The Year In Jazz

Jan 1, 2014
Originally published on January 14, 2014 4:14 pm

For the past eight years, jazz critic Francis Davis polls his fellow critics on the best jazz records of the year.

Davis joins  Here & Now’s Robin Young to share the best jazz music that came out of 2013. Davis also takes a look back at some of jazz’s biggest losses from the year — from Marian McPartland to Jim Hall and Yusef Lateef.

Music Heard In The Segment




  • Francis Davis, jazz critic for the Village Voice and contributing editor to the Atlantic.


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And as we move on to 2014, we're going to spend a couple of minutes looking back at 2013 in jazz.


YOUNG: That's saxophonist Steve Coleman, one of many artists jazz critic Francis Davis is highlighting in his annual poll. Every year he asks other critics to pick the year's best. This year he teamed up with NPR Music to do that. He's known there. He's married to - what's her name - oh, yes, Terry Gross. Francis, Happy New Year. And start with last year's big winner in your poll, saxophonists and former Miles Davis sidemen Wayne Shorter. Your thoughts.

FRANCIS DAVIS: Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, that all represents maybe the last thing that all of us in jazz agree on. I mean, 50 years is - 45 years is a lot of water under the bridge and a lot has happened. But that's the thing we still hold up, is the standard.

YOUNG: Right. Well, let's listen to a little bit of Wayne Shorter's album "Without a Net." It was the clear winner, and here's the song "Orbits."


YOUNG: So some of us, you know, we love Wayne Shorter. What else do you think is happening here? Because as you said, he made his recording debut in the '50s. You say he's drifted in and out of focus since 1971, when he left Miles' band to start Weather Report. So what do you think critics are hearing here?

DAVIS: Oh, they're hearing his latest triumphant return. You know, it's funny. About 10 years ago we went through the same thing with his first acoustic record in a long time, and everybody was celebrating. So this is like his latest triumphant return, you know. And you know, everybody just is ready to welcome him back.

YOUNG: Well - and as you say, it's sort of the acknowledgment of the acknowledged gods in jazz...

DAVIS: Yeah.

YOUNG: ...Miles, Wayne Shorter, Charlie Haden, those guys. But then this year, the poll got a little funkier. People might not expect. So let's take a listen. Cecile McLorin Salvant, a singer, let's listen to her "You Bring Out the Savage in Me."


CECILE MCLORIN SALVANT: (Singing) You bring out the savage in me. Oh, call it madness or sin, how was I not to know what was creeping within me? Just like Tarzan, be my ape man. I'm getting so ferocious and I can't escape, man.

YOUNG: Whoo. I mean, there's steam coming off of that. And she's 24?

DAVIS: Yeah, she's 24 and she's certainly one of the most widely embraced (unintelligible) jazz singer to come along in a long, long time. The thing with that record, though, it sort of shows what she can do without showing who she is. I mean I think it's pretty easy for her to sound like anybody she wants to sound like. And I think the message here might be stay tuned...

YOUNG: Yeah. Right.

DAVIS: know, and see what happens with her. She is only 24.

YOUNG: Right. You also want us to think about Darcy James Argue. Is that really the name, Argue?

DAVIS: Yeah, yeah.


DAVIS: Apparently it's a fine old Irish name. One thing that's interesting about Darcy is that like Maria Schneider he's a non-playing composer. I mean, he doesn't play an instrument, at least not in public. I assume he composes on piano.

YOUNG: Maria Schneider, the fabulous big-band leader.

DAVIS: Yeah. And, you know, there's always been in jazz a tendency to downplay composition. But then you got people like obviously Ellington, but like Maria Schneider and like Darcy James Argue where the composition is the main thing. And you can just hear him shaping the improvisations, not just conducting his music, but as a part of an entire package. And he had a record this year - I keep saying record. I should say CD or album or whatever. But he had a CD this year which was part of a multimedia presentation originally, involving a graphic novel. And, of course, what we get on the CD is just the music, but it stands on its own brilliantly. It's a work with great size and sweep. And I think he has a really great future.

YOUNG: Let's bring him up. Darcy James Argue, Canadian composer and band leader. Here's the song "The Neighborhood."


YOUNG: I really like that.

DAVIS: Yeah, it jumps out at you. And you can hear that he's influence by all sorts of things, you know, minimalism, for example. There are some pop influences too. And it's all together in a really kind of tasty stew, you know?

YOUNG: Love it. We'll have the list at so people can check back. But now your favorite, Mary Halvorson?

DAVIS: Yeah. Mary Halvorson, which was my top choice, she's a guitarist in her early 30s and I first became aware of her in Anthony Braxton - the alto saxophonist's band. But the year would kind of go to Mary Halvorson's work. There was obviously the influence of rock guitar, for lack of a better word, shredding, but also this sort of like avant-garde guitar, but she absorbed all that. And this is the largest group she's led so far in this record, "Illusionary Sea."

It's a septet. And one of the great things about it is the way she never lets things kind of unravel into a string of solos. But the themes continue throughout, and she does a good job of knowing which soloist to pinpoint on a particular track.

YOUNG: Let's listen to guitarist Mary Halvorson and her septet. The song is "Smiles of Great Men" off her new album, "Illusionary Sea."


YOUNG: Francis Davis, you write this is a hint of what might be next for jazz.

DAVIS: I think this is what I would like to see - more of a blend, you know, between composition and improvisation, and also introducing these newer elements into it. You know, musicians who are now, like, 40 or younger, didn't grow up with just jazz. I mean, you know, they grew up hearing all kinds of pop, all kinds of odd avant-garde classical music. And, you know, I think it's just a natural inclination for musicians to think, what can I use from that? And I think people like Mary Halvorson and Darcy James Argue are finding good answers to that question.


YOUNG: And we're speaking with Francis Davis, jazz critic and author. This is one of his picks for the best of the past year in jazz. Guitarist Mary Halvorson is shredding here. That'll wake you up. Much more after the break, HERE AND NOW.



And we've been looking at the year in jazz with author and jazz critic Francis Davis. Every year he polls other jazz critics to find the best jazz of the year. And this year he teamed up with NPR Music to conduct the poll. As we've said, he's also teamed up with FRESH AIR'S Terry Gross. They're married. So, Terry, please tweet the segment to your 90 ka-billion followers.

Francis found established artists like Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland, Joe Lovano in the second tier this year in the poll. At the top - with the exception of Wayne Shorter - were up-and-comers like pianist Craig Taborn. And, Francis, let's start there. His new album is "Chance." This song is "Beat the Ground." Listen for a second, and then tell us what you hear.


DAVIS: Listening to that passage, again, you hear the influence of, I would say minimalism. Craig Taborn, along with a few other pianists, Craig Taborn is in his early 40s. And he's finding like a kind of new expanded language for the most basic and autonomous unit in jazz, the rhythm section. Often, when you hear a piano, bass and drums trio, even if it sounds good, you find yourself thinking after a while, yeah, but where do the horns come in? I'm getting bored with this. You don't with Craig Taborn.


YOUNG: You know, I'm wondering as I'm listening to you, all these - for many these will be new names - what is the state of jazz? Not a lot of radio play anymore. What's your sense of how healthy it is?

DAVIS: I think it's a lot healthier than is normally assumed. There's a famous quote by Lou Reed that only a few thousand people bought the first "Velvet Underground" album. But everybody who did became - you know, started his own band, her own band. And I - when people hear jazz, they become involved in it. Either they start playing it or they start writing about it.

And it's going to be a peripheral phenomenon, I guess, and it's going to be a fringe thing. But so is everything at this point. You know, like, our overall culture has just like shattered into a million pieces. And yeah, you know, sort of Miley Cyrus is bigger than the other pieces, but there's all sorts of passions that people have, and jazz will continue to be one of those, I think.

YOUNG: I thought you were going to say that this is the result - staying with the Lou Reed thinking - this is the result of a couple generations removed from people who bought the Miles Davis album, you know, much the way the Lou Reed...

DAVIS: Oh, sure. Mm-hmm.

YOUNG: ...spawned. Yeah, yeah.

DAVIS: But also Coltrane, I would say too. You know, they had parents who listened to Coltrane records. You know, when I discovered jazz, it was pretty much on my own. It's not like I came from a family that listen to it. And, you know, it's funny, there are probably many marriages where one person listens to jazz and the other person doesn't. And that's one thing that my wife and I have in common, at least. But I know guys who have to go up their attic to listen to the records. It's pretty depressing.


YOUNG: Well, women too. Well - and we also lost some jazz artists this year, and we want to close out with some of those who are the giants who we lost this past year. It's been noted but can't note it enough - pianist and NPR host Marian McPartland. Let's just listen to a little of her "Manhattan."


YOUNG: What a lovely touch.

DAVIS: Yeah.

YOUNG: Your thoughts on her legacy.

DAVIS: Well, not to underrate her as a pianist, but I think her stint - long stint as an NPR host with PIANO JAZZ is what people will remember most about her. And also, you know, Mary McPartland, she was a fine writer too. She wrote reviews for DownBeat in - I guess it was in the '60s. But I still remember some of the things that she wrote and said. I was just a, you know, new to jazz and reading DownBeat at the time. But she was good as a writer.

YOUNG: Great influence. Yusef Lateef, composer but also played tenor sax flute, taught at UMass Amherst, recently died. Let's listen to a little of his "The Plum Blossom."


YOUNG: Francis Davis, thoughts on his contribution?

DAVIS: Well, you know, he played tenor - also alto, occasionally, alto saxophone - flute, oboe; but that's like really the least of his accomplishments. He also was a thinker and a seeker. And he got musicians thinking about eastern influences, eastern spirituality, eastern philosophy, everything like that.

YOUNG: Well, and I know that there were other losses this year. We can't get to them all. But one we have to mention - because he just - I don't know how you'd characterize it, I'm looking forward to hearing - Jim Hall, "Deep In a Dream." Let's listen to that.


YOUNG: You know, when he passed this year, you heard from Pat Metheny and Julian Lage, just, you know, every guitarist saying he was the influence. Why?

DAVIS: Oh, touch alone. Jim Hall told me one time that he used amplification not so he could play louder but so he could play more softly and still be heard. And that's - I think that's the kind of thing that's obvious once you think about it. But, man, I don't think very many people know that. And you mentioned Pat Metheny and a few other people. Bill Frisell will be another one. It almost became a rite of passage for younger guitarists to make a duet record with Jim Hall. They all - they so adored him.

And he was just a - I had the pleasure of meeting him - interviewing him once, and it probably helps that he was just like such a modest guy. We went to hear Jim Hall - Terry - we had been dating only a few months when we went to New York and heard Jim Hall playing duets with Bob Brookmeyer at Sweet Basil, a club in the village. And Sweet Basil had no dressing room. Musicians love the place, but they hated standing out in the cold, you know, between sets. But Jim Hall was out there, and I remember Terry said he looks like a pediatrician, you know?


DAVIS: Which he did, you know. It's funny, there are people who've seen and heard Jim Hall who might not even realize it. For years he was in the band for "The Merv Griffin Show."

YOUNG: Oh, no.

DAVIS: Yeah. It was during a period when Jim was a - he didn't want to go on the road and he didn't want to play clubs. He was a recovering alcoholic. And so he took a steady gig, you know? He also - I remember something else he said, which was that sometimes when he was playing, when he was taking a solo, he'd say to himself: What would Sonny Rollins do?

He had played with Sonny Rollins in a very important band in the '60s that Sonny had. But they both had this sort of natural, like, narrative sense in their solos, you know? You could stick with it the whole way. He's just a great - he was just a great guitarist.

YOUNG: Well, for most living guitarists the wrist band would read: WWJH - What would Jim Hall...

DAVIS: Yeah. What would Jim Hall do, yeah. Yeah.

YOUNG: Big loss for the year. But as you've been pointing out, a lot of wonderful young talent coming up. Jazz critic and author Francis Davis, by the way, also won a Grammy in 2009 for his album notes to a reissue of Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue." So he's - he's got his chops, and he's been taking us through the jazz of the past year. We'll link you to his poll and to all the artists mentioned at Francis, thank you so much. And Happy New Year to you and yours.

DAVIS: Yes, and thank you, Robin. A Happy New Year to you.


YOUNG: We had Jim Hall, playing "The Way You Look Tonight." Rest in peace. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Meghna Chakrabarti looking forward to another great year of jazz here on the program. This is HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.