Jason Moran Tops Himself

The adventurous Ten headlines the Voice's Fifth Annual Jazz Critics' Poll

It wouldn’t be exaggerating much to say that Jason Moran’s only competition in the Fifth Annual Village Voice Jazz Critics’ Poll was Jason Moran. Ten, his first trio album in seven years, won Album of the Year in a landslide, but that’s not all. The pianist figured prominently on the runner-up, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green’s Apex, and Charles Lloyd’s Mirror, which finished fourth—only a surprise No. 3 showing from rising guitarist Mary Halvorson kept him from a hat trick. Add Paul Motian’s Lost in a Dream, on which Moran and saxophonist Chris Potter are virtually the veteran drummer’s co-leaders, and that gives the 2010 MacArthur Fellow four appearances in the Top 10—a fete unprecedented in this poll’s short history and unlikely to be equaled anytime soon.

I wanted this year’s poll to do the impossible, to go some way toward restoring my faith in the democratic process following November’s dismal midterm elections. And in its modest way, it did. With Moran and drummer Nasheet Waits varying the dynamics and dancing around the beat while bassist Tarus Mateen holds fast to it, Ten easily passes the most crucial test facing any piano-trio album: You never find yourself wishing for horns. It’s an extremely worthy winner, and listening to it again as I write, not only do I feel guilty about its absence on my own ballot, I find myself applauding my colleagues for showing smarts I evidently lack.

Since the poll’s 2006 inception, I’ve come to think of my wrap-up as akin to a State of the Union. Starting with that first year’s overwhelming evidence of the mainstream widening to accommodate Ornette Coleman without him so much as meeting it halfway, the results of each subsequent poll have revealed an encouraging new trend: in ’07, something approaching equality for jazz women behind winner Maria Schneider; in ’08, how this country’s changing ethnic demographics are letting jazz go global without leaving home; last year, signs of a long-needed infusion of young blood. This year? Well, Ten is the second consecutive piano-trio winner, following Vijay Iyer’s Historicity, and joining it in the Top 10 are Keith Jarrett’s duets with bassist Charlie Haden, and solo efforts by Iyer and Geri Allen. But a list dominated by pianists strikes me as coincidence rather than as a harbinger of anything in particular.

Pianist Moran: The hands-down champ
Clay Patrick McBride
Pianist Moran: The hands-down champ

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What might be more significant is that with the majors having all but abandoned jazz until further notice, independents are enjoying a boom, albeit one probably more aesthetic than financial. Pi Recordings claimed four spots in the Top 20, as many as Blue Note and Nonesuch combined placed in the Top 50, the only majors to appear there. ECM enjoyed its usual good showing, although this year’s overall winner might be Clean Feed, a relatively new Portuguese label fast becoming this era’s Soul Note/Black Saint in terms of both quality and prolificacy—a staggering two dozen of its 2010 releases received votes, led by Chris Lightcap’s Big Mouth at No. 12 and Bay Area bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, who tied singer/songwriter Gregory Porter for Best Debut. But along with the perseverance of these indie labors of love, the logical takeway from a Top 10 featuring two women, as well as four musicians under 40 (including Mahanthappa and Iyer, both native-born Americans of Indian descent), is that the trends suggested by previous years’ results genuinely were trends, not just blips. Which I’d say confirms this annual survey’s worth beyond providing readers and participants alike with a catch-up shopping list.

Quick comments on this year’s Top 10:

1. Jason Moran Ten (Blue Note) Along with dips into the Bernstein, Bert Williams, and Jaki Byard songbooks, highlights include the latest in Moran’s ongoing series of “Gangsterism” pieces reconciling jazz and hip-hop’s different ways of attacking the one, and extended variations on “Crepuscule with Nellie”—virgin territory and maybe even sacred ground, given that Monk himself pointedly refrained from ever improvising on it.

2. Rudresh Mahanthappa & Bunky GreenApex (Pi) Although it’s cross-generational rather than cross-cultural, like Mahanthappa’s 2008 encounter with Kadri Golpalnath, what saves this alto-saxophone confrontation from becoming your typical hard-bop donnybrook are suggestions of Eastern chant that now seem intrinsic to Mahanthappa’s identity, and maybe intrinsic to the 75-year-old Green’s as well, via Coltrane’s direct influence on his generation.

3. Mary Halvorson QuartetSaturn Sings(Firehouse 12) Quartet and trio actually, though it’s the hurtling intelligence of Halvorson’s writing on the tracks with horns that marks her transition from the cutting edge’s favorite sidewoman to one of today’s most formidable bandleaders.

4. Charles LloydMirror(ECM) He appealed to ’60s hippies as Coltrane without the mathematics and perceived black militance. Older and something of a grand mannerist now, he wants nothing more than to break your heart. And damn if he doesn’t on a gorgeous “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and a cover of the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No” that might seem like pandering coming from anybody else.

5. Henry Threadgill Zooid This Brings Us to, Vol. 2(Pi) As close as he’ll ever come to permitting a jam, with looping extended solos compensating for less compositional motion and color than on Vol. 1.

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