Eighty-five now and in a wheelchair for his recent Kennedy Center Honors, not to mention notoriously self-critical, Wayne Shorter releases albums so infrequently these days that a new one is automatically a BIG EVENT. Whether or not Emanon — the winner of this year’s NPR Jazz Critics Poll and Shorter’s first album since Without a Net in 2013, which topped that year’s poll — is an event, it’s surely big, literally. Its three CDs — one matching the saxophonist and his longtime rhythm section (pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade) with the 34-piece Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the other two recorded live in London, no venue or date given — are tucked into an 8 by 10-inch, 84-page hardcover comic book illustrated by Randy DuBurke and captioned by Shorter and one Monica Sly. (Blue Note refers to it as a graphic novel, but it’s more vintage Marvel superhero fantasy than quotidian Harvey Pekar or Daniel Clowes). The package lists for $75 (figure at least double that for the signed vinyl edition, though Blue Note’s website is vague), and is available only as physical product — no streaming or downloading, meaning that you can’t hear the music without shelling out for the whole damn thing.
Based only in part on his bypassing of hard bop and fusion conventions in his solos and writing, I’ve long thought (and probably written more than once) that if not for his Buddhism, his savoir faire as a cinéaste (who else has watched The Red Shoes hundreds of times) and the understandable pride he takes in his virtuosity, Shorter might have been a lifetime Sun Ra Arkestra member, Ra’s fellow Afrofantasist (John Gilmore, in other words). Beginning with a cover depicting Shorter’s face adrift in outer space, everything about Emanon seems intended to prove my point. Anybody can figure out that “Emanon” is “no name” spelled backwards. But I bet Shorter, a student of Asian culture, sci-fi buff and comic book collector on top of everything else, knows it’s also the name of the heroine of a series of novels drawn in a style called manga, more or less the on-paper equivalant of anime.
Emanon is a deserving poll winner. The encounter with Orpheus is Shorter’s finest work in this vein, latter day Third Stream that’s everything a similar venture on Without a Net should have been, and more. Discs two and three, which beg to be thought of as Shorter’s double live album, offer a generous helping of his tenor, and when was the last time he treated us to that? (And without stinting on soprano, either). Still, I worry its victory might be seen as rewarding not just ambition, but unnecessary sprawl. Is this becoming a trend? Is bigger better? Some professionals complained that last year’s Top 10 leaned too avant-garde, dominated by the kind of music blamed for scaring audiences away from jazz. This year’s Top 20 includes four multidisc sets, the same number of double albums, and two matched pairs of albums (by Henry Threadgill and the leaderless collective Thumbscrew) that might as well be doubles. Who has time to give these projects the attention they warrant, much less the cash to buy them?
I hate saying it, but I also wish the poll winner wasn’t 85, especially given that the runners-up, Threadgill and Andrew Cyrille, are 74 and 79, respectively — seemingly confirming the belief of the snottiest of young people that jazz is music created by old black men for the enjoyment of old white men. But Shorter and Threadgill are iconic, exceptions to every rule, and Cyrille, Cecil Taylor’s longest-tenured drummer, ought to be, for his role in the first explosion of free jazz in the 1960s and his nurturing of many of the most important figures in two subsequent generations of the jazz avant-garde.
Besides, without looking up or guessing ages, the Top 50 is dotted with the names of musicians who began their recording careers post-millennium. And Nos. 4 (Makaya McCraven), 5 (Ambrose Akinmusire) 11 (Sons of Kemet) and 12 (Kamasi Washington) use rap and/or post-production techniques associated with techno, trance and hip hop in what sounds like a bid to appeal to listeners around the same age as these young performers. I find it significant that this mini-trend coincides with revisionist critical appreciation of 1970s “spiritual” and black-nationalist jazz, as epitomized by Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Nate Chinen questioned articles hailing Washington as Sanders’s second coming, arguing that the younger saxophonist doesn’t need that level of hype. Maybe not, but Washington’s music and that of McCraven, Akinmusire and Sons of Kemet, in their different ways, is heard as restorative by many of its most ardent fans, much as Wynton and Branford Marsalis’s take on mid-’60s Miles Davis was by many in the early ’80s. Which, looked at pessimistically would mean it’s taken jazz over 30 years to progress just five.
But this could be just the geezer in me talking — the straight, white, unreconstructed cis male shouting down anybody thinks differently from him. Debate surrounding last year’s poll had little to do with who won, and everything to do with age, race and especially gender. It all started when Vijay Iyer, the poll winner, whose parents emigrated to the U.S. before he was born, and who’s described himself, as a “non-black person of color,” tweeted that he’d benefited from white male privilege in placing first. It’s true that only six of last year’s 137 participants were women; this year’s figures were ten out of 139, better but still not good (except for a handful I know personally, the race and age of voters remain unknown.)
About ten years ago, before Mary Halvorson became well-known in avant-garde circles, I saw her perform with someone else’s band (don’t recall whom) before a small crowd on the University of Pennsylvania campus. Only one woman was in the room that night, and she was on stage. Though women instrumentalists are finally leaving their mark on jazz, audiences and the jazz press lag far behind. Last year I invited perhaps a dozen-and-a-half female writers from the scant number with regular bylines to participate, and about two dozen this year. Fewer than half elected to take part, some explaining that they hadn’t listened to enough new recordings to feel confident in choosing the year’s best. A male colleague suggested this was “a gendered response,” but I don’t buy it. Male invitees voted at approximately the same rate, many declining for the same reason. Besides, Pauline Kael, Susan Sontag, Ellen Willis and Valerie Wilmer never had to be coaxed to share their opinions. They couldn’t stop themselves, and neither could anyone else.
Forget their stature. Arts criticism on any level requires their kind of steel. Gender bias in jazz may be self-perpetuating. I subscribe to the maxim that whatever demographic makes up the majority of the audience for any sort of music is eventually going to be on stage performing it — call it the White Blues Syndrome. But there probably won’t be many more women in the audience for jazz until there are more women playing it, so we’re back where we started. What I do think might be a gendered response is that, like record collecting, making ranked lists of them is pretty much a boy thing.
As proof, here’s mine for 2018:
1. Henry Threadgill 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg, Dirt . . . and More Dirt (Pi)
I did Threadgill a disservice by not permitting voters to combine this with his simultaneously released Plays Double Up Plus on their ballots. Otherwise, Threadgill would have topped Shorter. Of the two albums, this one featuring a 15-piece orchestra is the choice for me; the six-movement “Dirt” is as powerful as 2016’s NPR poll-winning Old Locks and Irregular Verbs or 2015’s Pulitzer Prize-winning In for a Penny, In for a Pound, but on twice the scale. The four-part “More Dirt” doesn’t provide Threadgill as many horns to throw around, but comes as close as he probably ever will to crafting a swinging, almost conventional big band chart (the operative word being “almost”).
2. Joshua Redman, Still Dreaming (Nonesuch)
Starting with Back East in 2007, Redman has just kept getting better, and this is his best yet. Talk about a hall of mirrors: it’s a tribute to an Ornette Coleman tribute band whose members included Redman’s father Dewey, from whom he grew up estranged (raised by his mother, a single parent) but with whom he occasionally recorded as an adult and rising star. His loosy-goosy interplay with trumpeter Ron Miles, and bassist Scott Colley’s with drummer Brian Blade, should be recommendation enough. But something personal feels at stake in Redman’s solos, and I’m guessing the album title refers to Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father as well as Old and New Dreams.
3. Bobby Sanabria, West Side Story Reimagined (Jazzheads)
The most honest and meaningful of the year’s many Bernstein centennial tributes. It’s not as if Sanabria and his arrangers try to spice up Bernstein’s landmark Broadway score with Puerto Rican flavorings, rather that they know where near Lincoln Center to shop for those seasonings—as if the maestro was just waiting for a savvy Nuyorican like Sanabria to come along.
4. Frank Kimbrough, Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk (Sunnyside)
One of 2018’s two imposing Monk collections, each numbering six discs, although Miles Okasaki’s solo guitar recital is digital only (the reverse of Emanon). Kimbrough’s is my pick because Monk’s tunes were piano numbers above all else, and even though the underappreciated pianist is fully himself, the resemblance to Monk is uncanny when he wants it to be. Plus Scott Robinson takes care of business on all of his numerous axes. (Both the Kimbrough and Okasaaki follow Alexander von Schlippenbach’s playful Monk’s Casino by a few years. Now, won’t somebody complete the picture by doing an album of Monk’s oddball Tin Pan Alley interpretations, like “Just One Way to Say That I Love You” and “There’s Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie.”
5. Owen Broder, Heritage: The American Roots Project (ArtistShare)
The year brought Adam Nussbaum’s The Leadbelly Project; Andy Biskin’s 16 Tons;Cory Smythe’s Circulate Susannah; Greg Saunter, Mary Halvorson, and Ron Miles’s New American Songbooks, Volume 1 … Suddenly, everyone’s wild about Stephen Foster, Leadbelly, Alan Lomax, and Harry Smith. My favorite among this bumper crop of Americana is the debut album of a young saxophonist who’s willing to share the spotlight with other soloists (especially violinist Sara Caswell, in her element riffing on tunes readymade for country fiddle) and name composer/arrangers (among them Bill Holman, Miho Hazama, and Ryan Truesdell, who also produced).
6. Don Byron & Aruán Ortiz, Random Dances and (A)tonalities (Intakt)
Byron is a playful clarinetist and saxophonist who’s been lost in the groves of academe the last few years, and Ortiz one of two especially gifted young Cuban-born pianists to arrive on the scene during the same time. They match each other in wit and range on an imaginative program that includes Bach, Ellington, Geri Allen, and originals by each.
7. David Virelles, Igbó Alákorin (The Singer’s Grove), Vol. I & II (Pi)
The other gifted young Cuban-born pianist I’m referring to. This portfolio of folk and vintage pop tunes from Havana and Santiago de Cuba, some featuring full orchestra and voices, others just piano and scraping güiro, won’t be the most ambitious album Virelles ever makes, nor is it even the best he’s made so far—just the most overflowingly heartfelt and irresistable.
8. Andrew Cyrille, Lebroba (ECM)
Named on more ballots than either Shorter and Threadgill, so maybe we should call the race a three-way tie. On paper, Bill Frisell with Cyrille and AACM charter-member Wadada Leo Smith might seem a combination that can’t possibly work. But what the three have in common is a commitment to listening, and their three-way conversations are so engaging you’re never left feeling they’re conversing among themselves.
9. Thumbscrew, Ours/Theirs (Cuneiform)
Halvorson, certainly the most protean jazz guitarist since Frisell, was everywhere you turned an ear in 2018: her own Code Girl, the aforementioned New American Songbooks, an homage to ’50s guitar icon Johnny Smith with current icon Frisell, and a duet with with her mentor Joe Morris, just for starters. My favorites, though, are these two close-quarters, simultaneous releases with bassist Michael Formanak and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, one given over to the bandmembers’ originals, the other all nicely chosen covers of tunes by Shorter, Herbie Nichols, Jimmy Rowles, the great Dutch/German pianist Misha Mengelberg, and others. Must listening for anyone who’s been fooled into thinking Halvorson lacks jazz cred.
10. Dave Holland, Uncharted Territories (Dare2)
You can approach this as relatively “inside” for saxophonist Evan Parker, founder (with guitarist Derek Bailey) of a distinctly British school of free improvisation, or relatively “outside” for Holland, briefly a member of that school in the 1970s, before Miles Davis lured him to the U.S. It’s compelling either way, the type of Holland I’ve always preferred. With telling contributions by pianist Craig Taborn and drummer and vibist Ches Smith.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles (ECM)
The Savory Collection 1935-1940 (Mosaic)
John Coltrane, Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album (Impulse!)
Jon Batiste, Hollywood Africans (Verve)
Owen Broder, Heritage
Bobby Sanabria, West Side Story Reimagined