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Close Enough For Jazz: How The 2015 NPR Jazz Critics Poll Was Fit To Be Tied

Maria Schneider and Rudresh Mahanthappa didn't exactly tie for Best Album of the Year honors — but declaring a tie seems fitting to the quality of this year's list.
Briene Lermitte/Jimmy Katz
Courtesy of the artists
Maria Schneider and Rudresh Mahanthappa didn't exactly tie for Best Album of the Year honors — but declaring a tie seems fitting to the quality of this year's list.

Only it wasn't a tie, exactly. I abhor ties more than nature does a vacuum. Ties are unlikely, if not impossible, in the poll's upper echelons. The rules are cleverly designed to circumvent them. See those parenthetical figures next to the point totals?

1 (tie). Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bird Calls (ACT). 350 (53)

1. (tie). Maria Schneider, The Thompson Fields (ArtistShare). 350 (49)

These indicate the number of ballots an album was named on. Meaning, in this case, 53 for Mahanthappa to Schneider's 49. (Voters were asked to rank their choices 1 thru 10, with No. 1 receiving 10 points, No. 2 nine points, and so on. A few voters submitted their picks unranked and listed alphabetically, assigning 5.5 points each, which is where those infernal decimal points come in.) Ordinarily, that second number is used to break ties. And by that measure, Bird Calls finished first and The Thompson Fields a close second.

But it's one thing to strictly apply the rules to break a tie for 37th place, and quite another to deny victory in my annual Jazz Critics Poll on the basis of what could be argued is a technicality. So, on the admittedly shaky principle that setting the rules entitles one to break them, it seemed only fair to declare a tie. After all, it's not as if only one winner gets to occupy the oval office or be crowned Miss America. So where's the harm?

Besides, appearing on four fewer ballots while garnering the same point total means that The Thompson Fields enjoyed the edge in the Passion Index. Devised by the film critic J. Hoberman to measure the relative degree of enthusiasm for a movie among its advocates, this is a figure arrived at by dividing total points by number of ballots. The score calculated that way: Schneider 7.14, Mahanthappa 6.60.

But Kamasi Washington's The Epic, No. 4 overall and a landslide winner as Best Debut, scored higher on the index than either Album of the Year or anything else in the Top 10, at 7.30. Its high Passion Index confirms a generation gap, and a few other demographic splits as well. If you were black, among the poll's younger voters, from somewhere in the U.S. other than the Northeast, blogged and/or podcast and wrote about pop as well as jazz — if you were one or more of these things, you were more likely to vote for The Epic than I was, being none of those things.

In addition to hoping to appeal to a younger audience than regularly listens to jazz, The Epic more specifically aims to lure a young black audience. It attempts this by situating itself half in the present and half in the early 1970s, when jazz could still claim a modest degree of community relevance. Leading with its spirituality and Afrocentricity, jazz boldly presented itself as a high-minded alternative to the film and music industries' glorification of pimp culture. Ironically, given Kendrick Lamar's tacit sponsorship, the alternative an album like The Epic would need to propose would be to the nastiness of much present-day hip-hop, including Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly. It seems only appropriate, somehow, that Washington's debut album should be the leading jazz story of a year partly defined by Black Lives Matter. Say this is merely coincidence, and you'll get no argument from me. But when has a coincidence ever been insignificant?

The Epic is hardly the only one of 2015's winners to invite political interpretation. Not surprisingly, jazz leans left. The Thompson Fields takes a stand against humankind's depletion of nature, a verifiable fact that shouldn't be a source of debate, but of course is. Arturo O'Farrill's Cuba: The Conversation Continues, his second consecutive Latin album winner (by a margin almost as wide as The Epic's in Debut), was recorded in Havana the day after President Obama announced the U.S. was normalizing relations with Cuba.

The year's subtlest political statement is the one made by Cecile McLorin Salvant, whose point of view is implicitly feminist — when not explicitly so — on the delightful For One to Love, the year's Vocal category winner. On Womanchild, the 2013 Vocal winner, she showed us everything she could do, which was to sound like anyone she wanted to. On her follow-up, where her choice of songs is quirkier and more personal (I mean, who would have suspected that even a singer as imbued with the quality as she is could swing Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Stepsisters' Lament," from Cinderella?), and where her message seems to be that a woman is infinitely more than men's eyes see, she tells us who she is. And seeing 10 women in the Top 60, Mahanthappa atop the standings, and Vijay Iyer and Amir ElSaffar joining him on the Top 25 ... this country is changing, and jazz is keeping pace.

Put The Horn Down And Come Out With Your Hands Up

Counting Schneider and the bonus pick I allowed myself, my ballot includes four albums led by non-playing conductors, though this may be a reflection of release schedules and my own taste rather than a trend.

My Top 10 has six in common with the poll's — including the top three, for only the second time in the poll's 10-year history:

  • Maria Schneider Orchestra, The Thompson Fields (ArtistShare)
  • Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bird Calls (ACT)
  • Jack DeJohnette, Made in Chicago (ECM)
  • Michael Gibbs & The NDR Bigband, Play a Bill Frisell Set List (Cuneiform)
  • Ryan Truesdell Presents Gil Evans Project: Live at Jazz Standard, Lines of Color (ArtistShare)
  • Henry Threadgill Zooid, In for a Penny, In for a Pound (Pi)
  • Vijay Iyer Trio, Break Stuff (ECM)
  • Mary Halvorson, Meltframe (Firehouse 12)
  • Nate Wooley Quintet, (Dance to) the Early Music (Clean Feed)
  • Ghost Train Orchestra, Hot Town (Accurate)
  • Bonus Pick: Lawrence "Butch" Morris, Possible Universe: Conduction® 192 (NuBop)

    The other non-playing conductors I mentioned are Michael Gibbs, Ryan Truesdell and Butch Morris.

    Gibbs, a key figure in the British jazz renaissance of the late 1960s, knows how to color in the lines behind a featured soloist without competing, and the result is iridescence when the soloist is himself one as colorful as guitarist Bill Frisell.

    A sequel to 2012's Centennial, Lines of Color continues Truesdell's presentation of forgotten Gil Evans charts, including a few Evans wrote for Claude Thornhill in the '40s and never got around to recording. No song was ever too slight for Evans to deal with. He regularly transformed postwar pop fluff into Ravel or Debussy, and Truesdell (whose orchestra's personnel overlaps Schneider's) selflessly replicates the great arranger's fetes of alchemy.

    I didn't feel right voting for Morris' Possible Universe inasmuch as it's a limited-edition Italian godsend that's virtually impossible to find in the U.S., and because I wrote the liner notes. Nevertheless, I feel duty-bound to mention it here, because with its numerous passages that were created on the spot but strike the ear as pleasingly as Ellington, it's likely to remain the most powerful recorded example of the compositional method the late Morris copyrighted as "conduction."

    Numbers 9 and 10 on my list show that jazz repertoire can mean more than reshuffling swing and bebop classics. The Early Music referred to in the title of Wooley's CD is Wynton Marsalis' from the early 1980s. Marsalis may seem an unlikely source of material for a trumpeter as committed to the avant-garde as Wooley. But Marsalis' early pieces, written when he was barely out of his teens, were a lot more irregular in structure than we might remember, and it's instructive hearing "outside" improvisers like Wooley and company boldly venture back inside.

    At once faithful and resolutely postmodern in its approach to the most vintage material jazz has to offer — tunes by forgotten 1920s Harlem and Chicago bandleaders — Ghost Train Orchestra's antic Too Hot delivers an even greater jolt of period displacement. The sound of surprise can come from music long past, music only those of us in the here-and-now have never heard before.

    Honorable Mention: JD Allen, Graffiti (HighNote); Tony Bennett & Bill Charlap, The Silver Lining: Songs of Jerome Kern (Columbia); Ran Blake, Ghost Tones: Portraits of George Russell (A-Side); Jacob Bro, Gefion (ECM); Steve Coleman & The Council Of Balance, Synovial Joints (Pi); Erik Friedlander, Oscalypso: Tribute to Oscar Pettiford (Skipstone); Jon Irabagon, Behind the Sky (Irrabagast); Joe Lovano & Dave Douglas, Sound Prints: Live at Monterey Jazz Festival (Blue Note); Matt Mitchell, Vista Accumulation (Pi); Roscoe Mitchell Quartet, Celebrating Fred Anderson (Nessa); Noah Preminger, Pivot: Live at the 55 Bar (Noah Preminger); Matthew Shipp Trio, The Conduct of Jazz (Thirsty Ear).

    Reissues/Rara Avis: Joe Castro, Lush Life: A Musical Journey (Sunnyside); Bobby Bradford & John Carter Quintet, No U Turn: Live in Pasadena, 1979 (Dark Tree); Abbey Lincoln, Sophisticated Abbey: Live at the Keystone Korner (HighNote).

    Vocal: Cecile McLorin Salvant, For One to Love (Mack Avenue).

    Debut: Tomeka Reid, Quartet (Thirsty Ear).

    Latin: Arturo O'Farrill, Cuba: The Conversation Continues (Motéma).

    Given that this year's polling was conducted in the shadow of Paris, Colorado Springs and San Bernardino, it feels insensitive to say this was a bountiful year for recorded jazz. But it was. There were so many fine albums released that it seems somehow fitting that two should share honors as Record of the Year.

    One hundred forty-seven print, digital and broadcast journalists took part this year. You can see what each of them voted for here.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Francis Davis