Downbeat Critics Poll: 2006

The last few years I've written up a second opinion to Downbeat's annual Critics Poll. This year's results were published in the August issue, now eclipsed on the newsstand, so I'm running late. Thought I'd do this on the road, since it's mostly just spouting off the top of my head, but now I'll just try to do it fast. Still got a day to send my Readers Poll ballot in. I don't vote in the poll, so this is just another data point.

To speed things up, I'll list the winner, then limit my choices to the top ten vote getters. Most categories also have a Rising Star (RS) category, which I'll also do following the same rules.

Trumpet: Dave Douglas. Agreed. I don't always like his records, but that's usually because he's playing over my head. RS: Jeremy Pelt. He's makes an impression, but I'll go with #4 Steven Bernstein, and note that a lot of people I like made neither list, starting with Dennis Gonzalez.

Trombone: Steve Turre. Haven't heard enough from him lately, but I still like #8 Ray Anderson. RS: Gianluca Petrella. I like his record, but haven't heard enough to pick him over #4 Jeb Bishop or #8 Wolter Wierbos.

Tenor Saxophone: Sonny Rollins. Lifetime, sure, but his newest album was recorded in 2001. Lately, #5 David Murray. RS: Chris Potter. I have to go with #4 Ken Vandermark, who should be on the main list by now.

Alto Saxophone: Phil Woods. Several good options here, but #12 Anthony Braxton has to be the first choice. RS: Miguel Zenón. Agreed, narrowly over #8 Dave Rempis.

Soprano Saxophone: Wayne Shorter. I generally lean against people who play soprano as a second instrument, which would rout this list -- the exceptions I see are Jane Ira Bloom and Jane Bunnett, but let's compromise a bit and go with #5 Evan Parker. RS: Ravi Coltrane. None. Same problem here, even worse at the top. Looking back through my database I find very few primary sopranos, but many secondary ones.

Baritone Saxophone: James Carter. A great tenor saxophonist who dabbles on everything else, I don't see how he wins year after year. The clear choice is #3 Hamiet Bluiett. RS: Claire Daly. Don't know her well enough to say, but I'm not quite ready to commit to #5 Mats Gustafsson or #6 Alex Harding yet either.

Clarinet: Don Byron. Agreed, but partly because the others I'm tempted by also play other reeds -- #2 Marty Ehrlich, #8 Michael Moore, and #9 Louis Sclavis. RS: Chris Speed. Agreed, but here because #4 Ehrlich, #5 Sclavis, and #6 Moore should be established by now.

Flute: James Moody. Again, mostly dabblers on the list, of whom #4 Frank Wess remains the most consistent, but I think I'll go with the equally dependable #5 Lew Tabackin. RS: Nicole Mitchell. Don't even know her -- oh, yeah, her. Still, I have to go with my old fave, #7 Robert Dick, even though he's my age and I haven't heard anything from him in ages. His secret weapon is that he goes for the heavyweight flutes, which can put him below bass clarinet.

Guitar: Bill Frisell. Not sure. Seems like six or so of these guys may have topped at one point or another, but on the basis of recent work I'm inclined to pick #8 John Abercrombie. RS: Kurt Rosenwinkel. I'll go with #10 Jeff Parker, but #6 Marc Ribot and #8 Charlie Hunter are contenders.

Acoustic Piano: Keith Jarrett. I admire Jarrett more each year, but I also take him for granted and suspect he's plateaued. So maybe this is the year we credit #4 Andrew Hill. RS: Jason Moran. I'll go with #2 Vijay Iyer. Moran seems to have slipped a bit, and in any case has already risen to #6 on the main list. Again, there are so many pianists that lots of people I like didn't make either list -- some that quickly pop into mind are: Dave Burrell, Marilyn Crispell, Matthew Shipp, Uri Caine, David Hazeltine, Myra Melford, but there are many more.

Electric Keyboard/Synthesizer: Joe Zawinul. Clear choice is #2 Uri Caine, even though he's probably better still on acoustic. RS: Uri Caine. Agreed.

Organ: Joey DeFrancesco. No strong opinion, but the last one I've really liked is #9 Melvin Rhyne. RS: Sam Yahel. None.

Bass (Acoustic & Electric): Dave Holland. My standard here is #4 William Parker. RS: Ben Allison. Half of this list, including Allison, are neck and neck, but I'll go with #3 Drew Gress.

Drums: Jack DeJohnette. Agreed, but #7 Hamid Drake and #8 Lewis Nash are in line. RS: Matt Wilson. Since he's still on the list, I have to go with #6 Hamid Drake.

Percussion: Ray Barretto. Many different traditions here, making it hard to compare. I could pick Drake again, but let's go with #3 Zakir Hussain for a change. RS: Hamid Drake. Agreed, if you evaluate his frame drums here, but I view him as a drummer. But then the others I'm most tempted by -- #2 Susie Ibarra and #7 Satoshi Takeishi -- are drummers too.

Vibes: Bobby Hutcherson. Agreed, certainly over the long haul, but recently what does he have to show but the SF Jazz Collective? RS: Stefon Harris. I'll give it to #2 Joe Locke, but he belongs up top, maybe on top, with someone else moving in here, like #6 Matt Moran.

Male Vocalist: Kurt Elling. Can't stand him, nor most of the list, which leads me to #10 Bob Dorough. RS: Jamie Cullum. Not much better, except for #6 Theo Bleckmann.

Female Vocalist: Cassandra Wilson. Easy, #6 Sheila Jordan. RS: Luciana Souza. I'll go with #8 René Marie.

Violin: Regina Carter. Come on, #2 Billy Bang -- this shouldn't be close. RS: Jenny Scheinman. Agreed.

Miscellaneous Instrument: Toots Thielemans (harmonica). This is an apples-and-oranges category, hopeless. I'll go with #8, Rabih Abou-Khalil (oud). RS: Grégoire Maret (harmonica). I'll take #6 Fred Lonberg-Holm, the third of three cellos in the top six.

Record Label: Blue Note. Hard to say, but given this list I'm inclined to throw a plug for Sunnyside.

Composer: Maria Schneider. I never have a real good sense of how to judge composers, but one rule of thumb is look toward the back of the band, since bassists and drummers have to convince others to play their music. On this list, that argues for #6 Dave Holland. RS: Vijay Iyer. Again, the rule favors #2 Ben Allison or #3 John Hollenbeck, so flip a coin.

Arranger: Maria Schneider. This should be a little clearer, but I'll go with my sentimental favorite, #2 Carla Bley. RS: Steven Bernstein. Agreed.

Producer: Michael Cuscuna. No idea. RS: Branford Marsalis. I'll give this to #7 Seth Rosner, the guy who runs Pi Recordings. Don't know if it's his production, but everything he touches is worthwhile.

Blues Artist/Group: B.B.King. Let's stay on the jazz side and give it to #3 James "Blood" Ulmer. RS: Derek Trucks. None, not that Trucks or several of the others are bad.

Blues Album: James "Blood" Ulmer, Birthright. I like it, but better still is #6 Odyssey the Band, Back in Time -- Ulmer's other record. But those and a bad Susan Tedeschi album are the only ones I've heard.

Beyond Artist/Group: Elvis Costello. Not something they know much about, but #5 Kanye West is fine with me.

Beyond Album: Ry Cooder, Chavez Ravine. I've heard 7 of 10 here, and have 4 at A- or above, including their winner, but the easy choice is Kanye West, Late Registration. Of coruse, there's a lot more to Beyond.

Jazz Artist: Sonny Rollins. Don't know what this means, but I'm a product guy, and of the finalists the guy who seems to be everywhere these days is #7 Paul Motian, so let's go with him. RS: Vijay Iyer. Agreed.

Jazz Group: Wayne Shorter Quartet. None. I'm still stuck with the idea that a group is something other than a leader's band, but 11 of 12 here are not only leader's bands, they're named after the leader. The other one is #11 SF Jazz Collective, but they don't win either -- partly because they never sent their second album. RS: SF Jazz Collective. I'm partial to #9 The Claudia Quintet.

Big Band: Maria Schneider Orchestra. I like the recent records by #4 Liberation Music Orchestra and #7 Gerald Wilson Orchestra, but both strike me as ad hoc, so I'll go with #10 Either/Orchestra. RS: Either/Orchestra. Agreed, but I thought they'd risen -- they've done more for longer than Schneider.

Hall of Fame: Jackie McLean. Agreed. I've been griping for years that he wasn't even on the ballot -- see my obit post. Too bad he had to die to get some attention. Same thing happened to Steve Lacy the year before. Next up should be #3 Lee Konitz, but I hope he gets in while he's still alive.

Jazz Album: Andrew Hill, Time Lines. I only have three of the top twelve albums at A-, and didn't even hear two more (Bill Frisell, Brad Mehldau). So I'll go for Liberation Music Orchestra, Not in Our Name over Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter, but my real album lists are available elsewhere. The only one I had under B+ was Terence Blanchard, Flow.

Historical Album: Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane, At Carnegie Hall. Agreed. Enough already.

After this exercise, I filled out my Readers Poll ballot -- real quick, since this is the deadline day:

  • Hall of Fame: Lee Konitz
  • Jazz Musician of the Year: Ken Vandermark
  • Jazz Album of the Year: Jon Faddis, Terranga
  • Jazz Historical Album of the Year: Irène Schweizer, Portrait
  • Jazz Record Label of the Year: Sunnyside
  • Jazz Combo: Vandermark Five
  • Jazz Big Band: Either/Orchestra
  • Blues Musician/Group of the Year: James "Blood" Ulmer
  • Blues Album of the Year: Odyssey the Band, Back in Time
  • Composer: Ben Allison
  • Trumpet: Dennis Gonzalez
  • Trombone: Ray Anderson
  • Soprano Sax: Joe Giardullo
  • Alto Sax: Anthony Braxton
  • Tenor Sax: David Murray
  • Baritone Sax: Hamiet Bluiett
  • Flute: Robert Dick
  • Clarinet: Marty Ehrlich
  • Electric Keyboard/Synthesizer: Uri Caine
  • Acoustic Piano: Irène Schweizer
  • Organ: Melvin Rhyne
  • Guitar: Joe Morris
  • Bass (Acoustic & Electric): William Parker
  • Drums: Hamid Drake
  • Percussion: Hamid Drake
  • Vibes: Joe Locke
  • Misc. Instrument: Rabih Abou-Khalil
  • Singer Male: Van Morrison
  • Singer Female: Sheila Jordan

I wouldn't put too much weight on this ballot. In a couple of places I just pulled names off the top of my head. It's easy to say that none of these are bad answers; saying they're the right ones is something else.

One thing I'm always struck by in Downbeat's polls is not just how orthodox the critics are but how Blue Note they are. The label vote -- Blue Note 277, ECM 141, Palmetto 77, Mosaic (a Blue Note subsidiary) 59, Verve 55 -- is one indication, but the roster placements are even more striking, especially in the anomalies. Obviously, I'm not talking about what Joe Lovano, Don Byron, Wynton Marsalis, or even Jason Moran and Bill Charlap are scoring -- Moran and Charlap help Blue Note's reputation as much as the reverse. But Robert Glasper #3 RS piano? He might turn out to be better than his album (note singular) indicates, but there are literally hundreds of young pianists who have accomplished more -- they just don't have that Blue Note contract. Glasper's just the most glaring example, but everyone on Blue Note's roster places somewhere, and usually well above where I would put them.

I always figured that critics are obligated to go out of their way to survey as much turf as possible, so the clustering in this poll strikes me as dereliction of duty. On the other hand, as a working critic, one thing I can read between the lines is that the aesthetic constriction has a lot to do with which labels support the most critics. Nine of the top twelve record labels give me consistent support, and the other three certainly ship a lot of promos, even if not always to me. (Mosaic and ArtistShare are odd cases; Nonesuch is presumably a problem that can be fixed.) Again, you can prove this case by looking for anomalies. Pi Recordings doesn't release much, but they support their releases well, and their artists pop up here and there; e.g., under RS alto saxophone we find #2 Rudresh Mahanthappa and #10 Steve Lehman. I don't mean to knock either, but they wouldn't be there if critics didn't hear them.

On the other hand, even though I do a better job than most, I get so much stuff coming to my door that I don't bother chasing down a lot of things that I should -- especially when it comes to labels like Tzadik and Leo that never send anything, that I hear mostly when a musician sends something. Before I started writing, I would buy anything that sounded promising -- but then I could afford to, and now I never have the time to play anything after I've written about it, so the prices look steeper than ever. Most critics are in this same boat, which gives us these partial views. The useful thing about a poll is that it statistically integrates a bunch of views. Downbeat's poll is as skewed as Cadence's, but it's useful nonetheless. You just need to figure out how to read it.

Posted: 2006-08-28