Best Jazz of 2016

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First, my contrarian uncool confession: I don’t love lists. I just don’t think music is a competition. Nor is writing about it, for me, a ratings game. (I prefer telling stories and reviewing each recording in its own context.) Still, I see the point, know the drill and have my choices, which honor worthy recordings and form a guide to satisfying listening. And this time of year is about giving: What readers want is lists, so critics need give accordingly.

Truth is, I’ve found that the making of these lists—the consciousness, conversations, even arguments they generate in the context of the many other lists made by critics, bloggers and even musicians—does in fact add up to meaningful context. That point was best driven home or me by actual public conversation at a “Year in Jazz” panel hosted by my colleague Nate Chinen and presented by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem a few years ago.

Most of colleagues love lists—especially year-end ones. Few have gone about compiling lists with the rigor and passion of Francis Davis, who, a decade ago, corralled 30 writers to create a list of the finest jazz albums of 2006 for the Village Voice. Now, Davis’s poll lives on as the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, and he has more than quadrupled his forces — 137 voters.

Im honored each year to answer Davis’s call.

You can find this year’s results here.

Best if you let Davis set the context, which he does each year in an essay. This year’s pull-quote: “The year belonged to what I think of as avant elders, or better yet, the avant gentry — musicians who have remained in the jazz vanguard for three to five decades now.”

He got that part right.

Here’s my list (and apologies that I couldn’t come up with a recording debut of the year (Davis’s strict rules require that the musician have no previous recorded output, which slims the field).

  1. Jason Moran, The Armory Concert (Band Camp)
  2. Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke (ECM)
  3. Tyshawn Sorey, The Inner Spectrum of Variables (Pi)
  4. Henry Threadgill Double Up Ensemble, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi)
  5. Pedrito Martinez, Habana Dreams (Motéma)
  6. Andrew Cyrille, The Declaration of Musical Independence (ECM)
  7. René Marie, Sound of Red (Motéma)
  8. Herlin Riley, New Directions (Mack Avenue)
  9. Evan Christopher, Bayou Chant (STR Digital)
  10. Adam O’Farrill, Stranger Days (Sunnyside)

REISSUES/HISTORICAL RELEASES

  1. Miles Davis, Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5 (Columbia Legacy)
  2. David S. Ware & Matthew Shipp, Live in Sant’Anna Arresi 2004 (AUM Fidelity)
  3. Charlie Haden & Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Tokyo Adagio (Impulse! -15)

VOCAL

  • René Marie, Sound of Red (Motéma)

DEBUT

  • No choice.

LATIN

  • Pedrito Martinez, Habana Dreams (Motéma

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