The 2018 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll

Jan 5, 2019
Originally published on January 5, 2019 12:05 pm

Below are the results of NPR Music's 6th Annual Jazz Critics Poll (my 13th annual, going back to its beginnings in the Village Voice). Wayne Shorter's Emanon was voted Album of the Year, and Cecile McLorin Salvant's The Window Best Vocal. Shorter and Salvant have won these categories previously (thrice in Salvant's case), and Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album marks the second victory in Rara Avis (a catch-all term for reissues, vault discoveries, and the like) for John Coltrane. David Virelles's Igbó Alákorin (The Singer's Grove): Vol. I & II won Best Latin Jazz and Justin Brown's Nyeusi was Best Debut.

We're trying something different this year. You'll still find a capsule review of each album in the Top 10, but instead of me doing all the heavy lifting, we've asked a critic who voted for that album to weigh in. The same with the top finisher in Vocal, Debut, Latin and Rara Avis. And as a bonus, we've added a few capsules about solitary No. 1s: albums appearing only on a single ballot, but as the critic's top pick.

Including my own choices and analysis, and the individual ballots of all 139 participants, there should be enough here to keep you reading — and listening — well into the new year. —Francis Davis


New Albums

1. Wayne Shorter
Emanon (Blue Note)
Points: 259
Votes: 34

This multi-disc project, available only as a physical product complete with a 84-page graphic novel featuring a protagonist named Emanon ("no name" spelled backwards) and his adventures across the multiverse, showcases the octogenarian saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter, with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade — and their 22nd century, improvisational ESP. From "The Three Marias" to the sonically sprawling "Pegasus," the music, augmented by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, shows why Shorter's artistic footprints will never fade. —Eugene Holley

2. Henry Threadgill 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg
Dirt . . . And More Dirt (Pi)
Points: 233
Votes: 36

The Pulitzer winner here grew a 15-piece ensemble from his Zooid group. Like its inspiration — Walter De Maria's New York Earth Room installation (280,000 pounds of loamy earth in a SoHo loft) — this music is: densely packed elemental material; a respite from commercial and manufactured surroundings and a bed of organic possibilities. —Larry Blumenfeld

3. Andrew Cyrille
Lebroba (ECM)
Points: 193
Votes: 37

Stately, atmospheric and exquisite, Lebroba takes the great free jazz drummer Andrew Cyrille deeper into the uncharted territory of his 2016 ECM album, The Declaration of Musical Independence. With trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith soaring clarion-like through the sound chamber and super-alert guitarist Bill Frisell scratching surfaces, melody flows from rhythm until the two become one. —Lloyd Sachs

4. Makaya McCraven
Universal Beings (International Anthem)
Points: 190
Votes: 29

Makaya McCraven injects new energy (and post-production artistry) into the jazz vernacular. In his most ambitious work yet, he invites us to take communion in cerebral improvisation, astral grooves, kinetic club vibes and meticulously curated beats. An expertly crafted collage of live recordings, Universal Beings showcases NYC, Chicago, London and Los Angeles' new jazz vanguard, including Tomeka Reid, Shabaka Hutchings and more. —Ivana Ng

5. Ambrose Akinmusire
Origami Harvest (Blue Note)
Points: 175.5
Votes: 24

"The dream and the hope of the slave" — deferred. Combining hip-hop and chamber strings, the resolute calls of Akinmusire's melodic trumpet soar high and strong and stark, capturing the unspeakable pain of black bodies killed by white hands, and the promise of children's dreams fulfilled as their living testament. —Shannon Effinger

6. Steve Coleman and Five Elements
Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (Pi)
Points: 171.5
Votes: 24

I've described what Coleman and his band do as an ongoing quasi-scientific inquiry into what he characterizes as biological processes, but are in reality groove dynamics and harmonic montage. The studio work has yielded encouraging and often earth-shaking results. But in a live setting, especially within the concave confines of jazz music's Holy Dive, everything the band does seems ramped up in intensity as if having live witnesses to its experiments goads Coleman, Jonathan Finlayson, Miles Okazaki, Anthony Tidd and Sean Rickman to raise their respective games. The overlapping dialogue between Coleman's scorching alto sax and Finlayson's slashing trumpet seems more colorfully serpentine on stage while the worlds-within-worlds polyrhythmic drive provided by bassist Tidd and drummer Rickman yanks you into the music's molten core and Okasaki's guitar sets off well-timed compression bombs. If your head can move to this group's percolating dramatic tension — and it should — your body will eventually follow. —Gene Seymour

7. Mary Halvorson
Code Girl (Firehouse 12)
Points: 164.5
Votes: 29

This guitarist starts new bands with impressive frequency. Her latest includes familiar collaborators — drummer Tomas Fujiwara and bassist Michael Formanek — while adding trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and vocalist Amirtha Kidambi. Those recruits help turn this collection of original tunes into a new highlight in the bandleader's catalog. The group can dart between categories — like indie-rock, free-improv or ecstatic minimalism — in a manner similar to the way Halvorson switches up textures during a solo. —Seth Colter Walls

8. Myra Melford's Snowy Egret
The Other Side of Air (Firehouse 12)
Points: 161.5
Votes: 30

Pianist/composer Myra Melford's second release with her sinewy quintet Snowy Egret is a challenging yet elegant experience. With its trumpet and guitar frontline, the group easily summons its analogies to the small white heron, their natural stride suggesting a certain bird-like musical air; industriously pecking, foraging and soaring through Melford's knotty melodies and rattling sense of purpose. —Dan Buskirk

9. Cecile McLorin Salvant
The Window (Mack Avenue)
Points: 135
Votes: 21

In a high-stakes gamble, vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant steps away from the small group format that earned her two Grammys for Best Vocal Jazz Album. On The Window, she sings with bare-bones piano accompaniment only, revealing an ever-deepening connection to the modernized Songbook. Against pianist Sullivan Fortner's inventive reharmonizations, Salvant bedazzles. —Suzanne Lorge

10. Thumbscrew
Ours/Theirs (Cuneiform)
Points: 123.5
Votes: 23

With two companion recordings, Ours, a program of nine originals, and Theirs, an album of ten covers, Thumbscrew, the trio of bassist Michael Formanek, drummer Tomas Fujiwara and guitarist Mary Halvorson, obliterate the false dichotomy of innovation versus tradition in jazz (you have to have both), and create a personal canon of music that seethes with rhythmic ingenuity, bristles with surprise and connects the dots in unique ways. —Martin Johnson

The Rest Of The Top 50

11. Sons of Kemet, Your Queen Is a Reptile (Impulse!) 121.5 (18)
12. Kamasi Washington,
Heaven and Earth (Young Turks) 117 (16)
13. Miles Okazaki,
Work: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Monk, Vols. 1-6 (self-released) 112.5 (18)
14. Tyshawn Sorey,
Pillars (Firehouse 12) 97 (14)
15. Joshua Redman,
Still Dreaming (Nonesuch) 94 (17)
16. Sylvie Courvoisier Trio,
D'Agala (Intakt) 90.5 (17)
17. Dave Holland,
Uncharted Territories (Dare2) 88 (18)
18. Henry Threadgill,
Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus (Pi) 86.5 (12)
19. Frank Kimbrough,
Monk's Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk (Sunnyside) 84 (12)
20. Charles Lloyd & the Marvels + Lucinda Williams,
Vanished Gardens (Blue Note) 79.5 (11)
21. Ingrid Laubrock,
Contemporary Chaos Practices (Intakt) 74 (12)
22. JD Allen,
Love Stone (Savant) 70.5 (13)
23. Kenny Barron Quintet,
Concentric Circles (Blue Note) 68.5 (13)
24. Brad Mehldau,
Seymour Reads the Constitution! (Nonesuch) 68 (12)
25. Dan Weiss,
Starebaby (Pi) 67 (13)
26. Bill Frisell,
Music IS (Okeh) 65 (11)
27. Daniel Carter-William Parker-Matthew Shipp,
Seraphic Light (AUM Fidelity) 60 (12)
28. Jon Irabagon Quartet,
Dr. Quixotic's Traveling Exotics (Irabbagast) 57 (10)
29. Don Byron & Aruán Ortiz,
Random Dances and (A)tonalities (Intakt) 54 (10)
30. Stefon Harris & Blackout,
Sonic Creed (Motéma) 50.5 (8)
31. Satoko Fujii,
Solo (Libra) 48.5 (7)
32. Adam O'Farrill's Stranger Days,
El Maquech (Biophilia) 48 (8)
33. The Nels Cline 4,
Currents Constellations (Blue Note) 46.5 (9)
34. Fred Hersch Trio,
Live in Europe (Palmetto) 43 (8)
35. Nicole Mitchell,
Maroon Cloud (FPE) 42 (9)
36. Harriet Tubman,
The Terror End of Beauty (Sunnyside) 42 (6)
37. David Virelles,
Igbó Alákorin (The Singer's Grove), Vol. I & II (Pi) 38 (8)
38. Angelika Niescier Trio,
The Berlin Concert (Intakt) 37 (6)
39. Steve Swell,
Music for Six Musicians: Hommage À Olivier Messiaen (Silkheart -17) 37 (5)
40. Mark Turner & Ethan Iverson,
Temporary Kings (ECM) 34 (8)
41. Miguel Zenón,
Yo Soy La Tradición (Miel) 34 (5)
42.
Christian McBride, Christian McBride's New Jawn (Mack Avenue) 33.5 (7)
43. Edward Simon,
Sorrows & Triumphs (Sunnyside) 33 (6)
44. Julian Lage,
Modern Lore (Mack Avenue) 32 (7)
45 (tie). James Brandon Lewis & Chad Taylor,
Radiant Imprints (OFF) 31 (7)
45 (tie) Joe Lovano & Dave Douglas Sound Prints,
Scandal (Greenleaf Music) 31 (7)
47. Aaron Parks,
Little Big (Ropeadope) 31 (6)
48. Noah Preminger & Frank Carlberg,
Whispers and Cries (Red Piano) 31 (5)
49. William Parker,
Voices Fall From the Sky (AUM Fidelity) 30 (4)
50. Elio Villafranca,
Cinque (ArtistShare) 29.5 (4)


Solitary No. 1s

Chick Corea and Steve Gadd, Chinese Butterfly (Concord Jazz)
On a Venn diagram of the disparate but equally prolific careers of pianist Chick Corea and drummer Steve Gadd, Chinese Butterfly lands dead center. As ever, Corea provides the harmonic alacrity, Gadd the penetrating propulsion. What's changed since their last recording, in 1981, is the now-epic scale of their musical narrative. —Suzanne Lorge

Alicia Hall Moran, Here Today (Yes)
Critics take some flack for overvaluing originality — but Here Today is just so different. Operatic mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran finds a balance between classical elocution, jazz flexibility, and soul power, adding elements of Motown, Bizet and African-American traditional musics to create something startlingly individual. Gobsmacked when I heard it last January, I searched the whole year, in vain, for something else to hit so hard. —Michael West

Francesco Cafiso, We Play For Tips (EFlat)
Cafiso, the most gifted jazz prodigy of his generation, mastered bebop at 14. At 29 he is still an alto saxophone virtuoso, but now operates in uncharted domains of freedom and aggression. We Play for Tips displays Cafiso's extravagant creativity in the disciplined context of a nonet, for which he wrote 10 edgy tunes and 10 intricate ass-kicking charts. —Thomas Conrad

Joakim Milder/Fredrik Ljungkvist/Mathias Landraeus/Filip Auguston/Fredrik Rundkvist, The Music of Anders Garstedt (Moserobie)
Swedish trumpeter Anders Garstedt left a scant legacy when he died at age 31, but 18 years later, five former bandmates have revived his music brilliantly. The two saxophonists (Joakim Milder and Fredrik Ljungkvist) bob and weave, wax and wane, while pianist Mathias Landraeus anchors a free-ranging rhythm section: tricky postbop as coherent as classic swing. —Tom Hull

Irreversible Entanglements, Irreversible Entanglements ( International Anthem/Don Giovanni)
The spoken word, free jazz ensemble Irreversible Entanglements' penetratingly forthright American cultural commentary — verbalized by the poetic force of nature Moor Mother accompanied by instrumental hurricanes and composers Keir Neuringer on alto saxophone, Aquiles Navarro on trumpet, Luke Stewart on double bass and Tcheser Holmes on drums — is my top choice for the best album of 2018 because it is louder and smarter than the distortion of the reality we're being fed by our current administration. —Jordannah Elizabeth


Rara Avis

1. John Coltrane, Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album (Impulse!)
Points: 178
Votes:
74
Both Directions at Once, John Coltrane's posthumous cache of studio recordings from 1963, surprised us once already. Its victory in the historical category will surprise precisely no one — certainly not the 74 critics, just over half the voting body, who included it on their ballot. (Forty-seven of those voters, myself included, made it their No. 1.) That air of inevitability arises not only from the fact that this is unheard studio material from one of our most exalted heroes, leading the band that perfectly defined his sound. It's also a time capsule from a fantastically volatile period in Coltrane's artistic development, and a pivotal moment in his career. That it raises as many questions as it answers is only part of the abiding intrigue. —Nate Chinen

2. Miles Davis & John Coltrane, The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6 (Columbia/Legacy) 58 (28)
3. Eric Dolphy,
Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions (Resonance) 42 (20)
4.
The Savory Collection 1935-1940 (Mosaic) 37 (15)
5. Charles Mingus,
Jazz in Detroit/Strata Concert Gallery/46 Selden (BBE) 34 (18)
6. Anthony Braxton,
Sextet (Parker) 1993 (New Braxton House) 31 (13)
7.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles (ECM) 26 (11)
8. Wes Montgomery,
In Paris: The Definitive ORTF Recording (Resonance) 14 (9)
9. Erroll Garner,
Nightconcert (Mack Avenue) 14 (9)
10. Charlie Haden & Brad Mehldau,
Long Ago and Far Away (Impulse!) 14 (7) *

* Includes 9 (3) transferred from New Albums.


Vocals

1. Cécile McLorin Salvant, The Window (Mack Avenue)
Votes: 37
(see No. 9 in the New Albums section)

2. William Parker, Voices Fall From the Sky (AUM Fidelity) 7
3. Sara Serpa,
Close Up (Clean Feed) 7
4. (tie) Kurt Elling,
The Questions (Okeh) 6
4. (tie) Fay Victor's SoundNoiseFunk,
Wet Robots (ESP-Disk) 6
6. Cyrille Aimée,
Live (Mack Avenue) 5


Debuts

1. Justin Brown, Nyeusi (Biophilia)
Votes: 8
The drummer's rhythmically ingenious, synthesizer-rich, harmonically entrancing debut might well have emanated from "Jupiter's Giant Red Spot," as the leadoff track is called. Nyeusi ("black" in Swahili) is a striking Afrofuturist achievement, compact in length yet full of sonic imagination and lasting beauty. —David R. Adler

2. Adam Hopkins, Crickets (Out of Your Head) 7
3. (tie) James Francies,
Flight (Blue Note) 5
3. (tie) Ben LaMar Gay,
Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun (International Anthem) 5
3. (tie) Quin Kirchner,
The Other Side of Time (Astral Spirits) 5


Latin

1. David Virelles, Igbó Alákorin (The Singer's Grove), Vol. I & II (Pi)
Votes: 21
A vibrant compendium in which Virelles disinters the rich musical traditions of his hometown Santiago de Cuba. Unexpectedly, his boldest album. The 35-year-old pianist has spent the last decade channeling Afro-Cuban folklore through a jazz prism, producing records that operate as open-ended mysteries. Here, refreshingly, he eschews abstraction in favor of fealty to the past. Though the traditions Virelles explores are fading from Cuban culture, this effort, fiercely rhythmic and thrumming with energy, is deeply alive. —Matthew Kassel

2. (tie) Dafnis Prieto Big Band, Back to the Sunset (Dafnison) 12
2. (tie) Miguel Zenón,
Yo Soy La Tradición (Miel) 12
4. Bobby Sanabria,
West Side Story Reimagined (Jazzheads) 8
5. Carlos Henriquez,
Dizzy Con Clave (RodBros Music) 7
6. Eddie Palmieri,
Full Circle (Ropeadope) 6
7. Elio Villafranca,
Cinque (ArtistShare) 5

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