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Why The 2016 Jazz Critics Poll Belongs To The Avant Gentry

Jazz critic Francis Davis says two 2016 projects from Wadada Leo Smith are are must-listens: his solo record, <em>America's National Parks, </em>and his collaboration with Vijay Iyer,<strong> </strong><em>A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke.</em><strong> </strong>
Scott Groller
Courtesy of the artist
Jazz critic Francis Davis says two 2016 projects from Wadada Leo Smith are are must-listens: his solo record, America's National Parks, and his collaboration with Vijay Iyer, A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke.

The results of this year's Jazz Critics Poll — NPR's fourth annual and my 11th, counting from its 2006 inception in the Village Voice — slightly resemble those of the last two. Henry Threadgill, Jack DeJohnette, Mary Halvorson and Vijay Iyer all are repeaters from last year's Top 10, and Steve Lehman and Wadada Leo Smith are back from 2014's, when they finished No. 1 and No. 2. With Smith, Threadgill and DeJohnette all over 70, and Charlie Haden 76 when he died two years ago, the average age of the musicians in this year's Top 10 might be the oldest since '06, when Nels Cline (No. 7 this year and 10 years older) was the baby at 50.

That's the troubling news, if you choose to see it as a sign of jazz's dwindling life expectancy. I don't. The 2016 honor roll also includes Halvorson and Lehman, both in their 30s, and two-time winner Iyer, who isn't significantly older. And slightly further down the list, in the Top 20, are Darcy James Argue, Tyshawn Sorey and Jonathan Finlayson, all past winners in Debut (the poll's equivalent of Rookie of the Year). Gregory Porter, who made the Top 50, and Noah Preminger, who just missed, are also previous winners in this category. Besides, watching the polls as long as I have has taught me the folly of drawing conclusions about the state of jazz's creative health from just one year's standings.

Over the last 11 years, the poll has shown critical consensus forming behind the above-named musicians, plus others including JD Allen(No. 13 this year) and Cecile McLorin Salvant. And if you go by magazine covers and White House invitations, 2016's breakout jazz star was Joey Alexander, a 13-year-old piano prodigy about whom this poll's voters seem to be wisely playing wait-and-see (some of us overheard mumbling about child labor laws).

But the year belonged to what I think of as avant elders, or better yet, the avant gentry — musicians who have remained in the jazz vanguard for three to five decades now. Threadgill made his recording debut in 1970, on a date by Muhal Richard Abrams that teamed him with Wadada Leo Smith on the front line; both went on to become guiding lights in the Chicago AACM and its New York diaspora. Haden and Carla Bley (who deserves a career retrospective as well as co-leader billing on Time/Lines) were there for the birth of free jazz, as was No. 19 Andrew Cyrille. No. 14 David Murray and the individual members of Smith's rhythm section on America's National Parks (Anthony Davis, John Lindberg and Pheeroan akLaff) were among those who reenergized the avant-garde in the late 1970s and early-1980s. And DeJohnette, though most associated these days with '70s Miles and Keith Jarrett's Standards Trio, has had one foot in the avant-garde since his apprenticeship in Chicago, as an AACM fellow traveler — witness his frequent reunions with Smith. Though they'd be entitled, these musicians aren't riffing on their laurels. Smith and Threadgill, in particular, are making perhaps the most adventurous music of their careers, and this year's poll reflects that.

My own album choices require explanation. I asserted pollmaster's privilege in splitting some of my votes between different albums. But in each case, in compliance with the rules I set for my colleagues, only one album — indicated by an asterisk — received points and appears on my actual ballot.

My Top 10

  • Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs
  • Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra, Time/Life
  • *Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith, A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke/Wadada Leo Smith, America's National Parks
    I felt I had to take my pick, but you don't. You need to hear both of these.
  • Sonny Rollins, Holding the Stage: Road Shows, Vol. 4
    More from the great one's personal concert archive, spanning more than 30 years (1979-2012). He's transcendent throughout, and the period funk and superfluous percussion on the stuff from the early '80s gives him an awful lot to transcend. But who would have guessed that '79's "Disco Monk" would sound as fresh as it does all these years later, when it seemed so dated way back then (too bad nothing can be done about that title).
  • Aruán Ortiz Trio, Hidden Voices
    The year's best piano trio album (with Eric Revis on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums) lets you imagine what it must have been like first hearing Andrew Hill on Blue Note in the 1960s. Ortiz has shown enormous potential on a handful of earlier recordings as a sideman or leader, and here he delivers on that potential and then some. His taste in covers is inspired (Monk's "Skippy" and a pair by Ornette Coleman), his attack is bracingly percussive and his phrases come at you in waves or shards.
  • Mary Halvorson Octet, Away with You
  • Michael Formanek Ensemble Kolossus, The Distance
  • *Michael Bisio & Kirk Knuffke, Row for William O./Whit Dickey & Kirk Knuffke, Fierce Silence
    Knuffke, Ambose Akinmusire's only rival among young trumpeters, excels at duets, and you can't go wrong with either of these, the first with a perennially overlooked bassist (the "row" is a tone row, "William O." the clarinetist and third-stream composer William O. Smith); the other with one of David S. Ware's former drummers (featuring only relaxed tempos, surprisingly).
  • *JD Allen, Americana: Musings on Jazz & Blues/Noah Preminger, Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground
    Surely nothing more than coincidence that two of today's rising young tenors released, only months apart, meditations on the role of the blues in shaping jazz. On the other hand, both have recently worked with the saxophonist and composer Allen Lowe, one of whose many obsessions is the exact nature of the blues.
  • Julian Lage, Arclight
    Gary Burton's former guitarist usually plays acoustic, but this lyrical outing with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenny Wolleson, featuring a range of material from W.C. Handy's "Harlem Blues" to a jaunty Lage surf original that would have suited Dick Dale or the Ventures to a tee, is electric in more ways than one.

  • Honorable Mention
    (including a few things I overlooked last year)

  • Rodrigo Amado, Desire and Freedom
  • Ehud Asherie, Shuffle Along
  • Uri Caine Trio, Calibrated Thickness
  • Hamilton de Holanda, World of Pixinguinha
  • Jack DeJohnette / Ravi Coltrane / Matthew Garrison, In Movement
  • Nancy Harms, Ellington at Night
  • Tony Malaby Paloma Recio, Incantations
  • Ches Smith, The Bells
  • Tyshawn Sorey, The Inner Spectrum of Variables
  • Steve Swell's Kende Dreams, Hommage à Bartok

  • Reissue/Rara Avis

  • Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, All My Yesterdays: The Debut 1966 Village Vanguard Recordings
  • Bill Evans, Some Other Time: The Lost Sessions from the Black Forest
  • Mahalia Jackson, Moving on up a Little Higher

  • Vocal

  • Catherine Russell, Harlem on My Mind

  • Debut

  • Ron Stabinsky, Free for One
  • David James's GPS, Billionaire Blues

  • Latin

  • Orbert Davis Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble, Havana Blue
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    Francis Davis
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