Downbeat Critics Poll: 2009

Yet another take on Downbeat's Critics Poll. I started doing this in 2003 intending it basically as a sanity test, mostly to see who I should have noticed but wasn't aware of. Each year I get more sure of myself, and less sure of the other critics, but still people show up I'm unaware of, or barely aware of but with no real sense of. I'm rather late this year, and will try to make fast work of it.

Posts from previous years are collected here. There is also a file on Hall of Fame and a very rough Jazz Rankings file that I very quickly threw together for research purposes.

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

Hall of Fame: Hank Jones. Third Jones brother in DBHOF. I think you can argue he should have been the first, and not just because he's the oldest. Only 116 members on DBHOF, so the voters are always chasing their tails, the last four elections going to recently deceased, with the readers adding two more (plus Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett among the living). Freddie Hubbard made a bid for five straight, coming in (#2) but not close. Lee Konitz is (#3), obviously overdue. George Russell died too late and fell from (#8) last year off the finish list. Strangely, this sort of volatility has been common among the voters. There are a couple dozen obvious choices in the wings, including many who missed the top 15 list. The Veterans Committee added last year helps clear out some of the old-timers, but they're stuck in a numbers game that their current methodology can't break.

Veterans Committee: Oscar Pettiford, Tadd Dameron. A couple of odd choices, not that I have anything bad to say about either. Last year I threw six hats into the ring: Red Allen, Buck Clayton, Bud Freeman, Don Redman, Rex Stewart, Chick Webb. Those were bigger stars, and they date back a generation before the picks. I also mentioned two singers -- Jimmy Rushing and Bing Crosby -- and I could double or triple those lists.

Jazz Artist: Sonny Rollins. Also won Jazz Album, Road Shows, Vol. 1. Hard to go wrong with Rollins. Joe Lovano came in (#2) with the (#2) album. Charles Lloyd had the (#3) album and came in (#8). Anthony Braxton had the (#1) Historical Release and came in (#12), just ahead of last year's winner, Herbie Hancock. That seems to be how it works. I would have voted for Braxton. RS: Rudresh Mahanthappa. Had a breakthrough album, Kinsmen, which finished (#5). He finally bumped Jason Moran, who's won perennially but hasn't done much lately. Mahanthappa had two real good albums, and helped out on a Vijay Iyer album I thought was even better. I would have picked Iyer (#3), but Mahanthappa is a good pick.

Jazz Album: Sonny Rollins, Road Shows, Vol. 1. Some great stuff, but I didn't take it as seriously as many others did -- won some polls, including the Village Voice's. I only have 3 of the top 14 records on my A-List (down from 7 last year): Rollins, Rudresh Mananthappa's Kinsmen, and Donny McCaslin's Recommended Tools. Didn't get 5 (Jeff "Tain" Watts, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Atomic, EST, Roy Hargrove). Don't expect much there, but Atomic is such an outlier I should chase it down. My lists don't sort the jazz out, which I figure serves you right: 2008 and 2009 (so far).

Historical Album: Anthony Braxton, The Complete Arista Recordings: Big Mosaic box, should have been a slam dunk but actually edged Miles Davis, Kind of Blue 50th Anniversary Collector's Edition (which I never got, although I got the 2CD Legacy Edition) by a slim margin. I reviewed Braxton in the Voice. Seems like the completely obvious pick.

Jazz Group: Keith Jarrett Standard Trio. I always gripe that leader-name groups aren't real groups, but then I usually wind up picking the Vandermark 5, which seems inconsistent. Only 2 real-group names in top 13: SFJAZZ Collective and Bad Plus. Don't get the former, and the latter got a dud this year, so neither strike me as contenders. Don't know who does, which is why I wind up picking Vandermark 5, who are still on a roll. Among leader-name groups, the William Parker Quartet is better than any of the 11 listed here, and has been since O'Neal's Porch came out. RS: Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Probably a better name than the Moppa Elliott 4. Two straight great albums, seems like the right pick. Two other finishers with hot streaks are Nik Bärtsch's Ronin (#10) and Fieldwork (#11).

Big Band: Maria Schneider Orchestra. No new album, so coasting on Grammys. I wish I didn't dislike this group so much. Without looking too hard, I'd pick (#8) Millennial Territory Orchestra, and also cite Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York (#11 RS) and the ensemble William Parker put together for my fave album last year, Double Sunrise Over Neptune. RS: Jason Lindner Big Band: Not bad, but not much of a contender. Haven't played the latest from John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble (#2). MTO finished (#4) here, which makes them the obvious pick.

Trumpet: Dave Douglas. Obvious choice. The only others I would consider are Steven Bernstein (#12) and Randy Sandke (not on list), both with superior albums this past year. RS: Christian Scott: Did I miss something? (Uh, yes, Live at Newport, a CD/DVD; that can't have made much difference.) Interesting that Peter Evans is now up to (#4) -- I've missed too much of his work, too. Also Darren Johnston has broke in at (#12), with what is thus far the debut album of the year (The Edge of the Forest). Still, the pick I'm most certain of is missing: Ralph Alessi.

Trombone: Steve Turre. I'd still pick Roswell Rudd, gaining ground at (#2). RS: Josh Roseman. Nothing new this year, but don't really have another pick. Two trombonists with recent A-list records are Rafi Malkiel and Vittor Santos, both Latin Jazz surprises.

Soprano Saxophone: Wayne Shorter. Not obvious since Steve Lacy died: DB's critics tend to go with part-timers like Shorter, Branford Marsalis (#2), Chris Potter (#9), and Joshua Redman (#11), but the mainstream prime-timers aren't really any better -- David Liebman (#3) is worse. I'll pick Evan Parker (#5), although most of the good records I've heard from him recently have him playing tenor. RS: Marcus Strickland. Another guy who's better on tenor. My pick is Brent Jensen (not on list).

Alto Saxophone: Lee Konitz. Works harder than (#2) Ornette Coleman or (#3) Phil Woods, but not (#9) Anthony Braxton or (#13) John Zorn. I'd pick Braxton because I've heard more by him. Note that the next generation is moving up the list: Miguel Zenón (#5), Greg Osby (#6), Rudresh Mahanthappa (#7). Conspicuously missing is Tim Berne; also Mark Whitecage, Michael Moore, Marty Ehrlich, and François Carrier. RS: Rudresh Mahanthappa. It's been his year, so I see no point in quibbling. Also moving up fast are Steve Lehman (#5) and Jon Irabagon (#6), and there are more good players not on the list than in quite some while.

Tenor Saxophone: Joe Lovano. Edged Sonny Rollins -- (#3). Chris Potter wasn't close. Surprise finishers here were the (#10) ties: James Moody and Evan Parker. My pick is still (#8) David Murray, followed by David S. Ware, Ken Vandermark, Houston Person, Scott Hamilton, Harry Allen, and Tommy Smith (all off list). RS: Donny McCaslin. Released his best album yet. Won 102-52 over Marcus Strickland but still hasn't cracked main list (ending with James Carter at #12). Strickland is a future star, but lately Tony Malaby (#4) has been more consistently impressive.

Baritone Saxophone: Gary Smulyan. I can't say that I've ever heard anything by him. My standard pick is (#4) Hamiet Bluiett, but I haven't heard anything from him lately either, so I might pick (#9) Mats Gustafsson, but I wouldn't say I'm a big fan. Among multi-instrumentalists, Ken Vandermark (#10) has become a powerful force on baritone, and I probably shouldn't disparage (#2) James Carter so much. RS: Claire Daly. Haven't heard much by her either. Might pick Scott Robinson (#2), but I like his bass sax even better.

Clarinet: Don Byron. Perennial winner, but hasn't recorded much lately, and played alto sax last time out. I'd pick Louis Sclavis (#9). Marty Ehrlich (#6) and Michael Moore (#8) are superb, but I'm not sure how they split with alto sax. Anat Cohen (#5) strikes me as a better tenor saxophonist, but more marketable on clarinet. A lot of saxophonists are playing some clarinet these days -- a good example is Peter Brötzmann: the softer tone cuts his usual harshness and lets subtle flavor shifts emerge. RS: Anat Cohen. Quibbles aside, she's certainly carved out a niche here. I don't think anyone else has clearly emerged: right now there's a lot of heat but little light in this category. There is, for instance, a lot going on in Europe, where clarinet has a folkie allure -- I've heard a record each by Mihaly Borbely and Lajos Dudas and suspect there are more.

Flute: James Moody. Not much here. There's very little jazz flute I like -- Sam Most and Robert Dick are about the only names that come to mind. I've heard relatively little by Moody, and his latest album has no flute on it. I'd probably vote for Dave Valentin here because he mostly sticks to Latin Jazz where flute works better. RS: Nicole Mitchell. Talented enough, and a hell of a lot more charismatic than the competition. She's already up to (#4) on the main list, just 4 votes shy of Frank Wess. I'm pretty skeptical, but the only one I like on this list is Dick, who's my age and was last heard from working with the Thai Elephant Orchestra.

Piano: Keith Jarrett. Perennial winner, but Hank Jones almost pulled an upset this year, closing within 3 votes. I don't have any brief against either, but there are scores of contenders at piano. For example, the best solo record I've heard in several years is by Abdullah Ibrahim, who first made his mark 45 years ago and has been a major figure ever since. He's off-list, as is Paul Bley and Ran Blake, who go back even further. Cecil Taylor is the only avant-gardist on the list (#9); conspicuous omissions include Alex von Schlippenbach, Irène Schweizer, Marilyn Crispell, and Satoko Fujii. There are so many pianists that there has developed a big gap between the RS list and the main list, wide enough to swallow players like Uri Caine, Myra Melford, and Matthew Shipp. My own pick would be Shipp, basically because he's the one I know the best. RS: Vijay Iyer. Definitely. The rest of the list is weirdly scattered. With so many good pianists to choose from, how you wind up with Gerald Clayton, Aaron Parks, Robert Glasper, Stefano Bollani, Hiromi, and Lafayette Gilchrist is, well, some kind of a triumph for PR.

Keyboard/Synthesizer: Chick Corea. Lots of pianists play some electronic keyboards, with Fender Rhodes the recent favorite, but few play them exclusively, or even very often. There aren't many specialists, and they aren't very good. One indication of the thinness of the list is that Craig Taborn is up to (#5), followed by a big gap (60-23 votes) over (#6) Jim Baker. Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, and Corea have dominated this category since the dinosaur days of fusion. I haven't heard a record by Corea I've liked since 1995's Time Warp, but I must admit I missed last year's duos with Gary Burton and Hiromi. Anyone I'd vote for here would be an arbitrary choice. RS: Craig Taborn. This feels like a consolation list, with Uri Caine (#2) and Matthew Shipp (#3) devoting maybe 10% of their effort to electric keyboards, still pretty much blowing everyone else away. Taborn is pretty good. But I might just as well vote for someone like Michiel Braam on a lark.

Organ: Dr. Lonnie Smith. This slot has fallen on hard times. Might pick Gary Versace (#7) from the list, although I'd just as soon hear him play accordion. RS: Gary Versace. Broke last year's tie with Sam Yahel. I've liked the last two records I've heard from Vince Seneri, who evidently sells organs in New Jersey. He's able to work up some fresh enthusiasm, even if he's faking it.

Guitar: Bill Frisell. Finally caught up with Frisell last year, and I've been pretty pleased. He's roughly at the level of Dave Douglas these days, playing superbly and thinking up all sorts of interesting things to do. Beyond him there are too many good guitarists to try to sort out. RS: Lionel Loueke. Not someone I would pick, but he's better on other albums than on his own, which tend to mushed up in second-rate African pop. Again, lots of candidates. I might pick Rez Abbasi (off list). Note that Mary Halvorson came in (#3). I haven't warmed to her yet, but consider her a project.

Acoustic Bass: Christian McBride. Widened his lead over Dave Holland, and wound up on the cover. Good player, but I doubt that I'd put him in my top twenty. Obvious pick is William Parker (#5). The best player who doesn't write or lead is Peter Washington (#10). The best composer is probably Ben Allison or maybe John Lindberg (both off list). RS: Esperanza Spalding. I'm not convinced yet, and there's a lot of serious competition, the most impressive being Adam Lane and Moppa Elliott (both off list). On list there's Avishai Cohen (#2), Ben Allison (#4), Scott Colley (#5), Omer Avital (#6), Drew Gress (#7), John Hébert (#9). McBride, by the way, is younger than most of those guys, including Lane.

Electric Bass: Steve Swallow. Perennial winner. I don't have good notes on this, and don't have an alternative pick. RS: Stomu Takeishi. Sounds good to me.

Drums: Roy Haynes. The last guy left from the generation that put bebop on the map. I've never been a huge fan, but you can make a case for him. The obvious pick is Jack DeJohnette (#2), who still seems like the perfect drummer. Two more idiosyncratic choices are Paul Motian (#5) and Andrew Cyrille (off list), and this is the last chance to pick the late Rashied Ali. RS: Eric Harland. Hard to judge him with nothing under his own name. Not sure where to draw the line here. Paal Nilssen-Love (#9) is a good pick.

Percussion: Poncho Sanchez. Another consolation category, a slot where drummers who move beyond their kit -- Hamid Drake (#3), Kahil El'Zabar (#5), Han Bennink (#11), Susie Ibarra (RS #1), Leon Parker (RS #7) -- get a second shot but have to compete with Latin congaleros and timbaleros and the occasional tabalist -- (#6) Zakir Hussain, (#8) Trilok Gurtu. Not having enough of a handle on Latin Jazz, I'm inclined to pick El'Zabar. RS: Susie Ibarra. Always liked her, but haven't heard anything in quite a while -- not even her duos with Roberto Juan Rodriguez (off list), who strikes me as the obvious pick.

Vibes: Gary Burton. Same vote total as Bobby Hutcherson, so I don't know why this wasn't declared a tie. Haven't liked much of anything from either in a long time, but missed Burton's Chick Corea album, and haven't played his new one with Pat Metheny. My usual pick is Joe Locke (#4), but he's been showing up in a lot of weak contexts lately, so I'm going out on a limb to pick Karl Berger (off list). RS: Joe Locke. Displaced Stefon Harris, who vaulted to the front here on his first Blue Note album but seems to have stalled. Might pick Matt Moran.

Violin: Regina Carter. Clear choice here is Billy Bang (#2). I also like Jason Kao Hwang (#8). Note that Mat Maneri (#6) mostly plays viola. RS: Jenny Scheinman. No problem here, other than that she's (#4) on the main list, and there are a lot of young players coming on. I'm tempted to pick Jesse Zubot (off list), a slight edge over John Ettinger (also off list).

Miscellaneous Instrument: Toots Thielemans (harmonica). Don't have a handle here, except to note that cello, tuba, bass clarinet, and accordion are about as popular (and better musically) as flute, so maybe then deserve their own categories. One clear pick is Erik Friedlander (#3) on cello. On the other hand, for truly miscellaneous instruments, there is Bill Cole (didgeridoo and many exotic reeds; off list) and Cooper-Moore (diddley bow). On banjo I'd pick John Gill over Béla Fleck, although the latter dropped to (#2) after what is by far his best album. Another good pick would be Rabih Abou-Khalil (oud; off list). RS: Edmar Castaneda (harp). Just heard him, and he makes an impression, but I wouldn't have picked him. Not sure who I would pick. Maybe Andrea Parkins (accordion; off list).

Female Vocals: Cassandra Wilson. Perennial winner, coming off her best album. My standard pick is Sheila Jordan (#4), although Diana Krall (#5) is closing in. RS: Dee Alexander. Haven't heard her. I'm tempted to pick Lisa Sokolov (off list) to shake things up a bit. Fay Victor (off list) is also worth noting.

Male Vocals: Kurt Elling. Can't stand him, or hadly anyone else on this list, except for Freddy Cole (#7), whose latest album makes him a clear pick. RS: Giacomo Gates. Good pick.

Composer: Maria Schneider. Not much opinion, except that John Zorn (#12) has a couple of good records lately that he didn't play on, which is part of what makes one stand out as a composer. By comparison, Dave Douglas the composer (#4) always has Dave Douglas the trumpet virtuoso to fall back on. RS: John Hollenbeck/Guillermo Klein. Not much opinion here either, except to note two bassists who feed good ideas to their bands: Ben Allison (#4) and Moppa Elliott (#13).

Arranger: Maria Schneider. I'd pick Steven Bernstein (#4), primarily for his work with MTO. This tends to be a big band category because it's most obvious there that arranging is called for. Not sure that's really right, nor that someone like Butch Morris (off list) wouldn't be a good pick here. RS: John Hollenbeck. Playing his latest album as I write this, and the DB critics may be right here. Don't have any other candidates in mind, except maybe Darcy James Argue (off list).

Producer: Manfred Eicher. Beat Michael Cuscuna (#2) by 3 votes, with Bob Belden (#3) too far back to see, so this is in many ways a shadow of the Record Label category (where ECM beat Blue Note by 7 votes). My main reservation about Eicher is that he tends to tone things down so much that I wonder whether some of his artists might be better off without him -- John Surman, for one, has gone to pasture at ECM, and John Abercrombie is usually better guesting elsewhere. On the other hand, ECM gets a lot of good records, and Eicher has his hand in almost all of them. RS: Branford Marsalis. He once argued that his more famous brother was "good for jazz," but he's turning out to be better. But I doubt if he's producing more good records that wouldn't get done otherwise than (#8) Luke Kaven, worthy of my pick here.

Record Label: ECM. No problem here unless you want to pick on big and successful. ECM places more records in Jazz CG than any other label, and the margin is probably growing. Plus their publicist (which for most critics is what this category is really about) is one of my heroes. Among smaller labels the overachievers are Clean Feed (#11), AUM Fidelity, Atavistic, Okka Disk, and Pi. Also Arbors (#8), old-fashioned in all the best ways. Tzadik would make the list if they did any promo.

Blues Artist/Group: BB King. Don't get much blues, but I doubt that much is happening there anyway. I head Taj Mahal (#3) had a good record, but haven't managed to track it down. His school had a good run of records from the mid-1990s, as did a cluster of white women centered around Antone's, but both trends seems to have faded. Lately I've been inclined to pick Maria Muldaur (off list). RS: Shemekia Copeland. Have yet to be impressed by her, but the last record I heard came out in 2000, and blues is one genre where older is better. Don't have any new candidates, partly for that reason.

Blues Album: B.B. King, One Kind of Favor. Haven't heard it. Have only heard 3 of 12 records here. Two are low B+; a bit better is the Wynton Marsalis/Willie Nelson joint, Two Men Without Any Fucking Reason to Be Blue. Guess I should break down and buy Taj Mahal's Maestro.

Downbeat seems to have killed off the "Beyond" category, which is just as well given how clueless they were about it.

Posted: 2008-08-30


Letter from Tom Lane (8/31):

I'm surprised you didn't list Chick Corea in your names of missing Hall of Famers. He was on this year's Reader's ballot. You're right, though, they have a tendency to induct musicians who recently died.

My response:

I thought about him and left him off in a fit of pique, then later wound up listening to the new Burton and McLaughlin double/doubles as well as "Tones for Joan's Bones". He wasn't even as bad on the Burton as I expected (although Burton was). No doubt he'll be in before three-fourths of my list. It wasn't meant to be predictive, anyway.

Haven't seen the readers ballot -- went to website and it wouldn't display without flash and javascript, so I punted. Need to fix that at some point, but didn't feel like it then/now. I also left off Louie Bellson and Scott LaFaro, who finished in the top 15. Bellson was a close call. LaFaro is kind of a ridiculous pick, even though I thought he was really good. Left Burton off too. He goes back further than Corea, has about as many records, has a real cult. Left off Metheny, Scofield, a bunch of guys Downbeaters like. Left off a bunch of Europeans I like a lot but figured no one would know who they are -- Arne Domnerus, Giorgio Gaslini, like that. Started with a list of 3200 names. Got tired by the time I got to the vocalists, otherwise I might have included Abbey Lincoln and/or Lee Wiley. Will have to fiddle with it more when I get the time and inclination.

They induct the recent dead because they forgot about them until then. Jackie McLean wasn't even on the ballot until he died. How many people who voted for Benny Golson know that Art Farmer isn't in? Then they forget again. I think Mal Waldron was top five the year after he died, but he's gone now.

I did check out 2 (of 3) recent Chick Corea albums. The one with Gary Burton is as awful as expected; the one with John McLaughlin, Kenny Garrett, and Christian McBride is rather fun, an old-fashioned fusion throwback with very little pretense (thank Garrett).

The Christian Scott record referred to is another nothing.

The Hollenbeck record I was listening to has great stuff, not so great stuff, and stuff that just flies over my head. He's a genius, but that doesn't necessarily make him accessible, or even right. The record is still pending.

Checked out a couple of Mary Halvorson records, and I'm much more impressed, especially by Dragon's Head, which is the one so many critics noticed last year. I'm slow here due to a PR snit: they get copies and I don't. I'm probably more vulnerable than most critics in that I live in Kansas and never go see live jazz, which is the other place reputations are made.

Couldn't find the recent Dee Alexander record on Rhapsody, so I still don't have an opinion on her. I did find one old record which is awful, but it's a gospel thing having nothing to do with jazz.

It's worth reiterating that the poll to a large extent reflects PR efforts. You see that also in rock critic polls like Pazz & Jop, but it strikes me as even more so here. There are lots of ways you can track this, especially the appearance of marginal players who land on relatively major labels -- Christian Scott and Esperanza Spalding are glaring examples. Of course, Downbeat's critics tend to be mainstream, so that's where most of the weight is, but their occasional leftfield choices are usually easily explained by PR patterns. (Evan Parker, who gained ground in several categories, may or may not fit -- his ECM albums strike me as a minor diversion in his overall output, but they may be enough to explain his modest rise.)

I haven't tried tracking Downbeat's readers poll, which as expected is more middlebrow. One thing worth noting is that Ken Vandermark does better in the readers poll than with critics, a combination of weak PR exposure and a ferocious touring schedule.