Sonny Rollins Rules the Third Annual Voice Jazz Critics Poll

Finally, the change we need

That said, just below Rollins in the standings lies evidence of a remarkable—or perhaps just inevitable—trend. The top 12 includes five musicians—Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer (#4), Donny McCaslin (#8), Guillermo Klein (#10), and Lionel Loueke (#12)—who recorded their first albums as leaders and/or only began to gain recognition in this decade. But that shouldn't be all that leaps out at you. Remember the old joke about the square asking the bandleader how many musicians there were in the quartet? The new joke could be asking how many African-Americans and how many white guys are in the quartet. The trick answer would be one of each. Iyer's piano and synthesizer contribute greatly to Wadada Leo Smith's Tabligh (#5), which, added to Mahanthappa's Kinsmen and his own Tragicomic (featuring Mahanthappa as a sideman), gives American-born musicians of Indian descent three rungs in the top five. The top dozen also includes a French-Algerian pianist (Martial Solal, #11), a West African guitarist (Loueke), a black American Rastafarian (Smith), and an Argentine pianist and composer with a surname that could be either German or Jewish (Klein). I know, I know: Sometimes, diversity is what you wind up with when you aim for multiculturalism and fall short. But the music that these people and others are creating isn't just the same old bebop with a dialect. Or even the same old free jazz.

In headlining 2007's poll "The Year of the Woman" in honor of the winner, Maria Schneider, and other female instrumentalists who finished among the runners-up, I was also playing off the widespread assumption that Hillary Clinton was no worse than even money to be elected our first female president. As it turned out, history had something even better in store for us. A television image from this year that sticks in my mind is of Bruce Springsteen singing "This Land Is Your Land" on a podium with Obama at a rally in Ohio a few days before the election. Seeing black and white together on the campaign trail was no more unusual than seeing them together at a wedding or bar mitzvah—but for once, the white guy was the one there as the entertainment. There's America 2008 in a snapshot for you. In its modest way, this poll is another.


For what it's worth, this year's highest finish for a female instrumentalist was #21, for guitarist Mary Halvorson's Dragon's Head. But 2007 didn't necessarily guarantee that women other than singers would place high year after year, just that it will no longer come as a surprise whenever they do. And for those keeping count, including singers, there are eight women in this year's top 50, the same number as last year.

Another Sonny day
Jamie-James Medina
Another Sonny day
Cassandra Wilson
Jenny Bagert
Cassandra Wilson

In other results, the vote for Best Reissue went overwhelmingly to Anthony Braxton's eight-CD The Complete Arista Recordings, an invaluable look back at a germinative period in the 1970s not just for the alto saxophonist, but for much of what followed under the banner of the jazz avant-garde. (This actually appeared on more ballots than any new release; Tom Hull provides more analysis elsewhere in this issue.) The vocal winner was Cassandra Wilson for Loverly—also #6 in the general standings and her best album ever for my money, although my vote went to Sentimental Streak by Catherine Russell, a veteran former backup singer who swings as if to the manner born (as well the daughter of Luis Russell should). The ageless pianist Bebo Valdés won Latin for Live at the Village Vanguard, featuring his touch-sensitive duets with bassist Javier Colina. Tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger's Dry Bridge Road was voted Best Debut, and would have snared my vote if not for Ideal Bread's The Ideal Bread—a New York–based quartet utilizing Steve Lacy tunes as a springboard for free improvisation, much the way Lacy once did with Monk.

Here's my ballot, with the album's overall poll standing in parenthesis.

Sonny Rollins, Road Shows, Vol. 1 (Doxy/Emarcy). If nothing else, admire the self-confidence of a 78-year-old man daring to juxtapose current performances with ones from when he was merely 50. (#1)

Fieldwork, Door (Pi). Iyer again, with drummer Tyshawn Sorey and altoist Steve Lehman playing Sunny Murray and Jimmy Lyons to his Cecil Taylor. (#77)

Tony Malaby, Warblepeck (Songlines). The tenor saxophonist's combustible chamber trio with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummer John Hollenbeck. (Unranked)

Rudresh Mahanthappa, Kinsmen (Pi). A breakthrough for the leader, as well as an Indo-jazz fusion with something personal at stake for a change. (#2)

Bill Dixon, 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur (AUM Fidelity). Spidery trumpet amid massive blocks of sound. And won't somebody please reissue his 1966 Intents and Purposes and his '62 quartet LP with Archie Shepp? (#29)

Microscopic Septet, Lobster Leaps In (Cuneiform). "Money, Money, Money" has been bouncing around my brain since hearing them introduce it at a dump across Cooper Square from the Voice 20 years ago, and now that they've reunited to record it and other gems they never got around to the first time. I swear it's never going away. (#55)

Mary Halvorson, Dragon's Head (Firehouse 12). Lyrical barbed wire. (#21)

Paul Bley, About Time (Justin Time). And about ritardondos and arpeggios as well. A masterful, extended, free-piano improvisation that flirts with "All the Things You Are," followed by an encore that does shamefully more than flirt with a certain Sonny Rollins waltz. (Unranked)

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