Sonnymoon for All: Rhapsody's 2011 Jazz Critics' Poll
by | January 10, 2012
Welcome to Rhapsody's first annual Jazz Critics' Poll, wherein 120+ national writers voted on their favorite albums of the year in a tradition we're taking on from the Village Voice. Your host is author/critic Francis Davis, with an in-depth look at the 2011 results. Enjoy.
"And so, the Jazz Event of 2010 begat the Best Jazz Album of 2011...."
In my liner notes to Sonny Rollins' Road Shows, Vol. 2 -- Album of the Year in my sixth annual Jazz Critics Poll (and the first conducted for Rhapsody) -- I suggested a better title might be The 80th Birthday Concert Plus, because along with an opening and a brief closing number from Japan the following month, the album draws heavily from the tenor saxophonist's instantly legendary September 2010 show at New York's Beacon Theater. So, it turns out you didn't have to be there, after all -- though, as someone who was, let me tell you that no recording can capture the jolt of anticipation that shot through the packed house when unannounced special guest Ornette Coleman tottered in from the wings to join Sonny, Roy Haynes and Christian McBride 10 minutes into an already electrifying "Sonnymoon for Two."
Exchanging nods of astonishment with the New York cognoscenti (including numerous devotees of free improvisation whose ears usually go numb at the mere suggestion of a recognizable melody or blues riff) as I exited the Beacon that night, the thought occurred to me that if Rollins were to approve a commercial release, there might be no need for a poll. I could simply introduce a resolution naming it Album of the Year by unanimous consent. Going into this year's poll, the only question seemed to be Road Shows, Vol. 2's margin of victory.
The final count was 230.5 points to 178 for the runner-up, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire's When the Heart Emerges Glistening -- respectable, but hardly the landslide I expected. (Each critic voted for 10 records, with his or her first choice getting 10 points, the second choice nine points, and so on.) Road Shows, Vol. 2 was named on 36 ballots, more than any other 2011 release except for the top two finishers in the Best Reissue category, Miles Davis's Live in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Vol. 1 (a "reissue" by virtue of those boots alluded to in the subtitle) and Julius Hemphill's Dogon A.D., respectively. But with a record 122 print journalists, bloggers and broadcasters weighing in, this means the winner appeared on fewer than one-third of the ballots. Those liner notes prohibited me from including Rollins on my Top 10, but what excuse did anyone else have?
I can think of a few. Despite decreasing major-label activity, 2011 was a bountiful year for jazz albums: Akinmusire, perennial contender Joe Lovano, Miguel Zenón, Craig Taborn, Matthew Shipp, Lee Konitz and Rudresh Mahanthappa all drew strong support, spreading the points around. In jazz as in pop, one's choice for Album of the Year tends to canonize what's perceived as a Defining Moment, and epochal though Road Shows, Vol. 2 may be (as much for displaying Rollins' unflagging vigor since turning 80 as for documenting his only public encounter with Ornette), the moments that won the saxophonist recognition as our greatest living improviser are decades behind him. To find what many would argue were this year's defining moments, one needs to go down the list -- to Akinmusire's Blue Note debut, Lovano's Charlie Parker tribute, Zenón's valentine to vintage Puerto Rican song, Taborn's first solo-piano album, maybe even Terri Lyne Carrington's all-female, modal/funk '70s throwback.
Something else to consider is that as participation in this poll increases annually, so does the percentage of what I intend no disrespect in referring to as special-interest voters. I identify as many as three dozen of them this year: voters whose passion for one subgenre (Afro-Cuban, vocal, appeals to black identity, European free improvisation, New York downtown ecstatic, whatever) leaves no room for anything else on their ballots, and maybe no room for anything else in their hearts. The upshot of all this may be that no future winner will come close to being named on 50 percent of the ballots, as Jason Moran's Ten did in topping last year's slate. But in a poll as pluralistic as this one tries to be -- one in which fringe enthusiasms never completely cancel one another out -- fragmentation of the vote isn't necessarily an unfortunate development. It practically guarantees a varied Top 10, and this year's is no exception.
1) Sonny Rollins, Road Shows, Vol. 2 (Doxy/Emarcy). It's a more organic album than 2008's poll-topping Vol. 1, which compiled live performances recorded over a 27-year span. And even though journalistic propriety says I should sit this one out, I can't stop myself from observing that while Sonny's willingness to follow Ornette out on a limb on "Sonnymoon for Two" provides the major revelation, his fours with drummer Kobie Watkins on the Japanese version of "They Say It's Wonderful" are as spine-tingling in their own way.
2) Ambrose Akinmusire, When the Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note). How often does one get to say "major-label debut" anymore? This one is remarkably self-assured, the young trumpeter focusing our attention on the inner workings of his quintet, confident that a trumpet style as brilliant as his will be approvingly noticed in the bargain.
3) Joe Lovano Us Five, Bird Songs (Blue Note). Further evidence that the tenor saxophonist's two-drummer quintet is among today's hottest and tightest working units, even if the liberties they take with Charlie Parker don't go nearly far enough to justify taking them.
4) Miguel Zenón, Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook (Marsalis Music). Also this year's Best Latin Album winner. The ballads and boleros the altoist has chosen are lovely (likewise Guillermo Klein's orchestrations), and his solos are swift and rending.
5) Craig Taborn, Avenging Angel (ECM). Solo piano as probing and idiosyncratically lyrical as his tussles with horns on so many of the last decade's most engrossing albums led us to expect. My only niggle is with the hushed recording ambiance typical of ECM, which occasionally makes Taborn sound like numerous other pianists on the label's roster.
6) Matthew Shipp, Art of the Improviser (Thirsty Ear). No hush of any sort in this pianist's approach. Two discs, one solo and the other trio, both recorded live and each capturing the fury of Shipp's attack and the calm logic with which he assembles chords and clusters into massive blocks of sound.
7) Lee Konitz-Brad Mehldau-Charlie Haden-Paul Motian, Live at Birdland (ECM). Occasional disagreements over chord progressions (Mehldau invariably correct, but Konitz unfailingly right) only enhance the sensation of eavesdropping on conversations in which the power of understatement and the Euclidean mysteries of the American songbook are the only things agreed upon up front.
8) Rudresh Mahanthappa, Samdhi (ACT). Another of those cross-cultural fact-finding missions that are becoming as much of a Mahanthappa signature as his fat, umber tone--this time involving electronica, traditional Carnatic music, hip-hop beats and fond adolescent memories of The Yellowjackets and David Sanborn. It shouldn't all work, yet somehow it does.
9) JD Allen, Victory! (Sunnyside). Up to the Sonny Rollins challenge, a young tenor saxophonist dispenses with piano to spar with bass and drums, and the results are exciting enough to renew your faith in hard bop.
10) (tie) Terri Lyne Carrington, The Mosaic Project (Concord Jazz). Right down to the Angela Davis sample, this sounds to me like one of those lesser, consciousness-raising Strata-East or Flying Dutchman LPs of the early 1970s -- but with the kind of studio gossamer that's often a drawback of greater professionalism and a bigger budget. Among the featured singers is Gretchen Parlato, this year's Best Vocal Album winner for The Lost and Found (her second triumph in three years), whose mewing stylings do nothing for me, either.
10) (tie) Charles Lloyd & Maria Farantouri, Athens Concert (ECM). The Jason Moran-anchored rhythm section does its usual fine job of bracing the tenorist leader. But the double album's greatest pleasure is the co-billed Greek singer, who's been likened to both Abbey Lincoln and Buika (the Majorcan singer featured this year in Almodovar's The Skin I Live In), and whose forthright emotional expression requires no translation.
Especially with Rollins missing, my own Top 10 is so at odds with the poll results as to seem obstinately contrarian even to me. What can I say? I heard them I heard, and liked them I liked.
1) Dave Douglas, Three Views: Greenleaf Portable Series 1-3 (Greenleaf). A boxed set combining three albums available for streaming on the trumpeter's website earlier in the year, and presenting something close to a full picture of one of the most protean figures in contemporary music. Rare Metals, with his band Brass Ecstasy, opens with a piece that imagines what a minuet composed by Charles Ives or a brooding young Charles Mingus might have sounded like. Orange Afternoons showcases a slightly left-of-mainstream quintet featuring Ravi Coltrane and Vijay Iyer. And Bad Mango, a collaboration with the avant-garde classical ensemble Sō Percussion, demonstrates Douglas' continued ability to pull whatever excites his imagination into the jazz sphere.
2) James Carter, Caribbean Rhapsody (Emarcy). Vivacious, and a landmark in the history of jazz-and-classical cross-pollination, not to mention a career milestone for the saxophonist. The title piece's slower sections and those of a companion concerto (both written by Roberto Sierra) are tender and genuinely moving, and I mean it as praise when I say that the fast movements come off like encores -- numbers designed to allow the featured virtuoso to display his vim and vigor, and to send the audience home without its feet touching the ground.
3) Tony Malaby, Novella (Clean Feed). A retrospective only in that the tenor and soprano saxophonist has previously recorded all six of his compositions here with various small groups under his own name. Pianist Kris Davis's arrangements for a nine-member ensemble heavy on low brass and reeds draw out the grandeur in Malaby's writing, making these pieces sound newly minted for this instrumentation. And the barreling solos -- by Malaby, Davis, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, trombonist Ben Gerstein, and others -- match the writing for depth and intensity.
4) Trio M, The Guest House (Enja). Long among the most engrossing of jazz pianists, Myra Melford lately seems to have entered a phase where she can do no wrong, to judge from her work here as well as on 2010's The Whole Tree Gone (with her ensemble Be Bread) and half of Steven Lugerner's Narratives/These Are the Words (my choice for 2011's Best Debut). With all three members contributing numbers, this trio with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Matt Wilson knows how to keep things tight while leaving plenty of room for stretching both rhythmically and harmonically.
5) Roswell Rudd, The Incredible Honk (Sunnyside). Surrounded here and there by fiddle, sheng, ngoniba, calabash, ngoni bass and other folkloric instruments as well as more conventional jazz accompaniment, the greatest living jazz trombonist wastes no time going straight for the heart on every number of a program concluding with the most convincing, beer-stained "Danny Boy" since Ben Webster's.
6) Jason Kao Hwang/Spontaneous River, Symphony of Souls (Mulatta). Embracing Butch Morris's method of "conduction" as a means of composing in real time, the Chinese-American violinist presides over a swarm of improvising strings -- three dozen of them, including a half-dozen bassists -- plus Andrew Drury's drums for an hour-long work balancing beauty and cacophony in equal measure, finally staking common ground between the two.
7) Nice Guy Trio, Sidewalks and Alleys/Waking Music (Porto Franco). Trumpeter Darren Johnston, bassist Daniel Fabricant and accordionist Rob Reich--Bay-Area-based, and presumably nice guys all--have added a string quartet for their second album together, with fantastic results. The program consists of two song cycles, one each by Reich and Johnston, and it isn't only the former's squeeze box and tango savvy that's going to have you thinking of Astor Piazzolla. This music is light on its feet, but with hints of an enfolding darkness on the way.
8) Ellery Eskelin, Trio New York (Prime Source). A different sort of organ combo, with drummer Gerald Cleaver eschewing the merest hint of propulsion and Gary Versace coming up with such an odd and disquieting assortment of sounds you're half-convinced he must be augmenting his Hammond B-3 with a synthesizer. The leader loves the hard-boiled tenor tradition once embodied by Gene Ammons and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, and because he remains in touch with the combination of the tender and the brusque central to the code even at his most abstract, these open-ended ballad interpretations are as moving as they are thought-provoking.
9) JD Allen, Victory! (Sunnyside). See above.
10) Darius Jones & Matthew Shipp, Cosmic Lieder (AUM Fidelity). My favorite among the numerous albums Shipp released in celebration of his 50th birthday last year is this one of spontaneous but disciplined and economical duets with a rising alto saxophonist who combines avant-garde leanings and a full, ripe tone like no one since '70s Arthur Blythe.
11) Dollshot: Dollshot (Underwolf). The poll's Top 10 actually numbers 11, so I figured what the hell. This obscure DIY from a quartet co-led by the Kaplans, saxophonist Noah and singer Rosalie, features inventive reinterpretations of art songs by Ives, Poulenc and Schoenberg--though what grabbed me were pianist Wes Matthews' minimalist composition "The Trees" and a skittering "Here's That Rainy Day," delivered by Rosalie as if it were an art song.
Honorable Mention: BassDrumBone (Ray Anderson-Mark Helias-Gerry Hemmingway), The Other Parade (Clean Feed); Matt Bauder, Day in Pictures (Clean Feed); Ran Blake, Grey December Live in Rome (Tompkins Square); Brian Carpenter's Ghost Train Orchestra, Hothouse Stomp; Stephan Crump & Steve Lehman, Kaleidoscope and Collage (Intakt); Satoko Fujii Min-Yoh Ensemble, Watershed (Libra); Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya, Sotho Blue (Intuition/Sunnyside); Klang, Other Doors (Allos Documents); Cuong Vu 4-tet, Leaps of Faith (Origin); We3 (Dave Liebman-Adam Nussbaum-Steve Swallow), Amazing (Kind of Blue); Gerald Wilson Orchestra, Legacy (Mack Avenue).
Reissues: Miles Davis Quintet, Live in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Vol. 1 (Sony Legacy); Bill Dixon, Intents and Purposes (International Phonogram); Aretha Franklin, Take a Look: Complete Aretha Franklin on Columbia (Columbia/Legacy).
Debuts: Stephen Lugerner, Narratives/These Are the Words (self-released); Daniel Rosenthal, Lines (American Melody).
Latin: David Murray Cuban Ensemble Plays Nat King Cole in Español (Motéma).
Takeaways from this year's poll? There are seven saxophonists in the Top 10 and 11 in the Top 20, but this strikes me as a release-schedule quirk. Including the cameos by Ornette, Haynes, and Jim Hall on the Rollins CD, a half-dozen musicians 80 or above are represented in the Top 12 (the others are Konitz, Motian, and Muhal Richard Abrams). The unprecedented appearance of four two-time winners (Rollins, Davis in Reissue, Parlato in Vocal and Zenón in Latin) seems to indicate consensus hardening around a handful of old and new favorites. (This year's only first-time winner was vibraphonist Chris Dingman, who took Best Debut with Waking Dream--a category in which there can be no repeat winners.)
Fifty years ago, Record of the Year might have been a close battle between Sonny and Miles; the former looms before us larger than ever, and the latter is still very much on our minds. But you don't have to go very far down the standings to find performers who weren't even close to being born in 1961, some so young they began their recording careers around the millennium or just before: Akinmusire, Zenón, Taborn, Mehldau, Mahanthappa, Matana Roberts, Tyshawn Sorey, Darius Jones, Parlatto, Anat and Avashi Cohen, Amir ElSaffar, Aaron Goldberg and Tony Malaby--and that takes us only to no. 30. I can't swear to it, because I've seen only about half of this year's participants in person (and everybody looks young to me at my age), but I'm guessing Rollins' winning margin came from voters 50 and up, and that if I ran the numbers for participants 40 and under, their generational peers Akinmusire, Zenón, and Taborn would finish 1-2-3, though not necessarily in that order.
For better or worse, the elder worship that prevailed in jazz even during the Young Lion craze of the 1990s finally seems to be a thing of the past. But if it's fair to say that younger musicians dominated this year's poll, the final standings acknowledge that Rollins and the others are no ordinary elders. They either launched their own movements (Ornette with free jazz, Abrams via the AACM) or have outlasted whatever movements they were once considered part of (Rollins, Konitz, Hall, Motian and Haynes). In the end, a race for Record of the Year between an 81-year-old saxophonist and a 29-year-old trumpeter is reason to cheer, no matter which of them finishes on top.
A number of voters commented that their ballots might be different given another week or two to reflect. Try another three or four decades. With its extended performances by the most influential band of its time or ours, Miles' Live in Europe 1967 was a cinch for Best Reissue. But close behind it were Dogon A.D. and Bill Dixon's Intents and Purposes, limited-edition CD reissues of LPs (from 1973 and 1967, respectively) that flew too far below the radar to show up on lists in their own era. Reissues foster hindsight, a luxury not afforded by new releases--something to bear in mind as you peruse these results, and to keep in mind should you happen to glance at them again years from now.
My closing words are reserved for Paul Blair, the editor of the New York-based giveaway Hot House, who died of a heart attack on December 7 at the age of 69, a week after emailing me his Top 10. Also a licensed tour guide, Paul wrote me that he'd be more confident submitting a list of the 10 best diners in the northeastern United States. I dared him to find me one near my home in Philadelphia. He never got back to me, so I guess I'll just have to keep looking.
Thanks to all 122 of the voters who answered my call this year; the full roster is appended to the results, with full ballots available here.