NPR logo The 2014 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll

The Best Music Of 2014

The 2014 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll

Steve Lehman edged out Wadada Leo Smith for the top spot in the 2014 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll. Willie Davis/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Steve Lehman edged out Wadada Leo Smith for the top spot in the 2014 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll.

Willie Davis/Courtesy of the artist

NPR Music is pleased to present a poll in which 140 jazz critics picked their favorite recordings of 2014.

For nine consecutive years, this poll has been a labor of love by eminent critic Francis Davis. It's grown tremendously since he initially submitted the consensus of 30 writers to The Village Voice in 2006. Over the last month, print journalists, bloggers and broadcasters nominated more than 700 different albums. We're thrilled to welcome his exhaustive project back to our site.

Below are full results of the 2014 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, highlighted by a playlist of the Top 10 overall picks. You'll find a list of the entire Top 50 in the voting for Jazz Album of the Year, with the top finishers in Latin Jazz, Vocal, Debut and Reissue/Historical categories as well. (You can find all the raw data, including individual ballots, at a website operated by Tom Hull, who annually collates all the information from the poll.)

Davis shares his thoughts on each of 2014's Top 10 Jazz Albums below. You'll also want to read his breakdown of the poll results, including his personal picks for the year's 10 best. We invite you to browse and have a listen. —Patrick Jarenwattananon, NPR Music

The 2014 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll

Steve Lehman, Mise En Abîme. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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07Chimera/Luchini

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    Song
    Chimera/Luchini
    Album
    Mise En Abîme
    Artist
    Steve Lehman
    Label
    Pi Recordings
    Released
    1969

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1. Steve Lehman: 'Mise En Abîme' (Pi)

  • Song: Chimera/Luchini
  • from Mise En Abîme
  • by Steve Lehman

The album title is from deconstructivist literary theory, where it can refer to an image within an image, a story within a story, a dream within a dream and so forth. This 36-year-old New Yorker's compositions — including one that mutates into rap duo Camp Lo's "Luchini" and three others that abstract Bud Powell beyond recognition — use live electronics and computer-assisted spectral harmonies. Lehman also recently earned his doctorate in composition from Columbia University; his webpage even links to his dissertation on "Liminality as a Framework for Composition: Rhythmic Thresholds, Spectral Harmonies and Afrological Improvisation." You almost expect this CD to bear a warning sticker: "WARNING: THIS PRODUCT MAY CONTAIN ALGORITHMS."

But don't be put off by all this overt intellectualism or you'll miss out on some of 2014's most robust and eventful music. For general point of reference, think Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch, Jackie McLean's 1960s recordings with Bobby Hutcherson and Tony Williams and Anthony Braxton's 1970s Creative Orchestra Music. It isn't only the electronics that identify Lehman's music as post-millennial (and they're employed so sparingly, by the way, they come across as subliminal). It's also the playfully stiff-legged gait of Tyshawn Sorey's drumming, the kaleidoscopic textures created by Chris Dingman's vibes, the hard punch of Lehman's own just-short-of-strident alto solos, the simultaneity of harmonic events and the overlapping and interlocking of different meters — all preventing this music from losing itself in arcana. It's a fine consensus choice for Jazz Album of the Year, one that might very well presage the immediate future.

266 points, on 40 ballots.

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Mise En Abîme
Album
Mise En Abîme
Artist
Steve Lehman
Label
Pi Recordings

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Wadada Leo Smith, The Great Lakes Suites Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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01Lake Huron

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    Song
    Lake Huron
    Album
    The Great Lakes Suites
    Artist
    Wadada Leo Smith
    Label
    TUM Records
    Released
    1969

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2. Wadada Leo Smith: 'The Great Lakes Suites' (TUM Records)

  • Song: Lake Huron
  • from The Great Lakes Suites
  • by Wadada Leo Smith

What attracted Smith to the Great Lakes, he tells us in the booklet that comes with this double CD, was their surface flatness and underlying volatility — "restrained, but explosive," in his words. He might as well be describing his own trumpet style. Though he can growl and cuss with the best of them (including Lester Bowie, who overshadowed him when they were both coming up in Chicago in the late '60s and early '70s), Smith's brass signature is a dead calm that lets the boldness of his lines sneak up on you. The latest in a succession of ambitious projects including 2012's Ten Freedom Summers and last year's Occupy The World, Great Lakes reunites Smith with saxophonist and flutist Henry Threadgill, who rarely records as a sideman anymore, and whose headlong solos contrast nicely with Smith's. The pianoless rhythm section features bassist John Lindberg and drummer Jack DeJohnette, both from various editions of Smith's Golden Quartet, and DeJohnette hasn't sounded this fiery (or this sensitive, as the music demands) in years. Note the plural Suites in the album title; there are six extended performances and each is truly a suite, with the rhythm team marking the transitions from movement to movement.

254 points, on 32 ballots.

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Song
The Great Lakes Suites
Album
The Great Lakes Suites
Artist
Wadada Leo Smith
Label
TUM Records

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Cover for The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint

03Our Basement

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    Song
    Our Basement
    Album
    The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint
    Artist
    Ambrose Akinmusire
    Label
    Blue Note
    Released
    2014

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3. Ambrose Akinmusire: 'the imagined savior is far easier to paint' (Blue Note)

  • Song: Our Basement
  • from The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint
  • by Ambrose Akinmusire

This young trumpeter seems determined not to repeat himself. Whereas 2011's When the Heart Emerges Glistening, his first album for Blue Note, spotlighted his quartet and his own improvisational prowess, this one finds him stretching his wings as a composer for different configurations. It marks a giant leap forward, I think, though on first hearing, it can seem diffuse, off-putting in its unbroken solemnity; the payoff comes only once you learn to listen to it on its own terms. A piece featuring singer Becca Stevens achieves a synthesis of voice and instruments as moving as George Russell's version of "You Are My Sunshine" with Sheila Jordan, or Mike Westbrook's settings of William Blake poems; another number in the same vein featuring Theo Bleckmann is very nearly as good. "Rollcall For Those Absent" confronts us with the voice of a small child, accompanied by only a pair of ominous keyboards, delivering a litany of the names of unarmed black men slain in cold blood — and you can't hear it now without mentally adding the names of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. It's extremely powerful, like taking part in a die-in. Akinmusire is bidding to reintroduce jazz to the social activism and spiritualism that defined so much of it in the 1970s. More power to him for doing it without falling back on vapid grooves and ostinatos; blind faith in blackness or a fuzzy, undefined deity; or any other period cliché.

223 points, on 30 ballots.

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Song
The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint
Album
The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint
Artist
Ambrose Akinmusire
Label
Blue Note
Released
2014

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04Solo Sonny

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    Song
    Solo Sonny
    Album
    Road Shows, Vol. 3
    Artist
    Sonny Rollins
    Label
    Okeh
    Released
    1969

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4. Sonny Rollins: 'Road Shows, Vol. 3' (OKeh)

  • Song: Solo Sonny
  • from Road Shows, Vol. 3
  • by Sonny Rollins

The usual caveats apply: Attention wanes during the solos of Sonny Rollins' sidemen, and those bouncy little numbers of his, like this volume's opener, don't give the saxophonist much to work with harmonically. But rhythmically? Oh, my! And when the undiminished octogenarian teases Noel Coward's "Someday I'll Find You" to a boil or rifles through Jerome Kern's "Why Was I Born" for more than 20 minutes, the only possible response is awe.

174.5 points, on 25 ballots.

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Song
Road Shows, Vol. 3
Album
Road Shows, Vol. 3
Artist
Sonny Rollins
Label
Okeh

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01Lathe of Heaven

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    Song
    Lathe of Heaven
    Album
    Lathe of Heaven
    Artist
    Mark Turner
    Label
    ECM
    Released
    1969

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5. Mark Turner Quartet: 'Lathe Of Heaven' (ECM)

  • Song: Lathe of Heaven
  • from Lathe of Heaven
  • by Mark Turner

Saxophonist Mark Turner's quartet — also pianoless, but quieter and more circumspect than Wadada Leo Smith's — is so airy that any chording instrument would have only gotten in the way. Turner first attracted attention in the late '90s for reconciling Coltrane's harmonic involvement and lengthy improvised lines with a coolness more typified by Warne Marsh or Lee Konitz; Turner's sound remains unmistakable. And if you still haven't heard the gifted trumpeter Avishai Cohen, this is as good a place as any to start.

159 points, on 24 ballots.

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Song
Lathe of Heaven
Album
Lathe of Heaven
Artist
Mark Turner
Label
ECM

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05I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)

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    Song
    I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)
    Album
    Live At The Village Vanguard
    Artist
    Marc Ribot Trio
    Label
    Pi Recordings
    Released
    1969

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6. Marc Ribot Trio: 'Live At The Village Vanguard' (Pi)

  • Song: I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)
  • from Live At The Village Vanguard
  • by Marc Ribot Trio

With his performances of "The Wizard" and "Bells" — both of which sound like hoedowns in a hailstorm, thanks in no small part to Chad Taylor's surging drums — guitarist Marc Ribot again proves himself Albert Ayler's most insightful contemporary interpreter. Ribot extends his reach to John Coltrane on two numbers originally from the neglected Sun Ship, and if no guitarist has ever come as close to matching the gale force of Coltrane's saxophone, it hasn't been for lack of trying. Along with providing a break from all this intensity, "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)" and "Old Man River" demonstrate that Ayler's one-time bassist Henry Grimes still knows his way around chord changes. So does Ribot. I was at the Vanguard earlier in the week of June 2012 when this album was recorded, and I only wish it included the masterful version of "My Foolish Heart," ringing with tremolo and riddled with silence, which the band played the night I was there.

147 points, on 25 ballots.

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Song
Live At The Village Vanguard
Album
Live At The Village Vanguard
Artist
Marc Ribot Trio
Label
Pi Recordings

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11Jitterbug Waltz

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    Song
    Jitterbug Waltz
    Album
    All Rise: A Joyful Elegy For Fats Waller
    Artist
    Jason Moran
    Label
    Blue Note
    Released
    2014

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7. Jason Moran: 'All Rise: A Joyful Elegy For Fats Waller' (Blue Note)

  • Song: Jitterbug Waltz
  • from All Rise: A Joyful Elegy For Fats Waller
  • by Jason Moran

This sounded promising, given Moran's prior success in finding foreshadowings of modernism in tunes by James P. Johnson and Bert Williams. But Meshell Ndegeocello and label honcho Don Was' hip-hop-cum-smooth-jazz production makes for too much fat and too little Fats, in my opinion. A "Jitterbug Waltz" punctuated by fractured drum beats and sporting nifty, relaxed solos by Moran and Steve Lehman suggests what might have been. And at least you don't have to endure the vocals that help do this in elsewhere.

135.5 points, on 22 ballots.

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Song
All Rise: A Joyful Elegy For Fats Waller
Album
All Rise: A Joyful Elegy For Fats Waller
Artist
Jason Moran
Label
Blue Note
Released
2014

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Cover for Landmarks

04Ark.La.Tex.

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    Song
    Ark.La.Tex.
    Album
    Landmarks
    Artist
    Brian Blade
    Label
    Blue Note
    Released
    2014

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8. Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band: 'Landmarks' (Blue Note)

  • Song: Ark.La.Tex.
  • from Landmarks
  • by Brian Blade

If I didn't know that Wayne Shorter's longtime drummer Brian Blade was from Louisiana, and that keyboardist (and virtual co-leader) Jon Cowherd was from Kentucky, the sense of prairie and open campfires conveyed by their compositions might lead me to assume that at least one of them was from the Southwest. From the tom-tom rhythms on "He Died Fighting" and "Ark.La.Tex.," I might have assumed that one or the other was of Native American heritage as well. The genre often referred to as "Americana" doesn't get more finely textured or nostalgically evocative as this.

133.5 points, on 18 ballots.

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Song
Landmarks
Album
Landmarks
Artist
Brian Blade
Label
Blue Note
Released
2014

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06In Walked Bud

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    Song
    In Walked Bud
    Album
    Art of Conversation
    Artist
    Kenny Barron/Dave Holland
    Label
    Impulse
    Released
    2014

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9. Kenny Barron & Dave Holland: 'The Art Of Conversation' (Impulse)

  • Song: In Walked Bud
  • from Art of Conversation
  • by Kenny Barron/Dave Holland

When it comes to suave, rhythmically incisive piano, Kenny Barron is the successor to Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan, much as they were to Teddy Wilson and Nat "King" Cole. Bassist Dave Holland, on leave from leading his own bands, is with Barron every step of the way, never leading or following. And given that the pianist has long made Monk a habit, it shouldn't be surprising that a spinning "In Walked Bud" is the most felicitous of these performances.

101 points, on 17 ballots.

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Song
Art of Conversation
Album
Art of Conversation
Artist
Kenny Barron/Dave Holland
Released
2014

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05Good Morning Heartache

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    Song
    Good Morning Heartache
    Album
    Sixteen Sunsets
    Artist
    Jane Ira Bloom
    Label
    Outline
    Released
    1969

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10. Jane Ira Bloom: 'Sixteen Sunsets' (Outline)*

  • Song: Good Morning Heartache
  • from Sixteen Sunsets
  • by Jane Ira Bloom

It's tempting to call this late 2013 release an album of ballads at all tempos. More accurately, soprano saxophonist Bloom and an attentive rhythm section captained by pianist Dominic Fallacaro sustain the most reflective of moods. When the tempo quickens, it's not by much. But that's OK, because this is when Bloom's tone deepens, her lines become slightly fretful and her solos begin to sting. Ballads test a player's storytelling ability, and Bloom passes with room to spare.

95.5 points, on 15 ballots.

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Sixteen Sunsets
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Sixteen Sunsets
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Jane Ira Bloom
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Outline

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The Rest Of The Top 50

11. Miguel Zenón, Identities Are Changeable (Miel Music) 95 points (on 15 ballots)

12. The Bad Plus, The Rite of Spring (Sony Masterworks) 88.5 (15)

13. Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden, Last Dance (ECM) 83 (14)

14 (tie). David Virelles, Mbókò (ECM) 80 (13)

14 (tie). Tyshawn Sorey, Alloy (Pi) 80 (13)

16. Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Over Time: The Music of Bob Brookmeyer (Planet Arts) 73.5 (9)

17. Chick Corea Trio, Trilogy (Stretch/Concord) 72 (10)

18. Fred Hersch Trio, Floating (Palmetto) 67 (12)

19. Jeff Ballard Trio, Time's Travels (OKeh) 66 (12)

20. Vijay Iyer, Mutations (ECM) 64 (12)

21. Mary Halvorson/Michael Formanek/Tomas Fujiwara, Thumbscrew (Cuneiform) 63.5 (14)

22. Trio 3 & Vijay Iyer, Wiring (Intakt) 60.5 (10)

23. Matt Wilson Quartet + John Medeski, Gathering Call (Palmetto) 60 (12)

24. Aki Takase & Alexander von Schlippenbach, So Long, Eric! Homage to Eric Dolphy (Intakt) 59.5 (9)

25. Billy Hart Quartet, One Is the Other (ECM) 59 (11)

26. Tom Harrell, Trip (HighNote) 56 (9)

27. Eric Revis, In Memory Of Things Yet Seen (Clean Feed) 53.5 (11)

28. Jason Roebke Octet, High/Red/Center (Delmark) 53 (9)

29. The Nels Cline Singers, Macroscope (Mack Avenue) 52 (10)

30. Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra, Habitat (Justin Time) 52 (8)**

31. Marty Ehrlich Large Ensemble, A Trumpet in the Morning (New World) 47 (7)***

32. Frank Kimbrough, Quartet (Palmetto) 45.5 (8)

33. Hafez Modirzadeh, In Convergence Liberation (Pi) 44 (7)

34. Nels Cline & Julian Lage, Room (Mack Avenue) 43.5 (7)

35. Jason Adasiewicz's Sun Rooms, From the Region (Delmark) 43 (9)

36 (tie). Joshua Redman, Trios Live (Nonesuch) 43 (6)

36 (tie). Yosvany Terry, New Throned King (5Passion) 43 (6)

38. Avishai Cohen's Triveni, Dark Nights (Anzic) 42.5 (11)

39. James Brandon Lewis, Divine Travels (OKeh) 42 (10)

40. The Cookers, Time and Time Again (Motéma) 40.5 (9)

41. Darius Jones, The Oversoul Manual (AUM Fidelity) 40.5 (5)

42. Henry Butler, Steven Bernstein, Viper's Drag (Impulse!) 40 (8)

43. Pat Metheny Unity Group, Kin (←→) (Nonesuch) 40 (7)

44. Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio, Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio (Concord Jazz) 39.5 (9)

45. Farmers By Nature, Love and Ghosts (AUM Fidelity) 39 (11)

46. Arturo O'Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. The Offense of the Drum (Motéma) 38.5 (6)

47. Sean Jones im•pro•vise (never before seen) (Mack Avenue) 37 (6)

48. Dave Douglas & Uri Caine, Present Joys (Greenleaf) 35 (7)

49. Ideal Bread, Beating the Teens: Songs of Steve Lacy (Cuneiform) 34.5 (7)

50. Mary Halvorson, Reverse Blue (Relative Pitch) 34 (5)

*Includes 21.5 points (on three ballots) from 2013.

**Includes 23 (4) from 2013.

***Includes 12 (3) from 2013

Reissue/Rara Avis

1. John Coltrane, Offering: Live at Temple University (Resonance) 149 points, on 62 ballots

2. Jimmy Giuffre 3 & 4, New York Concerts (Elemental Music) 73 (34)

3. Charles Lloyd, Manhattan Stories (Resonance) 69 (35)

4. Miles Davis, Miles At The Fillmore (Columbia/Legacy) 51 (29)

5. Louis Armstrong, The Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings (Mosaic) 33 (13)

6. Charlie Haden/Jim Hall, Charlie Haden - Jim Hall (Impulse!) 32 (17)

7. Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden/Paul Motian, Hamburg '72 (ECM) 26 (14)

8. Frank Lowe, Out Loud (Triple Point) 15 (8)

9. Bud Powell, Birdland 1953 (ESP-Disk') 13 (7)

10. Horace Tapscott Quintet, The Giant Is Awakened (International Phonogram) 13 (6)

Vocal

1. Andy Bey, Pages from an Imaginary Life (HighNote) 13 votes

2 (tie). Dianne Reeves, Beautiful Life (Concord) 5

2 (tie). Catherine Russell, Bring It Back (Jazz Village) 5

Debut

1. Jeff Ballard Trio, Time's Tales (OKeh) 16

2. Otis Brown III, The Thought of You (Blue Note) 8

3. Rudy Royston, 303 (Greenleaf) 7

Latin

1. Arturo O'Farrill & the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, The Offense of the Drum (Motéma) 19

2. Miguel Zenón, Identities Are Changeable (Miel Music) 16

3. Yosvany Terry, New Throned King (5Passion) 11

4. Danilo Pérez, Panama 500 (Mack Avenue) 8

5. David Virelles, Mbókò (ECM) 6

6. Alfredo Rodriguez, The Invasion Parade (Mack Avenue) 5

Methodology

Voters were asked to submit choices for their top 10 new releases in descending order. Points were weighted by preference: 10 for 1st place, 9 for 2nd place, etc. Albums on unranked lists were awarded 5.5 points each. Voters also submitted their top three reissues/historical recordings and their lone choices for the year's best vocal, debut and Latin jazz albums. A complete list of ballots is available here.

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