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Downbeat Critics Poll: 2007
I'm a little late getting around to my annual second guessing of Downbeat's critics poll. Actually, not much later than last year, when I posted on Aug. 28. That one was a clipped rush job, so I'll continue the same format: list the category and winner in bold, with RS standing for "Rising Star." If I disagree, I'll try first to pull an alternate choice from the runner-up lists, but I may also reach for a left-field pick. We'll see; here goes.
Hall of Fame: Andrew Hill. With only two per year -- one from the critics here and one from the fans later on -- they're always playing catch-up. They plum forgot about Jackie McLean until they read his obit, and this year #1 and #2 both came the same way. Hill's a good choice, as are about half of those listed, and most likely a couple dozen more. I'd give Hill a slight edge over Sam Rivers, whose career closely parallels Hill's but hardly has a chance. The top two living players (#3 Lee Konitz, #4 Hank Jones) go back further than Hill. I have no brief for #2 Michael Brecker. It'd take some sorting to figure out who off the list should get some serious consideration. On the other hand, Maynard Ferguson and Frank Zappa are in (the latter by the critics, no less), so maybe it's not worth the trouble.
Jazz Album: Ornette Coleman, Sound Grammar. I had it #1, too.
Historical Album: Miles Davis, The Legendary Prestige Sessions. I'd go with #4, Fats Waller, If You Got to Ask, You Ain't Got It! The ones I didn't get are on Mosaic, except for #12 Evan Parker, The Topography of the Lungs.
Jazz Artist: Ornette Coleman. Hard to argue with, as long as he bothers to record. RS: Vijay Iyer. Reasonable choice, whatever the concept means. Ken Vandermark was off the list. He's older than anyone on the RS list (except Tomasz Stanko, 65); younger than anyone on the Ornette list (except Brad Mehldau, 37; in both cases throwing out 1964 matches, meaning Matt Wilson and Dave Douglas).
Jazz Group: Dave Holland Quintet. Note that Vandermark 5 didn't make the list, nor did World Saxophone Quartet. RS: Jason Moran's Bandwagon / Matt Wilson's Arts & Crafts (tie). I have a cognitive problem here which inclines me to throw out every group named for its leader, which leaves #9 Bad Plus and #10 Electric Masada on the big list; #3 SFJAZZ Collective, #4 Claudia Quintet, #5 Bad Plus, #10 Atomic, and #11 Sex Mob for RS. That doesn't help much, but Claudia Quintet continued its run, while Bad Plus has stumbled a bit. Some other real groups in the running: Burnt Sugar, Happy Apple, Sonic Liberation Front, Zu.
Big Band: Maria Schneider Orchestra. Haven't played the new album; same for the new #13 Gerald Wilson Orchestra, which last time topped Schneider by a big margin. Virtually all of those listed are part-time concerns, hard to track, but if I had to pick one, it'd be #10 Steve Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra. Wonder what the Vienna Art Ensemble is up to. RS: John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble. Interesting group. MTO came in #6 here; only one album to date, so they still fit.
Trumpet: Dave Douglas. He's clearly the class of the field, but #11 Jon Faddis had the best record, and #4 Enrico Rava had the most good ones; with Clark Terry dropping out, #6 Tomasz Stanko has probably moved up to #2 behind Douglas and ahead of Rava for lifetime achievement, and #8 Brian Lynch is moving up. RS: Jeremy Pelt. Used to think he has chops, but hasn't done much lately. The obvious choices are #6 Steven Bernstein and #10 Brian Lynch, with the latter moving up the big list. Some off-the-list trumpeters I like are: Ralph Alessi, Roy Campbell, Dennis González, Nils Petter Molvaer, Randy Sandke, Jack Walrath. Most are in their 50s. A young player with a good record is Matt Lavelle.
Trombone: Steve Turre. I'd pick #2 Roswell Rudd or #8 Ray Anderson, although Turre isn't a bad choice. Rudd's had a particuarly strong couple of years, while Anderson hasn't recorded much. RS: Gianluca Petrella. Good example of the Blue Note effect; unlike some others (Stefon Harris, Robert Glasper), everything I've heard by Petrella has been impressive. Still, I'm partial to #7 Jeb Bishop. Off the list, there's Steve Swell and Nils Wogram.
Soprano Saxophone: Wayne Shorter. With Steve Lacy gone, almost everyone on the list plays some other reed instrument, often much better. I don't see any obvious choices except #5 Evan Parker, and don't know him well enough to be sure -- he plays a lot of soprano, and is utterly distinctive on it, but I often find I prefer his tenor. Off list my pick would be Jan Garbarek, another tenor split. Shorter and #8 Chris Potter have good credits here, although they're more important on tenor. Others would do us a favor losing the instrument, including #2 Branford Marsalis and #3 David Liebman. RS: Steve Wilson. He's also at #11 on the big list -- I figure him for alto, but he's always fine on soprano, and plays it more often than Potter (#4 RS), maybe even Shorter. Don't see anyone else, except maybe #7 Michael Blake. Very few specialists: Joe Giardullo and Chris Kelsey are two, both inspired by Lacy. I imagine we'll see more.
Alto Saxophone: Ornette Coleman. It's his year; otherwise I'd be tempted to argue that it's time we start honoring #9 Anthony Braxton, not begrudging #3 Lee Konitz. RS: David Binney. Don't know him well enough to say -- he shows up in a lot of supporting roles, but I've missed his own albums -- but he's definitely happening. #2 Miguel Zenón is very good, a former RS winner (now #8 on the main list), still quite young. Off the list I'd probably pick Dave Rempis, but he's playing more tenor lately, even in the Vandermark 5. Some others: Tim Berne, François Carrier, Peter Epstein, Michael Hashim, Steve Lehman (#12), Rudresh Mahanthappa (#3).
Tenor Saxophone: Sonny Rollins. Of course, but more dependable and productive lately are #11 David Murray and #12 Ken Vandermark. Good work lately from #2 Joe Lovano, #5 Chris Potter, #6 Charles Lloyd, #7 Joshua Redman, #8 Fred Anderson. Very competitive division, and by far my favorite instrument. Off-list and easily beyond RS status include: Charles Gayle, Scott Hamilton, Billy Harper, Houston Person, Sam Rivers, Bennie Wallace, David S Ware. RS: Chris Potter. He's up to #5 on the big list now, losing ground here, but still just 36, a remarkable achievement I sometimes begrudge him for. Only other on both lists is #12 Ken Vandermark, same as above. #6 Donny McCaslin is most likely to follow in Potter's footsteps; I'm not a fan, but he has tremendous chops and is mainstream enough to get the exposure -- in fact, he's replaced Potter more than once. Aside from them, my pick from the list here would be #4 Tony Malaby, who shows up in a lot of side spots and is always invaluable. But off the list, I'd pick Harry Allen or Tommy Smith. I'll also mention: Ellery Eskelin, Rich Halley, Rick Margitza, David Sanchez, Assif Tsahar, Tim Warfield. That list could be longer.
Baritone Saxophone: Gary Smulyan. Finally edged out #2 James Carter, who doesn't record much, and doesn't play much baritone when he does. I have no real sense of Smulyan or #5 Ronnie Cuber, other than that they're the mainstream specialists of the last few decades. My standard pick is #3 Hamiet Bluiett; don't see any reason to change, although I'm playing #6 Joe Temperley at the moment, and enjoying him a lot. RS: Claire Daly. Know who she is, but don't know her work. #2 Scott Robinson or #3 Alex Harding would be reasonable choices; #6 Mats Gustafsson would be more adventurous, albeit dangerous. Of the list I like Massimo Pupillo (aka Zu). Among timeshares, Ken Vandermark has been playing a lot of really impressive baritone lately, and Howard Johnson has been playing as much baritone as tuba.
Clarinet: Don Byron. Last album was so-so, and incidentally for the first time ever Byron played sax quite a bit on it, probably more than clarinet. I prefer specialists in these polls, and there aren't many here beyond Byron (#3 Eddie Daniels, #5 Buddy DeFranco, #12 Ben Goldberg). But unlike soprano sax, most of the multireedists here do their most interesting work on clarinet, which clearly seems to be an instrument on the rise. I'm tempted to go with #7 Michael Moore or #8 Louis Sclavis. RS: Anat Cohen. Seems like her moment, although #2 Chris Speed (#10 on the big list) comes close. Both started on and still play a lot of tenor sax, so that might be an opening for #3 Ben Goldberg.
Flute: James Moody. You can stick a fork in this category, maybe even kick it back to Miscellaneous Instrument -- there are more good cellists, bass clarinetists, tubists, and harmonicats than there are distinctive flute players. I haven't heard anything from #3 James Newton in a long time. Aside from Dave Valentin and Hubert Laws, the only other specialist here is (#9) RS: Nicole Mitchell. She probably deserves the latter. For the main list, I'd pick Robert Dick (age 57, off the big list but #7 RS), although I haven't heard anything from him in ages either.
Acoustic Piano: Keith Jarrett. Big category. I don't have a problem with Jarrett, who statistically in some quantity-quality equation is hard to top. The closest is probably #10 Cecil Taylor, now that #4 Andrew Hill is gone. #3 Hank Jones, #5 Kenny Barron, and #12 Randy Weston are venerable; #7 Herbie Hancock and #8 McCoy Tyner have seen better days. A couple of younger players with big labels snuck in: #2 Brad Mehldau, #6 Bill Charlap, #9 Jason Moran, with #11 Myra Melford a surprise. I liked Mehldau early on, but have missed a bunch of recent records, which is doubly irritating. One could mention many more off the list, including Muhal Richard Abrams, Ran Blake, Paul Bley, Dave Burrell, George Cables, Marilyn Crispell, Giorgio Gaslini, Abdullah Ibrahim, Guus Janssen, Joachim Kühn, Steve Kuhn, Misha Mengelberg, Enrico Pieranunzi, Bobo Stenson, Alex von Schlippenbach, Irène Schweizer, Martial Solal, Cedar Walton, Jessica Williams. RS: Robert Glasper. I liked his second one better than the first, but he's nowhere near my list. That Glasper managed to beat out #5 Vijay Iyer suggests that voters are trying to move Iyer to the big list, which is still straddled by #2 Jason Moran and #4 Bill Charlap. A couple of others obviously fell in the gaps, appearing on neither list: Uri Caine, Matthew Shipp. Aside from those, the best one left here is #7 Ethan Iverson. There are a few more I like, but it's easy to come up with players off the list who are much more impressive: David Berkman, Bill Carrothers, George Colligan, Satoko Fujii, David Hazeltine, DD Jackson, Russ Lossing, Renee Rosnes, Bernardo Sassetti, Sergi Sirvent. Probably a lot more, too.
Organ: Joey DeFrancesco. Seems like an instrument that's running out of gas. Best choice from the list is probably #4 John Medeski, although I'm not sure how much organ he plays as compared to other electronic keybs. RS: Sam Yahel. Not a lot of good choices here. #2 Gary Versace, maybe, or #6 Barbara Dennerlein, but it's been a while since I've heard anything from her. One guy off the list who's fun is Robert Walter.
Electric Keyboard/Synthesizer: Joe Zawinul. Last man standing now that #3 Herbie Hancock and #4 Chick Corea have faded. Much fresher are #2 Uri Caine and #7 Matthew Shipp -- both are primarily acoustic players, but Caine is such a natural he gets my nod. RS: Craig Taborn. Seems right, especially given that he's really found a home specializing in electronics, unlike Uri Caine at #2. Off the list but worth noting is Kieran Hebden, whose keyboard is attached to a laptop.
Guitar: Bill Frisell. I've rather lost interest in Frisell, partly chagrin at not getting his records, partly disappointment when I do. He presides over this category much like Dave Douglas over at trumpet, gaining stature even when his concepts don't pan out. Not as monumental as Douglas, of course, which is why #2 Jim Hall, #4 John Scofield, #6 Nels Cline, and #7 John Abercrombie still seem competitive -- Scofield looks to be fading, Cline rising. #9 James Blood Ulmer and #10 John McLaughlin seem to have slid off to the side. I don't have a strong pick from the list -- Ulmer, I guess, for old times' sake -- but off list my pick is Wolfgang Muthspiel. Also worth mentioning: Howard Alden, Joe Morris, Michael Musillami, Marc Ribot (#12), Ulf Wakenius. RS: Lionel Loueke. Don't know him, except as a sidebar name. Rest of the list shows a lot of uncertainty and churn, with Cline (#5), Russell Malone (#7), and Ribot (#11) also on the big list, and veteran Dave Stryker just hanging on at #12. Otherwise, the young players I'm most impressed with missed the list: Rez Abbasi, Raoul Björkenheim, Marc Ducret, Larry Koonse, Anders Nilsson, Kevin O'Neil, Jeff Parker, Samo Salamon, Ricardo Silveira, Frank Vignola, Jacob Young. Sometime in the last five years guitar passed trumpet and alto sax to become a major jazz instrument -- only piano and tenor sax (and bass and drums, still necessities) have more contenders. I've never been much of a guitar fan, but I've been overwhelmed.
Bass (Acoustic & Electric): Dave Holland. I mean no disrespect, but I got to stick with my guy, #5 William Parker. Playing his new album just points out how far he's moved beyond being the world's greatest bassist, much like Holland did, or even more emphatically Mingus. #4 Charlie Haden is in the same league lifetime, probably #4. Division is so competitive pure bassists tend to go overlooked, but #11 Peter Washington is worth singling out. I don't think he has a single record under his own name, but he's anchored at least a hundred real good ones. RS: Ben Allison. Can't disagree, but should be on the big list by now. Same could be said for #3 Avishai Cohen. Both made their mark as composers. Still, the real RS is off list: Adam Lane.
Drums: Roy Haynes. With Max Roach's passing, the last link to the bebop era; had a surprising emergence as a bandleader a few years back, and is coasting on that. Much more active, and at least as impressive, are #2 Jack DeJohnette and #3 Paul Motian. My pick is still #7 Hamid Drake. The next two on their list could also be mine: #8 Lewis Nash and #9 Han Bennink. RS: Matt Wilson. Already #5 on the big list, but Brian Blade is on an even faster track (#5 RS, #3 overall; Drake is also on both lists). I like Wilson, Blade, and several others here. I'm not a fan of #2 Dafnis Prieto's albums, but he has amazing chops and is probably the real RS here. From the list I'd pick #11 Jim Black over #8 Scott Amendola. Off the list, I'll mention: Jerry Granelli, Gerry Hemingway, John Hollenbeck, Ravish Momin, Paal Nilssen-Love, Kevin Norton, Tom Rainey, Thomas Strønen. I'm particularly surprised that Hollenbeck didn't rank, given his win for RS Big Band and #4 RS Jazz Group. He'd be my first RS pick, but everyone I've mentioned comes close.
Percussionist: Poncho Sanchez. I have no sense of him, even less than I have of the late champ Ray Barretto (hanging on at #8). Interesting that Hamid Drake has risen to #2 on his frame drums; I like him a lot, but I'm not sure how they fit here, and in any case feel like recognizing Kahil El'Zabar, who's on a hot album streak. RS: Susie Ibarra. I think of her as a drummer, and haven't heard anything recent, since she shacked up with Roberto Rodriguez, who deserves mention somewhere. In fact, he'd be my off-list pick.
Vibes: Bobby Hutcherson. He finally released an album, which didn't fare well. I'll go with #4 Joe Locke. RS: Stefon Harris. Overrated, another Blue Note effect. I'll go with #5 Matt Moran, but I also like #8 Jason Adasiewicz, and of course #9 Khan Jamal, who's over 60 now and really deserves to be on the big list.
Violin: Regina Carter. Helped herself with a good album; hope she does something better than Paganini with all that MacArthur money. Still, my easy pick is #3 Billy Bang. I also like #9 Johnny Frigo and #10 Charles Burnham, and revere the late #5 Leroy Jenkins. #8 Mat Maneri plays viola more often these days, and continues to do interesting but somewhat erratic work. I'm also a big fan of #4: RS: Jenny Scheinman. Violin has become a hot jazz instrument lately. I'm surprised this list looks as staid as it does (five players on both lists: Maneri, Mark Feldman, Didier Lockwood, Mark O'Connor, and Scheinman -- the latter understandably). Some missing names: Jason Kao Hwang, Sam Bardfeld, John Ettinger, Rob Thomas. Hwang is out of order because he's my pick. In fact, he's been around long enough I'd put him #2 on the big list.
Miscellaneous Instrument: Toots Thielemans (harmonica). Hard to compare all these apples and oranges, but I'd say #11 Grégoire Maret has eclipsed Thielemans, who's owned this category for donkey years. I've never understood Steve Turre's conch shells, but the list is otherwise noteworthy: #3 Richard Galliano (accordion), #5 Erik Friedlander (cello), #6 Dino Saluzzi (bandoneon), #7 Howard Johnson (tuba), #8 Scott Robinson (bass saxophone), #9 David Murray (bass clarinet), #10 Rabih Abou-Khalil (oud). RS: Dino Saluzzi (bandoneon). At 72 I figure Saluzzi has risen, even if he's just being recognized. The rest of the list is mixed up, with many repeats (#2 Maret, #3 Friedlander, #4 Robinson, #6 Galliano). I don't have an easy method to come up with a missing list, but cello is an emerging instrument -- I'm not sure I'd pick Fred Lonberg-Holm over Friedlander, but he's close -- and accordion has been showing up a lot, especially in the hands of pianists like Zeena Parkins and Satoko Fujii.
Male Vocalist: Kurt Elling. Haven't heard his new record, but can't stand anything I have heard. Still, he's probably better than #2 Mark Murphy, whose latest is the worst jazz album of the young century or not-so-young decade, and I wouldn't bet against him pitted against #3 Andy Bey or #4 Tony Bennett either. The vote-getters only include three guys I like at all (#5 Kevin Mahogany, #6 Bob Dorough, #11 Mose Allison). RS: Jamie Cullum. The draught continues, although #9 Theo Bleckmann is an interesting character. One guy I like who missed the list is Tony DeSare. Curiously, Harry Connick Jr made neither list; John Pizzarelli was #3 RS, but didn't make the big list. Part of the problem is that jazz vocals are about 80% female; that's also part of the solution.
Female Vocalist: Dianne Reeves. I like her and #4 Diana Krall but my longtime pick is #5 Sheila Jordan. I'm not a fan, but still I'm surprised that Abbey Lincoln didn't make the list. RS: Roberta Gambarini. I missed her record, so have no idea. #2 Tierney Sutton's latest is terrific, but nothing she did before it came close. The only other one on the list I like much is René Marie. Off the list are some others I'll mention: Meredith D'Ambrosio, Lisa Sokolov, Mary Stallings, Fay Victor. I'd give Victor the nod.
Composer: Maria Schneider. Tough category for me to judge, but #9 Carla Bley strikes my fancy. RS: Vijay Iyer. Same here, but #2 John Hollenbeck, #3 Ben Allison, and #10 Ken Vandermark are notable. The real test will be when other folks start playing the compositions. Schneider's an easy mark because she works on a large canvas and doesn't play. Bley plays, but not like her first husband, and she's always depended on others to put her work across.
Arranger: Maria Schneider. Same deal, with #2 Carla Bley gaining ground for her work with Charlie Haden. #10 Steven Bernstein made several splashes recently, not just for the big band MTO, but for Sex Mob and Baby Loves Jazz. RS: John Hollenbeck. Bernstein came in #2 and would be my pick, but I like Hollenbeck a lot -- just don't think of him as an arranger, which may mean I didn't pay enough attention to the latest Large Ensemble record.
Producer: Michael Cuscuna. Talk about not paying attention: for what? Hope there's more than that crappy Charles Tolliver big band record. I don't have any real opinion, especially from the list. Off the list, I like Jordi Pujols. RS: Branford Marsalis. I like what Marsalis has done with his label, even though his own records have been so-so; he's "a positive force for jazz," to use a phrase he once used on his brother. Don't know much else, but #10 Houston Person isn't exactly a newbie. Glad to see #11 Luke Kaven getting some recognition.
Record Label: Blue Note. Note that Verve didn't even make the list -- the ratio between the two majors has never been starker, at least since they got pulled out of the dustbins several decades ago. I'll also use this opportunity to note that #5 Mosaic, #6 Nonesuch, #8 Concord, #10 Enja, and #12 Criss Cross don't service me, so poo on them. In many ways this is the part of the critics poll that gets personal for critics, and Blue Note's world class dominance here -- and throughout the poll -- owes a good deal to UPS. That's also has something to do with why ECM's number two. I can't, and don't want to, fault either (although I'm picking up cost-cutting vibes from ECM; tsk, tsk). But most of the action takes place on small labels. Scanning my recent high-ranked lists, these include: Arbors (#11), Atavistic, AUM Fidelity, CIMP, Clean Feed, Cuneiform, Fresh Sound, Justin Time, Smalls, Sunnyside (#9).
Blues Artist/Group: B.B. King. I would have picked #2 James Blood Ulmer, not knowing that King or #3 Buddy Guy have been up to lately. Comparable figure off the list: Etta James. RS: Derek Trucks Band. From the list, I like #11 Sue Foley, but haven't heard her latest.
Blues Album: Otis Taylor, Definition of a Circle. Blues is in our blood, but it's not something I'm able to follow at all closely. I haven't heard any of the 12 listed albums. The top blues (more or mostly less) records from my 2006 list are: World Saxophone Quartet, Political Blues; Maria Muldaur, Heart of Mine; Jeff Healey, It's Tight Like That; Bill Sheffield, Journal on a Shelf; Guitar Gabriel, Toot Blues. The only real blues record there is Guitar Gabriel, recorded in 1991. Don't have any 2007 records to add to the list.
Beyond Artist/Group: Toumani Diabaté. From the list, #3 Tom Waits or #11 Bob Dylan. Off the list, Public Enemy, Todd Snider, the Klezmatics. They don't do an RS, but how about Jesus H Christ and the Four Hornsmen of the Apocalypse?
Beyond Album: Toumani Diabaté's Symmetric Orchestra, Boulevard De L'Independance. At least I've heard 7 of 11 records on this list. Best: Bob Dylan, Modern Times. Runner-up: Tom Waits, Orphans. About half of my year-end A-lists counts as beyond in this forum. See my 2006 and 2007 lists for details.
I ran through this pretty fast, scanning through my database for instrumentalists and my year-end lists where appropriate, but I certainly didn't find everyone I should have. Didn't expect to write so much, but that happens when you work fast and rough. In any case, this gives a sense, far from a complete picture, of what I know at the moment. I've been a pretty compulsive listmaker for a long time. (As a teenager I used to construct book lists based on bestseller lists tweaked to reflect a buying public more to my taste. Later I spent a lot of time on Baseball Hall of Fame games, juggling eras and different skillsets, winding up with long lists of carefully considered rankings. Currently, my album database rates more than 13519 albums, 6145 jazz or closely related.) So it was easy to dig a lot of stuff up quick, but hardly foolproof.
I have last year's winners in last year's post, so it's easy to plot the changes here (excluding albums and Hall of Fame; last year's winners followed by this year's in parens):
After finishing the above, I went to Downbeat's website and voted in their Readers Poll (deadline Aug. 31). The Readers Poll doesn't make distinctions between Established Talent and Rising Stars, so this forced me to make up my mind. I tried to vote from the suggested list, but wrote a few in, indicated: *. Albums are mostly calendar 2006.