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January 10, 2013

Rhapsody Jazz Poll 2012: Vijay Iyer Prevails

by  |  January 10, 2013

Vijay lyer, Charles Mingus and Bobby Sanabria all became two-time winners in this year's Jazz Critics Poll -- the seventh annual such survey and the second consecutive sponsored by Rhapsody. Pianist Iyer's Accelerando was voted Album of the Year in a close, three-way race with the late tenor saxophonist Sam Rivers' Reunion: Live in New York (a double from a 2007 concert with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul) and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith's ambitious, four-disc Ten Freedom Summers. Mingus' The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-5, a sprawling, seven-disc Mosaic box voted Best Reissue in a landslide, includes all the live performances the bassist recorded for his own mid-'60s mail-order label -- excepting a 1965 concert at UCLA, which won the same category in 2006, the poll's first year. And Sanabria's Multiverse, this year's Best Latin Album winner, is his finest work since Big Band Urban Folktales, which won the same prize in 2007, the year the category was introduced.

On the other hand, '90s pop rapper Neneh Cherry's win in the Best Vocal Album category (for The Cherry Thing, a spunky encounter with, yes, The Thing, a Scandinavian free-improv trio named for a composition by her stepfather, trumpeter Don Cherry) was so unexpected that one critic worried aloud he was throwing away his vote by choosing her. And looking at the full results, this poll's 119 participants no more rubber-stamped a status quo than the nation's voters did in November's presidential election.

Given that this year's jazz voter roll, while younger thanks to the inclusion of more bloggers, was also whiter and more male (though not for lack of trying for greater diversity), an analogy to a national election whose outcome was decided by women and minorities shouldn't be pushed too far, and I promise I won't. Still, it seems worth noting that this poll's consensus also came down in favor of progressive trends that have taken root over the last several decades, but whose significance has become fully apparent only recently.

From this poll's beginning, there have been years when change was evident from the gender, ethnicity or relatively young age of some musicians in the Top 10. That isn't as true this time around. Counting Cherry, only five women are in the Top 50, led by Anat Cohen at No. 15; an Israeli transplant, the clarinetist and saxophonist is also this year's highest-ranking foreign-born musician. After Iyer, the next-highest-ranking non-African-American or Latino person of color is saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh at No. 23. At least youth was represented in the Top 10, where the age spread goes from No. 4 Ryan Truesdell (also this year's Best Debut Album winner) and No. 9 Steve Lehman, both in their early thirties, to Rivers, who died in 2011 at the age of 88. Iyer and No. 5 Ravi Coltrane are in their forties, No. 7 Branford Marsalis and No. 8 Tim Berne are in their fifties, No. 6 Henry Threadgill is in his sixties, and Smith and No. 10 Billy Hart are just over 70.

But this year's revelation isn't so much who finished where as who's playing what. One sign of change can be gleaned from seeing tunes originated by Heatwave, Michael Jackson and Flying Lotus listed alongside numbers by Duke Ellington, Herbie Nichols and Iyer himself on Accelerando, and Suicide, MF Doom and Iggy Pop tunes alongside Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman numbers on The Cherry Thing. A persistent worry as recently as a decade ago, when it seemed as if the only standards most younger musicians were conversant with were those Miles and Coltrane happened to record in the 1950s, was that the common jazz repertoire was shrinking. Now, it's expanding in ways that no one saw coming -- though no one younger than 60 and disinclined to worry about musical categories refers to "standards" anymore. The word today is "covers," and I bet that's even how Dave Douglas would characterize his interpretations of traditional Protestant hymns on his No. 22 album, Be Still.

Some things never change, of course, and original compositions of varying ambition (and, for that matter, originality) dominate most of the albums in the Top 10, including Accelerando. But even on these, a trend that’s been gathering momentum by fits and starts for several decades finally seems to have reached critical mass. At least seven of these 10 albums find musicians partaking of the rhythmic and harmonic liberties of free jazz without sacrificing form to free's hell-bent improvisational ethic -- like covers, a trend that figures to continue as the boundaries between the avant-garde and the mainstream become more and more blurred.

Along with Marsalis' frisky neo-bop (and arguably, Rivers' themeless, but hardly formless, group improvisations), the other obvious exception is Truesdell's Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans, with its painstaking and loving excavations of unrecorded charts from the late 1940s to the 1970s. But Evans always was a special case. He was a one-man avant-garde, as demonstrated by one of Truesdell’s most thrilling finds, a proto-Third Stream adaptation of Delius' "The Maids of Cadiz" from 1950. It was recorded six years before the famous, scaled-down version on Miles Ahead -- and was originally crafted for Claude Thornhill's popular dance band, no less!

As the votes were counted in our poll, the lead in the race for Album of the Year kept changing from Accelerando to Reunion to Ten Freedom Summers with each new ballot. The early favorite pulled safely ahead only with the last few of the 119 votes cast. Participants were asked to list 10 albums in descending order, with 10 points awarded for their No. 1, nine for No. 2, etc. (Six critics insisted on listing their choices alphabetically, allocating points equally.) Two albums collected more than 50 percent of their total points from first-place votes, and neither of these was the winner or runner-up. Ten Freedom Summers placed first on 15 ballots and Centennial on 11, including mine -- the same number as Accelerando (to seven for Reunion).

Looking for commonality in the Top 10, most of these albums (including Centennial, which adds guest soloists and singers to an orchestra on loan from Maria Schneider) benefit from a cohesion and shared savvy of a sort characteristic only of working bands (or in the case of Rivers and crew, what was once a working band). So I guess the closeness of the race for the top spot wasn't all that was tight. A few specific observations:

1. Vijay Iyer Trio, Accelerando (ACT)
If you listen for it, Iyer's approach to leading a trio echoes Ahmad Jamal's. Though the former's climaxes are crowded with notes where the latter's are spare, both styles pivot not just on thinking of the piano as an orchestra in miniature, but also on assigning orchestral roles to bass and drums as well. The breathtaker here is another spin on M.J.'s "Human Nature," toughened and greatly expanded from the version on Iyer's 2010 album, Solo, and building to a tremolo hailstorm.

2. Sam Rivers / Dave Holland / Barry Altschul, Reunion: Live in New York (Pi)
Rivers, who might be the only musician ever to have worked (separately) with Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor and Dizzy Gillespie, didn't start recording until he was close to 40, and was still going strong past 80. Because he was also a daring composer, this wouldn't be my first recommendation as an introduction: Try either of his first two '60s Blue Notes, maybe followed by one of his later orchestral efforts. And I feel here the way I often did about his '70s trio LPs and concerts (many with a different drummer and tuba instead of bass): that the spell he creates on tenor dissipates somewhat when he switches to piano, flute or even soprano. But sparks fly for long stretches here, and if you're eager to hear three master improvisers taking communicable pleasure in one another's ideas live, you couldn't do any better.

3. Wadada Leo Smith, Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform)
A staggering achievement, with the dramatic sweep of the trumpeter's writing (for both a chamber orchestra and his own small group, with Anthony Davis absolutely dazzling on piano) doing justice to the boldness of the concept: a non-programmatic collection of pieces tracing the struggle for black Civil Rights from Dred Scott to the present day. It merits comparison to Coltrane's A Love Supreme in sobriety and reach.

4. Ryan Truesdell, Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans (ArtistShare)
This triumph of interpretation ironically takes fuller measure of Evans' sempiternal genius than any single album of his own, including compilations, ever could. Together with his innovative, pre-Birth of the Cool Thornhill charts and unused work-for-hire arrangements for forgotten 1950s singers' dates, it also presents lavish and ambitious originals from later years that Evans never recorded to his own satisfaction. These include the tabla-driven "Punjab" and a 19-minute medley of three pieces from his score to the ill-fated 1963 stage drama Time of the Barracudas. I've got to think he'd be pleased with these performances, which capture so many of the subtleties other interpreters have missed that I can hardly wait for an album of Truesdell's own compositions.

5. Ravi Coltrane, Spirit Fiction (Blue Note)
His first album for the most storied of jazz labels was well worth the wait. It's a fully mature effort, spotlighting him with two different units and eschewing breast-beating solos for close group interaction.

6. Henry Threadgill Zooid, Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp (Pi)
The altoist and flutist's third consecutive album with this particular instrumental configuration. But the sound of his alto or flute soaring above cello and tuba -- and Liberty Ellman's guitar stitching through them -- somehow never grows predictable.

7. Branford Marsalis Quartet, Four MFs Playin' Tunes (Marsalis Music)
The playing is spirited throughout; the choicest tune, not surprisingly, is Monk's "Teo," boasting some booting Marsalis tenor and showing off the group's new young drummer, Jason Faulkner, to full advantage.

8. Tim Berne, Snakeoil (ECM)
Quieter and more reflective than many of the saxophonist's albums on his own Screwgun label, but better for being so and -- in a credit to the integrity of the often-maligned Manfred Eicher -- in no way your stereotypical ECM release. Oscar Noriega's clarinet blends evocatively with Berne's alto, Ches Smith's drums keep things moving, and Matt Mitchell's piano adds intrigue (he's clearly one to watch).

9. Steve Lehman Trio, Dialect Fluorescent (Pi)
A few interspersed standards give this the flavor of one of Jackie McLean's early Blue Notes -- high praise -- though this altoist's approach to harmony is more analytical, and his tone harsher and even more deliberately strident.

10. Billy Hart, All Our Reasons (ECM)
The veteran drummer is listed as leader in recognition of his seniority, but pianist Ethan Iverson, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and bassist Ben Street are his equals in a brainy, lyrically inclined quartet.

This year's reissue winner (available only by mail order from mosaicrecords.com) is especially valuable for shining light on the murky period just before Mingus withdrew from public performance for six years to work on his autobiography and battle what was probably clinical depression, if not paranoid schizophrenia. It also boasts standout turns by Eric Dolphy, Jaki Byard and Clifford Jordan (among others). Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions 1922-1947, another Mosaic box and the runner-up, makes sense of a body of work central to the evolution of jazz from Armstrong to Parker that until now had been hopelessly scattered among numerous collections. Both were on my own ballot, along with the poll's Big Four, though in a different order:

1. Ryan Truesdell, Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans

2. Wadada Leo Smith, Ten Freedom Summers

3. Jacob Garchik, The Heavens: The Atheist Gospel Trombone Album (Yesterve)
Gospel choirs are as much about coming together in community as they are about worship. This heady, doggedly secular reimagining of the concept is a solo album, with a young white trombonist overdubbing himself on four other brass instruments for a program of originals that borrow from traditional gospel only call-and-response, and perhaps the belief that making a joyous noise is a surefire way of getting in touch with something larger and mightier than oneself. Captivating, occasionally startling and altogether brilliant.

4. Sam Rivers / Dave Holland / Barry Altschul, Reunion: Live in New York

5. Vijay Iyer Trio, Accelerando

6. The Whammies, Play the Music of Steve Lacy (Driff)
A gaggle of avant-gardists from Boston, Chicago and Holland (including the irrepressible Han Bennink on drums) shows that the trick to playing Lacy is recognizing that Monk's jerky rhythms and dance steps were always somewhere in the back of his mind -- and more often than not, right up front.

7. Lee Konitz / Bill Frisell / Gary Peacock / Joey Baron, Enfants Terribles (HalfNote)
"Konitz" might as well be shorthand for both improvisational lucidity and clarity of tone, and the added pleasure on this New York club date is hearing guitarist Frisell dovetail the great alto saxophonist's phrases as if reading his mind.

8. Josh Berman & His Gang, There Now (Delmark)
Doing, or maybe I mean "undoing," post-Prohibition warhorses like "Jada" and "I've Found a New Baby," a clique of young Chicagoans establishes a link between Eddie Condon's inner circle and the AACM -- and their own link to both. A great introduction, should one be needed, to many of the players currently revitalizing Windy City jazz, including trumpeter Berman, tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz.

9. Matthew Shipp Trio, Elastic Aspects (Thirsty Ear)
The edgy pianist at his most playful and probing.

10. John Abercrombie Quartet, Within a Song (ECM)
Though nominally a sideman here, Joe Lovano proves once again that he might be the greatest ballad player of his generation. And the guitarist leader is his perfect match.

I must be coming down with trombone-itis, because my Honorable Mentions begin with Joe Fiedler's Big Sackbut (Yellow Sound) -- another polyphonic brass choir, but this one involving three trombones and a tuba. Others: Theo Bleckmann, Hello Earth!: The Music of Kate Bush (Winter & Winter); Ravi Coltrane, Spirit Fiction (Blue Note); Chick Corea / Eddie Gomez / Paul Motian, Further Explorations (Concord Jazz); Charlie Haden & Hank Jones, Come Sunday (EmArcy); Mary Halvorson Quintet, Bending Bridges (Firehouse 12); Eivind Opsvik, Overseas IV (Loyal Label); Platform 1, Takes Off (Clean Feed); Jason Robinson, Tiresian Symmetry (Cuneiform); David Virelles, Continuum (Pi).

My Best Reissues picks: Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions 1922-1947; Mingus, The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-5; Louis Armstrong, Satchmo at Symphony Hall 65th Anniversary: The Complete Performances (Verve). Best Vocal: Catherine Russell, Strictly Romancin' (World Village). Best Debut: Truesdell, Centennial (ArtistShare). Best Latin: Original Soundtrack, Chico & Rita (Callé 54/Sony).

A complete database of voter ballots can be found here. Special thanks to all the voters: David R. Adler, Scott Albin, Clifford Allen, A.D. Amorosi, Larry Appelbaum, Hrayr Attarian, Chris Barton, Angelika Beener, Bill Beuttler, Nick Bewesy, Larry Birnbaum, Larry Blumenfeld, Bob Blumenthal, Philip Booth, Michael Bourne, Shaun Brady, Marcella Breton, Stuart Broomer, John Chacona, Allan Chase, Nate Chinen, Troy Collins, Thomas Conrad, J.D. Considine, Michael Coyle, Francis Davis, Steve Dollar, Laurence Donohue-Greene, Alain Drout, Ken Dryden, Steve Feeney, Sean Fitzell, Ken Franckling, David Fricke, Richard Gehr, Andrew Gilbert, Ted Gioia, George Grella, Steve Greenlee, Laurel Gross, Evan Haga, James Hale, Ed Hazell, Don Heckman, Alex Henderson, Tad Hendrickson, Andrey Henkin, Geoffrey Himes, Eugene Holley, Mark Holston, Lyn Horton, Tom Hull, Peter Hum, Robert Iannapollo, Patrick Jarenwattananon, Willard Jenkins, Rob Johnson, Richard B. Kamins, George Kanzler, Fred Kaplan, Matthew Kassel, Elzy Kolb, David Kunian, Joe Lang, Art Lange, Josh Langhoff, John Litweiler, Martin Longley, Kevin Lynch, Jim Macnie, Howard Mandel, Peter Margasak, Bill Milkowski, Chris Monsen, John Frederick Moore, Dan Morgenstern, Russ Musto, Marc Myers, Michael G. Nastos, Stuart Nicholson, Tim Niland, Dan Ouellette, Thierry Peremarti, Bob Porter, Derk Richardson, Joel Roberts, Chris Robinson, Britt Robson, Michael Rosenstein, Giovanni Russonello, Lloyd Sachs, Bret Saunders, Gene Seymour, Mike Shanley, John Sharpe, Hank Shteamer, Karl Stark, Chip Stern, Zan Stewart, Jeff Stockton, W. Royal Stokes, Mark Stryker, John F. Szwed, Jeff Tamarkin, Derek Taylor, Neil Tesser, Michael Ullman, Ludwig Van Trikt, George Varga, Seth Colter Walls, Ken Waxman, Jon Wertheim, Jason Weiss, Ken Weiss, Michael J. West, Kevin Whitehead, Carlo Wolff, Josef Woodard, Scott Yanow.

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