By Francis Davis
This most recent poll also proves the worth of the Poll itself — that it doesn’t so much confirm consensus as create it.
Jazz belonged to the guitarist Mary Halvorson and the drummer Tyshawn Sorey in 2022, says the 17th Annual Jazz Critics Poll, she for Amaryllis, named Record of the Year (but only one of her many 2022 releases), he for two clattering, no-doubt-about-it jazz albums (#4 Mesmerism and #5 The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism) in the wake of a meditative chamber piece honoring Mark Rothko and Morton Feldman and a try-anything-more-than-once series of encounters with the turntable manipulator King Britt). But this most recent poll also proves the worth of the poll itself — that it doesn’t so much confirm consensus as create it. Halvorson and Sorey began showing up in the poll results in 2007, well before she started appearing on the covers of gear magazines, and he was adopted by both jazz and classical critics in the New York Times Arts & Leisure section. (Sorey won Debut in 2007; Immanuel Wilkins, #2 this year in Best Album, took Debut honors in 2020; Joel Ross and Patricia Brennan in 2019 and last year, respectively.)
I initiated the poll in 2006, while at the Village Voice, when I invited 30 or so of my fellow jazz journalists — most based in New York City or affiliated with a publication from the city or its environs — to submit their lists of the year’s 10 Best jazz albums, to be tallied with mine on a page or two in the print edition, with their individual ballots available on line. (To that point, I’d invited only Tom Hull and Nate Chinen, the Voice’s other two jazz writers, to share the annual round-up page with me.) Although it was inspired by Robert Christgau’s Pazz & Jop and year-end polls in a ’60s magazine called Jazz & Pop (the pun, his) that provided Christgau’s inspiration, I called my imaginary assembly the New York Jazz Critics Circle, after the prestigious, long-established film group, and because it sounded classier.
Since then, even as it’s migrated from the Voice to the music-streaming service Rhapsody, to NPR Music and now the Arts Fuse, this Poll has come to be the Poll for everyone involved in jazz. Without compromising its independence or integrity, it’s expanded to a panel of 150+ voters, and for the most part managed to evade editorial interference (the only thing close was from NPR a few years ago; at issue was the lack of female representation in both the standings and the electorate). It still tilts avant, and small labels still get a fairer shake than in polls conducted by DownBeat and JazzTimes. (For more detail on the history and value of the poll see Tom Hull’s “Memoir of a Pollwatcher.”)
The poll has been more successful than in my wildest imaginings, but it hasn’t been all bright moments. For beginners, I’ve yet to enter November with a firm commitment from anyone to publish, and this can wear you down over 16 years. Then, there’s this guy from St. Louis who includes on his website the results of every jazz poll he lays eyes on, along with published lists from selected lone wolves. He used to include my Top 10 wherever it happened to be published, within a poll or as a stand-alone. Now he publishes only the results of my poll, so I’ve managed to upstage myself — top that, Stanislavsky.
But this is just me exposing my peevish side. A more serious problem is that record companies, both large and small, become stingier and stingier at sending out review copies year by year — odd, given that the recording industry, which has traditionally tolerated reviews as free advertising, are now passing up one of the few outlets still available to them. It also skews the results of polls such as this one, which may be one reason why Pi’s and Blue Note’s releases annually finish higher than Smoke Sessions’ and Sunnyside’s. It also undermines criticism altogether, treating it as irrelevant on its way to becoming obsolete.
I wish I could cast my decision to absent myself from this year’s poll after sending in my ballot as a protest against this sort of thing. But I can’t. Who would I be hurting, anyway? Helping?
The truth is simple enough. I got sick and have stayed that way much longer than I expected, so thought it best to sit out this year and pile even more of the grunt work — tabulations, fact-checking, answering questions about eligibility, etc. — on the redoubtable Tom Hull’s shoulders. 2022 was a year of firsts for me — including my first concussion and first pneumonia — so why not my first poll without me as well?
I mean, when I look into a mirror, the sallow, forlorn countenance that stares back could be Jesus’s after they scraped what was left of him off the cross (once a Catholic …). I’m not retiring and won’t be until it’s by popular demand (a day that might come sooner than I was hoping if I don’t stop moaning about my health). I don’t think I’ll be conducting a poll next year. Then again, I never expected this Poll to reach its late teens, either.
[Editor’s Note: I grabbed at the opportunity to post the Annual Jazz Critics Poll last year and am proud that, once again, the online magazine is its home. I am grateful Francis thought of the Arts Fuse. And kudos to the indefatigable Tom Hull for his dogged commitment to putting the poll together. As for the poll’s future, I started this magazine to stand against the cultural and economic forces that were (and are) trying to undermine independent criticism of the arts. May the Annual Francis Davis Jazz Poll continue to tabulate the best in jazz. We will be here to post the results when it turns 18. — Bill Marx]