Vijay Iyer Tops the Fourth Annual Village Voice Jazz Poll

Historicity and records from other fresh faces take our 2009 jazz poll

The last ballot has been cut-and-pasted, and I couldn't be happier with the results of the fourth annual Village Voice Jazz Critics' Poll. Oh, sure I could—but with a record 99 critics voting, what would Nate Silver have said the odds were of my top four actually finishing No. 1 through 4 for Album of the Year?

Nothing's better than a close race where you're cheering for both sides, and Vijay Iyer's Historicity—a classic piano-trio album if your definition extends, as mine does, to such maverick examples as Herbie Nichols's Blue Note records, Paul Bley's Footloose!, Don Pullen's New Beginnings, and Misha Mengelberg's Who's Bridge, alongside accepted-as-canonical Monk, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans—built its narrow lead over alto saxophonist and flutist Henry Threadgill's This Brings Us To, Volume 1 only late in the game. Third went to tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, the only musician to place in the Top 10 every year since this poll's inception, for Folk Art. But the real news might be Darcy James Argue, a 34-year-old Brooklynite by way of Vancouver, whose astonishing Infernal Machines, with the big band he calls his Secret Society, finished fourth overall in addition to its landslide victory as the year's best debut, despite unusually formidable competition in that category.

Allen Toussaint's The Bright Mississippi, another of my choices, finished seventh, and three others on my ballot—Bill Frisell's Disfarmer, Bill Dixon's Tapestries for Small Orchestra, and Dave Douglas's Spirit Moves—ranked in the top 15. Every year, as I look not just to expand the voter base but democratize it by recruiting more women, African-Americans, and younger voters with the necessary credentials, my wife likes to joke that what I'm really aiming for is a consensus Top 10 identical to mine. This year is probably the closest I'll ever come to reaching that subconscious goal, even if everybody else said humbug to Carla Bley's delightful Carla's Christmas Carols, mentioned on my ballot and no other. Yet I don't mind telling you that I approached conducting this year's poll with an apprehension bordering on dread.

Part of it may have been the inevitable letdown from my elation over Obama's election in '08 (he inherited not just two wars but three—and the presence of a black man in the White House has only escalated the Culture Wars), coupled with simple decade fatigue (the uh-oh's witnessed a stolen presidential election, the worst domestic terrorist attack in history, the submergence of an entire city, the collapse of the free market, and the possible demise of the publishing and recording industries). But the main source of my blues was a concern specific to this poll. Two years ago, in this space, I worried aloud about major labels, with their vast promotional reach, dominating the standings. Those were the days, huh? Those majors that haven't dispensed with jazz altogether to help stem the tide of red ink have severely trimmed their mailing lists, and many independents are becoming just as stingy with review copies.

Granted, the only thing more annoying than critics going on about getting more free CDs than they have time to listen to is the same freeloaders bellyaching about not getting enough. And it's tough to fault labels for their sudden parsimony, because what sense does it make for them to send out a few hundred promos of an album expected to sell a couple thousand, tops? But I worried that this new PR austerity might tilt this year's standings, and in at least one case, I bet it did. Critics can be pushovers for an ambitious concept the same as everybody else, which is why I have to believe that Dedicated to You, Kurt Elling's salute to Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, would have waltzed to victory as Best Vocal if Concord had bothered to service more than a handful of us. Instead, it finished second to a genuine sleeper, relative newcomer Gretchen Parlato's In a Dream. (I knew I wouldn't be voting for either. My choice was Normal as Blueberry Pie, Nellie McKay's irresistibly kooky tribute to Doris Day. Love the way arranger Paul Holderbaum transforms "Wonderful Guy" into Kurt Weill and then a modal romp. And love how McKay's phrasing evokes the late Susannah McCorkle on the opener, "The Very Thought of You," immediately establishing McCorkle as a link. Then, I also love Doris Day.)

Soon enough, the only new music we'll hear will consist of MP3 files sent by our Facebook friends, and the notion of consensus will seem quaint. In the meantime, what's not to like about a poll honoring both an upstart like Darcy James Argue and Best Reissue victor Louis Armstrong (for Mosaic's completist box of his '30s and '40s Deccas)? In contrast to the initial poll four years ago—wherein no artist under 50 cracked the Top 10—this year's encouraging tally boasts four still in their thirties (Iyer, Argue, and alto saxophonists Steve Lehman and Miguel Zenón, the last of whom also romped to victory in Best Latin) and another just over 40 (Argue's fellow big-band leader and Bob Brookmeyer disciple John Hollenbeck). Paced by Argue, two other free-thinking rookies also did extremely well, with alto saxophonist Darius Jones finishing 17th and bassist Linda Oh just missing the Top 20.

It's open to conjecture how much this emphasis on youth merely reflects the lower average age of the electorate this year (all those younger writers I mentioned earlier, whom I've been more successful in locating than women or African-Americans). And no doubt new releases by, say, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and Wayne Shorter would have tipped the balance the other way. But I think this year's results point to something else. Actually, only half of the Velvet Underground's original fans formed their own bands—the rest all became rock critics. Something similar may be happening now, within the shrinking audience for jazz. But finally, maybe the best way to interpret this poll is to say it reflects the will of 99 beleaguered critics determined to go on doing their job, perhaps the most important aspect of which is calling attention to young talent on the rise.

My own ballot, with brief observations:

1. Vijay Iyer Trio, Historicity (ACT). The pianist approaches tunes by composers ranging from Bernstein, Andrew Hill, and Julius Hemphill to Stevie Wonder and M.I.A. as a composer himself, turning them this way and that to decipher how they work. It's deconstruction as a tip of the cap.

2. Henry Threadgill Zooid, This Brings Us To, Volume 1 (Pi). "Zooid," a term from biology referring to cellular locomotion, is an apt moniker for the way Threadgill keeps tuba, guitar, drums, electric bass, and his own alto or flute moving in harmonious opposition.

3. Joe Lovano Us Five, Folk Art (Blue Note). Though making its debut here, Mr. Consistent's latest outfit (a quintet with dual drummers) sounds like they've been playing together for years. For Lovano, it's an opportunity to show off his command of his horn's high harmonics, while moving in and out of tempo at will.

4.Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam). "Steampunk," the snazzy neologism being tossed about, refers to Argue's passion for a subgenre of science fiction, not necessarily his writing, even if he occasionally does use alt-rock studio techniques. As with 2007 winner Maria Schneider (yet another Brookmeyerite—anybody spot a trend?), the attraction is in the creation of orchestral narrative through an accumulation of harmonic and rhythmic detail.

5. Bill Frisell, Disfarmer (Nonesuch). The guitarist's Americana is a sonic analogue to both Walker Evans and Grant Wood, with Edward Hopper's nighthawks in the shadows, staring into their coffee.

6. Carla Bley, Carla's Christmas Carols (Watt/ECM). Bley's deft arrangements for brass quintet seem based on the belief that you can't love Christmas without loving Bach—think counterpoint and plenty of it. More deserving of being called Christmas in the Heart than that uneaten fruitcake from Uncle Bob.

7. Mulatu Astatke & the Heliocentrics,Inspiration Information, Vol. 3 (Strut). If I didn't know better, I might mistake this heady collaboration between Ethiopia's seminal modern jazzman and a crew of British technocrats for long-lost '70s Sun Ra.

8. Dave Douglas & Brass Ecstasy, Spirit Moves (Greenleaf). Lower-pitched than Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy (its obvious model), and more dour in its humor, but with every bit as much flair.

9. Bill Dixon, Tapestries for Small Orchestra (Firehouse 12). Four new releases by him in two years, all with sidemen decades younger, suggests the present is finally catching on to this unreconciled '60s avant-gardist, a trumpeter and composer whose music remains lyrical even at its most eruptive.

10. Allen Toussaint, The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch). Courtesy of producer Joe Henry, the great trad album you always guessed the New Orleans auteur had in him—though closer in spirit to Tipitina's than Preservation Hall, even with Nicholas Payton asserting his inner King Oliver.

High among my honorable mentions are two more debuts: Linda Oh's Entry (Linda Oh Music) and Chicago trumpeter Josh Berman's Old Idea (Delmark). Others: Ran Blake's Driftwoods (Tompkins Square), Ravi Coltrane's Blending Times (Savoy), Marty Ehrlich's Things Have Got to Change (Clean Feed), Steve Lehman's Travail, Transformation, and Flow (Pi), Nice Guy Trio's Here Comes the Nice Guy Trio (Porto Franco), Chris Potter's Ultrahang (ArtistShare), Radio I-Ching's No Wave Au Go-Go (Resonant), Roswell Rudd's Trombone Tribe (Sunnyside), and Matthew Shipp's Harmonic Disorder (Thirsty Ear). Rara Avis: Lucky Thompson's New York City, 1964–65 (Uptown). Vocal: McKay. Debut: Argue. Latin: Paquito Hechavarria's Frankly. Reissues: Ella Fitzgerald's Twelve Nights in Hollywood (Hip-O Select/Verve), Charles Tyler's Saga of the Outlaws (Nessa), and Eddie Harris and Ellis Marsalis's Homecoming (Elm).

My choice for top reissue requires explanation. For the purposes of this poll, a new release is defined as consisting entirely of never-before-issued performances, regardless of vintage. To prevent votes for any particular CD or boxed set from being split across two categories (new release and reissue), this distinction is usually strictly enforced. But it seemed worth making an exception for Twelve Nights in Hollywood, which, although entirely made up of never-before-released performances, draws from the same nightclub engagement that yielded the cherished 1961 LP Ella in Hollywood. Votes were allowed for it in either category, with up to three points from each ballot on which it was listed as a new release transferred to reissues at the end of the process—an easy call to make, since it didn't affect the final standings whatsoever.

Thanks to all who voted this year: David R. Adler, Clifford Allen, A.D. Amorosi, Larry Applebaum, Larry Blumenfeld, Bob Blumenthal, Philip Booth, Shaun Brady, Marcela Breton, Stuart Broomer, Alan Chase, Nate Chinen, Fred Cisterna, Troy Collins, Thomas Conrad, Lawrence Cosentino, Michael Coyle, Jason Crane, Francis Davis, Steve Dollar, Laurence Donohue-Greene, Alain Drouot, Ken Dryden, Donald Elfman, Steve Feeney, Sean Fitzell, Ken Franckling, Phil Freeman, David Fricke, Jon Garelick, Andrew Gilbert, Ted Gioia, Kurt Gottschalk, Steve Greenlee, David Hajdu, James Hale, Ed Hazell, Tad Hendrickson, Andrey Henkin, Geoffrey Himes, Eugene Holley Jr., Lyn Horton, Tom Hull, Robert Iannapollo, Willard Jenkins, Martin Johnson, Ashley Kahn, George Kanzler, Fred Kaplan, Larry Kart, Chris Kelsey, Mark Keresman, Elzy Kolb, Art Lange, Aidan Levy, John Litweiler, Martin Longley, Suzanne Lorge, Kevin Lynch, John McDonough, Jim Macnie, Howard Mandel, Peter Margasak, Ken Micallef, Bill Milkowski, Siddhartha Mitter, Tom Moon, Dan Morgenstern, Russ Musto, Michael G. Nastos, Stuart Nicholson, Dan Ouellette, Ted Panken, Thierry Peremarti, Bob Porter, Doug Ramsey, Derk Richardson, Joel Roberts, Michael Rosenstein, Bob Rusch, Lloyd Sachs, Gene Seymour, Mike Shanley, Bill Shoemaker, Hank Shteamer, Slim, Michael Steinman, Zan Stewart, Jeff Stockton, W. Royal Stokes, Mark Stryker, John F. Szwed, Neil Tesser, Greg Thomas, George Varga, Jason Weiss, Michael J. West, Josef Woodard, and Ron Wynn. You can see their individual ballots at http://hullworks.net/vv/

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