Downbeat Critics Poll: 2004

Magazine: Downbeat, August 2004: Last year I did a quick brain dump around their Critics Poll results. Let's try it again, even quicker -- see if I've learned anything over the past year. Ignoring the categories for records (I've written enough on them that anything here would be redundant):

Hall of Fame: Roy Haynes. Beat out the late Billy Higgins. I would probably rank them the other way around. My own top picks among the unelected would be Lee Konitz (#11) and Jackie McLean (not listed), but I would also complain that Art Farmer and Mal Waldron disappeared from the top 14 list last year. I predict that the late Steve Lacy is going to start getting some attention.

Jazz Artist: Dave Holland. He's it because his album, Extended Play (which I haven't heard) won Jazz Album (I would have picked William Parker's Scrapbook), which also copped him a #1 for Acoustic Group. Wayne Shorter won last year, slipped to #2 this year. I would have picked William Parker or Ken Vandermark or David Murray. Rising Star: Jason Moran. Sure is.

Record Label: Blue Note. Big margin over #2 ECM, then Palmetto, Verve, Mosaic, then a big drop to High Note, Fantasy, Arbors, Telarc, and Sunnyside. High correlation here with the generosity of publicists -- something that means a lot more to critics than to the masses. I haven't bothered with Mosaic -- I disapprove of limited editions on principle, and don't esteem completism either (although most critics do). The other one I'm not connected with is High Note, which is something I need to fix -- they do good work. Blue Note's dominance over Verve has a lot to do with Jason Moran. Verve has tons of reissues, but just looking at their website makes me wonder if they're even a jazz labels these days: Diana Krall, Jamie Cullum, Katy Melua, John Scofield (once great, sure), Joăo Gilberto, Al Jarreau? Blue Note is addled by money too, but they've been taking their Norah Jones profits to pick up Al Green, Van Morrison, Wynton Marsalis, and they keep indulging Joe Lovano and Greg Osby, who should be making better records. (Sure, Green and Morrison aren't jazz, but someone's gotta keep them in the studio, and it's an honor.) One label I'd like to point out is Nagel Heyer, which seems to have displaced Concord and somewhat supplanted Arbors in the retro-swing field. They've done this not just by raiding those labels' rosters, but by making a home for Marsalisite conservatives like Eric Reed and Donald Harrison, who have never sounded better. Also Delmark, whose jazz line has gotten quite a bit better as the Chicago scene gains force.

Acoustic Group: Dave Holland Quintet. Big margin over Keith Jarrett Trio, Wayne Shorter Quartet, Brad Mehldau Trio, then a #5 tie for Art Ensemble of Chicago and Bad Plus, which don't have a marquee leader. Although the Jarrett and Mehldau trios are stable and formidable, they are still not much more than expressions of their leaders, in contrast to the distinct groupness of the Bad Plus. Holland's group is somewhere in between: he writes, but as the bassist he doesn't project the group's sound. I find it harder to rate groups than performers, because the groups are more arbitrary. Every pianist plays piano in some context, and over time you can sort out the contexts and focus on the piano; on the other hand, the groups are often mere contexts, and few of them last long or amount to much more than the individual contributions. Rising Star: The Bad Plus. Three albums in, seems like an apt choice. Also note Vandermark 5 (#8), who would be my choice for the big prize.

Electric Jazz Group: Zawinul Syndicate. Not even sure how to define this -- presumably it's just that one or more lead instruments (usually keybs and/or guitar) are electric, not the whole group, given that Dave Douglas, Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton, and Steve Coleman rated. I have no idea. Rising Star: Charlie Hunter Trio. Hunter has yet to impress me, but Nils Petter Molvaer (#11) has.

Big Band: Mingus Big Band. Barely beat out the Dave Holland Big Band, which I thought was a one shot, one record deal (good shot, good record, I might add). Only problem with the Mingus Big Band is that Mingus in a five piece could whup their asses any day of the week. Still, it's wonderful to keep hearing such great music. For my money, the best big band to make the list is the Vienna Art Orchestra (#15), but I haven't heard anything from them in a while. Rising Star: Either/Orchestra. Didn't make the main list, and you gotta wonder why. Haven't heard Italian Instabile Orchestra (#3), which has a good reputation. Starting to warm up to the Peter Brötzmann Tentet, strange as it is to write that.

Soprano Saxophone: Steve Lacy. Not sure when he won for the first time, but if it was after 1963 he got shortchanged. Evan Parker (#6) is his most serious competition, and I much prefer Lacy. Not sure where we go next time. Most of those listed play something else most of the time -- Jane Ira Bloom and Jane Bunnett are the exceptions. Rising Star: Steve Wilson. I associate him with alto; in fact most of the list also play other horns.

Alto Saxophone: Lee Konitz. He goes back further, and is still working harder, than Ornette Coleman (#5), Jackie McLean (#9), Phil Woods (#3), Bobby Watson (#7), and Arthur Blythe (#8), to list the competition in, roughly, career value order. Rising Star: Miguel Zenón. Don't know him.

Tenor Saxophone: Joe Lovano. It may be Blue Note's fault, but I only count one A- record by Lovano since 1995's Quartets, so while I still regard him as major, I can't say he's very hot at the moment. My pick would be David Murray (#12), although James Carter (#6) is still hot, and Sonny Rollins (#2) is still the career value champ. Interesting that Von Freeman (#7) has eclipsed his long-more-famous son. Ken Vandermark is also important -- I find it odd that Fred Anderson (#11) outpolled him. Rising Star: Chris Potter. I would have counted him among the risen (#4 in the overall poll, behind Wayne Shorter and ahead of Michael Brecker), along with Ken Vandermark (#3) and Harry Allen (#10), both older than Potter, but they've worked through much more obscure labels (at least in the U.S.; Allen's big in Japan).

Baritone Saxophone: James Carter. A non-specialist, but a damn good one. Hamiet Bluiett (#3) is the obvious pick among those who specialize. Carter is more legitimate in the tenor category, where the competition is stiffer. John Surman (#5) also plays every reed, but probably belongs here. Rising Star: Claire Daly. Don't know her, nor do I know most of the people on the list, excepting the multireedists. Given that John Surman came in #11, does anyone?

Clarinet: Don Byron. Again, we have non-specialists like Marty Ehrlich (#2) placing. Don't know who I would pick, although I like Ehrlich, Michael Moore (#6), Louis Sclavis (#9), and Perry Robinson (#11). David Murray's marvelous bass clarinet work put him #10 on this list. Rising Star: Chris Speed. Not a bad choice, although I associate him more with tenor sax -- probably doesn't play it more, but for my money plays it better. Moore, Ehrlich, and Sclavis came in #2-4 -- all are pretty well established, although hardly household names.

Flute: James Newton. He always wins. Everyone else who ranked mostly plays something else, except maybe Jamie Baum (#12). I like Robert Dick, especially when he pulls out the heavy artillery. Rising Star: Jane Bunnett. Dick came in #11.

Trumpet: Dave Douglas. Beat Wynton Marsalis 2:1, as usual -- may even be pulling away. I wax and wane on his albums, but admit that he really knows his shit. Wadada Leo Smith (#9) has done good work lately. Rising Star: Jeremly Pelt. Don't know him, but I hear he's a hard bopper. Roy Campbell (#11) is a good candidate.

Trombone: Steve Turre. Thought his early albums were pretty good, but he lost me when he switched to conch shells. Still quite a player. Wonder why Ray Anderson (#8) hasn't been more active lately? Rising Star: Josh Roseman. Seems to be a quality player. Jeb Bishop (#5) was a bit of a surprise, especially considering that he is unlikely to be known outside of the Vandermark 5. Steve Swell didn't make the list, but should have.

Guitar: Bill Frisell. Guitar's not really my thing -- I like Wes Montgomery as much as the next guy, but I don't necessarily like everyone who likes Wes Montgomery, and that seems to be the majority of the guitarslingers out there. Looking at the list -- John Scofield (#3), Pat Martino (#4), Pat Metheny (#6), John McLaughlin (#7), I have to ask what have you done lately? Same for Frisell, whose best work lately has some on Mylab. Jim Hall (#2) has always been too subtle for me. Guess I'd go with Marc Ribot (#10), wondering whatever happened to Wolfgang Muthspiel. Rising Star: Russell Malone. He's #5 on the main list, the mainstream favorite, one of the Montgomerys. The guy who's impressed me most lately is Jeff Parker (#6).

Piano: Keith Jarrett. So many great pianists out there, the list barely scratches the surface (Kenny Barron, Brad Mehldau, Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner, Chucho Valdes, Herbie Hancock, Bill Charlap, Jason Moran, Hank Jones, Fred Hersch, Chick Corea -- Hancock probably has the weakest case there based on recent work, and he's a surefire HOF candidate). How about Marilyn Crispell? Rising Star: Jason Moran. No doubt.

Acoustic Bass: Dave Holland. One of the all-time greats, as is Charlie Haden (#4), but right now the guy is William Parker (#3). Rising Star: Scott Colley. Still don't have any sense of him, although he has a half dozen albums under his own name and a substantial list of sideman credits. Parker came in #6 here, but he belongs in the top category by now. Two very good ones from this list are Peter Washington (#4) and Reid Anderson (#8).

Electric Bass: Steve Swallow. Swallow beat runner-up Victor Wooten by 3:1, but he dominates this category because the serious bassists of his generation were acoustic, and the new guys tend towards funk, which Bootsy Collins does better. I don't know most of these guys, but should work on getting acquainted. Rising Star: Matthew Garrison. Don't know him, but know his father, for sure. Only has one album.

Drums: Roy Haynes. The late Elvin Jones came in #3, with Jack DeJohnette in between. My pick would have been Hamid Drake (#9). Rising Star: Matt Wilson. Don't really know him, although I know the name and reputation, which is considerable. Drake (#7) and Jim Black (#6) are my guys, and I like Chad Taylor and Ted Sirota quite a bit. Lewis Nash (#9) doesn't rank as high as Wilson, Brian Blade (#2) or Bill Stewart (#4) because he doesn't have the albums under his own name, but he's the mainstream guy to go to.

Percussion: Ray Baretto/Poncho Sanchez. A mix of conga players, exotics (Trilok Gurtu, Zakir Hussain), and experimenters (Hamid Drake, Han Bennink) -- hard to compare them. Rising Star: Susie Ibarra. I just think of her as a drummer, and she's good enough one you'd figure she'd rate there.

Electric Keyboard/Synthesizer: Joe Zawinul. Problem with picking Matthew Shipp (#7) here is that he mostly plays acoustic even when Flam is going electric all around him. Problem with Uri Caine (#3) is that this is such a small part of his work. Problem with Zawinul and Herbie Hancock (#2) and Chick Corea (#5) is that they're coasting on work 30+ years old by now. That sort of leaves John Medeski (#4), but that don't feel right either. Rising Star: Uri Caine. Pretty much the same list without the old Miles Davis crew, so confusion reigns. Craig Taborn (#2) is an interesting pick here, since he's probably better at electronics than acoustic, unlike Caine and Shipp.

Organ: Joey DeFrancesco. He has 17 albums out, and I haven't heard any of them. Runners up were Larry Goldings, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and Jimmy Smith, and I haven't heard the first two of them either (aside from a Gato Barbieri album co-credited to Dr. Lonnie), or anything from the latter in decades. C. 1960 the organ was an important instrument, but it's much marginalized now. Barbara Dennerlein is about the only one I know, and she didn't make the list. Rising Star: Sam Yahel. Know the name; haven't heard his own albums.

Violin: Regina Carter. Wrong. Billy Bang (#2). Rising Star: Jenny Scheinman. Right.

Vibes: Bobby Hutcherson. With the old generation now all gone, he's certainly the career guy, but what has he done lately? My choice would be Khan Jamal (#7), followed by Joe Locke (#4). Rising Star: Stefon Harris. Lots of people like him, but not me. Locke (45) came in #2, Jamal (58) came in (#6), Steve Nelson (49) came in #3. I don't know many younger players. Been running into Matt Moran a bit, and he seems good.

Miscellaneous Instrument: Toots Thielemans (harmonica). This is a junk category, with such worthy candidates as Howard Johnson (tuba), David Murray (bass clarinet), and Tom Varner (french horn), all worthy, none comparable, least of all with Richard Galliano (accordion) and Dino Saluzzi (bandoneon). How about Rabih Abou-Khalil (oud)? Rising Star: Erik Friedlander (cello). Not bad. Or maybe Kali Fasteau (all of them)?

Female Vocalist: Cassandra Wilson. I'd have to say Sheila Jordan (#6), who had her best album in a long while last year. I haven't followed Wilson very closely -- she is probably hipper and sharper than the next four on the list (Dianne Reeves, Diana Krall, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Shirley Horn) but as far as I know all four have made better albums. Rising Star: Luciana Souza. Haven't heard her -- at least not for a full record. She barely edged Patricia Barber, who is pretty good.

Male Vocalist: Kurt Elling. I don't care for him, and don't think much of the rest of the list either, excepting the trio of jokers at the bottom of the deck (Bob Dorough, Dave Frishberg, Mose Allison). Jazz vocals have always been dominated by women, and more so now than ever -- Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Rushing were sui generis, and Frank Sinatra seems borderline as a jazz artist. Consequently, I think the category is in crisis, with no real stylistic core (unlike the cabaret schtick that so many women work with), just a bunch of would-be sui generii. Given that, I might as well pick someone like Robert Wyatt, or Billy Jenkins. Rising Star: Peter Cincotti. Don't know him. I notice that Jamie Cullum, with his first heavily hyped record barely out, came in #5, which smacks of desperation. And that Andy Bey, who's old enough to collect Social Security, came in #11.

Composer: Dave Douglas. Well, they all compose, don't they? The only one ranked who doesn't rate equally high as a performer is Maria Schneider (#5), although you could also make a case for Carla Bley (#7) and maybe Toshiko Akiyoshi (#10). At this point in the game I don't know how to separate out the compositions from the performances. The obvious approach would be to look for people whose pieces are also performed by others. That criteria would, in particular, seem to rule out Douglas: a check for "Songs Composed By" on AMG shows a lot of songs by Douglas, but virtually none of them have been performed by groups that do not include Douglas. I don't know who really fits that criteria -- Paul Motian is one I looked up, and he has written several songs done by others, but he plays on so many other people's albums that it's hard to get a good picture. The other approach would be to look for writerly musicians, which might steer you toward someone like Anthony Braxton. But for now I don't have a good answer. Rising Star: Jason Moran. He beat out Vijay Iyer, Stefon Harris, and Greg Osby, and that doesn't mean anything coherent to me.

Arranger: Maria Schneider. I don't know her work, but by reputation she seems like a safe bet. This should be easier than Composer, but offhand I don't have a clue. Rising Star: Steven Bernstein. Don't know him.

Producer: Michael Cuscuna. I haven't been noticing producers a lot, so again I'm at a loss here, although I'm familiar with folks like Manfred Eicher (#2), Orrin Keepnews (#3), and Arif Mardin (#5). Don't have a choice at the moment. Rising Star: Matt Balitsaris. Looks like he mostly works for Palmetto these days, and that's a hot label.

Blues Artist/Group: Buddy Guy. Fair enough. Rising Star: Derek Trucks. Don't know. One trend over the last decade has been young white women, mostly guitarists, like Sue Foley. Another has been folk-blues revivalists like Guy Davis and Alvin Youngblood Hart. But we're talking margins, because the pickings in the mainstream are slim.

Beyond Artist/Group: Norah Jones. She beat Outkast, Steely Dan, Caetano Veloso, Dr. John, Radiohead, Elvis Costello, Al Green, Rickie Lee Jones, the Roots, King Crimson, and Sting. Big world out there. Rising Star: Derek Trucks. How about Buck 65?

Posted: 2004-07-27