In Simulacra and Simulation Jean Baudrillard notes how humans like to stockpile their past as a way to remember it. Perhaps one of the finest examples of this are the various year end poll, best of lists, recaps, summaries etc. This year NPR Music hosted the annual jazz critics poll that Francis Davis has been doing for quite some time. I’ve been fortunate to vote in Davis’ poll in its various guises for the past several years. But I have to admit, this year was extremely hard for me to not only pick what I thought were the ten best, but also to rank them. Considering that I think there are at least two dozen albums from the last year that are Top 10 worthy, and my increasing unease with ranking and scoring any kind of artistic output, this go around was pretty difficult.
Before I hit you with my Top 10 of the year, I feel the need to explain how I narrowed down my list down to ten. Perhaps my most important way to tighten the focus was to eliminate those albums and artists which I felt did not need my vote. For example, I think Wayne Shorter’s Without a Net could have placed very high on my list, but Shorter’s been around forever, I had a strong hunch he was going to win (which he did), and thus I felt I should give an equally deserving album a spot on my list. In short, this year I privileged albums by artists and groups who are either young, haven’t released very many albums, or who I thought wouldn’t get much support from the other 136 critics who voted.
People may bristle at this approach, thinking that criticism should be some kind of objective and/or positivist approach. Well, those people are wrong, because as much as a critic/writer/journalist/whatever-label-you-wanna-attach tries to be objective, he or she still has personal biases and tastes. I had to find a way to cut down the field, and giving the edge to lesser known and/or younger artists made sense to me. Also, I decided not to rank the albums in my Top 10; instead I have listed them alphabetically. A cop out from having to pick #1? Maybe. My effort at limiting the competitive or scoring nature of these polls? Definitely.
So, without further explanation, in alphabetical order, I give you my Top 10 jazz albums of 2013.
Alaturka, Yalniz (Tzigane): I gave this album a 4.5 star review in the August issue of Downbeat, which was part of a review column on new music from Kansas City.
CACAW, Stellar Power (Skirl): I reviewed this album in my previous post on excellent debut albums of 2013.
Christian Wallumrod, Outstairs (ECM): Is it jazz? Is it classical? Is it third stream? Who cares. All that matters is that Wallumrod’s latest is an evocative, atmospheric, dark and powerful chamber album that creates its own world, saying something new. The real strength lies in the compositions, as Wallumrod draws on the unique and varied instrumentation for his color pallet. The band: Wallumrod on piano, harmonium, toy piano; Eivind Lonning, trumpet; Gjermund Larsen, violin, hardanger fiddle, viola; Espen Reinertsen, tenor sax; Tove Torngren, cello; Per Oddvar Johansen, drums, vibes. Silence plays an essential role in Wallumrod’s music as well. One hears some of Morton Feldman’s approach to timbre, stillness and quiet (although Wallumrod’s music is never as glacial as Feldman’s). There’s groove here too, but it’s generally slow, subtle, and measured – just enough to give the music some backbone and forward motion (check out the second track, “Bunadsbangla”). It’s difficult to tell what is improvised and what is written out, and there is little that many would consider jazz, which may explain why it didn’t place well in the NPR poll.
Dawn of Midi, Dysnomia (Thirsty Ear): It’s a piano trio, but unlike any piano trio you’ve probably heard. Amino Belyammani, piano; Aakaash Israni, bass; Qasim Naqvi, drums. When I told my S.O. that the group was acoustic, she was really surprised, as she had assumed it had at least some electronic elements. And that’s after she had heard it 4 or 5 times. The album is entirely through-composed, and it contains no improvisation. The closest thing in a somewhat jazz realm one could compare it to is Nik Bartsch’s Ronin, although the trio has a distinct identity. Their music is highly indebted to minimalism, repeated patterns, subtly shifting grooves, metric modulations, and cross fade DJ techniques. Although it contains separate tracks, the album is best listened to from start to finish, as that’s the best way to really experience what the trio is doing. I cannot begin to imagine how many rehearsals it took the group to play such intricate and complex music with such precision. And from what a friend told me who has seen them live, this is no studio creation, what you hear on record is the real deal. Listen to his hypnotic album over and over, you’ll hear something new and astounding each time.
Derrick Hodge, Live Today (Blue Note): I reviewed this album in my previous post on excellent debut albums of 2013.
Kaze, Tornado (Libra): Holy shit. Kaze, a quartet consisting of pianist Satoko Fujii, her husband and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, trumpeter Christian Pruvost and drummer Peter Orins, plays music that is as powerful, exciting, and at times as terrifying as the album’s title would suggest. The rarely heard two trumpet, piano, drums lineup inherently gives the group a unique sound, but the adventurous compositions and brave playing is what really makes this disc cook. The long compositions each contain their own narrative and give the musicians ample fuel for their interstellar excursions. Both trumpeters take huge risks, and employ extended techniques: blowing, as opposed to buzzing, air through their horns, squeals, speaking through their instruments, and somehow making them sound like electronic instruments. Don’t sleep on Kaze; this band brings it like not many others.
Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile (Constellation): As the title indicates, this is the second installment of Roberts’ twelve chapter series, which explores her ancestry, cultural heritage, and the African American experience. It’s an inter/multi-disciplinary project, with music, visual art, etc. Whereas chapter one was with a larger group, chapter two is with a combo. Perhaps the most striking element is the juxtaposition of the operatic tenor with the jazz group. Besides being a killer alto player and composer, I bet Roberts could be a great jazz singer, as her spoken word and singing is captivating. This album got quite a few votes for vocal album of the year. Roberts is becoming one of the most significant artists; just wait, you’ll see.
Matt Parker, Worlds Put Together (BYNK): I reviewed this album in my previous post on excellent debut albums of 2013.
Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, In the Spirit of Duke (Spartacus): I was the only person to vote for this album. Not surprising, really. This is a killer live set of over a dozen of Ellington’s tunes, which span the bulk of his career and include lesser played compositions such as “The Single Petal of a Rose.” Had the group attempted to imitate the Ellington band, or had specific players attempted to recreate the sound of Hodges, or Carney, or example, the disc would probably not have worked. But this is no imitation – it’s just a screaming, swinging and tight big band playing the shit out of Ellington. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Steve Owen, Stand Up Eight (OA2): I reviewed this album in my previous post on excellent debut albums of 2013.
If you compare my list to the full results of the NPR poll, you’ll see that my picks were not shared by too many folks. The album on my list that placed highest was Roberts, which was 21st, and only two of my top 10 were in the NPR’s top 50. I chalk this up to the fact that lots of folks may not consider much on my list jazz, especially the Dawn of Midi, Wallumrod, CACAW, and Hodge albums. But who cares, it’s my list.
There were a few things that surprised me, however. Not a single other critic voted for Derrick Hodge’s album. Was it not “jazz” enough? That could be, as Robert Glasper’s new album, which at last check was destroying several charts on iTunes, only appeared on two ballots. I’m also surprised that Kaze did not place higher on the NPR poll (it came in 89th, only appearing on four ballots). From as much my social media feeds were blowing up with rave reviews of the group’s summer festival performances I figured the group would do much better.
Things that didn’t surprise me. Alaturka did not receive any other votes, as I’m not sure how much promotion the group’s leader and label owner Beau Bledsoe does outside the Kansas City area. Had the album been on ECM or a similarly large album with promotion and distribution muscle, I bet it would have cleaned up.
Somewhat stray thought: with something like 700 albums receiving votes, I can say with some confidence that there are way too many albums being recorded. There’s a lot of quality, but the small jazz market, I feel, may be dangerously flooded with music that nobody will ever hear – quality or not. My best guess is that I heard significant portions, or all of, perhaps 200-250 albums. That’s way too much music to have to go through. So who knows, perhaps I missed out on something genius.
Final thought: as I finish this up, it’s New Year’s Eve, and I’ve already received review copies of three or four really excellent albums that could be contenders for next year’s poll. It never ends, and that is a good thing. Until next year…..