About My NPR Jazz Poll Ballot


Sometimes journalists root for a story to develop, and I think that concept was behind my NPR ballot of the best jazz recordings of the year.

This is the ballot


  1. Thumbscrew, Ours/Theirs(Cuneiform)
  2. Ambrose Akinmusire, Origami Harvest(Blue Note)
  3. Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings(International Anthem)
  4. Andrew Cyrille, Lebroba(ECM)
  5. Cécile McLorin Salvant, The Window(Mack Avenue)
  6. Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days, El Maquech(Biophilia)
  7. Miles Okazaki, Work: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Monk, Vols. 1-6(self-released)
  8. Michael Formanek Elusion Quartet, Time Like This(Intakt)
  9. Kris Davis & Craig Taborn, Octopus(Pyroclastic)
  10. Christian McBride, Christian McBride’s New Jawn(Mack Avenue)


  1. The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles(ECM)
  2. Charles Mingus, Jazz in Detroit/Strata Concert Gallery/46 Selden(BBE)
  3. John Coltrane, Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album(Impulse!)


  • Cécile McLorin Salvant, The Window (Mack Avenue)

In addition the organizers of the poll asked me to write a little (50 words, though I turned in about 70) about my choice for #1.  So I contributed these thoughts

With two companion recordings, Ours, a program of nine originals, and Theirs, an album of ten covers, Thumbscrew, the trio of bassist Michael Formanek, drummer Tomas Fujiwara and guitarist Mary Halvorson, obliterate the false dichotomy of innovation versus tradition in jazz (you have to have both), and create a personal canon of music that seethes with rhythmic ingenuity, bristles with surprise and connects the dots in unique ways. —Martin Johnson

So what was that about?

The idea writ small in the blurb is that one of the most animating factors in jazz this year was the evolution of personal canons.  I heard it in the way that Okazaki took on Monk, the way that Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson embraced the stylings of Warne Marsh, the way that Davis and Taborn channeled Carla Bley and Sun Ra, the inheritance presented by Joshua Redman on Still Dreaming, and on many other recordings and in concert literally dozens of times over the course of 2018.  And I thought it was especially significant.  Since the mid ’80s, the jazz tradition was incorrectly presented as something that needed fealty rather than honor.  You don’t honor Monk by playing like Monk, you honor Monk by building on his innovations the way that Thelonious built on the Harlem stride pianists.

The second element of significance is in the lineage.  50 years ago, apprenticeship defined lineage.  Wayne Shorter’s tendencies were honed while performing in bands led by Art Blakey and Miles Davis.  Now, musicians come from conservatories and have the entire history of recorded music literally in their pockets, so lineage is far harder to deduce.

In these canons, jazz fans can look back to understand the present and focus forward to hear the future of the music much more clearly than before.  It isn’t that there weren’t other vital trends, but this was the one that moved me most and I organized much of my ballot to reflect that.

Here’s the entire NPR poll.  If you love jazz, you will likely discover at least a week’s worth of new listening from it.  https://www.npr.org/2019/01/05/682193795/the-2018-npr-music-jazz-critics-poll

And here are the individual ballots of the contributors, http://hullworks.net/jazzpoll/18/



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At WSJ on Adam O’Farrill’s El Maquech

This is one of my favorite recordings of 2018, and somehow I forgot to post my WSJ review on my blog.

‘El Maquech’ Review: Big Sounds From a Small Group

Stranger Days, the quartet led by trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, blends the rustic and modern on an album inspired by large Yucatecan ensembles.

Trumpeter Adam O?Farrill
Trumpeter Adam O?Farrill PHOTO: ALICE PLATI

In an era when big bands often sound small and nuanced and when smaller ensembles favor intimate and pristine approaches, Stranger Days, the quartet led by 23-year-old trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, offers boisterous, spirited music that frequently sounds like it comes from a much larger group. On its recently released second album, “El Maquech” (Biophilla), the band presents rambunctious music that is equally rustic and modern.

Almost all jazz musicians face the daunting task of creating a unique voice while building on the formidable heritage of their instrument. Mr. O’Farrill has the additional task of standing out in an already impressive family. He is the son of Grammy Award-winning pianist Arturo O’Farrill, the leader of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, and classical pianist Alison Deane, and he is the grandson of the legendary Cuban bandleader Chico O’Farrill. There’s a blood tie in the band, too: Adam’s older brother, Zack, with whom he has co-led two recordings, plays drums. Bassist Walter Stinson and saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown round out the lineup.

The trumpeter began to imagine this project when he heard the title track of his new recording performed by the great Mexican band Orquesta Jaranera Sonora Yucateca, and he was attracted to the bounce and shaky rhythms of the piece. He began to arrange the music of this large ensemble and other Yucatecan groups for his band. The concept took further root when Stranger Days was commissioned to play at the New York Botanical Garden during its 2015 exhibit “Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life.”

The album opens with the Mexican folk song “Siiva Moiiva.” It’s propelled by catchy figures from Mr. Stinson and busy, urgent work by the horn players. As is often the case on the recording, solos are underpinned by supportive playing from the other band members. The compelling result reinforces the illusion that the quartet is a larger group. The title track combines waltz-like elegance with a danceable beat. The spirit of Thelonious Monk appears on “Erroneous Love,” a track—written by Mr. O’Farrillto to celebrate the Monk centennial in 2017—that uses the great pianist and composer’s “Eronel” as a point of departure. The proceedings reach a fever pitch on “Henry Ford Hospital,” named for a Kahlo painting.

The exception to the album’s flamboyance is Mr. O’Farrill’s poignant solo rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Get Thee Behind Me Satan.” His trumpet style is still evolving; the hard, clipped edges and bright tone that highlighted his group’s eponymous 2016 debut recording and some of his other work have given way to a rounder, fuller sound. He uses it to great effect on this track, evoking a gentle but firm resolve. He was drawn to the tune after hearing Ella Fitzgerald’s version on the soundtrack to the movie “The Master.”

Mr. O’Farrill is on the fast track toward jazz prominence. In addition to recording with family members, the trumpeter impressed mightily on Rudresh Mahanthappa’s widely acclaimed 2015 recording, “Bird Calls.” He has also performed with Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl, Stephan Crump’s Rhombal, the Oliver Lake Big Band and several other leading groups.

He was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., when a thriving jazz scene was developing there. Stranger Days began to take shape as the O’Farrill brothers and Mr. Stinson jammed in a shed in that borough’s Park Slope neighborhood. With its jazz roots and wide variety of other cultural influences, Stranger Days has the feel of contemporary Brooklyn. The band will celebrate the release of “El Maquech” in Manhattan, however, with a performance at 55 Bar on June 13.

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The Rebranding Project

I write…a lot.

I write about music, mostly jazz.

I write about sports, mostly basketball (though drill down deep enough here and you’ll find a late 2014 piece that correctly called the rise of the Chicago Cubs).

I write about gender issues;  essentially I think men need to embrace rather than resist their inner goddess.  Yeah, she’s universal, if she can exist inside my hoops loving, jazz listening, barbecue fanatic soul, then I think she’s everywhere; but a lot of men either don’t listen or don’t know how to act on her counsel.

I write about the new middle age.   It used to be the time to coast a little on your laurels; now it’s a time for urgent reinvention.

And at times, I have written professional grade prose on contemporary classical music, artisan cheese, craft beer and cinema.

I finally realized that that’s too damned much for one blog, so I’m breaking them up into other blogs for the purposes of rebranding my work.

The basketball pieces are here. https://fromwaydowntown.home.blog/

The gender, well feminism blogs (Chimamanda is right) are here, https://genderdtox.wordpress.com/

The musings about the new middle age are here, https://thegeoffreyowensexperience.home.blog/

The music pieces will remain here for now.  If the people I send this way can’t do a search on music, then I’ll break them out but for now, this blog is on my business card and I usually hand it to people in the music biz, so…

Pipeworks Lizard King art.png

I don’t write about craft beer often but I have.  What I do write about spans a similar variety.



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At WSJ on the Art Ensemble ECM Box Set

I so wished I could have squeezed information about the AEC 50th anniversary concert and album release into this, but it didn’t fit.

‘The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles’ Review: First-Rate Riffs From the Second City

A 21-disc boxed set offers clear sonic through-lines to some of today’s major jazz musicians

The Art Ensemble of Chicago in an undated photograph.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago in an undated photograph. PHOTO: ROBERTO MASOTTI/ECM RECORDS

Some of the best work of one of the greatest groups in jazz is celebrated in a new mammoth boxed set, “The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles” (ECM). The package features 21 discs, including five essential recordings from the Art Ensemble, as well as individually led and sideman projects by its members. It is a vital document of jazz in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and it offers clear sonic through-lines to some of today’s most important bands.

The Art Ensemble was an outgrowth of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a not-for-profit collective that formed in Chicago in 1965. Four of the original band members—trumpeter Lester Bowie (who died in 1999), bassist Malachi Favors (who passed away in 2004), and reedmen Joseph Jarman (who left the group in 1993) and Roscoe Mitchell—played together on several recordings before forming the Art Ensemble in 1969. The group made an immediate impact. Their appearance was theatrical: Favors and Mr. Jarman wore face paint and flamboyant robes, Bowie usually donned a white lab coat, and Mr. Mitchell often wore business suits. In addition to their primary instruments, each member played a variety of others—ranging from small drums to car horns and whistles. Percussionist Famoudou Don Moye joined the band in 1970, solidifying the lineup for the next quarter-century.

“Nice Guys” (1979) was their first album for ECM, a classic of the era. The music ranges from austere percussion pieces to a track influenced by Caribbean folk songs, and the recording closes with Mr. Jarman’s “Dreaming of the Master,” a tribute to the great Miles Davis quintets of the ’50s and ’60s that ranges beyond those bands’ sounds and includes elements of free jazz too. “Nice Guys” set the template for the Art Ensemble’s other ECM recordings: diverse musical influences, an ode to the jazz tradition, and virtuosic solos that took flight at unexpected moments. Their credo was “great black music, from the ancient to the future,” and on each of the recordings in this set, they delivered on these ambitions.

‘The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles’ Review: First-Rate Riffs From the Second City

The other recordings included in the new release are less wide-ranging but remarkable for other reasons. The four under Bowie’s leadership highlight his puckish solo style and ability to translate classic pop tunes into the jazz repertoire without the results sounding forced. The four discs by Mr. Mitchell, which encompass music released from 1999 to 2017, trace the evolution of his composing style, which often dotes on extremes—going from discreet and nuanced to a full-on roar. Other highlights include an elegant Leo Smith recording with Bowie as a sideman, and there are three discs by drummer Jack DeJohnette. Two are from 1978 and 1980 with his group New Directions, which also featured Bowie as a sideman, and the third is a 2015 release, “Made in Chicago.

The Art Ensemble’s broad-based approach was profoundly influential on the jazz scene of the ’70s and ’80s, with many performers including all manner of pop, classical and traditional music from all over the world into their repertoires. The Chicago scene continued to thrive, and groups like Air and Eight Bold Souls won acclaim in the decades after the Art Ensemble formed. Nicole Mitchell, a recent president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, has produced projects in the past 14 years that offer some of the same level of visionary music, with diverse sounds ranging from gospel to house music.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago, now a sextet, continues to perform. In October, at Edgefest in Ann Arbor, Mich., the group enlarged to 14 members to present a piece by Mr. Mitchell that incorporated tributes to Bowie, Favors and Mr. Jarman. It was the kickoff of many events to mark the coming 50th anniversary of the group. Over the years, it has established a style that probes deeply into musical traditions while imagining a bold future. These celebrations promise to extend those boundaries.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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At WSJ on Ben Allison’s Quiet Revolution

I found out about this assignment somewhat late, but I was delighted.  I think it fits into the year’s most important trend:  the evolution of a canon for today’s jazz.  Recordings like the Mark Turner/Ethan Iverson Temporary Kings,Thumbscrew’s Theirs and this one to name a few are starting to do important work in establishing roots for today’s exciting jazz.

‘Quiet Revolution’ by Ben Allison Review: Blast From the Past

The record from bassist Ben Allison is one of several projects in which musicians are revealing unexpected roots in the jazz of the late ’50s and the ’60.

Bassist Ben Allison
Bassist Ben Allison PHOTO: GREG AIELLO

The title of Ben Allison’s newly reissued recording, “Quiet Revolution,” is especially apt and the music is timely. Mr. Allison, a bassist who has led several vital jazz groups since his emergence in the early ’90s, assembled a trio with reedman Ted Nash and guitarist Steve Cardenas to perform the music of the intimate bands led by reedman Jimmy Giuffre that featured guitarist Jim Hall. Those ensembles, noted for their lack of a drummer, made groundbreaking music in the late ’50s and early ’60s.

“As jazz was becoming more abstract, expressionistic and at times bombastic, Giuffre and Hall were going in the opposite direction,” writes Mr. Allison in the press release for the new recording. “They were envisioning quieter music that embraced the emerging elements of free playing, while maintaining blues-based folk qualities.” The music of the Giuffre/Hall groups, which had various third members, has exerted a profound influence on today’s jazz, with many small bands following the less-is-more approach and playing freely with easily recognizable forms.

In 2015, “Quiet Revolution” was recorded and then released in 2016 only on vinyl by Newvelle Records. Now Mr. Allison has remastered the sessions and released the album under his own Sonic Camera imprint in digital and compact disc formats with two additional tracks. The music is austere, crisp and elegant, yet the playing has an informal, conversational air—as if three old friends were talking about a new but relevant subject. Hall’s “Move it” begins the 12-track program, with a jocular bassline and clever interplay between Mr. Cardenas and Mr. Nash. Hall’s “Bimini” unfortunately starts off with the soft, unchallenging feel of espresso-bar jazz, but it is quickly rescued by Mr. Nash’s terse, compelling solo. Giuffre’s “Pony Express” is a particular highlight; the rendition is so loose-limbed it feels like a group improvisation. Hall’s”Careful” and Mr. Nash’s “The Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction” draw on the tradition of sleek, film-noirish minor-key blues, but the playing is contemporary, complex and distinctive.

Mr. Allison, who is 51 years old, was born in New Haven and moved to New York to attend New York University. He is one of the few bassists as well known for band leadership as for sideman work. Still an organizer, he cofounded the Jazz Composers Collective along with Mr. Nash and several others; they promoted new music and concerts in the ’90s and early ’00s. He also composes works for orchestras and is active in education and arts leadership.

“Quiet Revolution” is one of several recordings where musicians are revealing unexpected roots in the jazz of the late ’50s and the ’60s. Thumbscrew, another trio, released two recordings over the summer, and one of them—“Theirs” (Cuneiform)—covered stellar compositions from this era that had influenced them. Saxophonist Mark Turner and pianist Ethan Iverson released “Temporary Kings” (ECM), with repertoire inspired by pianist Lennie Tristano and saxophonist Warne Marsh. Guitarist Miles Okazaki released “Work—The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Monk” (Bandcamp), which recasts familiar repertoire.

For decades it was fairly easy to trace a jazz musician’s aesthetic evolution through the bands that he or she played in. Now, with most such players matriculating at conservatories before hitting professional bandstands, the range of influence is wider and more diffuse. Fifteen years ago, the original music made on the scene seemed like a rebuttal to often prim and stuffy repertory-based jazz performances. Now, these musicians have found a way to make older compositions sound contemporary and exciting.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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At WSJ on Ambrose Akinmusire and Jonathan Finlayson

Really great new work from leading young trumpeters

‘Origami Harvest’ by Ambrose Akinmusire and ‘3 Times Round’ by Jonathan Finlayson

They are trumpeters with similar backgrounds, yet their career paths and new recordings are striking contrasts.

Jonathan Finlayson

Trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire and Jonathan Finlayson have a lot in common. Both are 36 years old, grew up in the Bay Area, were mentored by alto saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman, and are widely hailed for their virtuosity and composing acumen. Yet, their career paths and new recordings are striking contrasts. On “Origami Harvest” (Blue Note), Mr. Akinmusire offers a sprawling set of music that features spoken word and a string quartet. Mr. Finlayson’s “3 Times Round” (Pi Recordings) features his sextet and suggests a postmillennial updating of the riveting and ambitious small-combo straight-ahead jazz from the ’60s. Both albums are out now.

“3 Times Round” is Mr. Finlayson’s third recording as a leader and his first with this band. Most of his work as a sideman has been in bands that are often commended for the rhythmic complexity of their music: several ensembles led by Mr. Coleman, an octet led by alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, and various groups led by guitarist Mary Halvorson.\ Yet on his first recordings, which were with his quintet Sicilian Defense, the music was frequently elegant and lyrical. “3 Times” opens with “Feints,” a track reminiscent of his usual employers. There’s an urgency to the tempo and stuttering beats. The frontline, Messrs. Finlayson and Lehman and tenor saxophonist Brian Settles, engage in furious interplay building the tension further. It is reminiscent of ’60s classics like Andrew Hill’s “Point of Departure” or Lee Morgan’s “Search for the New Land” (both Blue Note). The recording’s highlight is a more ruminative composition, “The Moon is New,” which occurs toward the middle of the program; it features dazzling solos from Mr. Lehman and pianist Matt Mitchell. From there the music builds steadily toward the intensity it had at the album’s start, creating a sense of overall narrative abetted by stellar solos and compositions.

With the music on “Origami Harvest,” Mr Akinmusire joins a growing number of young jazz musicians who are successfully melding the string-quartet format with intimate jazz settings. As is true for the work of the bassist Linda May Han Oh, the vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jen Shyu, and the saxophonist Miguel Zenon, the strings function both individually and as a unit providing counterpoint to the lead instruments and cornerstone parts of the harmonies.

Ambrose Akinmusire

Mr. Akinmusire also excels in weaving the hip-hop-inspired cadences of spoken word artists into the music without making the blend seem forced. The titles of Mr. Akinmusire’s pieces such as “Blooming Bloodfruit in a Hoodie” and “The Lingering Velocity of the Dead’s Ambitions” convey his dismay with the social conditions in America today, yet the presentation is not a polemic. The highlight of the recording is “Particle/Spectra,” a cinematic work with gorgeous textures and delicate vocals by LmbrJck_t.

Messrs. Akinmusire and Finlayson, who have been friends since grade school, met Mr. Coleman when they were in high school. The esteemed saxophonist first encountered them at a jazz festival where they were part of a student band and then when he was in the Bay Area to conduct workshops. Mr. Finlayson joined Five Elements, Mr. Coleman’s primary band, when he was 18 years old, and he has remained an integral part of the group. Mr. Akinmusire joined Mr. Coleman’s band, too, but he left to study first at the Manhattan School of Music then at the University of Southern California. He won the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Trumpet competition. He moved back to Oakland, Calif., last year after a decade as a first-call trumpeter on the New York scene.

These recordings reveal one important similarity. Messrs. Akinmusire and Finlayson prefer to explore the textures of their instrument’s sound rather than reach for its peaks. That’s characteristic of several other trumpeters and cornetists on the scene, including Taylor Ho Bynum, Adam O’Farrill and Nate Wooley. The trumpet was once the most flamboyant instrument in jazz; it is now becoming one of the most introspective.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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From Way Downtown 01: Stop Laughing at The Kings


dfox_0.jpgNBA fans, you don’t need me to tell you that the Thunder’s slow start is a problem or that the 76ers lack of outside shooting should disqualify them from the championship conversation for now.  But there is off the radar stuff that I think is really interesting.  That’s what I’ll write about in From Way Downtown.

Check it out at Medium

View story at Medium.com

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