The 2021 Jazz Critics Poll: Only the Best
By Francis Davis
Jazz isn’t an orthodoxy, a religion, a form of faith healing, or a tribal rite — you don’t have to be in the room with it the moment it happens to reap its benefits.
When I had to scramble to find new headquarters for my annual Jazz Critics Poll once before, I called it “the oldest, established, permanent, floating crap game” in … well, New York initially, at the Village Voice in 2006, before stumbling into Cyberspace, where it’s taken refuge ever since — on a music-streaming service for two years, then on NPR Music for eight, and now on the Arts Fuse.
But this year’s poll really was a crap shoot. Unlike last year, when Maria Schneider’s Data Lords was a cinch (and unlike any year that Wayne Shorter releases something new), there was no odds-on favorite going in. Forced to guess, I might have said the pianist (and previous three-time winner) Vijay Iyer’s Uneasy — significant for introducing his latest trio, with Linda May Han Oh, on bass, and Tyshawn Sorey, on drums — was likely to be voted Album of the Year, though it wasn’t my pick. Nor was my hunch for co-favorite, the much-heralded Promises, a massive CD-length piece involving the composer Floating Points (the professional name of Sam Shepherd, a young British DJ and electronic mixmaster), the veteran tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders (a ’60s screamer here at his calmest and most lyrical), and the entire god-damned London Symphony Orchestra. It’s a novelty, which always helps in polls, including political elections, but one with a kind of nerdy integrity and its own kind of beauty.
Tom Hull, my partner-in-polling and the one doing most of the heavy lifting this year and last, guessed the winner might be either Uneasy or the octogenarian (but otherwise ageless) tenor saxophonist and flutist Charles Lloyd’s Tone Poem, with the Marvels, a quintet lent grace by the guitarist Bill Frisell and an eclectic selection of tunes, including a beauty by the nearly forgotten Cuban cabaret performer Bola de Nieve. Lloyd, by waiting out his harshest critics, including me, annually finishes near the top, as does Wadada Leo Smith, a prolific trumpeter and composer who’s somehow still blossoming in his 80s. He celebrated his 80th in 2021 by releasing no fewer than five albums totaling 12 disks (a postponed sixth album was rescheduled for next week), affirming his range but splitting his vote. A victory in this poll seems inevitable, but probably not before that long-overdue Pulitzer in composition. Henry Threadgill received his Pulitzer in 2015 and won this poll the following year; his 2021 entry was Poof, with Zooid, the smaller of his two current bands and the one with which he’s more likely to feature his own alto saxophone and flute — always pluses.
Iyer, Floating Points, Lloyd, Smith, and Threadgill finished Nos. 2 through 6, in that order, behind a performer still in ascendance and just now coming into focus, like Iyer in 2009 (his first poll victory), Steve Lehman in 2014, and Kris Davis in 2019. A Howard grad originally from Buffalo and a regular on the Brooklyn/Lower East Side New York scene for about a decade now, the tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis is 39 years old, relatively young by jazz standards. He’s already had his shot with a corporate label (Okeh, a division of Sony), but his breakthrough came with the release of Jesup Wagon on TAO Forms, an upstart label owned by Whit Dickey, once the drummer in the late David S. Ware’s quartet and still active as a performer. (With major labels uninterested and smaller ones strapped, the job of recording newcomers and left-of-mainstream types has fallen to small, musician-run labels such as TAO Forms, Kris Davis’s Pyroclastic, Dave Douglas’s Greenleaf, and Fabian Almazan’s Biophilia. In striking a blow for artistic autonomy, this may be a good thing. But it illustrates how the demise of the traditional means of production and distribution, hurried along by the internet, are forcing those of us in the arts to become entrepreneurs, a job for which most of us lack the requisite skill set. Imagine Monk handling his own publicity.).
Like Ware, but only on first hearing, Lewis seemed to be descended from Albert Ayler — it was a matter of his lunging approach to rhythm and his wide, humming vibrato. He still plays a variant of “free” jazz, and obviously continues to draw inspiration from Ayler. But now that we know what to listen for in Lewis’s solos, numerous different influences suggest themselves, none more dominant than the others. He has something of Sonny Rollins’s narrative sense, and he isn’t one of those Coltrane-driven saxophonists who know only two tempos, fast and in mourning: when he summons Coltrane, it’s to knot or unknot a chord, not for melodrama or incantation.
Jesup Wagon attempts to tell the story of the Black early 20th-century agricultural pioneer George Washington Carver, whose innovations included the wheeled horse-drawn vehicle sketched on the album’s cover, a “movable school” intended to teach poor Southern farmers the principles of crop rotation and conservation. Aside from the multiple nutritional uses he found for the peanut, I know as much about Carver as the average sixth-grader, and since the album’s only “lyrics” are a short poem written and recited a cappella by Lewis (it’s real poetry, too, not the doggerel agitprop that too often passes for it in jazz), I’m hardly the one to say if Lewis’s pieces on =Jesup Wagon conjure Carver and his era. But I’m willing to take annotator Robin D.G. Kelley’s word that they do; besides, its rustic charms, so reminiscent of early Ornette Coleman, suggest as much. Lewis’s darting front-line partner is the cornetist Kirk Knuffke, the rhythm section is the drummer Chad Taylor, and the bassist and avant-garde pater familias is William Parker. Chris Hoffman’s strummed cello is a nice added touch. They sound like a working band, and probably would if each member weren’t so busy with numerous projects of his own.
Completing the top 10 were Ches Smith (leading a battalion of horns and fellow percussionists on the voodoo-inspired Path of Seven Colors); Artifacts, a lithe chamber group (Nicole Mitchell, flute; Tomeka Reid, cello; Mike Reed, drums) unafraid to fall into a groove now and then, on … And Then There’s This; Sons of Kemet, London’s counterpart to Los Angeles’s West Coast Get Down (with Shabaka Hutchings their Kamasi Washington), on their Black to the Future; and William Parker’s Mayan Space Station, featuring the bordering-on-heavy-metal guitarist Ava Mendoza.
Including sideman appearances, like on Jesup Wagon, Parker had a busy year. Further down the list is his Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World, a 10-CD set featuring 10 different vocalists, one per disc. Jazz seemed to come down with elephantiasis this year; Wadada Leo Smith, Anthony Braxton, and Ivo Perelman all released multi-multi-multi-disc boxes, not to mention Kimbrough, a 10-CD tribute to the late pianist Frank Kimbrough mostly by musicians who played with him, or studied with him, formally or informally; and reissued and/or archival bricks by Julius Hemphill and Lee Morgan, among others — all leading me to wonder, who did lockdowns and home quarantines leave with more time on their hands, record buyers or musicians and music executives?
Winners in the stand-alone categories were the second-generation jazz singer Veronica Swift (daughter of the underappreciated Stephanie Nakasian), the vibraphonist Patricia Brennan (Debut), and the alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón’s duets with the pianist Luis Perdomo on a gorgeous album of vintage boleros (Latin).
In Rara Avis, my catchall for reissues and never-before-issued “finds,” the critics’ choice was John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle, named on 77 ballots, as opposed to 53 for the New Releases winner. As one of only two known live performances of Coltrane’s cornerstone work, this A Love Supreme is indispensable now that we have it. My quarrel with it is that this was a four-part composition that Coltrane intended as a prayer, and the clamor of the added horns and percussionists make for a crowded confessional.
I write this on December 24; last Christmas Eve, we knew we still faced the rest of a cold, dark winter, but we had vaccines and a new administration to give us some hope. We didn’t count on January 6, Omicron, and a turd named Donald Trump that refuses to be flushed. We’re in a holding pattern this holiday season, and though I’m not one of those geeks who has a Dylan quote on hand for any occasion, one from “Memphis Blues Again” comes to mind: “And here I sit so patiently/Waiting to find out what price/You have to pay to get out of/Going through all these things twice.”
No one’s making promises anymore. Clubs are reopening, at least in New York, but who can say for how long? Besides, as both an artistic hub and the central marketplace for jazz, New York has always been the exception. Because of its emphasis on improvisation, live performance is supposed to be the lifeblood of jazz, and recordings only an echo. But Charlie Parker died in 1955, and Coltrane 12 years later. Without their recordings, how would anyone under retirement age today have ever heard them? For that matter, how can people living elsewhere in the US than New York City be certain of catching up with James Brandon Lewis or Kris Davis, except on record?
People talk about jazz as something that has to be experienced in an intimate but what we’ve come to call congregate setting, not just heard on our phones or home speakers. But jazz isn’t an orthodoxy, a religion, a form of faith healing, or a tribal rite — you don’t have to be in the room with it the moment it happens to reap its benefits. In being asked to stand in for clubs, concert halls, and festivals so frequently these last two years, recordings are still being asked to do an awful lot, far too much. Have they succeeded? Probably not, but I wouldn’t advise Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit to bet against it. Deciding what to leave off my own Top 10 and dozen honorable mentions (below) was more difficult than ever this year, and that has to mean something, doesn’t it?
My Top 10 shares 5 with the final Poll results, a few more than usual for me.
1. David Sanford Big Band Featuring Hugh Ragin, A Prayer for Lester Bowie (Greenleaf Music). Like Floating Points, Sanford seemed to come to jazz from nowhere, but from a different direction, and I was all set to vote for him in Debut as well. Turns out he’s a reasonably well-established classical composer in his mid-60s, an escapee from the financial services industry, a Mount Holyoke College faculty member, and a former Guggenheim Fellow. He isn’t slumming in writing for a jazz orchestra; he has what comes across as a natural affinity for it. When he says film soundtracks have been a big influence, I’m guessing he’s referring to Don Ellis’s for The French Connection and Herbie Hancock’s for Death Wish — his writing has that kind of snap and foreboding. He likes to start small and end big, with diverse chapters along the way. The title piece, written by Ragin (a showcase for his trumpet, possibly orchestrated by Sanford) is a highlight; another is a “Dizzy Atmosphere” that Gillespie probably never imagined could be so antiphonal; and best of all, the moody “Woman in Shadows” — Mingus noir, if you will.
2. Henry Threadgill Zooid, Poof (Pi). Guitar, drums, tuba or trombone, and the leader’s alto or flute — all in constant motion and in perfect sync.
3. Artifacts [Tomeka Reid-Nicole Mitchell-Mike Reed] … And Then There’s This (Astral Spirits). Reid and Mitchell are already among the best-ever on their instruments, and Reed might be the ideal drummer for them.
4. Theo Bleckmann and the Westerlies, This Land (Westerlies Music). Fraught Americana whose song selection makes room for Woody Guthrie and the ILGW, by a singer whose voice can bring chills, together with four brass, brilliantly arranged.
5. James Brandon Lewis Red Lily Quintet, Jesup Wagon (Tao Forms) N.B. Another standout album by Lewis in his breakthrough year: Code of Being (Intakt), with Aruán Ortiz.
6. Vijay Iyer–Linda May Han Oh–Tyshawn Sorey, Uneasy (ECM). Along with Matthew Shipp and Jason Moran, Iyer is one of the pianists blazing a new direction for the most steadfast and resistant of jazz configurations, the piano trio.
7. Wadada Leo Smith’s Great Lakes Quartet, The Chicago Symphonies (TUM). Any of Smith’s ambitious 2021 releases could go here, but this one has the advantage of Henry Threadgill, John Lindberg, and Jack DeJohnette. (And the pieces aren’t really symphonies, lest that scare you off).
8. East Axis [Matthew Shipp–Allen Lowe–Gerald Cleaver–Kevin Ray], Cool With That (ESP-Disk). Improvised from scratch, with Lowe — more often thought of as a composer and blues and early-pop anthologist — showing all he has going for him as a saxophonist.
9. Samara Joy, Samara Joy (Whirlwind). To say she’s the most fetching singer to emerge in jazz since Cecile McLoren Salvant sounds absurd, given that Salvant herself emerged only a few years ago. But this 2019 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition winner justifies the comparison. She’s a natural, and though barely out of her teens, she already knows who she is. You should, too.
10. Unscientific Italians, Play the Music of Bill Frisell Vol. 1 (Hora). Leave it to a European — specifically Alfonso Santimone, this 11-piece outfit’s pianist and arranger — to identify what Frisell has in common with Charles Ives. Proof you never know what you might turn up on Bandcamp, on your way to Wikipedia. And no, I can’t explain the group’s name.
The rest of my ballot:
RARA AVIS (REISSUES/ARCHIVAL)
1. Julius Hemphill, The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony (1977-2007, New World)
2. Sheila Jordan, Comes Love: Lost Session 1960 (Capri)
3. Hasaan Ibn Ali, Metaphysics: The Lost Atlantic Album (1965, Omnivore)
VOCAL: Theo Bleckmann and the Westerlies, This Land (Westerlies Music)
Samara Joy, Samara Joy (Whirlwind)
Miguel Zenón & Luis Perdomo, El Arte del Bolero (Miel Music) (Also recommended on the same label, but Latin only by way of its personnel: Law Years, Zenón’s salute to Ornette Coleman.)
Silke Eberhard Trio, Being the Up and Down (Intakt)
Amir ElSaffar Rivers of Sound, The Other Shore (Outnote)
Christopher Hoffman, Asp Nimbus (Out of Your Head)
Joe Lovano & Dave Douglas Soundprints, Other Worlds (Greenleaf Music)
Francisco Mela, M.P.T. Trio: Volume 1 (577)
Hafez Modirzadeh, Facets (Pi)
Steph Richards Supersense (Northern Spy)
Martial Solal, Coming Yesterday: Live at Salle Gaveau 2019 (Challenge)
Ohad Talmor Trio, Mise En Place (Intakt)
Throttle Elevator Music, Emergency Exit (Wide Hive)
Thumbscrew, Never Is Enough (Cuneiform)
Umlaut Big Band, Mary’s Ideas (Umlaut)
156 print, digital, and broadcast journalists voted this year, a record number despite the smaller venue. Their individual ballots are here, along with complete results and a host of other data.
Here is Tom Hull’s behind-the-scenes look for The Arts Fuse about putting together this year’s list.
Francis Davis’s books include The History of the Blues and Jazz and Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader.
- James Brandon Lewis Red Lily Quintet, Jesup Wagon (Tao Forms) 388.5 points (53 ballots)
- Vijay Iyer-Linda May Han Oh-Tyshawn Sorey, Uneasy (ECM) 225 (34)
- Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & the London Symphony Orchestra, Promises (Luaka Bop) 195 (28)
- Charles Lloyd & the Marvels, Tone Poem (Blue Note) 182.5 (25)
- Wadada Leo Smith’s Great Lakes Quartet, The Chicago Symphonies TUM 169 (24)
- Henry Threadgill Zooid, Poof (Pi) 164 (32)
- Ches Smith & We All Break, Path of Seven Colors (Pyroclastic) 143 (23)
- Artifacts [Tomeka Reid-Nicole Mitchell-Mike Reed], . . . And Then There’s This (Astral Spirits) 132 (24)
- Sons of Kemet, Black to the Future (Impulse!) 123 (21)
- William Parker, Mayan Space Station (AUM Fidelity) 117.5 (23)
- Kenny Garrett, Sounds From the Ancestors (Mack Avenue) 116 (19)
- Anna Webber Idiom (Pi) 113 (17)
- Irreversible Entanglements, Open the Gates (International Anthem) 98 (17)
- Johnathan Blake, Homeward Bound (Blue Note) 91.5 (17)
- Various Kimbrough (Newvelle) 89 (12)
- Amir ElSaffar Rivers of Sound, The Other Shore (Outnote) 83 (12)
- Archie Shepp & Jason Moran, Let My People Go (Archieball) 76 (12)
- Makaya McCraven, Deciphering the Message (Blue Note) 76 (11)
- William Parker, Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World (Centering/AUM Fidelity) 76 (9)
- Craig Taborn, Shadow Plays (ECM) 74 (10)
- Anthony Braxton, 12 COMP (ZIM) 2017 (Firehouse 12) 72 (9)
- Sylvie Courvoisier & Mary Halvorson, Searching for the Disappeared Hour (Pyroclastic) 71.5 (18)
- Julian Lage, Squint (Blue Note) 70 (16)
- David Sanford Big Band Featuring Hugh Ragin, A Prayer for Lester Bowie (Greenleaf Music) 70 (9)
- Adam O’Farrill, Visions of Your Other (Biophilia) 69 (14)
- Bill Charlap Trio, Street of Dreams (Blue Note) 69 (13)
- Ben Goldberg, Everything Happens to Be (BAG Productions) 68 (13)
- Wadada Leo Smith-Jack DeJohnette-Vijay Iyer, A Love Sonnet for Billie Holiday (TUM) 67 (13)
- Pat Metheny, Side-Eye NYC (V1.IV) (Modern) 66 (10)
- Miguel Zenón-Ariel Bringuez-Demian Cabaud-Jordi Rossy, Law Years: The Music of Ornette Coleman (Miel Music) 63.5 (12)
- Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Live at the Village Vanguard Volume II (MDW NTR) (Pi) 63.5 (10)
- Hafez Modirzadeh, Facets (Pi) 60 (10)
- Dave Holland, Another Land (Edition) 59 (12)
- Andrew Cyrille Quartet, The News (ECM) 58.5 (12)
- Jason Moran, The Sound Will Tell You (Yes) 58 (10)
- Joe Lovano & Dave Douglas Soundprints, Other Worlds (Greenleaf Music) 57 (10)
- East Axis [Matthew Shipp-Allen Lowe-Gerald Cleaver-Kevin Ray], Cool With That (ESP-Disk) 56.5 (11)
- Brandee Younger, Somewhere Different (Impulse!) 54.5 (12)
- Patricia Brennan, Maquishti (Valley of Search) 52.5 (11)
- Damon Locks & Black Monument Ensemble, Now (International Anthem) 50.5 (8)
- Dr. Lonnie Smith, Breathe (Blue Note) 50 (8)
- Chick Corea Akoustic Band, Live! (Concord Jazz) 50 (6)
- The Cookers, Look Out! (Gearbox) 49 (7)
- Natural Information Society & Evan Parker, Descension (Out of Our Constrictions) (Aguirre/Eremite) 49 (6)
- Nicholas Payton, Smoke Sessions (Smoke Sessions) 47 (6)
- (tie). Tim Berne-Chris Speed-Reid Anderson-Dave King, Broken Shadows (Intakt) 44 (7)
- (tie). Caroline Davis, Portals, Volume 1: Mourning (Sunnyside) 44 (7)
- Matthew Shipp, Codebreaker (Tao Forms) 43 (7)
- Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trios, Songs From My Father (Whaling City Sound) 42 (9)
- Darius Jones, Raw Demoon Alchemy (A Lone Operation) (Northern Spy) 41 (7)
Rara Avis (Reissues/Archival)
- John Coltrane, A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle (1965, Impulse!) 184 points (on 77 ballots)
- Lee Morgan, The Complete Live at the Lighthouse (1970, Blue Note) 74 (39)
- Julius Hemphill, The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony (1977-2007, New World) 74 (31)
- Roy Hargrove & Mulgrew Miller, In Harmony (2006-07, Resonance) 64 (34)
- Hasaan Ibn Ali, Metaphysics: The Lost Atlantic Album (1965, Omnivore) 61 (27)
- Roy Brooks, Understanding (1970, Reel-to-Real) 55 (30)
- (tie) Louis Armstrong, The Complete Louis Armstrong Columbia & RCA Victor Studio Sessions 1946-66 (Mosaic) 28 (11)
- (tie) Charles Mingus, Mingus at Carnegie Hall [Deluxe Edition] (1974, Atlantic) 28 (11)
- Sheila Jordan, Comes Love: Lost Session 1960 (Capri) 27 (15)
- Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, First Flight to Tokyo: The Lost 1961 Recordings (Blue Note) 27 (14)
- Veronica Swift, This Bitter Earth (Mack Avenue) 17
- (tie) Gretchen Parlato Flor (Edition) 9
- (tie) Sara Serpa, Intimate Strangers (Biophilia) 9
- (tie) Jen Shyu & Jade Tongue, Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses (Pi) 9
- (tie) Jazzmeia Horn and Her Noble Force Dear Love (Empress Legacy) 7
- (tie) Esperanza Spalding, Songwrights Apothecary Lab (Concord) 7
- (tie). Mary LaRose, Out Here (Little (i) Music
- (tie) Kate McGarry + Keith Ganz Ensemble, What to Wear in the Dark (Resilience) 6
- (tie) Theo Bleckmann and the Westerlies, This Land (Westerlies Music) 4 (tie) Samara Joy, Samara Joy (Whirlwind) (tie) Roseanna Vitro Sing a Song of Bird (Skyline) 4
1) Patricia Brennan, Maquishti (Valley of Search) 21
2) Samara Joy, Samara Joy (Whirlwind) 11
3) Sara Schoenbeck, Sara Schoenbeck (Pyroclastic) 9
4) Malcolm Jiyane Tree-O, Umdali (Mushroom Hour Half Hour) 4
1) Miguel Zenón & Luis Perdomo, El Arte Del Bolero (Miel Music) 23
2) Arturo O’Farrill, . . . Dreaming in Lions . . . (Blue Note) 21
3) Eliane Elias, Mirror Mirror (Candid) 8
4) (tie) Carlos Henriquez, The South Bronx Story (Tiger Turn) 7
4) (tie) Ches Smith & We All Break, Path of Seven Colors (Pyroclastic) 7
6) (tie) Rubén Blades y Roberto Delgado & Orquesta, Salswing! (Rubén Blades Productions) 4
6) (tie) Arturo O’Farrill & the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, Virtual Birdland (Zoho) 4