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The Best Music Of 2014

An Upset Either Way: Steve Lehman And Wadada Leo Smith Triumph

Wadada Leo Smith finished second in the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, separated by only 12 points from surprise winner Steve Lehman. Scott Groller/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Scott Groller/Courtesy of the artist

Wadada Leo Smith finished second in the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, separated by only 12 points from surprise winner Steve Lehman.

Scott Groller/Courtesy of the artist

Could anyone have predicted that Steve Lehman and Wadada Leo Smith would place first and second in this year's NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, among a field including previous winners Sonny Rollins, Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran, plus 2011 runner-up (and favorite going in) Ambrose Akinmusire? Not me, and I even had Lehman and Smith on my ballot, along with Rollins and Akinmusire.

Let's not be naïve: The jazz mainstream is wherever the major labels say it is at any given moment (even when they say, as they do periodically, that jazz is strictly nowhere) and Lehman's Mise en Abîme and Smith's The Great Lakes Suite landed left-of-mainstream both musically and by provenance. They're each small-label releases, one of them (Great Lakes) from Finland, no less.



So both albums faced long odds. But even though it polled well enough to finish third, Akimusire's moody, ambitious the imagined savior is far easier to paint wasn't the sprinting quintet album many wanted from him, following When the Heart Emerges Glistening, his Blue Note debut from three years ago. Nor was Vijay Iyer's Mutations (#20), with its intricate chamber works, a hard-hitting trio album along the lines of Historicity (2009) and Accelerando (2012). (And the pianist's votes were almost evenly split between Mutations and 22nd place finisher Wiring, Iyer's collaboration with Trio 3, a collective featuring avant-elders Oliver Lake, Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille.)

Because it was a Volume 3, the problem with Rollins's Road Shows (#4) may have been knowing exactly what to expect — and anything was going to seem anticlimactic following Sonny and Ornette Coleman's clash of the titans on Volume 2. And All Rise, Moran's tribute to Fats Waller, was an attempt to gain street credibility for both of them by pandering to urban audiences — not the sort of album critics tend to endorse (even though enough of them did to win All Rise a place in the Top 10 anyway).

None of which is intended to suggest that Mise en Abîme and The Great Lakes Suites rose to the top by default. Either would have been a worthy winner (you can read my praise for both with the full results). But neither was an obvious winner. Neither was anywhere to be found in DownBeat's year-end Readers Poll, nor were Lehman and Smith recognized on their respective instruments. As the last few ballots came in, after the imagined savior had been mathematically eliminated and the lead kept shifting between Lehman and Smith in the closest Best Album vote in the poll's nine-year history, it was clear that this was going to end in an upset either way.

This might be as good a place as any to issue a proviso. Like all critical surveys of this sort, this one is based on the premise that while artistic accomplishment can't be quantified, informed opinion regarding the arts can be. In a way, the critics who participate in this poll are the ones up for appraisal, not the musicians or their albums. Only time will tell whether this year's results prove to be prescient or shortsighted. But I hope I don't sound self-congratulatory in saying that in fulfilling two of the most sacred obligations entrusted to critics — calling attention to rising talent, in Lehman's case, and honoring long under-appreciated veterans in the case of Smith and Best Vocal Album honoree Andy Bey — this year's winners included the poll itself.

A record 140 print, digital and broadcast journalists voted this year. Each year's poll presents its own talking points and statistical oddities. Here are some of this year's.


  • Come Young and Old: Lehman and Smith were separated by just 12 points, a margin small enough to trigger an automatic recount if this were, say, a gubernatorial election. Indeed, the point differential was less than half their 37-year gap in age (Smith turned 73 this month, Lehman is 36). But that's nothing compared to the 52-year spread between #3 Ambrose Akinmusire (32) and #4 Sonny Rollins (84).
  • What's in a Name?: Mise en Abîme is from deconstructionist literary theory, where it can refer to an image within an image, a story within a story, a dream within a dream, etc. The Great Lakes Suites include six suites, even though there are only five Great Lakes (Smith nods to Lake St. Clair). Mark Turner's Lathe of Heaven borrows its title from a 1971 novel by Ursula Le Guin. As for the imagined savior is far easier to paint, you're on your own.
  • 'The past is never dead. It's not even past': The poll's voters can be sectarian, pretty much ruling out true consensus. Mise en Abîme was named on 40 ballots, more than any other new release. But that means there were 100 ballots on which it wasn't. Where the poll reflected consensus was in the Reissue/Rara Avis category, where John Coltrane's Offering: Live at Temple University, the first legitimate release of a storied 1966 concert, appeared on a staggering 62 ballots. Zev Feldman of Resonance Records, a small Southern California nonprofit, was directly responsible for each of the top three in this category. And like the Coltrane release, Jimmy Giuffre's New York Concerts (#2) and Charles Lloyd's Manhattan Stories (#3) each of which received more mentions than any new release except Mise en Abîme — help to illuminate a crucial period for the jazz avant-garde in the mid-1960s.
  • That'll Teach 'Em To Be Prolific: Iyer wasn't the only performer in competition with himself. The Bad Plus, Mary Halvorson, Nels Cline, Dave Douglas and Matthew Shipp were among those who also each received votes for more than one album. And if the 16.5 combined points for Red Hill and Twine Forest, both of which list Wadada Leo Smith as co-leader, could be transferred to The Great Lakes Suites, we'd be looking at an even closer finish but the opposite result.
  • Give the Drums Some ... And Then Some: The top three finishers in the Debut category were all veteran drummers: Jeff Ballard (familiar from Brad Mehldau's trio and the band FLY), Otis Brown III (from Joe Lovano's Us Five), and Rudy Royston (a sideman with JD Allen and Bill Frisell, among others).
  • On the Cusp: Record companies don't stop releasing albums during the three weeks in late November and early December that polling takes place. In an effort to be fair to "cusp" releases, their points from the previous year are carried over to the current year — but only if their current-year total surpasses their previous-year total. When the same critic names an album on his or her Top 10 in both years, the artist is awarded points based on the higher standing. The chief beneficiary of this bit of housekeeping this year was Jane Ira Bloom, whose combined points from 2013 and 2014 allowed her Sixteen Sunsets to edge Miguel Zenón's Identities Are Changeable for the last spot on the Top 10.
  • You've Come a Long Way, Buddy: Andy Bey is the first male Vocal winner in the poll's nine years.
  • The Passion Index: Devised by J. Hoberman when he conducted an annual film poll for the Village Voice, this is a figure arrived at by dividing an album's point total by the number of ballots on which it appeared. It's designed to measure the level of voter enthusiasm for each album, and though it probably does nothing of the sort, it's fun to play with while pretending to be Nate Silver. This year's highest scorer on the Passion Index was an album that didn't even crack the poll's Top 10. Only nine critics found a place for it on their ballots, but five of them — including me — voted it #1 ... the perfect segue into my personal Top 10 list.

Cover art for OverTime: The Music of Bob Brookmeyer.
Courtesy of the artist

1. Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, OverTime: The Music of Bob Brookmeyer (Planet Arts). Some might be surprised to hear that Bob Brookmeyer's writing for orchestra rivaled that of Duke Ellington or Gil Evans for tonal depth and richness, because he wasn't really thought of as a composer/arranger at all before being appointed music director of Mel Lewis's Jazz Orchestra in 1980, by which point he was three decades into his career and already quite well-known as a valve trombonist. Brookmeyer remained active up to his death in 2011, days short of his 82nd birthday, and his posthumous influence has grown enormous, thanks to the work of disciples like Maria Schneider, Darcy James Argue, John Hollenbeck, Ryan Truesdell and Vanguard Jazz Orchestra pianist Jim McNeely.

The eight pieces here (including an arrangement of "Skylark" and a three-part suite of mini-concertos for trumpeter Scott Wendholt and saxophonists Dick Oatts and Rich Perry) show what excites fellow musicians about Brookmeyer's charts. Consecutive passages in the same piece might suggest in turn a dance band, a jazz band and a philharmonic tackling Messiaen or Varèse (especially on "Sad Song," the stunning, Buddist prayer-like closer, where some chords are so thick they thump percussively). It all adds up to unclassifiable modern music, and it's so good it's dizzying. Cheers, too, on a job well done for the VJO, in residence at the Village Vanguard on Monday nights going on 49 years now. Lewis and Thad Jones, the original co-leaders, are long gone, as are all of the charter members. But "newcomers" McNeely, Perry, Oatts and bass trombonist Doug Purviance all have 30-plus years under their belts, and the VJO remains the equal of the orchestras led by those aforementioned disciples of Brookmeyer.

2. David Virelles, Mbókò (ECM). In lesser hands, this compelling, downright otherwordly music based on Afro-Cuban male initiation rituals and adding the traditional Cuban four-drum biankomeko kit to a jazz quartet with two basses might have amounted to mere exotica. The reason it amounts to infinitely more might be the intellectual distance Virelles brings to it — not the same thing as emotional detachment by a long shot. The Cuban-born pianist, now living in New York, offers a musical synthesis we've not heard the likes of before, and how often does one get to say that anymore? (This was also my choice for Latin album.)

3. Wadada Leo Smith, The Great Lakes Suites (TUM). See poll results (2nd overall).

4. Sonny Rollins, Road Shows, Vol. 3 (Doxy/OKeh). See poll results (4th overall).

5. Dave Douglas & Uri Caine, Present Joys (Greenleaf). The trumpeter and the pianist are so tuned into each other from having played in each other's bands for so long that hearing them duet is always an exciting prospect. What makes this encounter all the more special is the unexpected harmonic sophistication with which they approach humble melodies from the Sacred Harp (i.e. shape note) songbook, together with a few Douglas originals in the same vein.

6. Ambrose Akinmusire, the imagined savior is far easier to paint (Blue Note). See poll results (3rd overall).

7. Allen Lowe, Mulatto Radio: Field Recordings 1-4 [or: A Jew at Large in the Minstrel Diaspora] (Constant Sorrow). Forgive the slipshod packaging and the inevitable overkill of 4 CDs and a bonus CD-R. Maine's resident jazz outsider just can't stop himself; he seemingly schedules a recording session every time he has an idea, which is often. Here, in his music as well as in his lengthy album notes, he addresses such recurring obsessions as racism and race, anti-intellectualism and pseudo-intellectualism, Jewishness and otherness, the true nature of bebop, a mostly one-sided feud with Wynton Marsalis over the historical value of minstrelsy (including the blackface kind), and whatever he happens to be reading or listening to a lot lately (from his liner notes, I'm guessing Zora Neale Hurston and Bud Powell). The music that comes out of all this is engagingly rustic and unselfconsciously eccentric, a dialogue of sorts between styles older than ragtime and others newer than free jazz. Among the diverse cast of characters coming and going are Matthew Shipp, Randy Sandke, JD Allen, Noah Preminger, Ursula Oppens, novelist Rick Moody, and the late Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre. But the participant whose contributions stick most to the ribs is pianist Lewis Porter, better known as an historian and educator.

8. Steve Lehman, Mise en Abîme (Pi). See poll results (1st overall).

9. The Westerlies, Wish the Children Would Come on Home: The Music of Wayne Horvitz (Songlines). Composer and keyboardist Wayne Horvitz was a presence on the New York's genre-bending downtown avant-garde scene in the 1980s before settling in Seattle. The Westerlies are an improvising brass quartet (two trumpets, two trombones) originally from Seattle and now located in New York. Their Horvitz interpretations convey a sense of sky and soil (not to mention the occasional circus or parade) that immediately calls to mind Aaron Copland, Bill Frisell, late-1950s Jimmy Giuffre, and maybe Brian Blade's Landmarks and Charles Ives. It's proof, if any be needed, that the same music can be both folk-like and composerly, lovely and intellectually rigorous. (Also my choice as 2014's best debut album.)

10. James Brandon Lewis, Divine Travels (OKeh). Unabashed free jazz on a major-label subsidiary — will wonders never cease? Still in his twenties, Lewis is the real deal, a saxophonist whose Pentecostal fervor clearly comes from the church, not just listening to vintage Coltrane and Albert Ayler. Bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver supply all the momentum and color a horn could ask for.

Honorable Mention

  • Jason Adasiewicz's Sun Rooms, From the Region (Delmark)
  • Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band, Landmarks (Blue Note/Mid-City)
  • John Escreet, Sound, Space and Structures (Sunnyside)
  • Danny Fox Trio, Wide Eyed (Hot Cup)
  • Satoko Fujii New York Orchestra, Shiki (Libra)
  • Mary Halvorson/Michael Formanek/Tomas Fujiwara, Thumbscrew (Cuneiform)
  • Vijay Iyer, Mutations (ECM)
  • The Microscopic Septet, Manhattan Moonrise (Cuneiform)
  • Eric Revis, In Memory of Things Yet Seen (Clean Feed)
  • Marc Ribot Trio, Live at the Village Vanguard (Pi)
  • Saxophone Summit (Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, Ravi Coltrane), Visitation (ArtistShare)
  • A Sondheim Jazz Project, City of Strangers (Bobby Hsu Music)
  • Vinnie Sperrazza, Apocryphal (Loyal Label).

Reissue/Rara Avis

  • John Coltrane, Offering: Live at Temple University (Impulse!/Resonance)
  • Lennie Tristano, Chicago April 1951 (Uptown)
  • The Jimmy Giuffre 3 & 4, New York Concerts (Elemental)

Vocal

  • Catherine Russell, Bring It Back (Jazz Village)

Latin

  • David Virelles, Mbókò (ECM)

Debut

  • The Westerlies, Wish the Children Would Come on Home: The Music of Wayne Horvitz (Songlines)

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