With apologies to Philip Roth, before I counted a single ballot in the second annual Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll, I sensed my headline would be “Goodbye, Consensus.” And the final numbers would’ve justified it. Maria Schneider won Record of the Year with 188.5 points, a mere half-point less than Ornette Coleman’s 2006 landslide. But there were 58 voters this year, almost twice as many as last year’s 30, and whereas Coleman’s Sound Grammar was named on more than two-thirds of last year’s ballots, Schneider’s Sky Blue appears on fewer than half of this year’s.
A whopping 33 different albums received first-place nods—a critic’s top choice got 10 points, then nine points for (2) and so forth—including 15 records not in the top 20 and three named on no other ballots. Seven critics (including me) topped their ballots with a singer—remarkable, 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 winner—it 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 list—1970s 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 them—and 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 Christopher—the 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 critics—and then trying to balance it out by recruiting younger critics and more New Yorkers—I created a situation where marginalized passions cancelled each other out, allowing the bland to rise to the top.
But not to the very top, thankfully: Schneider is a deserving winner, a true original whose name would look as good on a Pulitzer as Coleman’s did earlier this year, following his victory in what I hope becomes the Iowa caucus of music polls. And what ought to become apparent in skimming down the list is a momentous change taking place in the jazz talent pool as the music drifts further away from mainstream consciousness and ceases to be the macho proving ground that rock and hip-hop still are. Two female singers finished in the Top 10, and so might have Anat Cohen if her votes hadn’t been split between Poetica (12) and Noir (18). Myra Melford and Carla Bley were 13 and 14, respectively. That’s six women among the first 14—eight, if you count Mingus’s widow, Sue (who brought Cornell 1964 to light), and Joni Mitchell, whose songs Hancock interprets on River. By past jazz standards, that makes 2007 the Year of the Woman. And gives me the headline I didn’t know I was looking for until it smacked me in the face.
Here are my own picks. The numbers in parentheses indicate their standing in the poll.
1. Abbey Lincoln, Abbey Sings Abbey (Verve). Spare settings dominated by pedal steel and accordion—evocative of both country rock and cabaret—put nothing in the veteran singer’s way, so that the honesty and directness of her voice and lyrics go straight to the heart. (1 vocal, 10 overall)
2. Tyshawn Sorey, That/Not (Firehouse 12). A nearly 45-minute piano piece built around the repetition of a single phrase would be provocation enough. But the performances featuring the young drummer with a quartet including trombonist Ben Gerstein manage the neat trick of expansion without sprawl, a surefire recipe for great free jazz. (1 debut, 32 overall)
3. Jewels and Binoculars, Ships With Tattooed Sails (Upshot). Dylan as if reconceived by an Ornette Coleman trio—rangy and rife with sprung rhythms, but emphasizing those surprisingly shapely melodies above all. (24)
4. Maria Schneider, Sky Blue (ArtistShare). Orchestra is this non-player’s only instrument, and no one alive today plays it with greater feeling or finesse. The guiding principle this time around is the metaphor of flight, and both the writing and the solos take wing. (1)
5. Matthew Shipp, Piano Vortex (Thirsty Ear). Falling into a blues groove at precisely those moments bass and drums refuse to makes this at once the pianist’s freest trio effort and his most bracingly straight-ahead. (30)
6. Joshua Redman, Back East (Nonesuch). The year’s best Sonny Rollins in absentia, in the same way my #3 is the best Ornette or Dylan, with Redman trying pianoless trio on for size and finding it a perfect fit. (8)
7. Charles Tolliver, With Love (Blue Note). New York’s other premier big band, Basie to Schneider’s Ellington, but incorporating Coltrane’s modes and Blakey’s hard bop. (27)
8. Uri Caine, Plays Mozart (Winter & Winter). We’ve come a long way from facile efforts at swinging the classics. Even more so than previous entries in the series, this proves there’s nothing too dated about those allegros and andantes that can’t be fixed by a little postmodern mischief. (60)
9. Anat Fort, A Long Story (ECM). Lyricism with an air of mystery by a young, transplanted Israeli pianist, with piping help from outcat clarinetist Perry Robinson. (65)
10. Harry Allen & Joe Cohn, Music From “Guys and Dolls” (Arbors). The kind of Broadway-meets-jazz album they don’t make anymore—though few sparkled like this even when they did. The tenor saxophonist and guitarist exploit every opportunity for counterpoint implicit in Frank Loesser’s great score, though the vocals by Eddie Erickson and Rebecca Kilgore are the real treat. (37)
Honorable Mention: Carla Bley, The Lost Chords (ECM/Watt); Anthony Braxton, 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 (Firehouse 12); Anat Cohen, Noir (Anzic); Champian Fulton with David Berger & the Sultans of Swing, Champian (Such Sweet Thunder); Indigo Trio, Live in Montreal (Greenleaf); Steve Lehman, On Meaning (Pi); Rafi Malkiel, My Island (Raftone); Bill Mays, The Inventions Trio (Palmetto); Trio M, Big Picture (Cryptogramophone); Sam Yahel, Truth and Beauty (Origin).
Rara Avis: Steve Lacy & Roswell Rudd, Early and Late (Cuneiform); Frank Foster, Well Water (Piadrum). Vocal: Lincoln. Debut: Sorey. Latin: Roswell Rudd & Yomo Toro, El Espiritu Jibaro (Sunnyside). Reissues: Lionel Hampton, The Complete Victor Sessions, 1937-1941 (Mosaic); Chu Berry, Classic Columbia and Victor Sessions (Mosaic); Sun Ra, Disco 3000 (Art Yard).