A Few More Thoughts About the Top 10 Jazz List(s)

I took another look at the blog I posted on December 21 ("The Best Jazz Albums of 2016"), a few more thoughts came to mind.

With one exception (#5, Brad Mehldau Trio, Blues and Ballads, on Nonesuch), the big labels (or even labels big by jazz standards) are absent from the list. Mainly that's because they're all but absent from jazz, or at least newly recorded jazz. Verve still has Diana Krall; Sony/Columbia has revived its Okeh' label, mainly for the likes of Bob James, but they've also signed Bill Frisell and The Bad Plus; even Nonesuch, such a thriving creative label that once recorded lots of adventurous jazz groups, now has only Mehldau, Josh Redman, and Pat Metheny. There's still ECM and Blue Note (both of which had near-misses on my chart this year), but that's about it. Very few corporate labels want to take the chance of signing up anyone who hasn't been selling lots of records for a pretty long time. Given the numbers on jazz sales, I guess I can't blame them, but priorities and trade-offs used to be different.

Most of the winning labels on this year's list—Pi, New Amsterdam, Pirouet, Palmetto, Cuneiform—are mom-and-pop (or sometimes just a-guy-and-another-guy) operations. Greenleaf and Table Pounding Records are artist-owned. Impulse! (which put out #9, Kenny Barron Trio's Book of Intuition) is sort of big, in that it's distributed in the US by Blue Note.

Two welcome trends pop up in my choices for best Historical albums. First is the rise of Resonance Records, the best thing that happened to jazz archives since Michael Cuscuna and Charlie Lourie founded Mosaic Records in the early 1980s. Cuscuna plumbed the untouched vaults of Blue Note (and, later, other labels too), finding, identifying, and restoring long-forgotten tape reels of complete studio sessions by the masters, and releasing them in handsome boxed sets. With Resonance, Zev Feldman is foraging far and wide—in the archives of radio stations, discontinued labels, jazz clubs, and other oddball libraries—to find sessions that, in many cases, nobody had ever known existed. I expanded my Historical list from the usual three albums to four, so that I could include priceless Resonance releases featuring Larry Young, Sarah Vaughan, and Shirley Horn.

The other album on that list (#2, Erroll Garner, Ready Take One) speaks to the second trend: Sony/Columbia's decision to forget the past in the interest of highlighting greatness. Long ago, Garner sparked a huge legal battle with Columbia, won the case, took control of all his tapes—as a result of which he wandered in the hi-fi wilderness, even while touring the world. A few years ago, long after all parties in the dispute had died, his estate unearthed thousands of tape reels, brought one of them to the new bosses at the old studio (the complete concert by the sea), who eagerly revived Garner's name—and, a year later, released another volume, this one from unknown studio sessions, that in some ways is better still. More to come.

Looking again at the top 10 new albums, there are a lot of old guys on that list: Wadada Leo Smith, 74; Kenny Barron, 73; Henry Threadgill, 72; Fred Hersch, 61; David Krakauer, 60; Frank Kimbrough, 60. Even yesterday's whippersnappers (or so it seems) are getting up there: Dave Douglas, 53; Matt Wilson, 52. The youngster on the list of Darcy James Argue, and he's 41. Is jazz on its way out? I don't know, there's lots of young talent out there, I see them all the time, but still. . . .Then again, it might just be me who's getting old (Fred Kaplan, 62). That might be the problem.

On a happier note, either everybody else is getting older too, or I'm in accord with a wider swath than usual. On Dec. 21, Francis Davis released the results of his NPR poll of 137 jazz critics (including me), tabulating a top 10 list that isn't so different from mine. Most notably, the great masses and I came up with the same #1 choice for new and historical jazz albums (Henry Threadgill's Old Locks and Irregular Verbs and Larry Young's In Paris, respectively).

Here, to be a little redundant, is my list:

Henry Threadgill's Ensemble Double Up, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi).
Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, Real Enemies (New Amsterdam).
Frank Kimbrough, Solstice (Pirouet).
Fred Hersch Trio, Sunday Night at the Vanguard (Palmetto).
Brad Mehldau Trio, Blues and Ballads (Nonesuch).
Wadada Leo Smith, America's National Parks (Cuneiform, 2 CDs).
Dave Douglas & Frank Woeste, Dada People (Greenleaf).
Krakauer's Ancestral Groove, Checkpoint (Table Pounding Records).
Kenny Barron Trio, Book of Intuition (Impulse!).
Matt Wilson's Big Happy Family, Beginning of a Memory (Palmetto).

Larry Young, In Paris: The ORTF Recordings (Resonance, 2CD/2LP).
Erroll Garner, Ready Take One (Sony, CD/2LP).
Sarah Vaughan, Live at Rosy's (Resonance).
Shirley Horn, Live at the 4 Queens (Resonance).

And here is the top 10 that emerged from the NPR poll (in his published list, Francis itemized a top 50 new albums and top 10 historical ones):

1. Henry Threadgill's Ensemble Double Up, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi).
2. Wadada Leo Smith, America's National Parks (Cuneiform).
3. Jack DeJohnette/Matt Garrison/Ravi Coltrane, In Movement (ECM).
4. Mary Halvorson Octet, Away with You (Firehouse 12).br> 5. Michael Formanek's Ensemble Kolossus, The Distance (ECM).
6. Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith, A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke (ECM).
7. Nels Cline, Lovers (Blue Note).
8. Matt Wilson's Big Happy Family, Beginning of a Memory (Palmetto).
9. Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra, Time/Life (Impulse!).
10. Steve Lehman & Sélébéyone, Sélébéyone (Pi).
1. Larry Young, In Paris: The ORTF Recordings (Resonance).
2. Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, All My Yesterdays: The Debut 1966 Village Vanguard Recordings (Resonance).
3. Bill Evans, Some Other Time: The Lost Sessions from the Black Forest (Resonance).
4. Miles Davis Quintet, Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5 (Sony Legacy).

So there's four points of agreement out of 14 slots! And I like most of the poll's favorites that aren't on my list. (A few—the Formanek, Iyer/Smith, and Jones/Lewis—were close runners-up.) Plenty of music to keep you happy through the holidays, distracted from the dread to come.

airdronian's picture

Lots to follow up on. I did enjoy Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra "Time/Life" posthumously released and with Steve Swallow stepping in for where Charlie couldn't. Wonderful stuff.

Your comments on the age of musicians (and listeners) are relevant. At least there is some education being passed along outside of formal institutions. Last year when the Marcus Roberts Trio came thru they did workshops the day before the concert for high school students. I'm sure other artists do similar things and help provide accessibility to the genre for younger aspiring musicians. Grassroots.....

maelob's picture

I am not a jazz expert, but I love GOGO Pinguin Man Made Object, and guess what they are under 40 lol
I guess the album is from 2015

Allen Fant's picture

Outstanding! re-vision FK.
Luckily, no, Jazz is not on its way out. Far from it. Since 2011 we Jazz Hounds have enjoyed wonderful releases. Hopefully,
the vaults will continued to be discovered, re-discovered for additional Historical releases. Good to read about Thad Jones/Mel Lewis making the 2016 cut.

May we see more from Bill Evans in 2017!