By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
A whopping 33 different albums received first-place nodsa critic's top choice got 10 points, then nine points for (2) and so forthincluding 15 records not in the top 20 and three named on no other ballots. Seven critics (including me) topped their ballots with a singerremarkable, given the apparent categorical aversion displayed by eight others who left the separate Best Vocalists category blank.
Unlike last year, this year was a horse race. Midway through the counting, when Sky Blue appeared about to be overtaken by Charles Mingus's previously unreleased Cornell 1964 (the eventual runner-up, it received six first-place votes to Sky Blue's four), my fallback headline became "The Past Catches Up." Then at another point, when the top 10 included no African-American not dead (Mingus), over 80 (pianist Hank Jones shares billing with Joe Lovano on (5) Kids: Live at Dizzy's, while Fred Anderson's From the River to the Ocean, a duet with drummer Hamid Drake, eventually fell to (16), or matrilineally white (Joshua Redman's Back East, (8), I saw no way around writing a tortured treatise on what it means that jazz is becoming whiter at precisely that moment when the rest of popular culture continues turning black. In which case, my sure-to-start-a-fight headline would've been "White Is the New Black."
But put off sending those angry e-mails for now, because a late surge lifted Terence Blanchard's A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina) to (4), Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters to (6), Dee Dee Bridgewater's Red Earth: A Malian Journey to (7), and Abbey Lincoln's Abbey Sings Abbey to (10). And toward the end, as Sky Blue pulled away, the only suspense remained whether it would show up on more ballots than Miles Davis's The Complete "On the Corner" Sessions, the Best Reissue winnerit did, but by a slim 26 to 23.
Regarding On the Corner, the lasting value of polls such as this one, assuming they have any, is in charting shifts in critical opinion over time, and perhaps nothing illustrates this more clearly than the runaway victory of a "complete" edition of a 1972 album I bet wouldn't have polled nearly as well back in the day. (Talk about the past catching up!) Although Best Vocal ended in a tie between Bridgewater and Lincoln, two other races were over before they began: Tyshawn Sorey's That/Not as Best Debut, and Bobby Sanabria's Big Band Urban Folktales in the newly instituted Best Latin category.
But about that Top 10. With further apologies to Roth (and Bob Christgau), this is about to turn into "Pooh-Bah's Complaint." Except for Sky Blue, Back East, and Abbey Sings Abbey (all of which were on my ballot), and Kids (a lovely album that easily could have been), this is a distressingly safe list1970s consensus as perpetuated by Blue Note and Verve, the only majors still doing much with jazz. Heads Up, hitherto a fusion label (and an independent with major-label values), took a step up in class with Michael Brecker's Pilgrimage, which rode a tide of understandable sentiment to (3) following the tenor saxophonist's death from leukemia in January. As explained by their subtitles, A Tale of God's Will, Red Earth, and River are all concept albums, but their concepts are the only exciting thing about themand in Bridgewater's case, never have Malian grooves sounded so busy and coyly Nancy Wilson. At (9), Keith Jarrett is the only repeater from last year's Top 10, but I dare those who voted for My Foolish Heart to tell me how it's different from any of Jarrett's 5,000 or so other releases with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette. And as for Cornell 1964, though it's wonderful stuff, with Mingus and Eric Dolphy in top form, it's hardly the revelation the Monk/Coltrane 1957 set was two years ago. It merely gives us more of that which we already have plenty.
Last year's vote honored mavericks, with Coleman, Andrew Hill, Nels Cline, and Muhal Richard Abrams finishing in the Top 5, along with Sonny Rollins. Locating their like in 2007 requires glancing further down the list. Ties create strange bedfellows, though perhaps none stranger than the clash at 40 between European free-jazz patriarch Peter Brötzmann and young trad clarinetist Evan Christopherthe sort of crazy juxtaposition I wish there were more of in the Top 10. Maybe I have myself to blame that it's not there. It's possible that by expanding last year's circle to include more nationally recognized criticsand then trying to balance it out by recruiting younger critics and more New YorkersI created a situation where marginalized passions cancelled each other out, allowing the bland to rise to the top.