It wouldn’t be exaggerating much to say that Jason Moran’s only competition in the Fifth Annual Village Voice Jazz Critics’ Poll was Jason Moran. Ten, his first trio album in seven years, won Album of the Year in a landslide, but that’s not all. The pianist figured prominently on the runner-up, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green’s Apex, andCharles Lloyd’s Mirror, which finished fourth—only a surprise No. 3 showing from rising guitarist Mary Halvorson kept him from a hat trick. Add Paul Motian’s Lost in a Dream, on which Moran and saxophonist Chris Potter are virtually the veteran drummer’s co-leaders, and that gives the 2010 MacArthur Fellow four appearances in the Top 10—a fete unprecedented in this poll’s short history and unlikely to be equaled anytime soon.
I wanted this year’s poll to do the impossible, to go some way toward restoring my faith in the democratic process following November’s dismal midterm elections. And in its modest way, it did. With Moran and drummer Nasheet Waits varying the dynamics and dancing around the beat while bassist Tarus Mateen holds fast to it, Ten easily passes the most crucial test facing any piano-trio album: You never find yourself wishing for horns. It’s an extremely worthy winner, and listening to it again as I write, not only do I feel guilty about its absence on my own ballot, I find myself applauding my colleagues for showing smarts I evidently lack.
Since the poll’s 2006 inception, I’ve come to think of my wrap-up as akin to a State of the Union. Starting with that first year’s overwhelming evidence of the mainstream widening to accommodate Ornette Colemanwithout him so much as meeting it halfway, the results of each subsequent poll have revealed an encouraging new trend: in ’07, something approaching equality for jazz women behind winner Maria Schneider; in ’08, how this country’s changing ethnic demographics are letting jazz go global without leaving home; last year, signs of a long-needed infusion of young blood. This year? Well, Ten is the second consecutive piano-trio winner, following Vijay Iyer’sHistoricity, and joining it in the Top 10 areKeith Jarrett’s duets with bassist Charlie Haden, and solo efforts by Iyer and Geri Allen. But a list dominated by pianists strikes me as coincidence rather than as a harbinger of anything in particular.
What might be more significant is that with the majors having all but abandoned jazz until further notice, independents are enjoying a boom, albeit one probably more aesthetic than financial. Pi Recordings claimed four spots in the Top 20, as many as Blue Note and Nonesuch combined placed in the Top 50, the only majors to appear there. ECM enjoyed its usual good showing, although this year’s overall winner might be Clean Feed, a relatively new Portuguese label fast becoming this era’s Soul Note/Black Saint in terms of both quality and prolificacy—a staggering two dozen of its 2010 releases received votes, led by Chris Lightcap’s Big Mouth at No. 12 and Bay Area bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, who tied singer/songwriter Gregory Porterfor Best Debut. But along with the perseverance of these indie labors of love, the logical takeway from a Top 10 featuring two women, as well as four musicians under 40 (including Mahanthappa and Iyer, both native-born Americans of Indian descent), is that the trends suggested by previous years’ results genuinely were trends, not just blips. Which I’d say confirms this annual survey’s worth beyond providing readers and participants alike with a catch-up shopping list.
Quick comments on this year’s Top 10:
1. Jason MoranTen (Blue Note) Along with dips into the Bernstein, Bert Williams, and Jaki Byard songbooks, highlights include the latest in Moran’s ongoing series of “Gangsterism” pieces reconciling jazz and hip-hop’s different ways of attacking the one, and extended variations on “Crepuscule with Nellie”—virgin territory and maybe even sacred ground, given that Monk himself pointedly refrained from ever improvising on it.
2. Rudresh Mahanthappa & Bunky GreenApex (Pi) Although it’s cross-generational rather than cross-cultural, like Mahanthappa’s 2008 encounter with Kadri Golpalnath, what saves this alto-saxophone confrontation from becoming your typical hard-bop donnybrook are suggestions of Eastern chant that now seem intrinsic to Mahanthappa’s identity, and maybe intrinsic to the 75-year-old Green’s as well, via Coltrane’s direct influence on his generation.
3. Mary Halvorson QuartetSaturn Sings(Firehouse 12) Quartet and trio actually, though it’s the hurtling intelligence of Halvorson’s writing on the tracks with horns that marks her transition from the cutting edge’s favorite sidewoman to one of today’s most formidable bandleaders.
4. Charles LloydMirror(ECM) He appealed to ’60s hippies as Coltrane without the mathematics and perceived black militance. Older and something of a grand mannerist now, he wants nothing more than to break your heart. And damn if he doesn’t on a gorgeous “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and a cover of the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No” that might seem like pandering coming from anybody else.
5. Henry Threadgill ZooidThis Brings Us to, Vol. 2(Pi) As close as he’ll ever come to permitting a jam, with looping extended solos compensating for less compositional motion and color than on Vol. 1.
6. Keith Jarrett & Charlie HadenJasmine (ECM) Dueting the great bassist holds Jarrett’s mannerisms in check, but thankfully, not his ardor.
7. Steve Coleman & Five ElementsHarvesting Semblances and Affinities (Pi) As governed by theories regarding this, that, and the other thing as Coleman’s work from his M-Base enfant terrible days, but rhythmically streamlined (no forced beats now) and harmonically spacious in its voicings for two brass, Jeri Shyu’s colortura, and Coleman’s own surging alto.
8. Vijay IyerSolo (ACT) Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” is a little frilly, and Monk’s “Epistrophy” a little dense. But together with Iyer’s own angled originals, insightful interpretations of Ellington’s seminal “Black and Tan Fantasy” and proto-minimalist “Fleurette Africaine” make this a successful follow-up to Historicity.
9. Geri AllenFlying Toward the Sound(Motema) I don’t think I’ve ever heard another pianist so closely evoke Cecil Taylorwithout surrendering to his influence completely.
10. Paul MotianLost in a Dream (ECM) Melody-based chamber improvisation ne plus ultra.
Though I like all of these just fine, my own list is very different:
1. ICP OrchestraICP 049(ICP)/br> Conspicuously missing from the poll’s upper echelons, in what may be a sign of belt-tightening, are large ensembles. But the latest, typically superb effort from this 10-member Dutch outfit, guided by pianist Misha Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink (and dotted with American expatriates like violinist Mary Oliver and saxophonistMichael Moore), fills the gap and then some. As swank and precise as it is rollicking, and knowingly evocative of both Ellington and the wildest and woolliest free jazz—sequentially and then simultaneously on Moore’s arrangement of Mengelberg’s “The Lepaerd.”
2. Dominic Duval & Cecil TaylorThe Last Dance(Cadence Jazz) /br> CT at his most churning, rooted deep in his keyboard’s lower half, as if threatening his duet partner with redundancy if he can’t keep up. But no worries there.
3. Mark RibotSilent Movies (Pi)/br> High, wide, and lonesome solo guitar starring in a revisionist Western set somewhere between Avenue B and Boot Hill.
4. Mary Halvorson QuintetSings (Firehouse 12)
5. Myra Melford’s Be BreadThe Whole Tree Gone (Firehouse 12)/br> Astor Piazzolla’s ghost smiles benignly on intricate and quietly adventurous small-group pieces that stab with their sense of unfulfilled longing.
6. Paul MotianLost in a Dream (ECM)
7. Rudresh Mahanthappa & Steve LehmanDual Identity (Clean Feed)/br> My preference for this stand-off with a fellow altoist near Mahanthappa’s own age comes down to their shared belief in the value of stridency (the legacy of Jackie McLean) and the sharper edge that Liberty Ellman’s guitar lends the rhythm section.
8. Michael FormanekThe Rub and Spare Change(ECM)/br> Who knew the veteran bassist was such an impressive composer? Though the most impressive aspect of all might be the ample room his gambits leave for interplay with stellar sidemen Tim Berne, Craig Taborn, and Gerald Cleaver.
9. Billy BangPrayer for Peace (TUM)/br> “Only Time Will Tell,” the latest of Bang’s tips of the cap to violin forebear Stuff Smith, is as swinging and vivacious as anything you’re ever likely to hear delivered by a putative avant-gardist, and sets the tone for everything that follows.
10. Benjamin HermanHypochristmastreefuzz: More Mengelberg (Special Edition)(Roach)/br> I say you can never get enough Mengelberg, the greatest living jazz musician never to take up residence in the U.S. But this also makes my list because Herman, a young Dutch altoist, is quite a find. And, to be honest, because his two versions of a Mengelberg homage to Peter Brøtzmann, one studio and the other live, sound like they could be the theme to a ’60s British exploitation flick about rumbling teds and rockers that might show up on public access in the dead of the night.
Mosaic’s Threadgill box was voted Best Reissue, while Chucho Valdes and Cassandra Wilsontook the Latin and Vocal categories, respectively. This was the second victory for Wilson, who’s become as automatic in polls of this sort as Ella Fitzgerald was in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The surprise was just behind her, where a never-before-issued live performance by Irene Kral, a singer’s singer who died in 1978 without ever gaining a large public following, tied White House/Vogue/New Yorker flavor du jourEsperanza Spalding for second place.