to the same bluegrass favorites he quoted on Coleman's "Ramblin' " nigh on 50 years ago. (Unranked)

Nicholas Payton, Into the Blue (Nonesuch). The kind of album Art Farmer used to make, defined by a subtle trumpet virtuosity that calls attention to the material at the expense of itself. (#62)

Honorable mention: Ben Allison, Little Things Run the World (Palmetto); Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra, We Are MTO (Mowo); Theo Bleckmann & Fumio Yasuda, Berlin (Winter & Winter); Bill Frisell, History, Mystery (Nonesuch); Vijay Iyer, Tragicomic (Pi); Carmen Leggio, Carmen Leggio Quartet (Mighty Quinn); William Parker, Petit Oiseau (Aum Fidelity); Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, Forked Tongue (Cuneiform); Matana Roberts, The Chicago Project (Central Control); Martial Solal, Longitude (CamJazz).

Reissues: Art Tatum, Piano Starts Here: Live at the Shrine/The Zenph Re-Performance (Sony Classical); Anthony Braxton, The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton (Mosaic); Dizzy Gillespie, Showtime at the Spotlite: 52nd Street, New York City, June 1946 (Uptown).

Vocal: Catherine Russell, Sentimental Streak (World Village).

Latin: Bebo Valdés & Javier Colina, Live at the Village Vanguard (Calle 54 Norté).

Debut: Ideal Bread, The Ideal Bread (KMB).

I should add that I might never have heard my Best Debut choice had it not shown up on a number of early ballots, piquing my curiosity. Hopefully, this will encourage you to take a peek at the individual ballots yourselves--think of them as a critics' grapevine--and they're all available at villagevoice.com. A whopping 79 critics voted this year: David R. Adler, Clifford Allen, Larry Applebaum, Paul Blair, Larry Blumenfeld, Shaun Brady, Stuart Broomer, Thomas Conrad, John Corbett, Lawrence Cosentino, Francis Davis, Steve Dollar, Laurence Donohue-Greene, Ken Dryden, Steve Feeney, Sean Fitzell, Ken Franckling, Phil Freeman, David Fricke, Will Friedwald, Ted Gioia, Kurt Gottschalk, Steve Greenlee, Laurel Gross, James Hale, Ed Hazell, Don Heckman, Tad Hendrickson, Andrey Henkin, Geoffrey Himes, Eugene Holley, Lynn Horton, Tom Hull, Robert Iannapollo, Willard Jenkins, Martin Johnson, Mike Joyce, George Kanzler, Fred Kaplan, Larry Kart, Elzy Kolb, Art Lange, Suzanne Lorge, Kevin Lynch, John McDonough, Jim Macnie, Howard Mandel, Peter Margasak, Ken Micallef, Bill Milkowski, Dan Morgenstern, Russ Musto, Ivana Ng, Dan Ouellette, Ted Panken, Thierry Peremarti, Bob Porter, Doug Ramsey, Derk Richardson, Joel Roberts, Gene Seymour, Bill Shoemaker, Hank Shteamer, Slim, Michael Steinman, Jeff Stockton, W. Royal Stokes, Mark Stryker, Zan Stewart, John Szwed, Jeff Tamarkin, Neil Tesser, George Varga, Jason Weiss, Michael J. West, K. Leander Williams, Josef Woodard, Ron Wynn, and Scott Yanow.

December 31, 2008, The Village Voice