Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Best of 2018: Jazz

I was thinking it might be fun to dissect this whole year-end process a bit, for anyone that might be interested in the extremely unscientific, whim-driven process behind the various lists, polls and reckonings I participate in each year around this time.

Let's take the general topic of jazz first. So this year, I both published a top 20 list on behalf of Rolling Stone and also submitted a top 10 list to Francis Davis' annual Jazz Critics Poll, the full results of which I expect will be online soon the results of which can be found here, with the annual round-up essay located here and the full ballot tally here. For me, the RS list — the first time that I know of (though I could be wrong) that the publication has run a year-end list devoted exclusively to jazz — was an attempt to unify my own, often idiosyncratic tastes with a more general-purpose portrait of the "year in jazz," which, at least to some degree, took into account intangible factors like "reach" and "impact" (relevant factors, in my mind, given Rolling Stone's fundamentally mainstream-oriented purview) not to mention the perspective of the publication as a whole. (For example, Kamasi Washington, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Makaya McCraven, the Bad Plus, and the London vanguardists like Shabaka Hutchings and Nubya Garcia are all artists that other writers — including Chris Weingarten, Natalie Weiner, David Fricke and Will Hermes, among others — have covered/championed at RS in recent years, and given that jazz is still more or less a niche genre within the larger scheme of RS coverage, that kind of "track record of support" with regard to a particular artist matters, at least in my estimation.) Again, it's an inexact science, but I wanted this list to feel institutional, i.e., representative of the aggregate RS perspective, while at the same time — especially given that it was, in the end, written solely by me — inclusive of my own opinions.

As an illustration of the above principles, here is the RS 2018 jazz top 20 (again, the full annotated list can be found here), followed by the personal 2018 jazz top 10 that I submitted to the Davis poll. You'll note that the rankings do not correspond exactly, and that some titles that ranked highly on the RS list are absent from the Davis one. With the Davis list, there's of course no attempt made to represent anything other than my own tastes, and more specifically, the albums that I spent the most time with this year— specifically/ideally, time that felt purely pleasurable, non-"work"-driven; this is an elusive idea, because the two can absolutely blur together, but over the years, I've come to really privilege and take note of the new music that attains true "escape velocity" within the sphere of my listening, that is to say, becomes part of my collection, as it were; I've found that only a couple of albums a year, if that, really satisfy this criterion in a given year, let alone continue to do so after the year in question has passed. Put another way, my private, purely for-pleasure listening rituals are sacred to me, often centering on old favorites, or lesser-known releases by artists I already love, and it's simply not that often that new music really worms its way into that company. (Not surprising, given how much of this for-pleasure listening centers around artists I've loved for years, if not decades; currently, for example, I'm cycling through the Cannibal Corpse discography for the umpteenth time, apropos of nothing other than that I love the band and "celebrate their entire catalog.")

Anyway, here goes…

Rolling Stone's 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2018:

1. The Bad Plus, Never Stop II (Legbreaker)

2. Cécile McLorin Salvant, The Window (Mack Avenue)

3. Wayne Shorter, Emanon (Blue Note)

4. Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings (International Anthem)

5. Brötzmann/Leigh, Sparrow Nights (Trost)

6. Charles Lloyd & the Marvels + Lucinda Williams, Vanished Gardens (Blue Note)

7. Various Artists, We Out Here (Brownswood)

8. Dan Weiss, Starebaby (Pi)

9. Ray Angry, One (JMI)

10. Houston Person and Ron Carter, Remember Love (HighNote)

 11. James Brandon Lewis and Chad Taylor, Radiant Imprints (Off)

12. Harriet Tubman, The Terror End of Beauty (Sunnyside / Early Future)

13. Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas Sound Prints, Scandal (Greenleaf)

14. Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth (Young Turks)

15. JP Schlegelmilch, Jonathan Goldberger and Jim Black, Visitors (Skirl)

16. Hailu Mergia, Lala Belu (Awesome Tapes From Africa)

17. Anteloper, Kudu (International Anthem)

18. Kris Davis and Craig Taborn, Octopus (Pyroclastic)

19. Andrew Cyrille, Lebroba (ECM)

20. Joshua Redman, Ron Miles, Scott Colley and Brian Blade, Still Dreaming (Nonesuch)

My personal 2018 jazz top 10, plus supplementary categories, as submitted to Francis Davis' annual Jazz Critics Poll:

New Releases

1. The Bad Plus, Never Stop II (Legbreaker)

2. Wayne Shorter, Emanon (Blue Note)

3. Dan Weiss, Starebaby (Pi)

4. Peter Brötzmann / Heather Leigh, Sparrow Nights (Trost)

5. Ray Angry, One (JMI)

6. Charles Lloyd & the Marvels + Lucinda Williams, Vanished Gardens (Blue Note)

7. James Brandon Lewis / Chad Taylor, Radiant Imprints (Off)

8. Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings (International Anthem)

9. Cécile McLorin Salvant, The Window (Mack Avenue)

10. Houston Person and Ron Carter, Remember Love (HighNote)

1. Charles Mingus, Jazz in Detroit / Strata Concert Gallery / 46 Selden (BBE) 

[see review here]

2. John Coltrane, Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album (Impulse)

[see review here]

3. Beaver Harris/Don Pullen 360° Experience, A Well-Kept Secret (Corbett vs. Dempsey)

[see tweet here and related post here]

Cécile McLorin Salvant, The Window (Mack Avenue)

Ray Angry, One (JMI)


A few notes on the above. Just to drive home how arbitrary this whole year-end-list process is, how governed by moods, whims, memory lapses, etc., I'm already wishing I could revise the Davis list above, to bring it more in line with my actual "year in music," i.e., to make it just a bit more reflective of that "listening for pure pleasure" concept I cited above. To be clear, I very much enjoyed all the albums I listed above, but there are others from the RS Top 20 pool that probably hit me harder on a personal level, one being the Schlegelmilch/Goldberger/Black disc (see RS entry here) and another being the Harriet Tubman (see RS entry here). Don't quote me on this, but I think at the time I submitted the Davis list, I was feeling some compulsion to get a little stricter re: what I did and didn't consider to be "jazz," though now I realize that deeming both of those albums — which, very much to their credit, don't fit comfortably into any kind of genre-centric reckoning — to be "jazz" for RS purposes and not for Jazz Critics Poll purposes seems flat-out absurd.

Oh, well! Again, I can't stress how make-it-up-as-I-go-along this whole process is, and in a way, I celebrate that fact, as it only drives home how ultimately subjective and, in a certain sense, pointless these kinds of reckonings are. The one sense in which they aren't pointless, I'd argue, is that they actually do allow for some kind of spotlighting of great/worthy music made during a given time period, which, given how short everyone's cultural memory is these days, can't really be viewed as a bad/detrimental thing.

Anyway, yes, those two albums are outstanding, and if I had the opportunity to resubmit the Davis poll, I'd probably find a way to include them. While we're on the subject of exclusions, I ought to mention that two of the albums on my all-genres-in-play top 10, which I'll discuss in a subsequent post, were made by artists who have been known to work in the "jazz" field but who, in these particular cases, seemed to transcend it to the point that labeling these records "jazz" just didn't feel right to me. I'm referring to Esperanza Spalding's 12 Little Spells and Tyshawn Sorey's Pillars. I think that my reviews of each, linked in the prior sentence, give a pretty good idea of why I think these records transcend not only jazz but any kind of idiomatic thinking. (If pressed, I'd call the former some kind of baroque art pop — honestly, I'm not sure there's a single moment of improvisation on it, which, to me, is maybe a dealbreaker in terms of it being labeled "jazz" — and the latter some kind of long-form ambient trance improv?)

That said, this is just one writer's opinion; I've seen these albums popping up on many jazz lists thus far and expect to see both represented somewhere in the Davis poll, to which I say, cool! However anyone wants to classify them, they're worthy of celebration, and to sweat the details seems, again, petty and absurd. I just feel compelled to mention them here by way of explaining why these titles, both of which I loved, are nowhere to be found on the "jazz" lists that I personally compiled.

There's a lot of music cited above, so I'm not going to get too deep into an exhaustive honorable-mentions list this time around. But I will say that I wish I had been able to spend more time with Jon Irabagon's Dr. Quixotic's Traveling Exotics, an outstanding, suite-like album of long-form compositions for "postbop" quintet (maybe something like the 2018 version of Wayne Shorter's All-Seeing Eye?) that, like, pretty everything Jon does, reveals new facets of his border-less, frequently revelatory art. If the chips had fallen just a little differently, this could easily have ended up among the titles named above. Listening back to it now, I'm remembering how compelling and compulsively listenable this record really is. Related: Do not miss this fascinating interview with Jon on Jeremiah Cymerman's invaluable 5049 Podcast, in which he discusses this recording in some depth.

P.S. Speaking of the whole categorization question, I'm not sure I'd call Middle Blue's Love Chords and Brandon Seabrook's Convulsionaries "jazz records" either, but I really dug both!

No comments: