Downbeat Critics Poll: 2003

Magazine: Downbeat, August 2003: Time for their annual Critics Poll, which makes this a nice time to second guess the experts. Herewith are most of the categories (ignoring the "Rising Star" sections, which are harder to gauge: they involve a distinction between established and rising that depends on what one thinks about what other people think -- usually a hopeless task).

Hall of Fame: Wayne Shorter. This is a once you're in, you're off the ballot deal, so it depends on who's already in. It looks to me like the ballot favors two types: the recently dead (#2 Ray Brown, #6 Billy Higgins, #8 Tito Puente, #11 Ruby Braff, #12 Art Farmer, #13 Mal Waldron), and older guys who are working real hard (#1 Shorter, #3 Roy Haynes). Of course, Shorter has a good case. But the only guy in the top 15 I can't make a good case for is Puente, but people who know him better think he's major. Of the top 15, I'd be most likely to pick Lee Konitz -- it's been over 50 years since Subconscious-Lee, which hardly suggests that we're rushing things, I have him down for an A- on 1997's Another Shade of Blue, and while I haven't gotten to his later albums, Giddins put 2001's Parallels in his top-10 list. Of the others in the top-15, the late Mal Waldron is a personal favorite. But it's hard to think of Waldron without also thinking of his partner on one of his very best albums, Jackie McLean. As far as I'm concerned, McLean is one of the all-time greats, yet he's not in, and not in the top-15. Major omission. There are probably a lot more. David Murray has done enough to qualify, but he's young enough that I don't mind letting him add to his resume. Steve Lacy is another guy like that. Don Pullen, however, is no longer with us, and I think he rates at least as high as Bud Powell (1966).

Jazz Artist: Wayne Shorter. I read this category as what have you done for me lately? (Otherwise #12 Sonny Rollins should sue.) But I don't have an obvious pick from the published top-12. Outside the list a good case can be made for David Murray and Matthew Shipp, both of whom are not only producing at peak levels, they're moving the art with them. Two others are William Parker (who has a lot to do with Shipp's success, and actually has better albums in his name) and Ken Vandermark.

Jazz Album: Wayne Shorter Quartet, Footprints Live!. Good record, but well down on my list, which would probably be topped with Spaceways Inc.'s Version Soul. Of the 13 records listed, I've only heard four, and would give a slight edge to the Bad Plus, These Are the Vistas, and Jason Moran, Modernistic.

Jazz Reissue: John Coltrane, A Love Supreme (Deluxe Edition). One of the greatest jazz records ever, and the bonus disc just gives you more to savor. Don't have anything else on the list (at least in these specific reissues, but I have heard most of the music in question). A couple of other sets worth mentioning: Coleman Hawkins, The Bebop Years (Proper); Duke Ellington, Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band (Bluebird).

Soprano Saxophone: Wayne Shorter. Even though I know he plays a lot of soprano, and I've read a lot about his soprano, I've never actually noticed Shorter playing soprano, never thought of him as anything but a tenor player. So his regular high showing in this category always puzzles me. The published list itself is full of impostors: most just dabble on soprano. Even #10 Bob Wilber rarely plays it except when he's in Bechet mode. The only ones who play soprano full time are #2 Steve Lacy and #4 Jane Ira Bloom, and few of the others play it predominantly -- #5 Jane Bunnett, #6 Evan Parker, #12 Lol Coxhill. Of course, Lacy is my pick -- his recent playing has been sublime, only marred by his wife's horrid singing.

Alto Saxophone: Lee Konitz. No problem here, but having missed his latest records (not much distribution), I might be tempted by #7 Arthur Blythe. Other candidates I haven't heard much from lately: #5 Ornette Coleman, #8 Jackie McLean, #10 Bobby Watson, #11 Anthony Braxton, legends all. #2 Kenny Garrett seems to have moved completely MOR; don't know about #3 Greg Osby, who hasn't impressed all that much.

Tenor Saxophone: Joe Lovano. I think Lovano's great, even if his concept albums don't always hold water. But I'd have to vote for David Murray (not in top-12) over Ken Vandermark (#7 on Rising Star) list, with an honorable mention to Daniel Carter. It's been a while since we've heard from #2 Sonny Rollins and #7 James Carter, both of whom produced exceptionally great albums last time out, so I wouldn't write them off either.

Baritone Saxophone: James Carter. Carter does a good job of featuring his baritone on record, but he plays in so many weight classes it's hard to rank him in anything but tenor. #4 Hamiet Bluiett is the main guy in this weight class, and I haven't heard anything to suggest otherwise. Don't know #2 Gary Smulyan.

Trumpet: Dave Douglas. It turns out that Stanley Crouch's racialist attack on Douglas was originally written as a paean to Wynton Marsalis, but Jazz Times edited out all of the Marsalis references. We had no problem getting the context, but it had seemed uncharacteristically subtle and somewhat devious that Crouch would only write about Douglas, without mentioning Marsalis. So that explains that. Douglas has been pounding Marsalis (#3 this year) in these polls for years now -- he has more votes than Marsalis and #2 Roy Hargrove combined. I find his records to be very inconsistent, but I usually find a way to blame that on Mark Feldman and/or Chris Potter, but Douglas' trumpet itself is rarely shy of magnificent. If Marsalis seems more consistent, it's only because he's conceptually more limited. So I basically concur, but I'd like to hear more of #7 Wadada Leo Smith's recent records.

Trombone: Steve Turre. Terrific player, probably more productive lately than #3 Roswell Rudd or #7 Ray Anderson, both of whom I'd prefer career-wise. But I'd probably cast my vote for #6 George Lewis -- don't have exactly why on the tip of my tongue, but it seems like he's become a lot more active recently, and he's probably the most versatile and thoughtful player of the bunch.

Clarinet: Don Byron. Not many players, at least ones who specialize (among those who don't: #2 Marty Ehrlich, #3 Ken Peplowski, #3 Kenny Davern). Louis Sclavis was picked as "rising star" -- he's 50 years old this year, a belated discovery, and while he mostly plays clarinet he plays other reeds as well. I like Byron, but my pick would be Perry Robinson, who burns up William Parker's Bob's Pink Cadillac -- best lead clarinet album I've heard since, well, Perry Robinson's Funk Dumpling, long time ago.

Flute: James Newton. Again, a long list of dabblers, with only Newton, #9 Herbie Mann and #10 Robert Dick specializing. Newton's by far the big name here, but I find his music arcane and classicist. I much prefer Dick, mostly because he likes big ass flutes, things that sound more like bass clarinet, even lower and more hollow -- digeridoo territory. Of the dabblers, the most enjoyable is #4 Frank Wess.

Guitar: John Scofield. No real problem with this choice. #3 Bill Frisell is good but erratic; #8 Howard Alden is nice and old fashioned; #10 Marc Ribot has a couple of good Cuban records; I've been listening quite a bit to #13 Joe Morris, who leaves me feeling uncertain. The guys who get a little louder and funkier -- Wolfgang Muthspiel, Jean-Paul Bourelly -- didn't make the list, not even the Rising Stars. Trying to think who else there is: Nels Cline? Marc Ducret? Dave Stryker? Martin Taylor? Don't know Kurt Rosenwinkel, who has a reputation (#2 Rising Stars).

Piano: Keith Jarrett. There are probably more very good players here than under any other instrument. The published list goes: #1 Jarrett, #2 Brad Mehldau, #3 Kenny Barron, #4 Cecil Taylor, #5 Herbie Hancock, #6 Chucho Valdes, #7 McCoy Tyner, #8 Bill Charlap, #9 Jason Moran, #10 Uri Caine, #11 Hank Jones, #12 Fred Hersch. One can quibble about order, but nobody on that list is undeserving. The Rising Stars list went: #1 Moran, #2 Charlap, #3 Ethan Iverson, #4 Danilo Perez, #5 Uri Caine, #6 Vijay Iyer, #7 Matthew Shipp, #8 Omar Sosa, #9 Eric Reed, #10 Frank Kimbrough, #11 Orrin Evans, #12 David Hazeltine. This is more mixed, and five of these guys -- boths lists are all male, surprising given that there are more notable women on piano than any other instrument -- I'm not familiar with: everyone from Iyer (the subject of many raves) down excepting Shipp and Reed. (Shipp, by the way, seems to be caught in the middle: with 20+ records in his own name, plus another 50+ that he's played on, it's hard not to regard him as Established.) Still, this comes so far short of exhausting the subject that I was able to come up with an additional 50 names from a quick scan of my files -- that is, 50 eminent stars out of a total list of nearly 300 pianists. I'll spare you the whole list, but just as a sample here's 15 who didn't make these lists: Geri Allen, Paul Bley, Joanne Brackeen, Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea, John Hicks, Andrew Hill, Abdullah Ibrahim, Marian McPartland, Myra Melford, Renee Rosnes, Martial Solal, Cedar Walton, Randy Weston, Jessica Williams. Of all these people, the one I would probably have voted for would have been Shipp, since he's the guy I've listened to the most, and his ideas have been framing the most interesting music of late. But Shipp seems limited technically compared to some, and the main thing I find impressive about his recent work is its percussiveness -- that's what powers his new jazz-electronica fusion. But if you want pure virtuosic percussion, Shipp pales against Taylor and Valdes. Still, it's hard to get upset about the choice of Jarrett, who has a long and rich resume, even if he seems to have settled into a trio rut. I haven't followed his Trio closely -- for my degree of interest there isn't enough variation to warrant record-by-record interest -- but the last time I checked he was superb.

Drums: Roy Haynes. Haven't heard his new record, which Giddins loves, 2000's Trio was first rate. He only had one record released during the '80s, but he's been cranking them out since 1992, and is insanely vital for a 77-year-old. #3 Elvin Jones is a year younger, and I'd say his recent trio albums with Joe Lovano and Dewey Redman/Cecil Taylor are even more impressive. #6 Max Roach is a couple of years older than Haynes, and I think highly of his new record with Clark Terry, too. Which makes it hard for young guys to break into this business, but for my money the best drummer working today is #10 Hamid Drake. One conspicuous omission from the list is Paul Motian. Also Tony Oxley. Don't know Matt Wilson (#9, #1 Rising Star).

Percussion: Ray Barretto. List includes a couple of drummers who range beyond their kit, plus some world music stars. Don't know Barretto, but of course I've heard of him.

Bass: Dave Holland. Of course, I have to go with #4 William Parker (he also scored #9 as a Rising Star, although he's edged past 50 now, and contributed to 150+ albums over 29 years). Never tried counting up Holland's albums, but it's safe to say that there have been more of them, including some of the most important albums in the history of the jazz avant-garde (Conference of the Birds is especially classic). Much the same can be said about #3 Charlie Haden, and any of the three would be unexceptionable winners. Don't know Scott Colley (#12, #1 on Rising Star list), although I've heard some records he's on. One young guy who is clearly headed up the list is Reid Anderson (#4 Rising Star).

Electric Bass: Steve Swallow. Don't know. Haven't listened to Swallow much recently, and am barely familiar with half of the top-12 here.

Electric Keyboards/Synthesizer: Joe Zawinul. Another thin list: Shipp came in #10 here, but I doubt that he's played electronic keyboards on more than five albums, most impressively David S. Ware's Corridors & Parallels. #5 Chick Corea has, I think, only been playing acoustic piano for a few years now, and that's probably true of #2 Herbie Hancock as well. So in a sense Zawinul dominates this category by being famous and relatively persistent. I never thought much of him, but I do sort of like his Faces & Places album, and I sort of like #3 John Medeski, but I don't have any idea who I'd vote for.

Organ: Joey DeFrancesco. I remember a few years back that someone wrote a spectacularly ill-timed article pondering on why it was that all of the major organ players were black. The exception I thought of immediately was #7 Barbara Dennerlein, but there's also DeFrancesco, and close to half of the top-12 here. Haven't heard anything recent by #3 Jimmy Smith -- easily the dominant organ player of the last 40+ years -- nor by #2 Larry Goldings nor by #6 Jimmy McGriff. And I don't know DeFrancesco, so I don't know who I'd pick. Dennerlein, maybe.

Violin: Regina Carter. Well, I know what to do in this one: #2 Billy Bang!

Vibes: Bobby Hutcherson. Haven't heard anything recent from him, but he's the living legend now that Milt Jackson and Lionel Hampton are gone. #2 Gary Burton is talented, but has too many really bad albums to take seriously. I seem to be the only one who finds #3 Stefon Harris (#1 Rising Star) just plain dull. The guy I do like is #7 Khan Jamal.

Miscellaneous Instrument: Toots Thielemans (harmonica). He wins this every year. Of course, we're comparing apples to oranges to apricots to whatever #3 Bela Fleck is. Of the top-12, I like #5 David Murray (bass clarinet). There's also #8 Howard Johnson (tuba), but I like Bob Stewart on tuba better. I'd also take Rabih Abou-Khalil over #7 Anouar Brahem on oud.

Male Vocalist: Kurt Elling. The only ones I like on this list are #3 Kevin Mahogany and the funny guys from #9-11 (Bob Dorough, Mose Allison, Dave Frishberg). The degree of confusion here is suggested by the fact that Elling came in #7 on the Rising Star list (Mahogany was #5, 74-year-old Andy Bey was #12).

Female Vocalist: Cassandra Wilson. Know more of these, and #7 Sheila Jordan has long been a favorite; haven't heard her new album, and the recent ones haven't been her best, but I'd still vote for her. Also like #5 Patricia Barber.

Acoustic Jazz Group: Wayne Shorter Quartet. Hard category to judge -- presumably you're looking for group interaction, not just front line power. The other three legs of Shorter's Quartet are pretty sturdy -- that has a lot to do with his rebound. But is the David S. Ware Quartet disqualified because Shipp's gone electric? Actually, even if it is I still might go with the Vandermark 5.

Electric Group: Medeski Martin & Wood. No real opinion here -- not even sure what counts. Matthew Shipp's Thirsty Ear groups -- usually quintets, but with revolving front lines -- seem like the most important development. I like MM&W, but not always.

Big Band: Dave Holland Big Band. I think Holland has only done one big band record, so that doesn't strike me as much qualification to lead this category. But the #2 Mingus Big Band always seemed like a step backwards too -- it may take a big band to coax the sound level of a small Mingus group, but that's because you don't have Mingus in charge. I'd probably vote for #8 Vienna Art Orchestra.

Composer: Wayne Shorter. This is a hard category in what is often an improvised music, and it takes a long time for non-technical listeners to begin to distinguish the composition from the performance. We can do that now with guys like Monk and Mingus, but I'm not so sure about #11 Anthony Braxton, even though his opuses are numbered over 200 these days (not counting the ones he wrote before he ran out of diagrams). It's possible that the conventional wisdom rates Shorter higher as a composer than as a player -- I've been listening a lot to his work with Art Blakey recently, and he wrote a lot of the pieces that Lee Morgan got up and ran with. Footprints Live was, I think, mostly old tunes, so I wonder what he's been doing lately. But if it's comparable (and I haven't heard Alegria, #4 on the album list) he's got a case here.

Arranger: Maria Schneider. No opinion here, other than that I didn't like #11 Andrew Hill's well-regarded big band album, which is presumably why he's here.

Producer: Michael Cuscuna. Only opinion here is that Shipp's been producing most of Thirsty Ear's Blue Series, which is my thing.

Record Label: Blue Note. The majors (#3 Verve, and for jazz purposes #6 Fantasy) have lots of things going for them, but the most interesting label I've found recently is Thirsty Ear, under Shipp's artistic direction. But it's kind of a phony category.

Blues Artist/Group: Buddy Guy. Actually, I think that Sue Foley (unrated) has been the most consistent blues artist of the last 10 years. Followed perhaps by Guy Davis (also unrated).

Blues Album: Solomon Burke, Don't Give Up on Me. Only heard two of the records on the list, and only liked Alvin Youngblood Hart's Down in the Alley, and gave that a B+.

Beyond Artist/Group: The Roots. Well, Beyond means something different to me. Their finishing list: #1 Roots, #2 Caetano Veloso, #3 Elvis Costello, #4 Orchestra Baobab, #5, King Crimson, #6 Dr. John, #7 Ry Cooder, #8 Richard Thompson, #9 Eddie Palmieri, #10 Sex Mob, #11 Kronos Quartet, #12 Norah Jones. Of those twelve I'd pick Baobab, but Youssou N'Dour's record was even better. But when I think of Beyond I'm more tempted to say Manu Chao. Or DJ Shadow.

Beyond Album: Ry Cooder/Manuel Galban: Mambo Sinuendo. Haven't heard it. Best record that I have heard was Youssou N'Dour's Nothing in Vain, followed by Baobab's Specialist in All Styles and the Roots' Phrenology. But my recent lists are published elsewhere.

Posted: 2003-08-06