A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

Top Ten CDs of 2007

It’s December, and as the snow falls softly yet unrelentingly upon my Chicago back yard, a critic’s thoughts turn to that inevitable year’s-end exercise, the Top Ten list. It comes with the territory, like shoveling snow – it’s a public service, but it’s a chore, and sometimes has to be done more than once. Readers love them. I have several friends who every year about this time ask me to send them a list, I assume to make sure they haven’t missed something important or surprising. With its stamp of authority and predetermined format, it’s a concise, consumer-friendly buying guide; for some tentative fans, Top Ten lists may account for the only CDs they buy all year. It’s a nice PR prop for the record companies and the musicians selected – and in this day of ever-increasing competition for continually diminishing media space, every little bit helps. As far as the magazines are concerned, they fill a couple of pages with free copy, and maybe benefit from a few more ads. But from the writer’s standpoint (okay, from my standpoint), there’s an air of artifice and hyperbole that should make one wary – not enough to prevent me from participating when asked, but to at least question the process along the way.

For example, what do critics do when they have to submit Top Ten lists to more than one publication? Do they send the same list to each magazine? I doubt anyone would consider doing that, or that the publications concerned would allow it, yet on the other hand isn’t it unethical, or at least unfair, to construct several different Top Tens? After all, it’s tacitly understood to be one’s choice of the definitive ten best releases of the year, not “ten of my favorite hundred or so which I’m dividing among various magazines so as not to be redundant.” Fortunately, this hasn’t been an issue for me of late, as for the last couple of years I’ve only had to submit two rather dissimilar lists anyway: a Top Ten of jazz releases to Coda, and a selection of five ostensibly classical (although I always sneak in at least one jazz or improv CD) favorites for Fanfare (where I do my heavy duty classical music reviewing). The Wire stopped polling me a couple of years ago, although my name is still on their masthead, and Down Beat…well, that’s another story. But the truth of the matter is that when in the past it was necessary to put together multiple lists, my rationalization was that each magazine had a different readership with slightly different taste and stylistic interests and so, depending upon the type of jazz I covered for them, I’d attempt to customize a list for that particular audience. But I was never completely comfortable doing so.

At least part of my discomfort has to do with the inherent relativity of the process. For one thing, it’s obvious that any critic’s selection is going to be limited to those new releases he/she is familiar with. I’ve always assumed that readers tend to believe that most critics hear everything – that record companies automatically supply critics with their product, and the discs pile up faster than we can listen to them. It’s the mythical golden calf of criticism, the icon of free CDs that we all worship and from which all blessings flow. But unless you’re Brian Morton of the Penguin Guide, I’m not sure that’s true for anyone any more. The only time I was able to hear almost every new jazz release was when I made the record review assignments as editor of Down Beat, many long years ago. There was a time when most record labels serviced free-lance writers regularly; however, that golden calf has been melted down for scrap as sales (and profits) plummeted, direct-to-the-consumer downloading gradually replaced record store buying, and Everyman’s blog democratically superseded the published voice of authority (whether for better or worse remains to be seen). Thus, at least in my case – and not, I suspect, an isolated instance -- the stream of major label promo copies (and the small label subsidiaries they’ve purchased for their conglomerates) has completely dried up (ECM is the one exception), and most independent and musician-owned labels cannot afford to send out very many copies to potential reviewers.

I don’t mean for this to sound like sour grapes; it’s simply the way the industry now works. Nevertheless, the curse of a critical sensibility is an insatiable curiosity, which makes this a frustrating situation, and moreover, it’s difficult to do a responsible job without the proper materials at hand. Hearing everything may indeed be an impossibility – I suspect, thanks to the rise of the DIY mentality and cheaper and dramatically-improved technology, there are ten times as many jazz releases today than there were a mere two decades ago (my Down Beat tenure). Still, not having heard at least a representative chunk of new releases, any selection of a true “year’s best” would seem to be seriously flawed, subject primarily to the whims of availability and only secondarily, merit. For example, in 2005, the newly-discovered Monk with Coltrane At Carnegie Hall (Blue Note) seemed to make every critic’s Top Ten list, but not mine – not because I felt it didn’t deserve to be there (although its absence on my list might have appeared to be such a judgment), but I actually didn’t hear it until more than a year after it was released (the cruel economics of a career in criticism don’t allow for purchasing all of the discs we need either). So my yearly list tends to reflect the handful of European labels and a few small independents (often distributed by well-meaning press agents) who do, thankfully, send me their product, plus those new releases I heard about and was motivated to investigate on my own. In truth, I find myself searching out more older, previously released albums for the first time than I do new releases or current reissues, but they are not eligible. I’d prefer to make a list of “the top ten albums I’ve heard this year regardless of when they were issued” – it would be more honest and personally representative, but offer neither the glamour of the New, nor the stamp of mutually-endorsed authority required by our short-term memory, consensus-driven culture.

But that’s just part of the problem. Some publications like to make a contest out of it, tallying up all the votes and naming the most popular “Album of the Year.” In principle I’m against this kind of competition -- and that goes for polls of favorite musicians as well. An anonymous tabulation depersonalizes the listing process, and denies deserving musicians with distribution problems their moment of recognition. It’s now ancient history, but there was time when Down Beat had only a dozen or so writers contribute to their Critic’s Poll, which allowed them to print each writer’s full ballot. It was much more valuable and enlightening to see who Dan Morgenstern or Ira Gitler was listening to this year than to find out if more writers dug Lee Konitz than Sonny Stitt – or today, if Brad Mehldau is more popular than Keith Jarrett. How informative is this? One of the reasons I stopped participating in such popularity contests was that my votes seldom if ever made a dent in the final tabulation – why bother voting for, say, Hayden Chisholm as the alto saxophonist who most impressed me during a given year if I was the only one, and his name wouldn’t appear? Fortunately, most Top Ten lists are still printed as submitted, and remain the province of the individual sensibility.

And what about that individual sensibility – how does one determine a suitable criteria for inclusion? I suspect different writers approach the selection process from different perspectives. For some, it may simply be a matter of relativity – choosing the best they heard of what was released in the time frame, regardless of ultimate quality. For others, it may mean selecting among those high-profile, well-distributed, known-commodity artists already familiar to the audience – a vote by rote – rather than risk one’s reputation on an unknown. (Which is one explanation why the same names appear and re-appear on so many Top Ten lists; who would dare to have their credibility questioned by leaving off Sonny Rollins or Ornette this, or any, year – much less the current mass-approved Next Big Thing?) But aren’t we obliged to discover and reward music of significant achievement regardless of where it comes from? It’s not always easy. Some years I’ve found it extremely difficult to come up with ten albums that really stood out. Other years, there’s an over-abundance of good stuff. Last year, for example, I had a four-hour radio show in late December where I decided to program my favorite records of the year. To my surprise, I came up with 40 albums, new releases and first-time reissues, ranging from the well-known (Andrew Hill) to the lesser-known (Kyle Bruckman).

I enjoy reading other critics’ lists to learn about their taste and perspective, to savor the breadth of choices, and to be introduced to worthy and unusual recordings I missed. I hope that’s why people like to read my list. I take pride in listing deserving releases that no one else may have heard, much less listed. If you want to read my “official” Top Ten list for this year, look for the January/February 2008 issue of Coda (you can find my classical “Want List” in the November/December 2007 Fanfare). But, just to be contrary, I thought I’d attach a list here too – not necessarily the best of this year’s releases, but music I encountered during the past 12 months or so that was a “point of departure” for me, reminding me that alternatives and possibilities are still out there. In alphabetical order:

  • Len Barnard’s Jazz Band, The Early Years 1952-54 (GHB)

  • Carlos Bechegas/Alexander Schlippenbach, Open Speech (Forward)

  • fORCH, Spin Networks (psi)

  • Frank Gratkowski/Thomas Lehn/Melvyn Poore, Triskaidekaphonia (Leo)

  • Jazz en Barcelona 1920-65 (Fresh Sound)

  • Kartet, The Bay Window (Songlines)

  • Frank Morgan, Live at The Jazz Standard Vol. 3 (HighNote)

  • Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, The Eleventh Hour (ECM)

  • Gary Smulyan, More Treasures (Reservoir)

  • Mezei Szilárd Trio, A Kölyökkutya Reszketése (Györ Free)

Art Lange©2008

Bridge Records

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