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The Jazz Albums Of 2017 And The Power Of Gatekeepers

Kirk Knuffke's <em>Cherryco </em>was Francis Davis' top jazz album of the year.
Ken Weiss
Courtesy of the artist
Kirk Knuffke's Cherryco was Francis Davis' top jazz album of the year.

What does it say about the state of jazz recording that Jason Moran and Rudresh Mahanthappa, both former Jazz Critics Poll winners, resorted to issuing their new albums primarily as digital downloads? Nothing good, probably, though I know some will say that digital is where sales are these days and jazz is just catching up to the zeitgeist. The not-entirely-unreasonable argument goes that by taking to the Internet, musicians such as Moran and Mahanthappa are eliminating capricious gatekeepers and seizing power for themselves.

But they demonstrated by their different fates that gatekeepers are still necessary in getting the word out, even to those of us whose job entails keeping up. Mahanthappa had the smarts to also issue his new album on limited-edition vinyl and to hire a good publicity firm, and Agrima narrowly missed this year's Top 10. On the other hand, the four excellent albums Moran has released via Bandcamp since his exit from Blue Note have gone virtually unnoticed; I don't recall reading a word about any of them even in DownBeat or JazzTimes.

Critics also play a role in getting the word out, of course, which is why opinion polls like this one serve an increasingly vital purpose. But record labels are the ultimate gatekeepers, and two in particular — neither especially keen on streaming and downloading — are emerging as saviors. Pi Recordings typically waits a good long time before making its releases available for streaming, and in announcing earlier this year that the ECM catalog would be made available across all digital platforms again for the first time in more than a decade, Manfred Eicher reminded listeners that, while his "first priority is that the music should be heard," "the complete ECM album with its artistic signature, best possible sound quality, sequence and dramaturgy intact, telling its story from beginning to end" remained the label's crucial point of reference.

Dramaturgy? And yet I think I know what he means. Music delivered via MP3 and .WAV is palatable without being tangible. In lacking physical dimension, it also lacks the physical presence, the satisfaction of ownership, the thingness that LPs and CDs have accustomed us to over the years. Besides which, without the publicity apparatus of actual labels, and with the disappearance of brick-and-mortar record stores, how are we even to know what's out for purchase? "No labels" may be a desirable goal in politics (it's debatable), but not in recording.

For decades now, wags have had it that jazz is dead. But what's actually falling prey to changing times is the entire recording industry. Jazz is merely collateral damage.

In all, 137 print, broadcast and digital journalists took part in this year's poll. You can see their ballots here. Mine is below:

1. Kirk Knuffke, Cherryco (Steeplechase). A streamlined tribute album that does honor to both the dedicatees (Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman) and the dedicator, a rising Brooklyn-based cornetist who thrives in the kind of open setting Coleman and Cherry themselves preferred, interacting with just bass and drums.

2. Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan, Small Town (ECM). The close attention Frisell requires from listeners begins with the close attention he requires from the other musicians in the studio or on the bandstand with him — as in the case of this quietly thrilling encounter from the Village Vanguard. He gets everything he needs and more from Morgan, a stalwart bassist who is suddenly — and understandably — becoming ubiquitous.

3. Roscoe Mitchell, Bells For The South Side (ECM). See poll results.

4. Steve Coleman's Natal Eclipse, Morphogenesis (Pi). See poll results.

5. Matthew Shipp Trio, Piano Song (Thirsty Ear) Shipp goes deep in the keys and bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker get right down there with him. As he's done at least once previously, the pianist has announced that this album will mark his retirement from recording. I don't expect him to keep that promise, and I'll be delighted when he doesn't.

6. Dave Douglas with the Westerlies & Anwar Marshall, Little Giant Still Life (Greenleaf). Just trumpet, a brass chorale and a drummer — buoyant perfection.

7. Vijay Iyer Sextet, Far From Over (ECM). See poll results.

8. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis featuring Jon Batiste, The Music Of John Lewis (Blue Engine). Not to slight the fine arrangements by Marsalis, David Berger and Lewis himself, the star here is Jon Batiste, who does as grand a job of evoking the Modern Jazz Quartet's maestro as he does dropping Monk behind Stephen Colbert's monologues on TV nightly. Dismiss him as a clown and that's your loss, not his.

9. Ron Miles, I Am A Man (Enja/Yellowbird). The undersung cornetist is first among equals in this lyrical, all-star gathering with Bill Frisell, Jason Moran, Brian Blade and Thomas Morgan again.

10. Ingrid Laubrock, Serpentines (Intakt). She's a German-born, now American-based saxophonist with bold ideas, a shining tone and a penchant for instrumental combinations as attractive as they are unusual — in this case, including tuba, kora, electronics and glockenspiel. Add Tyshawn Sorey on drums and Craig Taborn on piano, and you've got a surefire winner.

Honorable Mention: Lucia Cadotsch, Speak Low (Enja/Yellowbird); Amir El Saffar & Rivers of Sound, Not Two (New Amsterdam); Tomas Fujiwara, Triple Double (Firehouse 12); Brian Landrus Orchestra, Generations (BlueLand); Nick Mazzarella & Tomeka Reid, Signaling (Nessa); Ranky Tanky, Ranky Tanky (Resilience); Jason Stein Quartet, Lucille! (Delmark); David Virelles, Gnosis (ECM); Matt Wilson, Honey And Salt (Palmetto); Various, Celebrate Ornette (Song X).

Rara Avis: Thelonious Monk, Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 (Sam/Saga); Alice Coltrane, World Spirituality Classics 1:The Ecstatic Music Of Turiya Alice Coltrane (Luaka Bop); Oscar Pettiford Nonet/Big Band/Sextet, New York City 1955-1958 (Uptown).

Vocal: Jen Shyu, Song of Silver Geese (Pi)

Debut: Kate Gentile, Mannequins (Skirl)

Latin: Anat Cohen & Marcello Gonçalves, Outra Coisa (Anzic)

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Francis Davis

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