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 Green Apex (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 Quartet Saturn 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 Lloyd Mirror (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.

6. Keith Jarrett & Charlie Haden Jasmine (ECM)
Dueting the great bassist holds Jarrett’s mannerisms in check, but thankfully, not his ardor.

7. Steve Coleman & Five Elements Harvesting Semblances and Affinities (Pi)
As governed by theories regarding this, that, and the other thing as Coleman’s work from his M-Base enfant terrible days, but rhythmically streamlined (no forced beats now) and harmonically spacious in its voicings for two brass, Jeri Shyu’s colortura, and Coleman’s own surging alto.

8. Vijay Iyer Solo (ACT)
Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” is a little frilly, and Monk’s “Epistrophy” a little dense. But together with Iyer’s own angled originals, insightful interpretations of Ellington’s seminal “Black and Tan Fantasy” and proto-minimalist “Fleurette Africaine” make this a successful follow-up to Historicity.

9. Geri Allen Flying Toward the Sound (Motema)
I don’t think I’ve ever heard another pianist so closely evoke Cecil Taylor without surrendering to his influence completely.

10. Paul Motian Lost in a Dream (ECM)
Melody-based chamber improvisation ne plus ultra.

Though I like all of these just fine, my own list is very different:

1. ICP Orchestra ICP 049 (ICP)/br> Conspicuously missing from the poll’s upper echelons, in what may be a sign of belt-tightening, are large ensembles. But the latest, typically superb effort from this 10-member Dutch outfit, guided by pianist Misha Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink (and dotted with American expatriates like violinist Mary Oliver and saxophonist Michael Moore), fills the gap and then some. As swank and precise as it is rollicking, and knowingly evocative of both Ellington and the wildest and woolliest free jazz—sequentially and then simultaneously on Moore’s arrangement of Mengelberg’s “The Lepaerd.”

2. Dominic Duval & Cecil Taylor The Last Dance (Cadence Jazz) /br> CT at his most churning, rooted deep in his keyboard’s lower half, as if threatening his duet partner with redundancy if he can’t keep up. But no worries there.

3. Mark Ribot Silent Movies (Pi)/br> High, wide, and lonesome solo guitar starring in a revisionist Western set somewhere between Avenue B and Boot Hill.

4. Mary Halvorson Quintet Sings (Firehouse 12)

5. Myra Melford’s Be Bread The Whole Tree Gone (Firehouse 12)/br> Astor Piazzolla’s ghost smiles benignly on intricate and quietly adventurous small-group pieces that stab with their sense of unfulfilled longing.

6. Paul Motian Lost in a Dream (ECM)

7. Rudresh Mahanthappa & Steve Lehman Dual Identity (Clean Feed)/br> My preference for this stand-off with a fellow altoist near Mahanthappa’s own age comes down to their shared belief in the value of stridency (the legacy of Jackie McLean) and the sharper edge that Liberty Ellman’s guitar lends the rhythm section.

8. Michael Formanek The Rub and Spare Change (ECM)/br> Who knew the veteran bassist was such an impressive composer? Though the most impressive aspect of all might be the ample room his gambits leave for interplay with stellar sidemen Tim Berne, Craig Taborn, and Gerald Cleaver.

9. Billy Bang Prayer for Peace (TUM)/br> “Only Time Will Tell,” the latest of Bang’s tips of the cap to violin forebear Stuff Smith, is as swinging and vivacious as anything you’re ever likely to hear delivered by a putative avant-gardist, and sets the tone for everything that follows.

10. Benjamin Herman Hypochristmastreefuzz: More Mengelberg (Special Edition) (Roach)/br> I say you can never get enough Mengelberg, the greatest living jazz musician never to take up residence in the U.S. But this also makes my list because Herman, a young Dutch altoist, is quite a find. And, to be honest, because his two versions of a Mengelberg homage to Peter Brøtzmann, one studio and the other live, sound like they could be the theme to a ’60s British exploitation flick about rumbling teds and rockers that might show up on public access in the dead of the night.

Honorable Mention: Lucian Ban & John Hébert, Enesco Re-Imagined (Sunnyside); Evan Christopher, Remembering Song (Arbors); Empirical, Out ’n’ In (Naim); Amir ElSaffar & Hafez Modirzadeh, Radif Suite (Pi); John Escreet, Don’t Fight the Inevitable (Mythology); Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamers (Savoy Jazz); Tomas Fujiwara & Taylor Ho Bynum, Stepwise (NotTwo); Microscopic Septet, Friday the 13th: The Micros Play Monk (Cuneiform); Joe Morris, Camera (ESP-Disk); Jeremy Pelt, Men of Honor (HighNote). And Sarah Wilson’s Trapese Project (Brass Tonic), for her vocal on Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the year’s most inspired cover.

Reissues: Stan Getz & Kenny Barron, People Time: The Complete Sessions (Sunnyside); The Complete Novus & Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill and Air (Mosaic); The Complete Ahmad Jamal Trio Argo Sessions, 1956–1962 (Mosaic). Vocal: Catherine Russell, Inside This Heart of Mine (World Village). Debut: Chris Drye, Bizingas (NCM East). Latin: Guillermo Klein, Domador de Huellas: The Music of Gustavo “Cuchi” Leguizamon (Sunnyside).

Mosaic’s Threadgill box was voted Best Reissue, while Chucho Valdes and Cassandra Wilson took the Latin and Vocal categories, respectively. This was the second victory for Wilson, who’s become as automatic in polls of this sort as Ella Fitzgerald was in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The surprise was just behind her, where a never-before-issued live performance by Irene Kral, a singer’s singer who died in 1978 without ever gaining a large public following, tied White House/Vogue/New Yorker flavor du jour Esperanza Spalding for second place.

This poll has become my labor of love—my equivalent of social networking, and, for a couple weeks once the ballots start filling my inbox, just about my only social life. Along the way this year, in addition to a hundred or so albums I might otherwise not ever have known existed, I also got word of layoffs and cutbacks, a corneal abrasion, a nagging heel injury, the death of a mother, the birth of a daughter, and the loss of James Moody to pancreatic cancer. Thanks to this year’s 120 participants for keeping me up to date: David R. Adler, Scott Albin, Clifford Allen, A.D. Amorosi, Larry Applebaum, Chris Barton, Nick Bewsey, Larry Birmbaum, Paul Blair, Larry Blumenfeld, Philip Booth, Michael Bourne, Shaun Brady, Marcela Breton, Christian Broecking, Stuart Broomer, Brent Burton, John Chacona, Nate Chinen, Fred Cisterna, Troy Collins, Thomas Conrad, J.D. Considine, Owen Cordle, Lawrence Cosentino, Michael Coyle, Francis Davis, Steve Dollar, Laurence Donohue-Greene, Alain Drout, Ken Dryden, Donald Elfman, Steve Feeney, Colin Fleming, Ken Franckling, Phil Freeman, David Fricke, Richard Gehr, Andrew Gilbert, Ted Gioia, Lars Gotrich, Kurt Gottschalk, Steve Greenlee, George Grella, James Hale, Ed Hazell, Don Heckman, Tad Hendrickson, Andrey Henkin, W. Kim Heron, Geoffrey Himes, Eugene Holley, Lyn Horton, Tom Hull, Peter Hum, Robert Iannapollo, Josh Jackson, Patrick Jarenwattananon, Willard Jenkins, Martin Johnson, George Kanzler, Fred Kaplan, Larry Kart, Mark Keresman, Bill King, Elzy Kolb, Art Lange, Will Layman, Devin Leonard, Aidan Levy, John Litweiler, Martin Longley, Suzanne Lorge, Kevin Lynch, John McDonough, Shaunna Morrison Machosky, Jim Macnie, Howard Mandel, Peter Margasak, Bill Milkowski, Dan Morgenstern, John Murph, Russ Musto, Marc Myers, Michael G. Nastos, Dan Ouellette, Ted Panken, Thierry Peremarti, Bob Porter, Doug Ramsey, Derk Richardson, Joel Roberts, Chris Robinson, Britt Robson, Jim Roberts, Michael Rosenstein, Lloyd Sachs, Gene Seymour, Mike Shanley, Bill Shoemaker, Hank Shteamer, Slim, Chip Stern, Zan Stewart, Jeff Stockton, W, Royal Stokes, Mark Stryker, John F. Szwed, Jeff Tamarkin, Neil Tesser, Ludwig Van Trikt, George Varga, Andrew Velez, Seth Colter Walls, Jason Weiss, Michael J. West, Kevin Whitehead, K. Leander Williams, Josef Woodard, Ron Wynn, and Scott Yanow. You will be able to browse their individual ballots at hullworks.net.

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