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The 2019 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll: The Fringe Fills the Gap

For her album <em>Diatom Ribbons</em>, pianist Kris Davis assembled a group of musicians who, taken together, represent just about everything happening at the edges of jazz right now. (Pictured, from left to right: Trevor Dunn, Val Jeanty, Terri Lyne Carrington, Davis, Tony Malaby, JD Allen and Esperanza Spalding)
Mimi Chakarova
Courtesy of the artist
For her album Diatom Ribbons, pianist Kris Davis assembled a group of musicians who, taken together, represent just about everything happening at the edges of jazz right now. (Pictured, from left to right: Trevor Dunn, Val Jeanty, Terri Lyne Carrington, Davis, Tony Malaby, JD Allen and Esperanza Spalding)

The road to jazz stardom once ran straight through Miles Davis. You introduced yourself to audiences as a member of Miles's band, and they knew who you were and what you could do when you formed your own. The lone alternative route was via John Coltrane or Art Blakey. No more — and not just because those patriarchs are gone and no one who's come along since has achieved similar name recognition among the general public. Since 1965 or so, with the emergence of free and the intelligentsia's embrace of rock and roll as worthy of serious discussion, jazz has splintered into so many different factions, and floated so far adrift of the pop-culture mainstream, that anything beyond a JazzTimes or Downbeat cover story seems out of reach today.

A musician's arrival is now measured by Guggenheims and MacArthurs, orchestra commissions, university appointments and maybe a week at the Village Vanguard. But a major-label contract or an appearance on late-night network TV? Out of the question. At risk of being self-serving, but thinking of Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Steve Lehman, Mary Halvorson and Tyshawn Sorey, among others, another sure sign you're gaining a reputation might be finishing at or near the top of a survey such as this one, the 7th Annual NPR Jazz Critics Poll (14th annual for me, beginning at the Village Voice in 2006). And I'll go one boast further in saying that a surprise showing in this particular poll, more than simply reflecting a musician's arrival, sets the wheels for it in motion.

If so, the poll's latest beneficiary figures to be Kris Davis, a 40-year-old Canadian-born pianist whose self-released Diatom Ribbons is this year's surprise winner, by a healthy margin over the reconstituted Art Ensemble of Chicago's We Are On The Edge. Davis is virtually unknown outside of a cluster of early-to-late middle-aged players and composers active mostly in Lower Manhattan, gentrified Brooklyn and Europe, and on small labels such as Pi, Firehouse 12, Relative Pitch, Clean Feed and Thirsty Ear. In addition to Davis, some of them are Halvorson, Tony Malaby, Angelica Sanchez, Kirk Knuffke, Ingrid Laubrock and Tom Rainey. Although they play in one another's bands, they don't represent a movement. Unlike the avant-gardists of the 1960s and '70s, they don't form collectives or issue aesthetic or political proclamations. All of this makes them hard to identify and their progress difficult to chart. But they're what's happening now, at least in the estimation of this year's 140 participating print, broadcast and online journalists.

Diatom Ribbons' collective personnel includes the drummer Terri Lyne Carrington (Davis' boss in the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, the music school's response to a 2017 faculty sexual harassment scandal), the guitarist Nels Cline (from Wilco) and Esperanza Spalding (who recites Gwendolyn Brooks and sings but leaves the bass-playing to Trevor Dunn) – all better-known than Davis. It should tell you something about Davis's aesthetic that among the voices sampled by turntablist Val Jeanty are both Cecil Taylor and Olivier Messiaen. If I were asked to recommend just one album to illustrate everything happening at the edges of jazz right now — interdisciplinary experimentation, the reconciliation of postwar jazz and classical avant-gardes, the adaptation of hip-hop rhythms and production techniques — I don't think I could do better than Diatom Ribbons.

But hey, I'm burying the lead. This year's Top 10 includes five albums by women — more than in any previous year — and none of them Mary Halvorson, Cecile McLorin Salvant or Maria Schneider (perennial vote-getters who released nothing major in 2019). Behind Davis are Tomeka Reid, Anna Webber, Jaimie Branch and Matana Roberts, instrumentalists all under, or just over, 40, none better-known than Davis. Further down the Top 50 are a dozen others, ranging from veterans Marilyn Crispell and Michele Rosewoman to newcomers Angel Bat Dawid and Melissa Aldana. And all of this from an overwhelmingly male votership, as usual.

Gender equality has been late coming to jazz, and it's not totally here yet. But its arrival is inevitable, if this year's standings tell us anything. Just don't expect it to be the coming year or 2021. Last year's most noticeable trend — four examples in the Top 12 — was growing critical regard for what I like to call "Woke Jazz," music combining hip-hop, spoken word, social protest and trace elements of hard bop and free jazz. This year, you need to go all the way down to No. 20, Carrington's Waiting Game, to find the first. So it all depends on release schedules.

Another point that needs making about this year's poll is that its Top 10 is almost certainly the youngest ever. (I hedge only because I don't have exact ages at hand. But it's young enough to make me wonder if I need to apologize for listing two leaders over 80 on my personal Top 10.) It's also the fringiest, which I think goes a long way toward explaining the increased attention paid to women, since fringes are by definition more receptive to progress than establishments. (For confirmation that this is becoming true in jazz, I refer you back a few graphs to the list of musicians I said were in Davis's circle.) The race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination is frequently portrayed as a tug of war between the party's progressives and its centrist establishment. Jazz has been enduring a similar internal battle for as long as anyone can remember, but the progressives are suddenly winning big — at least according to the critics. In 2019's the Top 10, only Branford Marsalis and Chick Corea belong to the establishment (the Art Ensemble is sui generis). In leaning so far left, maybe this year's results prove only that critics are inevitably a few steps ahead of fans. But this is as it should be, or what good is criticism anyway?

This year's other winners in the various categories are Eric Dolphy, Jazzmeia Horn, Joel Ross and Miguel Zenon. You can find each voter's individual ballot here. Here's mine, briefly annotated:

1. Abdullah Ibrahim, The Balance (Gearbox)
Sublime. Except that it doesn't include "African Marketplace," "Wedding Song" and some of the South African-born pianist's other most popular numbers, this amounts to an Ibrahim retrospective — an opportunity for him to take another close look at tunes he first recorded in the '70s and '80s, often as solo piano pieces, during his years in apartheid-enforced exile. Ibrahim (outsider rapper Jean Grae's father, by the way) is widely recognized as South Africa's greatest composer; his best album in several years makes a strong case for him as a rival to Wayne Shorter, Carla Bley or Henry Threadgill as our greatest living jazz composer, regardless of origin. His lineage from Duke Ellington, the greatest jazz composer of all, shows here in the elan with which he pivots melodies off trombone and baritone saxophone, and in the travelogue-like sense of place his individual pieces evoke — think of Ellington's later suites. But for Ibrahim, rather than cities and natural wonders spotted on world tours, the places are remembered ones from his youth to which he was forbidden to return for all those years. His tears are on the piano keys, but now they're tears of joy.

2. Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan, Epistrophy (ECM)
Even better than 2017's Small Town, recorded during the same gig at the Village Vanguard. This one's James Bond/John Barry cover is a hypnotic "You Only Live Twice," which Frisell treats to all the cowboy melancholy and surf echo he introduced to jazz guitar going on 40 years ago. Bassist Morgan is his shadow throughout an imaginative set list that includes Monk, lesser-known Jerome Kern, Billy Strayhorn, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, the Carter family and (talk about right in Frisell's wheelhouse) "Red River Valley."

3. Tomeka Reid Quartet, Old New (Cuneiform)
She's taking cello places not even Abdul Wadud or the shamefully forgotten Calo Scott ever dreamed of. She's in high demand for recording dates both in New York and her home base Chicago, but she's at her most inspired leading her own inside/outside quartet featuring Mary Halvorson (guitar), Jasom Roebke (bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums) — for my money the best small group in jazz right now. "Ballad" isn't exactly a ballad, "Wabash Blues" not exactly a blues, "Niki's Bop" not exactly bebop. But that's all part of the fun: Reid's refusal to be fenced by these moods and forms, or any others.

4. Kris Davis, Diatom Ribbons (Pyroclastic)
Don't be put off by the abstruse album title or label name. Davis's music is so forthright it's practically confrontational. Among its numerous attractions is her knack for pairings and partnerings: Cline and Marc Ribot's guitars on "Golgi Complex," JD Allen and Tony Malaby's tenor saxophones on "Reflections" (Julius Hemphill's, not Monk's), and, best of all, Carrington's powerhouse drums and Davis's own piano throughout (especially when the latter afixes metal and rubber objects on and between the piano's strings to produce the sound of what John Cage, the father of the technique, once described as "a percussion orchestra."

5. Roscoe Mitchell Orchestra, Littlefield Concert Hall Mills College March 19-20, 2018 (Wide Hive)
"What is composition?" the Art Ensemble of Chicago founder asks. "Improvisation?" He answers with two more questions: "What's the difference?" and "What does it matter?" Who cares if this sounds as much like what used to be called "New Music" (before the recording industry co-opted the phrase to mean new product) as it does jazz? Expanding on ideas he first broached in improvised trios and duets, Mitchell's writing for an orchestra I'm guessing consists mostly of Mills faculty and students soars.

6. Taylor Ho Bynum 9-tette, The Ambiguity Manifesto (Firehouse 12). On the latest in what's quickly becoming an unbroken line of challenging releases, the trumpeter — an acolyte of both Anthony Braxton and Bill Dixon — poses the same questions as Mitchell, and arrives at his own solutions. A series of slow-burning but explosive collective improvisations by a group including Reid, Halvorson and the saxophonists Ingrid Laubrock and Jim Hobbs.

7. George Coleman, The Quartet (Smoke Sessions)
The most compatible of the tenors Miles Davis tried out between Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, Coleman is one Davis sideman who failed to become a star. He's in his mid-eighties now and reportedly needs to be helped on stage, but you'd never be able to tell from his dash through the opening "Paul's Call," which sounds like it's based on "So What." And his choice of ballads is inspired: Who'd have guessed that without its patronizing lyrics, "Lollipops and Roses," the Jack Jones hit of the 1960s, passes muster as just a pretty waltz? The entire album is also a fine vehicle for the late Harold Mabern, Coleman's longtime pianist.

8. Ted Nash-Steve Cardenas-Ben Allison, Somewhere Else: West Side Story Songs (Plastic Sax)
This trio's last previous effort was an homage to the original Jimmy Giuffre 3, with the exact instrumentation (saxophone, guitar, bass). Here, the material is from Bernstein's great (and roughly contemporaneous) opera-in-all-but-name, and once more the key to the album's success is the group's attention to compositional detail and one another.

9. Jeremy Udden, Three in Paris (Sunnyside)
Another trio, featuring a more conventional lineup (saxophone, bass, drums) and dedicated to Steve Lacy (whose longtime drummer, John Betsch, is here). The four Lacy tunes are best, but there hasn't been a more adventurous "Lazy Afternoon" since Cecil Taylor's from almost 60 years ago, or a muskier, more sensual one since Pete LaRoca and Joe Henderson's of similar vintage.

10. Eric Alexander, Leap of Faith (Giant Step Arts)
One of the first three releases on a not-for-profit label started by the photographer and recording engineer Jimmy Katz and his wife and creative partner Dena Katz casts Alexander against type, encouraging him to rage free and at length over bass and drums – a format the hard-bopping tenor should investigate further, given the excitement he feels and communicates within it here.

Rara Avis

1. John Coltrane, Blue World (1964, Impulse!)
Jazz giants die trailing hours of unreleased tape behind them. But when it's Coltrane, there's no such thing as too much.

2. Bill Dixon & Cecil Taylor, Duets 1992 (Triple Point)
A head-on collision of two alpha avant-gardists, meeting each other halfway but neither giving another inch. (Vinyl only.)

3. Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound You Never Heard (1966-67, A-Side)
On record with Blake in the early '60s, Lee found a place for voice in free jazz, not by scatting or phrasing like a horn, but by delivering lyrics as if by stream-of-consciousness. Like Jimmy Stewart with Kim Novak in Vertigo (one of cineaste Blake's favorite movies) the pianist has been trying to remake other women singers into Lee ever since. But there were already two Kim Novaks, and there was only one Jeanne Lee.


Nellie McKay, Bagatelles (Palmetto)


Javier Red's Imagery Converter, Ephemeral Certainties (Delmark)


Eliane Elias, Music From Man of La Mancha (Concord).

My longer-than-usual Honorable Mention list (it was a great year for jazz recordings, if a dismal one for the climate and the U.S. Constitution) begins with albums by two tenor saxophonists whose commitment to old-school swing means they're never going to be considered hip, even though they are: Harry Allen's London Date and Scott Hamilton's Danish Ballads ... & More (Stunt). It also includes solo albums by two pianists not-much-known outside their hometowns: Baltimore's's Lafayette Gilchrist's Dark Matter (self-released) and New Orleans ragtime specialist Tom McDermott's Meets Scott Joplin (Arbors Jazz). (Each, by the way, has figured in a David Simon HBO series: McDermott had a cameo in Treme, and Simon used a version of Gilchrist's "Assume the Position" as the closing theme for The Deuce.)

Others: Alan Broadbent Trio, New York Notes (Savant); Steve Cardenas, Paul and Charlie (Neuveau); Iro Haarla, Ulf Krokfors & Barry Altschul, Around Again (TUM); Rich Halley, Terra Incognita (Pine Eagle); James Brandon Lewis, An UnRuly Manifesto (Relative Pitch); Steve Lehman Trio & Craig Taborn, The People I Love (Pi); Peter Lemer, Son of Local Colour (ESP-Disk); Tom Rainey Trio with Mary Halvorson and Ingrid Laubrock, Combobulated (Intakt); Joshua Redman & Brooklyn Rider, Sun on Sand (Nonesuch); Scott Robinson, Tenormore (Arbors Jazz); Wallace Roney, Blue Dawn-Blue Nights (HighNote); Tyshawn Sorey & Marilyn Crispell, The Adornment of Time (Pi); Nat Wooley, Columbia Icefield (Northern Spy); Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Motherless Brooklyn (WaterTower Music).

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Francis Davis