The Trouble With Top 10 Lists; Also, in the Voice: a Wrongheaded “Greatest Jazz Albums” List

Planet Jazz: Notes From All Over

‘Tis the season. Yes, it’s that time of year when arts and entertainment critics desperately attempt to remember all that they’ve seen, heard or read over the past 12 months, and come up with lists ranking the best.

Having contributed more than a few jazz, rock and film critics’ lists over the years (including some published in the Village Voice, JazzTimes, Jazziz, downbeat and various newspapers), it’s a task I’m  accustomed to completing.

I look forward to it, too. While a bit of a chore, it can also be fun, and illuminating. It’s a relatively painless way to review the best and worst of the past year’s releases, and take a second look at anything that might have been unfairly overlooked.

That said, “best-of” list making remains an imperfect method for honoring significant work, and raises all sorts of questions.

At the risk of adding to the Top 10 clutter, here are my Top 10 questions about critics’ Top 10 lists:

  1. Is it really possible to determine “the best” when each recording, film, book, TV show or play often is a universe unto itself, in terms of being so vastly varied in approach, intent, structure (and other areas related to content) and even medium that comparisons are absurd? Is Ang Lee’s sumptuous, colorful 3D epic “Life of Pi” even of the same species as Tim Burton’s black-and-white animated stop-motion film “Frankenweenie”?
  2. Shouldn’t each artist, ideally, be pursuing creative work against a standard of that artist’s making, rather than a standard tied to what everyone else is doing?
  3. Related to the above, doesn’t it do a disservice to the art at hand to nudge artists in the direction of open competition, ala athletic bouts? Isn’t the sheer number of units sold beside the point? Must there always be “winners” and “losers” in the creative arts? (Obviously, here I’m not talking about entertainment — like, say, the latest CD from boy band One Direction — that’s specifically contrived as commercial product, overproduced to every inch of its life, targeted to a very specific demographic, and designed to sell the maximum to the most).
  4. Is it possible for a critic to fully absorb or even have access to every high-quality representation of any particular art? In 2011, in the United States alone, 610 feature films were released in theaters (MPAA), 76,875 albums that sold at least one copy were released (Nielsen Soundscan), and three million books were published. Try keeping up.
  5. Given that evaluating everything, much less catching it all, is not humanly possible, wouldn’t it be more honest to refer to any given list as “the best (fill in the blank) that I caught this year” or something similar but less unwieldy? Why pretend to have a macro view when one’s view is actually quite limited?
  6. Does the average critic typically assemble a “best-of” list based on what he or she ACTUALLY LIKES, as opposed to a list designed to appeal to other critics and the highfalutin segment of the readership?
  7. Related to the above, should the trendy — the new, the innovative, the bold, the provocative, the young — by default be rewarded over the outstanding, or even the great? And should critics emphasize diversity for diversity’s sake? For a jazz list, should a critic pointedly include solo works as well as large ensemble recordings and everything in between, and strive to ensure that there’s equitable representation of multiple sub-genres as well as gender, race, and country of national origin? Or should the focus always be on the work that strikes the critic as being highest in quality?
  8. Should critics, as sometimes happens, highlight work by lesser-known artists merely in order to bring needed attention to those folks? Good intentions, yes, but they come with unintended consequences (see below).
  9. Likewise, should critics, as sometimes happens, NOT include works by well-known artists merely because those artists are deemed already to have received enough attention? For example, should a film as accomplished as Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” go underappreciated by critics at year’s end simply because it was directed by (arguably) the world’s most famous filmmaker? Should anything by a Marsalis — whether saxophonist Branford, trumpeter/impresario Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo, drummer Jason, or piano-playing dad Ellis — be discounted because their family name is omnipresent in jazz? Should the likes of Stephen King and John Grisham be overlooked just because those guys sell books by the truckloads?
  10. At the same time, should popularity, which of course directly reflects on how an artist resonates with the public, be ignored altogether when deciding whether a work ought to be included on a list?

So many questions. Too few answers. Onward to the Top 10 task(s) at hand.

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Lists make good filler for publications, even if and when those lists are obvious, redundant, pointless, or ridiculously incomplete.

With apologies to the story’s author, “Ten Jazz Albums to Hear Before You Die,” in the Village Voice, hits all the above marks. It’s one of the most generic jazz pieces published in a major publication in recent memory.

Nothing wrong with including the usual suspects, like Miles, Coltrane and Monk, because they’re the usual suspects for good reason. But as someone remarked on Twitter, it’s the kind of list that could have been predicted even before it was published.

Worst of all, the piece suggests that must-hear jazz was released only in the period beginning in 1959 (Miles’ “Kind of Blue,” Mingus’s “Mingus Ah Um,” Ornette’s “Shape of Jazz to Come”) and ending in 1973 with Herbie’s “Headhunters.” Seriously?

Missing from the list: Ellington, Charlie Parker, early Louis, big bands, Latin jazz, loads more.

Also MIA: Any developments in jazz since the heyday of fusion. It’s nearly another reiteration of the Ken Burns argument — you know,  jazz is all but dead. And it’s wrongheaded.

A simple fix: Retitle the piece “My Favorite Jazz, 1959-1973.”  That’d be an honest “bucket” to put it in, at least.

Give the Bass Player Some: Ron Carter & Esperanza Spalding Top 77th Annual DownBeat Readers Poll

Veteran bassist Ron Carter and young bassist-singer Esperanza Spalding, a Grammy-winning star, grabbed the top spots in this year’s DownBeat Readers Poll.

Carter, an enormously influential double bass master heard on thousands of jazz recordings, a successful solo artist but probably best known for his association with Miles Davis’s second great quintet in the ’60s, was ushered into the Hall of Fame, just beating blues legend B.B. King.

Spalding, a gifted vocalist, upright and electric bassist, and songwriter who has wowed audiences as a leader and as a member of Joe Lovano’s US FIVE band (#14 in the Jazz Group category), won in the categories of Jazz Artist and Jazz Album of the Year, the latter for her pop-infused “Radio Music Society.”

Interestingly, neither won in the two bass categories: Christian McBride won for (double) Bass, while Stanley Clarke, who rode Return to Forever to stardom, won for Electric Bass.

Wayne Shorter, Carter’s old colleague in that Miles band, won in two categories — Soprano Saxophone, and Composer

The more than 17,000 voters in the poll, somewhat surprisingly, honored the Dave Brubeck Quartet in the Jazz Group category, and Big Band honors went to the Maria Schneider Orchestra, whose leader also won for Arranger.

(Complete list of winners)

Other honorees:

  • Trumpet: Wynton Marsalis
  • Trombone: Trombone Shorty
  • Alto Saxophone: Kenny Garrett
  • Tenor Saxophone: Sonny Rollins
  • Baritone Saxophone: James Carter
  • Clarinet: Anat Cohen
  • Flute: Hubert Laws
  • Piano: Brad Mehldau
  • Keyboard: Herbie Hancock
  • Organ: Joey DeFrancesco
  • Guitar: Pat Metheny
  •  Violin: Regina Carter
  • Drums: Jack DeJohnette
  • Vibes: Gary Burton
  • Percussion: Airto Moreira
  • Miscellaneous Instrument: Toots Thielemans
  • Female Vocalist: Diana Krall
  • Record label: Blue Note
  • Blues Artist or Group: B.B. King
  • Blues Album: Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton, “Play the Blues: Live From Jazz at Lincoln Center”
  • Beyond Artist or Group: Robert Glasper
  • Beyond Album: Robert Glasper Experiment, “Black Radio”

For more on the poll, including interviews with the winners, get the mag’s December issue or click here.

America Needs It Some “Treme”

“America needs it some Kermit,” the New Orleans DJ and sometime musician played by Steve Zahn says, about halfway through the first episode of  HBO’s “Treme,” which debuts tonight on the heels of much critical praise.

Davis McAlary (Zahn), inspired by real-life scenester Davis Rogan, is talking to trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, his bandmates and friends after a show at Vaughan’s, a tiny, shotgun-style bar in the Bywater, where Ruffins has a long-standing Thursday night gig.  In the scene, Davis is lamenting Ruffins’ failure to at least say hello to Elvis Costello, who’s in town for a recording collaboration with pianist-songwriter Allen Toussaint.

Ruffins and Costello play themselves, as does Vaughan’s, where Ruffins plays and cooks barbecue for his listeners.

That authenticity, in a show created and produced by David Simon and Eric Overmyer (“The Wire”), with help from the late David Mills and novelist George Pelecanos, as well as New Orleans writers Lolis Elie and Tom Piazza, has everything to do with why fans of New Orleans music and culture — including native New Orleanians, I hope — will be enthused by “Treme.”

Why? Because Mills and Co. got it right: the broken-down, hardscrabble hand-to-mouth feel of New Orleans, in the months and years immediately following Hurricane Katrina; the unique cultural milieu, as defined in part by the city’s cuisine and Mardi Gras Indian traditions; the brass-band scene.

As is true about New Orleans, music is soaked into the fiber of “Treme,” as demonstrated by:

  • That aforementioned scene at Vaughan’s, where Ruffins and his Barbecue Swingers play “Skokian”
  • A native New Orleanian trumpet player makes it big in New York, with a scene shot at the Blue Note – Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, anyone?
  • Rebirth Brass Band plays “Feel Like Funking It Up” and the Stones’ “It’s All Over Now”
  • Treme Brass Band plays “A Closer Walk With Thee” during a post-funeral parade
  • McAlary sits at a piano for a few bars of Professor Longhair‘s “Big Chief.”
  • McAlary goes to WWOZ-FM for his weekly show, and rails about being forced to play “the New Orleans canon,” although it’s apparent he loves every bit of it – he goes gaga over a Dave Bartholomew box set, and he blasts NOLA hip-hop just to annoy his genteel, classical-loving neighbors.

The storyline largely centers on the ups and downs of trombonist Antoine Batiste (New Orleans native Wendell Pierce) and McAlary, as well as secondary characters including a professor (John Goodman) raging at the federal government’s decades-long failure to bolster the levees; his wife (Melissa Leo), an attorney fighting for the rights of the dispossessed; a Mardi Gras Indian chief (Clarke Peters) who returns to his devastated home, and hopes to reunite his tribe, the Guardians of the Flame; a bar owner, Antoine’s ex-wife (Khandi Alexander), mourning her brother, apparently lost in the storm; and  a chef (Kim Dickens) desperately trying to rebuild business for her popular neighborhood restaurant.

As might be expected from Simon, the various strands of the larger narrative — NOLA’s return from the brink of disaster — are smartly woven together in the first episode, directed by Agnieszka Holland. The characters are compelling, as are their stories.

Which brings us back to Kermit. Yes, America needs Kermit and his joyful, good-time music, rooted in New Orleans traditional jazz.

And America needs “Treme,” a show that serves as a necessary reminder of all the reasons — music, food, culture, a group of survivors who won’t quit — that New Orleans still deserves to be celebrated as one of our country’s great treasures. It’s “a city that lives in the imagination of the world,” according to something Goodman’s characters says.

Ultimately, “Treme,” which will run 10 episodes for its first season, wants to figure into the continuing rebirth of New Orleans, to play a role in furthering that economic and spiritual renaissance.

It’s off to a great start.

The Next Hot New Orleans Trumpeter? The Search Is On

New Orleans, not surprisingly, has produced a long line of great jazz trumpeters, from Buddy Bolden, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong to Christian Scott and Shamarr Allen. Louis Prima is the subject of this year’s poster for Jazz Fest.

And, of course, there are also Terence Blanchard (probably my favorite living trumpeter; looking forward to his Jazz Fest appearance), Wynton Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, Irvin Mayfield (ditto for his Jazz Fest show with the NOJO), Leroy Jones, Kermit Ruffins, Al Hirt and several other notables whose names will come to mind the second this post is published.

(Payton, right, plays tonight at the Village Vanguard in NYC; listen live here)

Young jazz trumpeters in New Orleans will get a chance to raise their game — and their profile — via “Seeking Satch,” a contest co-sponsored by the French Market and the Mayfield-directed New Orleans Jazz Institute at the University of New Orleans.

Three high-school trumpet players will get four-year scholarships to UNO’s jazz studies program, and a chance to perform this August at Satchmo Summerfest.

Trumpeters from two other age groups — 6th to 8th grade, and 9th to 11th grade — will gain admission to the year-round Saturday Music School organized by the New Orleans Jazz Institute.

That’s all according to a piece published today in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Official details are below:

SEEKING SATCH

WHAT: A trumpet competition that rewards high school seniors with University of New Orleans Jazz Studies scholarships, and sixth to 11th grade students with spots in the New Orleans Jazz Institute’s Saturday Music School. Outgoing seniors must submit a UNO college application and e-mail a link to a YouTube video of them performing their favorite Louis Armstrong song, plus a jazz tune of their choice, to Robin Williams at rmwilli6@uno.edu. Younger student applicants must send an e-mail expressing their interest to Amy Kirk at akirk@frenchmarket.org.

WHEN: The deadline for high school senior applications is March 18. Six finalists will be chosen to compete at French Quarter Festival April 10. The three winners will go on to perform at Satchmo Summer Fest in August. Deadline for the younger students to apply is May 3; their competition will be held May 22 at McDonogh 15.

Essentially Ellington: High-School Jazz Band Finalists Announced

Jazz bands from two Florida high schools made the list of 15 finalists selected to play the 15th annual Essentially Ellington competition and festival in New York, May 8-10 at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

The Sunshine State bands headed to NYC are both from South Florida: Dillard Center of the Arts, in Fort Lauderdale; and New World School of the Arts, in Miami. Bands from those high schools and one other school in the Southeast — The Lovett School in Atlanta — will compete with a dozen others from Washington State (3), Wisconsin (2), Texas (2), Massachusetts (2), California (2) and New York City (1).

The bands will participate in a variety of jam sessions and workshops. The closing concert, May 10 at Avery Fisher Hall, will feature performances by the top three bands, with JALC head Wynton Marsalis sitting in as guest soloist; and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Judges for the competition: Wynton Marsalis, David Berger, Ted Buehrer, Jimmy Heath, and Rodney Whitaker. Festival clinicians: Walter Blanding, Ronald Carter, Vincent Gardner, Wycliffe Gordon, Dana Hall, Sherman Irby, Loren Schoenberg, and Reginald Thomas.

The Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Program encompasses the competition and festival, as well as regional festivals, resources for jazz curriculum, a summer teaching session for band directors, and monthly newsletters.

For more information on “Essentially Ellington,”  click here.

Wynton Marsalis and the LCJO, Live and Streaming Tonight

Tonight’s NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) Jazz Masters ceremony and concert, featuring Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, pianist Cedar Walton with singer Annie Ross, a solo set from pianist Kenny Barron, and other performances, will be available on the air — via traditional and satellite outlets — and online tonight.

For details, check out Howard Mandel’s blog post.

The photo, above, is my shot of Wynton and the LCJO at last year’s Jazz Fest.

Matthew Shipp: I’m the King of the World (Slight Return)

Avant-leaning pianist Matthew Shipp again is taking advantage of the national spotlight … to beat up on other jazz artists.

Shipp’s latest round of nasty attacks are on display in the pages of Jazz Times, via a profile by David Adler in the magazine’s January/February issue. And the Shipp is hitting the fan again, as Adler points out in a new blog post.

A sampling of Shipp’s stuff:  “At times I feel someone like Herbie Hancock is taking up space. I feel his work doesn’t warrant it. I feel everything he’s done in the last 20 or 30 years is crap. That’s my personal opinion. I have a right to say it.”

I’ve always thought that the most insecure artists were the ones who spent the most time and energy dissing other artists. Attacking others in the name of building oneself up is a zero-sum game.

But I get the strategy: Outrageous statements — like Shipp’s attempt to devalue the work of musicians as accomplished and significant and influential as pianist Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter – tend to generate lots of press. Those types of verbal firebombs do succeed in getting people talking, at least for the short term. Wynton knows how to play that game. So did Miles.

Maybe that approach will pay off for Shipp, maybe not. Either way, it won’t make those previously immune to the pleasures of his work suddenly choose to give it a try.

His loss? Their loss?