The 18th Annual Francis Davis Jazz Poll: The State of Our Union Could Be Better

By Francis Davis

Major record labels were once notorious for trying to entice jazz musicians into selling out; they now find it more expedient to ignore them, leaving them to sell themselves.

James Brandon Lewis: his Jazz Poll victory is his second in three years — quite a feat. Photo: Selmer Paris

An obvious joke about the 18th Annual Jazz Poll might be that, at its present age, the poll itself could register to vote in this year’s presidential election. Finishing in 2006’s top 10 — published in the Village Voice, which I hoped would be the poll’s forever home, as well as mine — were albums by Ornette Coleman, Andrew Hill, Sonny Rollins, Nels Cline, Muhal Richard Abrams (sharing billing with George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell), Paul Motian, Keith Jarrett, Bennie Maupin, Ben Riley, and Joe Lovano, in that order. Among that list, only Cline was then still under 50, but not by much. 18 years on, only Cline (now 68), Joe Lovano (71), and Maupin (83) are still active. Rollins and Jarrett have retired due to health issues, and Coleman, Hill, Abrams, Motian, and Riley are dead.

This year’s top 10 are significantly younger, with only two over 50: Myra Melford (66), and Henry Threadgill (79). But the rest are emerging as a new jazz elite. James Brandon Lewis, this year’s winner (and the youngest of the 10 at 40), finished on top two years ago, and runners-up Jason Moran and Steve Lehman are also previous winners, as are Kris Davis (7) and Henry Threadgill (8). Darcy James Argue, Tyshawn Sorey, and the late Jaimie Branch (39 when she OD’d in 2022, but one month older than Lewis) all released albums named as their year’s Best Debut, the poll’s equivalent of Rookie of the Year. That leaves only Matana Roberts and Myra Melford, and both have previously made the top 10.

Of course, any list of current and upcoming jazz elites would have to include a few names who have scored highly in recent years, like Mary Halvorson (2022 winner, with a new album scheduled for January), Ambrose Akinmusire (whose Owl Song was released on the poll’s voting deadline, yet came in at 39, just behind his self-released solo trumpet album), Immanuel Wilkins (whose first album won Debut in 2020, and whose second finished second overall the following year), and Maria Schneider (whose latest album won in 2020, her third victory, including a tie with Rudresh Mahanthappa in 2016).

Starting with that initial poll, I’ve tried to conclude every year with an essay asking (and not necessarily answering) such questions as: what are some current trends in jazz and are they in sync with cultural trends overall, who’s playing jazz, presenting it, recording it, listening to it, what are its current trends, and are they in sync with contemporary trends overall. In private conversation, I often refer to this annual exercise as my State of the Union address. (Self-important, you bet. But if Bob Christgau can name himself Dean of Rock Critics, can’t I be President of Jazz Critics?)

Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Photo: courtesy of the artist

In 2006, my talking point was how the jazz mainstream changed direction to accommodate Ornette Coleman rather than the other way around, as usually happens with rebels like him as they get older. With a Hillary Clinton presidency looking like a sure thing a year later, and Schneider in first place, I heralded 2007 the Year of the Woman. (I hadn’t figured on Obama, and was jumping the gun by a few years in terms of jazz.) The year after that, jazz’s growing multiculturalism, as reflected in the standings, suggested that Europe and Asia were no longer just prime markets for American jazz musicians, but plentiful sources of new talent as well. Then there were years when I was unable to come up with anything even remotely provocative; I talked myself out of “Woke Jazz” numerous times over, starting with the killing of George Floyd in 2020 — or something carrying similar connotations as early as 2015, the year of Kamasi Washington and the resurgence of 1970s “spiritual” jazz.

This year? Could it be the sheer number of artist-owned and operated labels in the Top 10, the Top 20, the Top 50, and all the way down to the bottom … and the question of whether this brings with it a downside. I remember talking with Horace Silver in the 1980s just as he started his own label after three decades on Blue Note. He welcomed his new independence, he said, but resented the hours he was forced to spend drumming up sales, typing invoices, packing records in boxes and schlepping them to the post office — mundane things like that — when he knew what he should be doing was composing new tunes, auditioning band members, and honing his technique.

Running what amounts to a small business is rarely in the same skill set as developing and nurturing a specific artistry, but accepting on faith that they are is what today’s “creatives” (including jazz musicians, along with those of my despised ilk) are increasingly being called on to do. Major record labels were once notorious for trying to entice jazz musicians into selling out; they now find it more expedient to ignore them, leaving them to sell themselves, preferably on social media, same as everybody else. Welcome to Vivek Ramaswamy’s America. Unless it’s still exclusively Elon Musk’s.

Rara Avis and Special Category Lists

New Albums

Eligible albums contain previously unreleased music recorded no more than 10 years ago (i.e, since 2013). Voters picked 10 records, given 10 points for 1st place, 9 for 2nd, etc., down to 1 for 10th, or 5.5 points each for unranked lists.

  1. James Brandon Lewis /Red Lily Quintet, For Mahalia, With Love (Tao Forms) 303.5 (47)
  2. Jason Moran, From the Dancehall to the Battlefield (Yes) 226 (32)
  3. Steve Lehman & Orchestre National de Jazz, Ex Machina (Pi) 201.5 (30)
  4. Tyshawn Sorey Trio, Continuing (Pi) 191.5 (32)
  5. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Dynamic Maximum Tension (Nonesuch) 186 (30)
  6. Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter Five: In the Garden (Constellation) 183 (29)
  7. Kris Davis, Diatom Ribbons Live at the Village Vanguard (Pyroclastic) 179 (28)
  8. Henry Threadgill Ensemble, The Other One (Pi) 159 (27)
  9. Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((World War)) (International Anthem) 154.5 (23)
  10. Myra Melford’s Fire and Water Quintet, Hear the Light Singing (RogueArt) 133.5 (24)
  11. Kenny Barron, The Source (Artwork) 124 (18)
  12. Anna Webber, Shimmer Wince (Intakt) 112 (19)
  13. Sullivan Fortner, Solo Game (Artwork) 100.5 (19)
  14. Lakecia Benjamin, Phoenix (Whirlwind) 100 (16)
  15. Darius Jones, Fluxkit Vancouver (Its Suite but Sacred) (We Jazz) 97.5 (15)
  16. Cécile McLorin Salvant, Mélusine (Nonesuch) 94.5 (14)
  17. Joshua Redman, Where Are We (Blue Note) 90.5 (13)
  18. Chris Potter, Got the Keys to the Kingdom: Live at the Village Vanguard (Edition) 89.5 (16)
  19. Sylvie Courvoisier, Chimaera (Intakt) 85.5 (14)
  20. Art Ensemble of Chicago, The Sixth Decade from Paris to Paris: Live at Sons d’hiver (RogueArt) 79.5 (14)
  21. Irreversible Entanglements, Protect Your Light (Impulse!) 78 (19)
  22. Matthew Shipp, The Intrinsic Nature of Shipp (Mahakala Music) 78 (13)
  23. John Scofield, Uncle John’s Band (ECM) 78 (12)
  24. Rodrigo Amado/The Bridge, Beyond the Margins (Trost) 72.5 (12)
  25. Rudy Royston Flatbed Buggy, Day (Greenleaf Music) 70 (13)
  26. James Brandon Lewis Trio, Eye of I (Anti-) 68.5 (12)
  27. Fire! Orchestra, Echoes (Rune Grammofon) 68.5 (11)
  28. Mendoza Hoff Revels, Echolocation (AUM Fidelity) 67.5 (14)
  29. Meshell Ndegeocello, The Omnichord Real Book (Blue Note) 66 (10)
  30. Allison Miller, Rivers in Our Veins (Royal Potato Family) 64.5 (12)
  31. Arooj Aftab-Vijay Iyer-Shahzad Ismaily, Love in Exile (Verve) 63.5 (13)
  32. Ingrid Laubrock, The Last Quiet Place (Pyroclastic) 62 (11)
  33. Susan Alcorn & Septeto Del Sur, Canto (Relative Pitch) 61.5 (11)
  34. Kate Gentile, Find Letter X (Pi) 61.5 (11)
  35. Angelica Sanchez Nonet, Nighttime Creatures (Pyroclastic) 60 (12)
  36. Todd Sickafoose, Bear Proof (Secret Hatch) 57.5 (11)
  37. Johnathan Blake, Passage (Blue Note) 55 (10)
  38. Ambrose Akinmusire, Beauty Is Enough (Origami Harvest) 55 (8)
  39. Ambrose Akinmusire, Owl Song (Nonesuch) 54.5 (8)
  40. Illegal Crowns, Unclosing (Out of Your Heads) 52 (9)
  41. Angelika Niescier-Tomeka Reid-Savannah Harris, Beyond Dragons (Intakt) 51 (9)
  42. Christian McBride’s New Jawn, Prime (Mack Avenue) 48.5 (9)
  43. The Necks, Travel (Northern Spy) 48.5 (8)
  44. Wadada Leo Smith & Orange Wave Electric, Fire Illuminations (Kabell) 48 (8)
  45. Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band, Kings Highway (Stoner Hill) 47 (7)
  46. Mark Turner Quartet, Live at the Village Vanguard (Giant Step Arts) 44 (9)
  47. Billy Childs, The Winds of Change (Mack Avenue) 44 (8)
  48. Artemis, In Real Time (Blue Note) 42.5 (10)
  49. Linda May Han Oh, The Glass Hours (Biophilia) 41.5 (8)
  50. Aaron Diehl & the Knights, Zodiac Suite (Mack Avenue) 41 (7)

Total albums receiving votes: 555. 28 ballots (17.6%) used unranked voting. Full list is here.


We’d like to thank the 159 critics and journalists who voted: Paul Acquaro, David R. Adler, Scott Albin, Shannon Ali (Shannon J. Effinger), Larry Appelbaum, Hrayr Attarian, Chris Barton, Joe Bebco, Bill Beuttler, Dan Bilawsky, Larry Birnbaum, Larry Blumenfeld, Philip Booth, Mike Borella, Shaun Brady, Stuart Broomer, Bill Brownlee, Dan Buskirk, Dave Cantor, Katchie Cartwright, Esteban Arizpe Castañeda, Jeff Cebulski, John Chacona, Gary Chapin, Nate Chinen, Brad Cohan, Troy Collins, Thomas Conrad, J.D. Considine, John Corbett, Mark Corroto, Michael Coyle, David Cristol, Raul da Gama, Francis Davis, Anthony Dean-Harris, Steve Dollar, Laurence Donohue-Greene, Troy Dostert, Alain Drouot, Ken Dryden, Chuck Eddy, John Ephland, Lee Rice Epstein, Steve Feeney, Gary Finney, Phil Freeman, Filipe Freitas, Pat Frisco, Jon Garelick, Ana Gavrilovska, Richard Gehr, Andrew Gilbert, Kurt Gottschalk, David A. Graham, Stephen Graham, Ludovico Granvassu, George Grella, Jason Gross, Scott Gutterman, James Hale, Eyal Hareuveni, Chris Heim, Tad Hendrickson, Andrey Henkin, Geoffrey Himes, Rob Hoff, Larry Hollis, Mark Holston, Tom Hull, Peter Hum, Jim Hynes, Robert Iannapollo, Willard Jenkins, Martin Johnson, Sanford Josephson, Ammar Kalia, Richard B. Kamins, George Kanzler, Fred Kaplan, Yoshi Kato, Glenn Kenny, James Koblin, Elzy Kolb, Stuart Kremsky, David Kunian, Art Lange, Josh Langhoff, Will Layman, Devin Leonard, Lance Liddle, Mark Lomanno, Suzanne Lorge, Brad Luen, Phillip Lutz, Jim Macnie, Howard Mandel, Peter Margasak, Paul Medrano, Ken Micallef, Allen Michie, Milo Miles, Bill Milkowski, Roz Milner, Ralph A. Miriello, Rick Mitchell, Chris Monsen, John Frederick Moore, Allen Morrison, Ivana Ng, Stuart Nicholson, Fotis Nikolakopoulos, Tim Niland, Ysi Ortega, Dan Ouellette, Phil Overeem, Annie Parnell, Terry Perkins, Sergio Piccirilli, Dan Polletta, Peter Quinn, Derk Richardson, Britt Robson, Lloyd Sachs, Bret Saunders, Rich Scheinin, Sarah Schmidt, Gene Seymour, Mike Shanley, John Sharpe, Adam Shatz, Rob Shepherd, Hank Shteamer, Slim, Stewart Smith, Sammy Stein, Mark Stryker, Mark Sullivan, Dave Sumner, John Szwed, Jeff Tamarkin, Derek Taylor, Neil Tesser, Michael Toland, Michael Ullman, Ludwig vanTrikt, George Varga, Seth Colter Walls, Ken Waxman, Bob Weinberg, Jason Weiss, Ken Weiss, Michael J. West, Richard Williams, Jerome Wilson, Josef Woodard, Ron Wynn, Scott Yanow, Kazue Yokoi.

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  1. william hooker on January 3, 2024 at 9:54 am

    Flesh and Bones
    William Hooker

  2. Steve on January 3, 2024 at 3:32 pm

    If OWL SONG had came out earlier in the year, I expect it would’ve hit the top 10.

  3. Alex Lemski on January 4, 2024 at 12:07 pm

    I’m waiting for the “best” to appear live with their truly own musicians in Boston’s clubs.

    • Tom Porter on January 5, 2024 at 5:37 am

      Remembrance Quintet with Luke Stewart and Daniel Carter

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