Criticism

2016: The Last Word In Jazz

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We critics have spoken, and here’s The 2016 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll : The Record : NPR.

I am happily surprised to see Henry Threadgill hit the top of the poll—it is generally slightly more forward looking than the Downbeat polls, but still skews to the mainstream. While his disc was not my absolute favorite for the year, it’s superb and represents not only his achievements as a unique and formidable composer of modern music (Henry’s idiom goes well beyond jazz) but also as a mark of his stature. He has been at the forefront of contemporary music for decades, but the Pulitzer win seems to have impressed a lot of people, and if he’s become the recipient of some default votes, he more than deserves that.

I’m also happy to see that Wadada Leo Smith’s America’s National Parks turned up. This was not on my list because I have not had the chance to give it the concentrated listening it deserves, but his recent compositions have been hugely ambitious and successful, and his playing is ridiculously strong—again, this is a mark of his stature and he deserves every bit of attention.

Also nice to see Resonance earn so much attention for their excellent run of reissues.

Listening proceeds apace, and before the year came to a close I got to considerably more jazz (thanks to the lull in classical concertizing). My Top 10 list remains the same, but I also want to add these recordings to the list of worthwhile 11s:

You can’t go wrong with anything on my lists, or the one at NPR.

Best Jazz Releases of 2016

Let me qualify that header before things get out of control here: this not only snapshot of constantly shifting thoughts, but specifically conforms to the ballot Francis Davis sent out for his 11th annual Jazz Critics Poll. Despite NPR losing interest in jazz, they are still going to host the poll, the results of which will be up sometime in December. So I guess that’s something.

Now, one explanation and one major caveat. My experience with these releases—what led me to choose and rank them—is that, among the bevy of fine new jazz recordings I’ve heard this year (at least 200), these are the ones that completely satisfied me without any critical thought. I mean this in the best way; I listened but gave myself over completely to the music, and trusted each and every moment to bring me musically and logically to the next. The music occupied my mind and body. That’s my highest level of response.

The caveat is that the list goes roughly from Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving. I have not been able to listen through everything I’ve gotten so far this year (there’s at least 96 hours of music still unheard) and due to release dates there are certain things that I trust will be important that have not yet reached me, especially Strut Records new compilation of Sun Ra’s singles, and Mosaic’s Classic Savoy Be-Bop Sessions 1945-49. Look for them in my upcoming full year-end lists, or else in the ballot I fill out for Downbeat next spring. And so, I give you:

10 best new releases (albums released between last Thanksgiving and this, give or take) listed in descending order one-through-ten.

1 Kris Davis, Duopoly (Pyroclastic)

 

2 James Brandon Lewis Trio, No Filter (BNS Sessions)

3 Brian Charette, Once & Future (Posi-Tone)

4 Mary Halvorson Octet, Away With You (Firehouse 12)

 

5 Ches Smith, The Bell (ECM) (No official video or streaming audio available)
6 Eric Revis Trio, Crowded Solitudes (Clean Feed)

7 Henry Threadgill, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi Recordings)

 

8 Ross Hammond and Sameer Gupta, Upward (Big Weezus)

 

9 Robin Eubanks Mass Line Big Band, More Than Meets the Ear (Artist Share)

10 Jaimeo Brown Transcendence, Work Songs (Motema)

 

Top-three Reissues or Historical albums, again listed in descending order.

1  Miles Davis Quintet, Freedom Jazz Dance (Sony)

2  Peter Erskine Trio, As it Was (ECM)

3  Arthur Blythe, Lennox Avenue Breakdown/In the Tradition/Bush Baby/Blythe Spirit (BGO Records)

Year’s best Vocal album.

Camila Meza, Traces (Sunnyside)

 

Best Debut album.

I did not hear a debut album this year that left a strong impression on me.

Best Latin jazz album.

Brian Lynch, Madera Latino, (Holistic MusicWorks)

Wither Jazz

The 2014 Jazz Journalists Association Awards have been announced, and forgive my slight cynicism, but no surprises. My votes probably evaporated somewhere near the bottom of the mix. The rich get richer, big names are rewarded even if their actual music making has turned mediocre, or laid fallow:

  • No quibbles about Herbie Hancock’s Lifetime Achievement Award
  • Miles Davis in Europe 1969 is an easy way out: not as good as the first bootleg volume and far less interesting and important than the Woody Shaw and Clifford Jordan sets from Mosaic
  • Wayne Shorter’s Without a Net is a mediocre record, the music rests on old laurels and the long form composition is poor
  • Cecile McLorin Salvant has been a fashionable choice this past year, but I’m waiting for her to do something distinctive
  • ECM and Maria Schneider are utterly predictable, completely safe choices, they keep doing their thing without surprises and without expanding the music
  • I love Lee Konitz as much as the next guy, but he hasn’t made a new record since 2012 (in no small part because of age and failing health); there must be dozens of alto players who had more musically meaningful years

Moods and views come and go, but after several recent events that put me deep within the daring, dangerous ideas of experimental music, I’m acutely sensitive to how conventional mainstream jazz has become. The story of how that happened is depressing and discouraging.