a column by
Stuart Broomer

A nearby accordion was infinitely dispatching La Comparsita, that dismaying trifle that so many like because it’s been misrepresented to them as being old ...
Jorge Luis Borges, “A Dialog about a Dialog”

It’s early December, there’s a nip in the air, the leaves are off the trees; some days there are early snows, not much depth, but it can range from dense wet leavings to a dusting, a term for something fresh and light and new that suggests something dry and old. In just a few days time, we’ll be overwhelmed by the solstice rites – Bodhi day, Kwanzaa, Krampusnacht, Hanukah, Las Posadas, Christmas, shopping, drinking, spending, feasting – but  for some, there’s a more immediate rite: compiling year-end lists, “best ofs,” in my case jazz CDs and at least one full-blown poll. (That full blown poll will wait for month’s end: it’s El Intruso, the Argentine web journal’s poll assembled by Los Angeles-based writer Sergio Piccirilli, and it’s comparable in design to the Downbeat critics poll but with a global bent and an emphasis on current activity, where things are sufficiently international and current to have Ingrid Laubrock and Rodrigo Amado competing for top tenor saxophonist).

Béla Bartók famously said, “Contests are for horses, not for artists.” If someone said that now, they would likely get an earful about animal abuse, though, if the horses had their own contest, it would undoubtedly take the form of something like the Breeders’ Cup. There are other cautionary remarks about contests, like one about contests revealing more about judges than winners, certainly true here and true generally about jazz polls when winners and losers alike often don’t enter, their spinning public relations firms and anxious labels standing in. However, for many, me included, there’s a certain appeal to polls, as if we can’t resist one more shot at having opinions, and an occasion when one doesn’t even have to write much, just have opinions. Eventually I’m going to provide you with my “top ten,” but it won’t be exactly the same as other top tens I’ve written in the past few days.

I’m a Canadian, which baldly stated seems to say so much about one, but for these purposes it means I share a national predilection for strategic voting, something that’s facilitated nationally by having more than two political parties. That’s why the British Columbia provincial legislature is essentially controlled by three members of the Green Party and the New Brunswick legislature (at the other end of the country both geographically and politically) is controlled by three members of the People’s Alliance, a party described by their regional Green Party leader in terms that suggest Naziism. Given that background and the right poll, I’ll vote for something I like that has a chance of placing, rather than choosing an absolute favorite doomed to no-show.

Top tens present numerous challenges, depending on where they’re coming from. I’m honored, as they say, but yes still, in a sense, genuinely honored, to be invited to vote in any poll, but I’ll confess that some are a better fit than others. Certainly the most prominent North American recording poll I participate in is Francis Davis’, formerly the Village Voice poll, in its latest form the 13th Annual Francis Davis/6th Annual NPR Jazz Critics Poll. Participants are asked to rank 10 albums from first to tenth, with separate categories for vocal, Latin and archival, the latter allowing for three ranked entries. A first-place vote gets ten times the points of a tenth unless the critic opts for egalitarian alphabetical order (5.5 points per choice) at which point, of course, one is virtually damning one’s own choices.

It’s a demanding competition, designed to create winners, though startlingly enough, 2015 produced a tie between Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls and Maria Schneider’s The Thompson Fields, eachreceiving a startling 350 points (Schneider voters [49 voters] were less numerous than Mahanthappa’s [53] but individually more enamored). I was happily left out of the celebration, having voted for neither, but inevitably, like most polls, it’s slanted towards well distributed and promoted recordings (the electoral college-like double-counting was, of course, a national mystery lost on me).

Based on its typical results, I rate the Davis/NPR highly. The mix of voters reflects a finely-honed taste at the relatively (if not madly) creative end of jazz, with figures like Wadada Leo Smith, Vijay Iyer, Henry Threadgill and Tyshawn Sorey finishing prominently. It represents a liberal consensus about what currently defines jazz and its immediate past and future. I’ll confess incomprehension at the point spread between one’s first and tenth place choices. If you play broad-based favorites at the high end of the poll and dearly beloveds at the bottom (I’m assuming that you have to have some skin in the game, so to speak, that you at least want your choices to do well), you risk consigning a work of genius to an unnamed 700th place, which might be the worst thing you could do. In practical terms, the top ten in 2016 was, however, as good as it will ever get in a poll dominated by American writers. How did some of my picks do? Barry Guy’s Blue Shroud came in 27th (tucked in between albums by Fred Hersch and Jason Moran), while Anthony Braxton’s Echo Echo Mirror House Music was 45th, tied for points but with fewer (more enthusiastic) advocates than Otis Was a Polar Bear by Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom.

This compulsion to ranking, voting and winning is tied up with a notion of “best” that creates very strange frictions and absurdities; however, a former advocate of the equalized vote, this year I surrendered to the one to ten, figuring it would help out somebody, even if I couldn’t otherwise honestly skew the worth of Tyshawn Sorey’s Pillars (ten points) that far from Susana Santos Silva’s All the Rivers (one). Given his current press and the poll’s geography (as important as the brilliance of the music), Sorey might have a chance of winning. And why fight it? This year my top ten featured quite a few people who are playing actual jazz around New York City: the triumvirate of Matthew Shipp, William Parker and Daniel Carter (Seraphic Light); pianist Cory Smythe pulling up the roots of the music and taking a look (Circulate Susanna); Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl project; and pianist Jacob Sacks’ weird and very jazzy Fishes.

Leave New York (at least ideologically) for European shores, and the Free Jazz Blog’s Critics Poll presents an egalitarian world where column inches and earnest public relations give way to word of mouth, the passions of committed non-professionals, Facebook shares and European club and festival culture. It’s a world where Amado / McPhee / Kessler / Corsano can get noticed as the super group that they are (in 2015 they went from a critics’ poll run-off to winning a subsequent Readers’ Choice poll). My top ten there will include some of my choices in the Francis Davis/NPR poll. Am I being fickle? Indecisive? Two faced? No. At FJB I get a chance to briefly explain my choices, highlighting things that should be celebrated that they may be heard whether any other voters heard them, liked them or otherwise, like Christopher Fox’s Topophony and Veryan Weston’s Make Project, things I want other close listeners to hear without caring about whether they’re “jazz” by some special criteria, consensus or executive fiat. There I can even go so far as to vote (albeit with an appropriate mea culpa for the sin of the liner note writer) for Braxton’s 11-CD Sextet (Parker) 1993, thereby forsaking the music writer’s unsullied position above conflict of interest, but at least voting for something appropriate to most every poll’s underlying reverence for Best! Most! Biggest!

But best, most, biggest? I like to hope we’re more interested in something meaningful or memorable, for its makers’ interest in their own process, the process of making, from which jazz has created its special identity, continuous with improvisation, rather than the made; interested in it for its intimacy with its own time, its speculative character, its thoughtful outreach (fortunately for my argument, those unusual Braxton and Sorey entries still qualify). I don’t want to vote for just the best (for which I lack any formula), but the most arresting, the most thoughtful, the most challenging music I heard. I value those exploring what music can do and mean, music that touches one personally, not as part of a journalistic continuum or a putative history of taste, but the special event or specific space, that trusts and engages the particularity and transferability of our experiences. So here goes ... another list, some choices differing from those of my other lists, for a poll of one, with some utopian choices that just occurred to me ...

At the limits of intimacy and non-commerce, two recordings stand out for me:

1a) Ross Lambert: MAGNIT-IZ-DAT (Earshots! Recordings). Lambert adapts his guitar to the practice of psychogeography, the realm of his fellow-Londoners, writers Iain Sinclair and Will Self, by recording his guitar in the backseat of a car in various South London locales, making himself a spontaneous conduit between a world and an instrument.

1b) Marco Scarassatti Hackearragacocho (QTV). On this bandcamp release, Brazilian Scarassatti improvises on a viola de concho, a Brazilian idiomatic lute carved from a single block of wood, modifying the bridge to facilitate bowing and adding sympathetic strings. The results do not sound like a person playing an instrument but a music in which player and instrument have arrived in the middle ground of sound itself.

The following musics get out and go places, though in ways less immediate than the backseat of a car, playing with architecture, anthropology and institutions; engaging echoes real and psychological; making music around definitions of the human and, in one case, the inhumane; taking on daunting challenges of logistics and scale to give birth to new works: some suggest the extramusical but engage their subjects in ways that make music larger.

1c) Larry Ochs / Gerald Cleaver: Songs of the Wild Cave (Rogue Art). Ochs and Cleaver take saxophones and drums, respectively, into a French cave occupied some forty thousand years ago, engaging the echoes physical, cultural and psychological of a dark and secret space at the birthplace of human art in the Pleistocene age. Old resonance makes new music.

1d) Susanna Santos Silva: All the Rivers (Clean Feed). Santos Silva explores the heady echoes and sonic potential of Portugal’s National Pantheon, starting out in a small balcony and moving around the ancient church, aiming her trumpet in various directions to test the echoes. It’s powerful music even without considering it’s a martial instrument, being played by a woman, in a national tomb in which only two women have been interred.

1e) Common Objects (John Butcher / Angharad Davies / Rhodri Davies / Lina Lapelyte / Lee Patterson / Pat Thomas): Skullmarks (ftarri, 2018) For a performance in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Butcher’s composition focuses the players’ attention on four objects chosen from the collection, ranging from masks to a painted bear’s skull. Like all of these recordings, it would be stunning music even without the program.

1f) Veryan Weston / Element Choir The Make Project (Barnyard Research, 2018). This is Weston’s third recording of his Tessellations project, in which every pentatonic scale is present, moving from one to another with one pitch changing at a time. This Toronto incarnation with seven other musicians and Christine Duncan’s 45-voice conduction choir matches the scales to texts from women writers over 800 years, the scale changing on the word “make” as it appears in each text.

1g) Christopher Fox: Topophony. WDR sinfonia orchester; conductor: Ilan Volkov; soloists: John Butcher; Thomas Lehn; Axel Dörner; Paul Lovens. (HatArt, 2018) The world needs more large-scale orchestral compositions that include spontaneous conductor decisions and integrate free improvisers. Ilan Volkov’s other recent debuts include some of Roscoe Mitchell’s Conversations, works first transcribed from collective free improvisations, then orchestrated, usually including further improvised elements.

1h) Szilárd Mezei Vocal Ensemble: Hotel America (Not Two). A work of terrible power, this is a five-movement, 76-minute work for 15 musicians and three actor/singers, employing large-scale composition, free jazz and free improvisation that sets Hungarian poems amongst prisoners awaiting execution. The work is based on the persecution, torture and mass murder of Hungarians in a region that is now part of Serbia. Mezei’s brilliant synthesis of idioms is the product of extended work and reflection, achieving a density and intensity that perfectly focus the madness and pathos of sectarian slaughter.

I’m left with several works fighting it out for spots 1i to 1j, some of them works that are punished in this configuration for being real contenders in the other competitions named above, that is in lists less quirky, political, literary and ecological, that is, lists other than mine.

Here goes:

Rodrigo Amado/ Joe McPhee/ Kent Kessler/ Chris Corsano:
A History of Nothing (Trost)

AMM: An Unintended Legacy (Matchless recordings)

Cyril Bondi/ Pierre-Yves Martel/ Christoph Schiller: tse (another timbre)

Dave Holland / Evan Parker / Craig Taborn / Ches Smith: Uncharted Territories (Dare 2 Records)

Ingrid Laubrock: Contemporary Chaos Practices (Intakt)

Jacob Sacks: Fishes (Clean Feed)

Matthew Shipp / William Parker / Daniel Carter: Seraphic Light (AUM).

Cory Smythe: Circulate Susanna (Pyroclastic)

Tyshawn Sorey: Pillars (Firehouse 12)

Trio Sowari: Third Issue (Mikroton)

Brodie West Quintet: Clips (Lorna)

And archival favorites:

Anthony Braxton: Sextet (Parker) 1993 (New Braxton House)…yeah, yeah, mea culpa

John Coltrane: Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album: Deluxe Edition (Impulse!)

Eric Dolphy: Musical Prophet (Resonance)

Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Karyōbin (are the imaginary birds said to live in paradise) (Emanem)

Stuart Broomer © 2018

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