Behind the 2021 Jazz Critics Poll — A Tool for the Times
By Tom Hull
Imperfect as it is, the 16th Annual Jazz Critics Poll offers a wealth of expert information unmatched anywhere else.
Every year since the Village Voice declined my Jazz Consumer Guide, I’ve expected my supply of new jazz albums to dry up, making it impossible (or prohibitively expensive) to provide the broad survey of the industry and genre that had been my good fortune from 2004 to 2011. And, sure enough, most of the labels — majors like Blue Note and Verve/Impulse!, second tier outfits like Concord and ECM, smaller ones like Sunnyside and Motéma, and such critically important European labels as Clean Feed and Intakt — dropped me. But a few independent publicists kept sending me records, and every now and then I’d get a package from a tiny new label or a musician who took a fancy to my coverage. And with streaming services, and often full albums on Bandcamp, I’ve wound up with more access than ever (even if it’s still rather patchy). So I kept plugging on, documenting and sorting what I had access to, seeing that as my own modest gift of public service.
That I’ve survived a decade this way, with no more credential than my old-fashioned website, is testimony, I think, to the desire of jazz musicians to create and of readers to explore outside the conventional definitions of what jazz should be. As a critic, I’m often wildly out of step with the trade, but I offer a few valuable traits: I keep a very systematic record of everything I listen to, I listen to a wide range of albums (about 700 jazz and 400 non-jazz so far this year), and while I have my dislikes, I’m flexible enough that I can usually admit exceptions.
So when I approach this Jazz Critics Poll, I am naturally skeptical of orthodox consensus and inquisitive about artists and albums I don’t know. I’m also someone who understands the difference between data and statistics. The latter, like the tabulated rankings, is a tool for discerning larger patterns, but the data itself is discrete, the sign of individuals, and should be respected as such. I see the big-picture value of glancing at the totals, but what interests me more is diving into the data, to see what surprises are in store further down the list. The key number for me is 510: the number of new releases that received one or more votes from our 156 critics. Jazz today is nothing if not diverse. Once a quintessentially American music, it has spread to the far corners of the globe, and bounced back and forth to where it’s the closest thing we have to a universal language. At the same time, jazz has penetrated academia to the point where it’s become the medium for ambitious composers and arrangers, and the training ground for most emerging jazz musicians. I’m a bit wary of this trend, but cannot deny the many exceptional records it has delivered.
A third trend is that the boundaries between jazz and everything else are getting blurred, in more ways than one can count. This is way beyond 1970s fusion, when jazz musicians like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock turned on electric keyboards and mixed in some rock beats and bass lines to try to broaden their audience, and rock fans (like myself) found they could chill out to Bitches Brew. It’s evolving in all sorts of ways, both as jazz draws on other musics, and as other musicians look to jazz for novelty and growth. The blurriest record this year came about as a moderately well known electronica composer (Sam Shepherd, aka Floating Points) arranged an extended piece for symphony orchestra and topped it off with legendary jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. I’m not a big fan of the record — the strings sound way too redolent of classical for me — but it convinced enough of my fellow voters to come in third in our Jazz Critics Poll, and enough non-jazz critics to rank in the top five in end-of-year aggregates at Metacritic (currently tied for second) and Album of the Year (currently tied for fourth). What’s more to my taste is what I’m inclined to call social music, where jazz gains a broader audience not as appreciation for its art but as engagement for its social (and often political) relevance. The most popular such acts today are coming from London, like Sons of Kemet (ninth in our poll, second on my ballot), but also consider the American group Irreversible Entanglements (13th in our poll, a group led by poet/vocalist Camae Ayewa, known in the hip-hop world as Moor Mother).
There are many more examples in my Best Jazz Albums of 2021 list. The way I work, I wind up spending little time on even my favorite albums, while really enjoyable and interesting albums extend way beyond the arbitrary top-ten cutoff. I use the shorthand of letter grades in my regular Music Week posts. This year in New Jazz my A-list runs to 72 albums, with an additional 144 Honorable Mentions (high B+ grades), plus another 377 records I assigned lower grades to. Few grades go much lower than B+, as very little mediocre, hapless, offensive, annoying, and/or downright boring jazz comes my way.
My top ten betrays a fondness for imposing saxophonists, with nine albums either led or dominated by one. (Altschul is a drummer, but his star is Jon Irabagon, much as Shabaka Hutchings is the star in Sons of Kemet.) The exception is a trumpet lead, Wadada Leo Smith. Further down my A-list, you’ll find another 22 saxophone albums — not quite half of my total list. Also five more trumpet albums (notably a second box of Smith), but also bits of everything else, including piano solo (Matthew Shipp), duo (Irène Schweizer), and trio (Aki Takase, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Paula Shocron, and Shipp again — two of those led by others, and all jointly credited), but also flute/cello (Artifacts), big band (Trondheim), turntables (Ignaz Schick), hip-hop beats (Tyshawn & King), African percussion (Balimaya Project), Haitian chants (Ches Smith), an old-fashioned Louis Armstrong tribute, and six very different singers (Antony Joseph, Sarah Beuchi, Anaïs Reno, Ruth Weiss, Maria Muldaur, and Roseanna Vitro’s Sing a Song of Bird, with Bob Dorough and Sheila Jordan). I even found a third stream album with the London Symphony Orchestra I can recommend (Francisco Cafiso). It’s worth noting that 40% of my top albums (29/72) were led by non-Americans. Also that a slightly larger share (49%, 35/72) appeared on non-American labels.
My file also includes lists for “Reissues/Historical,” same as “Rara Avis” in this poll. There my ballot diverges from my list, largely due to the feeling that the category combines several very different kinds of albums, making cross-comparisons difficult. The most important subset, at least in likelihood of winning, is the previously unreleased vault tapes of major artists, like Coltrane’s A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle this year, or Monk’s Palo Alto last year, or Coltrane’s second place Blue World in 2019, or Coltrane’s Both Directions at Once in 2018. (The Poll’s least surprising result was Coltrane winning again.) Then there are expanded editions of (mostly) live material, like Morgan’s second place this year, or Dolphy’s Musical Prophet in 2019. Third, there are the (usually big) boxed sets of (mostly) previously released material, especially from Mosaic (which only rated seventh and 13th this year, for Louis Armstrong and Joe Henderson — they’ve done better in previous years, probably because they used to be more generous with promo copies). Almost all of the top 15 finishers this year fit into one of those three categories. There’s also a fourth set that crops up on occasion: straight reissues of (usually) well-known albums — these days on “luxury vinyl” for audiophiles. I tend to discount most of these subsets in favor of one more: reissues of obscure items long forgotten. Over the years, I’ve tended to lean that way, mostly because I thought the picks were more deserving of note.
This brings me to the biggest reservation I have about polls: their tendency to measure access and not just quality. In an ideal world, everyone would get an equal chance to listen to every record, which would make quality the main differentiator. Sure, no one has time to listen to everything — my best guesstimate is that about 6,000 new jazz albums are released each year, of which I manage to listen to 10-12%, and the upper bound of attention (every waking hour and nothing but jazz) is still less than 20% — so reputation is still a factor. But we live in a world of imperfect information, where there are all sorts of restrictions about who can listen to what. I’m especially conscious of this because I make extensive lists of what I listen to and what I know about but haven’t listened to. After 20 years of watching how publicity works I can illustrate this with dozens of examples. It’s no accident that Blue Note managed to place five albums in the top 25 — they do that nearly every year (yet almost never land an album on my A-list) — or that Pi punches way above its weight (four of the six albums they released in the top 32; two on my A-list, so one of the PR tricks they don’t miss is putting out strikingly good records).
You might object that the last three Polls have been won by less established, even tinier labels. Kris Davis won in 2019 on her own label, Pyroclastic, which has gone on to release mostly work by other artists, including Ches Smith, who finished seventh this year, Sylvie Courvoisier & Mary Halvorson (22nd), and Sara Schoenbeck (69th, third in Debut). James Brandon Lewis won this year, on Whit Dickey’s TAO Forms label, which also placed records at 48 (Matthew Shipp), and 77 (a Dickey-Shipp-William Parker trio). Both labels have gone beyond “self-released” status, building on networks of compatible musicians, but they’re also helped significantly by independent publicists (Matt Merewitz for TAO Forms, and Ann Braithwaite for Pyroclastic). Moreover, Davis and Lewis had built up credentials for a decade or more before their breakthroughs.
The 2020 winner, Maria Schneider, offers a slightly different case. Her label, ArtistShare, provides fairly minimal services to artists who want to self-release without having to do everything. But the one thing the artists do have to do is their own publicity, which is what Braithwaite does. Helps that Schneider was already famous, but the publicists makes a difference in getting the records heard by the critics. If you want proof, look for a counterexample, like Jason Moran: a universally lauded pianist during his years on Blue Note, but after 2014 he seemed to drop off the face of the earth. He’s actually self-released a steady stream of albums since then, but his 35th place finish for The Sound Will Tell You is his first top-50 ranking as an independent. (Moran also appears at 17, as second credit to Archie Shepp’s Let My People Go. Pitch Perfect did the PR for that one.) Or consider Ken Vandermark, who’s withdrawn from the publicity game to such an extent that this is probably the first year he’s failed to get a single vote. I’m not inclined to lecture musicians (or anyone else) on business models, but the Poll results are inevitably distorted by such choices.
Still, imperfect as it is, the 16th Annual Jazz Critics Poll offers a wealth of expert information unmatched anywhere else. The key is the wide range of individuals voting here. I noticed that even the last ballots I counted added two to four albums each that no one else had voted for. Compare our results against those of two jazz publications with very different focuses: JazzTimes (19 voters, 14 also voting here, so the contrast isn’t as stark as in past years), or to that of Free Jazz Collective (also 19 voters, only four voting here). Both have more overlap with us than with each other, but it’s still interesting that four records score high on all three: James Brandon Lewis, Vijay Iyer, Floating Points, and Ches Smith. Maybe that means we can find common ground. Maybe it just means that we’re more tolerant of others. Either way, jazz is a positive force in a world that is increasingly in crisis. And the Jazz Critics Poll is a tool for exploring this year in jazz — not that the “winners” aren’t entitled to gloat.