Downbeat Critics Poll: 2008

Back in 2003, a year before I started writing Jazz Consumer Guide, I quickly jotted down a set of reactions to Downbeat's Critics Poll and dumped them into my pre-blog on-line notebook. I figured it would be useful as a sanity test: seeing how my opinions stack up against the experts, taking note of some newcomers I missed or hadn't noticed or maybe just underrated. Wrote another one in 2004 after my first Jazz CG, and kept writing more, every year including this one. I've never voted in the poll -- don't have any relationship with them, not even as a subscriber, although I do check them out on the newsstand. (For one thing, they've managed to put about three-fourths of my featured duds on their cover, often a month or two after I make my pick, even if it hadn't been published yet.)

I'm late again this year: was slow getting to it, and slow getting it done. The fact that I'm posting it as early as I am is the result of cutting back on some of my ambitions. I did manage to round up all the old pieces and collect them here. I meant to do some more supporting research, especially for their Hall of Fame question. Also wanted to put together some files to remind me who I like on what instrument, but didn't get that done. As such, my notes are as haphazard and impressionistic as ever.

RS refers to the "Rising Star" list, generally for hot younger musicians, although the borders can get shifty.

Hall of Fame: Joe Zawinul. Continues their recent trend of electing the newly deceased. The still-living Hank Jones and Lee Konitz tied for (#2), a hint of how far behind the curve Downbeat is. I need to take a good look at who's in, who's out. Otherwise, there are too many people to not forget someone key. Zawinul would be way down my list. I mostly know him through Weather Report, a group I do not hold high. Konitz and Jones obviously belong, as does George Russell (#8) in the same generation. I much admire Randy Weston (#4) and Muhal Richard Abrams (#6), but wouldn't have put them so high on my list. One name off the list that occurs to me is Mal Waldron. Another is Illinois Jacquet. The more I look the more I'll find. Back in 2003 I complained loudly about Jackie McLean not even being on the ballot, a condition that persisted until he died in 2006, at which point the critics came to consciousness and put him over the top. So I think it's fair now to start talking about such major musicians with 40+ year careers as Anthony Braxton and Peter Brötzmann. Maybe even some 30+ year careers on the level of David Murray and Billy Bang.

Veterans Committee: Jo Jones, Jimmie Lunceford, Erroll Garner, Harry Carney, Jimmy Blanton. One thing that will help open up this list is the new Veterans Committee concept, which picked off three of the top 15, plus two more. They took a subset of their critics, gave them 28 nominees, let them vote for as many as they wanted, then inducted those who got 75%. No idea who the other 23 were, or how modern they get -- Garner is the most recent, having recorded from 1944 and died in 1977. Don't know who else was on the nominee list. Jimmy Rushing is conspicuous among the missing. Bing Crosby wouldn't be a bad choice -- Sinatra and Cole are in. Some more hats to throw in the ring: Red Allen, Buck Clayton, Bud Freeman, Don Redman, Rex Stewart, Chick Webb. More research next time.

Jazz Artist: Herbie Hancock. Got his Grammy, which counts for something in this poll. I didn't like the album, but that was mostly because I didn't like the vocals. Runners-up were: Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Joe Lovano -- not a bad measure of career eminence, but that concept doesn't hold up either. Given his recent production and Vision Festival role, I would have voted for William Parker, who didn't place. RS: Jason Moran. All depends on how you slice it. The 12 finalists age sort: Eric Alexander (1966), Ben Allison (1968), Chris Potter (1971), Vijay Iyer (1971), Stefon Harris (1973), Moran (1975). (Don't have everyone's age, but the missing names most likely sort after 1975.) I would have been tempted to say Iyer, but also would have guessed him younger than Moran. Iyer has produced more good records in the last year-plus than any other finalist.

Jazz Album: Maria Schneider, Sky Blue. Another Grammy, winner of many polls. I think, to paraphrase Branford on Wynton, that she's good for jazz, but the album doesn't do anything for me, and it's not the first time I've felt that. Of the 17 listed albums, 7 made my A-list (Joe Lovano/Hank Jones, Fred Anderson/Hamid Drake, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett, Joshua Redman, William Parker, David Murray), with Murray's Sacred Ground by far the highest (#2) on my list, behind Jewels and Binoculars, Ships With Tattooed Sails. My lists for 2007 and 2008 (so far).

Historical Album: Charles Mingus, Cornell 1964. Didn't think it was any better than the other live shots from the same vintage group. Best record among the finalists was Thelonious Monk Orchestra: At Town Hall, possibly my favorite Monk ever. The one record on the list that I haven't heard but would most like to: Classic Chu Berry Columbia and Victor Sessions, in one of those big Mosaic boxes. I had the Billie Holiday Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles at the top of my list, but that may have been too obvious for this batch of critics.

Jazz Group: Keith Jarrett Trio. I always have problems with leader-name-groups, which don't strike me as groups at all, although Jarrett's trio is as legit as they get, with no personnel changes in over 20 highly productive years. Only 2 of 12 finalists have actual group names here -- #4 SF Jazz Collective and #10 Bad Plus. Despite my reservations, I usually wind up picking Vandermark 5 here, which didn't make the cut. RS: The Claudia Quintet. More actual group names here: 5 of 12. I like everything I've heard by Claudia, but #12 Jewels and Binoculars and #8 Mostly Other People Do the Killing.

Big Band: Maria Schneider Orchestra. Don't have a favorite here, at least among the finalists -- several I like but haven't heard anything from lately (ICP Orchestra, Either/Orchestra, Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra). RS: Exploding Star Orchestra; Jason Lindner Big Band (tie). I had both of their records down in the low B+ range. One I found much more successful was #11 Nublu Orchestra, with Butch Morris at the helm. Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra, #5 here, released a good record in 2006 but haven't followed it up yet.

Soprano Saxophone: Wayne Shorter. I usually complain about non-specialists in this category, which includes 10 of the top 12 -- Jane Ira Bloom (#3) and Jane Bunnett (#8) are the usual exceptions, but not particular favorites either. Now that he's gotten away from Weather Report, I have to admit that Shorter does have a distinctive style on soprano, and he does good work with it (unlike #2 David Liebman and #4 Branford Marsalis). I will note that #7 Bob Wilber has just released a terrific new Soprano Summit album, but it was recorded 1975-79. RS: Marcus Strickland. Better on tenor, but he's not wasting his time on soprano. The RS list is also full of non-specialists. Two young players who have impressed me recently are Mike Ellis and Brent Jensen.

Alto Saxophone: Ornette Coleman. No problem if Coleman would bother recording more. I listen to recorded jazz, and don't hear enough from him. Lee Konitz (#3) and Anthony Braxton (#11) are nearly as eminent. Michael Moore (#12) made a notable surprise appearance here -- he's better known for clarinet, but alto sax is probably his lead instrument, and shows up more in the Jewels and Binoculars records. Tim Berne also belongs on this list. RS: Miguel Zenón. Has a new album out that I didn't get/haven't heard (need to do something about that). He's a very impressive player. Steve Lehman (#5) and Rob Brown (#9) have very good recent albums, including key roles in important groups. Off the list I should mention François Carrier, Jon Irabagon, and Dave Rempis.

Tenor Saxophone: Sonny Rollins. He's beginning to slip, edging Joe Lovano out 205-200, probably for lack of new records -- Lovano has a couple of dandies in the last year-plus. My pick is still (#8) David Murray, who was/is even better. RS: Donny McCaslin. I've long admired his chops, without particularly liking his records, but the new one is a big improvement. I'm surprised to see that he's 41, which makes him older than Chris Potter (still #2 RS despite ranking #3 overall), who preceded McCaslin in several key group roles. Still, the real RS in this category is Marcus Strickland (#4).

Baritone Saxophone: Gary Smulyan. Probably the best known specialist on an instrument where half the list is made up of multi-reed players -- James Carter has been winning here, but slipped to #2. My standard pick here is Hamiet Bluiett (#3), but actually I haven't heard anything from Smulyan or Bluiett is quite a while. So I'm tempted by Joe Temperley (#5), but I'll also note that Ken Vandermark (#10) makes his only place here, and that his baritone work has become much more prominent lately, especially in the Vandermark 5. RS: Scott Robinson. Good choice, although he plays so many other things he doesn't get much exposure on baritone. Not a lot of competition: a lot of sax players play some baritone, but few specialize in it; even in big bands it doesn't get much space. One indication of the field's thinness is that Temperley came in #10. I wonder how many people voted for him realize he's 78.

Clarinet: Don Byron. He has owned this category since he broke in, but spent most of his last record on alto sax, so I figure he's coasting. The other eminent figures here haven't been playing more than 50% (if that) on clarinet lately: Louis Sclavis (#8), Marty Ehrlich (#6), Michael Moore (#7). So I'm tempted to throw a vote to Allen Vaché, inexplicably off the list. RS: Anat Cohen. Interesting that while she beat Chris Speed 205-56 (and came in #2 RS Jazz Artist), she hasn't broken into the main list, even though her three runners-up (Speed, Evan Christopher, and Ben Goldberg) have. I like her tenor sax better than her clarinet, and liked her first album, which made Jazz CG before hardly anyone had heard of her, more than the better publicized follow-ups. She pays a lot for her PR, which pays off because she's an attractive, ambitious, and talented performer. She's risking becoming overrated, which would be unfair to her but also unfair to everyone else. One more note on the thinness of the competition, and perhaps the provincialness of American critics, is that veterans Louis Sclavis and François Houle made the RS list -- André Jaume didn't even get this far. I think I'd vote for Christopher.

Flute: James Moody. I suppose there are more flute players than there are tuba players -- not a category in this poll -- but tuba's more fun and there are more good tubaists around. One indication of this is that RS: Nichole Mitchell came in #3, behind Moody and Lew Tabackin. (Frank Wess, after dominating the list for years, has finally slipped off; he's 86, but Moody, who I also haven't heard in several years, is 83.) I'll give the top spot to Dave Valentin (#9) because flute works best in Latin jazz, and the RS slot to Mitchell, because she's awesome. She's on track to top the big list next year, and will probably dominate it for the next 20-30 years. Hopefully she won't inspire a whole new generation to take up the instrument.

Trumpet: Dave Douglas. Beat Wynton Marsalis by his usual 182-123 margin. Stanley Crouch can grouch all he wants, but these two guys aren't even in the same universe, much less league. I have my doubts about his composing, but he's such a great performer he makes me like music I have little if any inclination to like, which puts him at a level with Dizzy Gillespie. There are lot of good trumpet players, but no one else comes close. My runner up would probably be Tomasz Stanko (#6), a very different player, or maybe Brian Lynch (#10). I'm surprised that Clark Terry has dropped off the list. Some other missing names: Steven Bernstein, Roy Campbell, Dennis Gonzalez, Jerry Gonzalez, Nils Petter Molvaer, Randy Sandke, Jack Walrath. RS: Jeremy Pelt. First time I heard of him was when he won RS in 2004. When I checked him out I was impressed by his chops, but I've grown tired and leery of his records. Not sure who I'd pick here. I only like about half of the finalists, and haven't heard enough of the two most promising ones -- Peter Evans (#7), Taylor Ho Bynum (#12). One more name to consider is Ralph Alessi.

Trombone: Steve Turre. Perennial winner, although I'm more of a Roswell Rudd (#3) partisan, and wish Ray Anderson (#7) and George Lewis (#6) would record more. RS: Josh Roseman. Seems like the right pick.

Piano: Keith Jarrett. There are more major players at piano than any other instrument. I pulled out a list of 17 last year, all 25+ year veterans (some more like 50), many Europeans who are severely underrepresented in this poll (Jacky Terrasson tied for #12 this year, which doesn't weigh heavily against my case). One of those broke the list this year: Paul Bley (also #12). I'm not enough of a piano partisan to care much who comes out on top. Jarrett's latest record was his best in quite some time. Same for Hank Jones (#2) and McCoy Tyner (#5) -- in both cases big thanks to Joe Lovano. Not sure who I would vote for. Maybe Paul Bley or Myra Melford (#10) from the list, or Matthew Shipp or Marilyn Crispell or Satoko Fujii or Uri Caine or Vijay Iyer off of it -- to focus on the middle generation players I'm most familiar with. RS: Robert Glasper. Well, not him, not by a long margin. The best pianists here are Jason Moran (#2, #8 overall), Vijay Iyer (#3), Bill Charlap (#4, #9 overall), and Ethan Iverson (#9), with Iyer the obvious pick. Some more names, well off the list: Nik Bärtsch, Bill Carrothers, Neil Cowley, Kris Davis, Tord Gustavsen, Pandelis Karayorgis, Russ Lossing, Carl Maguire, Sergi Sirvent, Albert Van Veenendaal, Marcin Wasilewski. Just heard a record by Jorge Lima Barreto I like a lot. He's been around a long time, but who knew?

Keyboard/Synthesizer: Herbie Hancock. Barely edged #2 Uri Caine, who slums brilliantly on electric keybs. Perennial winner Joe Zawinul dropped to #4 after dying. I don't have a strong opinion here. RS: Craig Taborn. It's tempting to throw this to Nik Bärtsch: even though he plays more acoustic, his rhythmic approach is closer akin to electric keyboardists. Lots of good young pianists play some electric on the side, notably Uri Caine and George Colligan. Taborn started that way too, but has become more of a specialist.

Organ: Joey DeFrancesco. I like old-time soul jazz as much as anyone, but I don't find much to choose from any more in the organ players. Just to pick one example, I've heard things recently by Mike LeDonne (#6) I've loved and hated, and I'm not sure he can tell the difference. I don't have much of a sense of DeFrancesco, but he's certainly better than Larry Goldings (#2) or Dr. Lonnie Smith (#3). RS: Sam Yahel; Gary Versace (tie). I prefer Versace to Yahel, but I like Vince Seneri (off the list) better than either.

Guitar: Pat Metheny. Been catching up on Bill Frisell (#2), who's been sounding pretty good -- easily the best of the finalists, although John Abercrombie (#6) keeps turning in fine showings, as do Nels Cline (#8) and Marc Ribot (#10). Off the list I like Wolfgang Muthspiel, Howard Alden, Joe Morris, Raoul Björkenheim, Anders Nilsson, Jeff Parker, Ulf Wakenius -- some of those might be RS candidates, but weren't listed. Actually, there are a lot of guitarists these days, and they're doing much more than recycling Wes Montgomery or John McLaughlin. RS: Lionel Loueke. Has yet to make much of an impression on me. List here is an odd mix, including Cline and Peter Bernstein from the big list, and no one else I mentioned above. I'd go with Björkenheim or Nilsson.

Acoustic Bass: Christian McBride. Finally nudged Dave Holland from top perch. Not really sure why, but McBride is very good -- in fact, there's fewer weak spots here than in any other category, piano and tenor sax included. All that said, William Parker (#5) is the clear pick. RS: Esperanza Spalding. Seems like a case of hype and hope -- I actually classify her as a vocalist, and in the small world of bassist-vocalists I prefer Nicki Parrott. Rest of the list here is pretty solid, with Ben Allison (#2) moving up the big list (#9), and Avishai Cohen/Scott Colley/Drew Gress (all tied at #3), Omer Avital (#6), John Hebert (#9), and Nate McBride (#11) names worth singling out. Missing names include Michael Formanek, Mark Helias, Marc Johnson, and John Lindberg, who are contenders for the top list, and Moppa Elliott, Ken Filiano, Adam Lane, Eivind Opsvik, and Ari Roland. Elliott and Lane are the hottest picks there, and Filiano is the most valuable team player since Peter Washington.

Electric Bass: Steve Swallow. The two bass categories have been split out this year after having been combined last year. Whereas I'm very conscious of acoustic bassists, I can't tell you much about electric, other than that they break into three or four hard-to-compare subsets. In particular, I can't recall distinguishing Christian McBride (#2) on electric vs. acoustic bass. Given this, Swallow is a safe choice -- like Bob Cranshaw (#9), he's a fairly mainstream jazz bassist who just happens to prefer electric. RS: Hadrien Féraud. Name didn't ring a bell, but he's been playing with John McLaughlin, so he's on a couple of records I've heard. Has one on his own; haven't heard it. Likened to Jaco Pastorius, which doesn't make me want to rush out. From the list here, I still like Nate McBride (#10) for his early Vandermark work, but he's been playing more acoustic lately, and getting pretty good at it.

Drums: Roy Haynes. Like bass, a deep suit. I would rather pick Jack DeJohnette (#2) or Paul Motian (#3), but I'm an even bigger fan of Hamid Drake (#7), and certainly wouldn't mind Matt Wilson (#4) or Lewis Nash (#8). RS: Eric Harland. I tend to overlook players who don't have records under their own name, so I'm surprise to find Harland here, but he's worked on 30-40 records since 1997, mostly mainstream, mostly pretty good. I'd probably pick Tyshawn Sorey (#8), although there are a lot of others I like. Joey Baron, Jim Black, Gerry Hemingway, John Hollenbeck, and Tom Rainey are conspicuous omissions.

Percussion: Poncho Sanchez. Category has been dominated by Latin jazzers, with scattered world jazz mixed in, a crate of apples and oranges. I like Hamid Drake (#2), but figure he fits better under drums, so I tend to wind up with Kahil El'Zabar (#6), also mostly a drummer. RS: Susie Ibarra. I've lost track of her work, need to track it down. I don't see an obvious pick on the finalist list, so I'm tempted to pull one out of left field and go with Sonic Liberation Front's Kevin Diehl.

Vibes: Bobby Hutcherson. The premier vibraphone player of the 1960s, probably through the 1980s, but I didn't care much for his latest album, for for that matter for SF Jazz. I usually pick Joe Locke here, but he's been working in a lot of weak groups lately, a big drop down from his quartets with Bob Berg and Tommy Smith. So I'm tempted to go with Matt Moran (#10). RS: Stefon Harris. He's won the RS category since his first Blue Note album, but I've never cared for his albums. Beyond Moran (#6), I like Bryan Carrott (#4), Bill Ware (#5), and Jason Adasiewicz (#8), in no particular order. Note that Locke and Steve Nelson are still #2 and #3 on the RS list despite having landed in the top five on the top list for a decade or more, and that Khan Jamal is only on the RS list (#11) at age 62. He's actually a terrific player, but I haven't heard anything from him lately.

Violin: Regina Carter. Clear choice here is Billy Bang (up to #2). Actually, there are a lot of good violinists coming up now. Jason Kao Hwang finally broke the list (#12), and should be doing better. Evidently there are still critics who don't know that Leroy Jenkins died, but remember how he dominated the niche back in the day. RS: Jenny Scheinman. Still a good pick, but also #4 on the big list, one of five on both lists.

Miscellaneous Instrument: Béla Fleck (banjo). Hard to compare instruments as well as musicians. Someday I should break this out, then pick one (or more) each for banjo, harmonica, accordion, bandoneon, cello, bass saxophone, bass clarinet, etc. RS: Grégoire Maret (harmonica).

Female Vocals: Cassandra Wilson. Always thought she was overrated, but thus far Loverly is the jazz vocal album of the year. My perennial pick is (#6) Sheila Jordan, who didn't record anything new. I still like (#5) Diana Krall and (#11) Patricia Barber. RS: Roberta Gambarini. Only heard her once on Rhapsody, but was impressed. The rest of the list is pretty mixed, with some I like, but no obvious choice. There are a lot of good young female jazz vocalists, in marked contrast to the other sex.

Male Vocals: Kurt Elling. Don't much care for any of these guys -- well, Bob Dorough (#9) isn't bad, and I wouldn't mind Freddy Cole (#5) winning. But since he's on Blue Note, why not just draft Al Green? Or Willie Nelson? RS: Giacomo Gates. Gates is the one male jazz vocalist lately I was impressed with. Jamie Davis is another, but didn't make the list. Theo Bleckmann (#3) alternately amazes and annoys me.

Producer: Manfred Eicher. Unlike pop records, jazz producers are mostly label heads, wearing both hats to keep their costs controlled. So I'm not real sure what they do, or how to evaluate them. Don't know who I would have voted for, but Eicher maintains a consistent aesthetic while putting out a lot of good records. He probably has more impact as a producer than most of the competition, but I don't know how high to weigh that. RS: Branford Marsalis. He's made some things happen, notably in his "Honors" series. Don't have any better ideas.

Composer: Maria Schneider. Hard for me to tell, but #11 Ben Allison seems like a reasonable choice: his albums are tuneful, and not dominated by his own performance (like #2 Dave Douglas or #6 Ornette Coleman). It will take a few decades before we can recognize any new composer as having produced vital work for interpreters -- it seems clear now that Thelonious Monk was the jazz composer of the 1950s, but who realized that at the time? RS: John Hollenbeck. No strong opinions here, but I do like Hollenbeck, as well as #2 Ben Allison. Most of the other finalists wouldn't have occurred to me. A couple of names off the list do occur to me: Avishai Cohen (the bassist, not the trumpeter), and Tyshawn Sorey.

Arranger: Maria Schneider. Again, hard for me to tell. Of the finalists I like #7 Steven Bernstein, although I might have voted for Lawrence "Butch" Morris -- admittedly not the same thing, but it works pretty well. RS: John Hollenbeck. I don't know about here, but in general I like Hollenbeck a lot.

Blues Artist/Group: BB King. Safe pick, as is Buddy Guy (#2). Best record from the list was by Mavis Staples (#10), but was it blues? I would probably have voted for Maria Muldaur (off the list), although Koko Taylor had a better record. RS: Derek Trucks. Don't know. Don't see a good pick on the list.

Blues Album: Otis Taylor, Recapturing the Banjo. Haven't heard it. Have only heard 5 records here. Best is Mavis Staples, We'll Never Turn Back.

Beyond Artist/Group: Radiohead. Not really. How about Public Enemy? Or any of the records below.

Beyond Album: Radiohead, In Rainbows. I hate the term "beyond," but it fits well enough with three of my top four non-jazz records of 2007: Manu Chao, La Radiolina; Gogol Bordello, Super Taranta!; and Youssou N'Dour, Rokku Mi Rokka. The other was John Fogerty, Revival, which is as straight down the middle as they get.

Record Label: ECM. Edged perennial winner Blue Note 170-168. Both are first class operations with exceptional publicity support, which makes a world of the difference in a critics poll. I can't fault this. For one thing, I've reviewed 27 ECM records on Jazz CG, more than from any other label. I usually pick smaller labels here, like Fresh Sound (tied with Blue Note for second in Jazz CG entries at 19), Clean Feed (18), Arbors (17), Atavistic (14), Sunnyside (13), AUM Fidelity (9), Okka Disk (7), or Pi (6) -- the latter three a high percentage of their slim release lists.

Don't have a Readers Poll ballot yet. That may be good for yet another post.

Posted: 2008-09-07