Each year, my main hope for our annual Critics’ and Readers’ Polls is always the same: that the results reflect the year in jazz I’ve just experienced with some precision and sense of posterity. It’d be dishonest to say I’ve never been surprised by these results, but generally I feel vindicated-especially this year, and even with regard to our Readers’ Poll. Conducted in the wilderness of the Internet, that poll can miss its ideal of committed JT readers thoughtfully reflecting on their favorite recent jazz records and concerts; instead, it often reflects warring fan bases and ancient, steadfast allegiances to particular artists and aesthetics. But the cream rose to the top for the 2015 tally, rightfully honoring jazz’s populist sensations. Pianist Joey Alexander’s precociously elegant musicianship-not to mention the almighty cheek-pinching factor-earned him Best New Artist. Vocalist Gregory Porter, in the heady midst of his rise as a theater-packing jazz-R&B star, nabbed Artist of the Year. Snarky Puppy, the turbo-charged unit working constantly to return fusion to its crowd-pleasing roots, won Best Electric Group. The Epic, the triple-disc set by saxophonist Kamasi Washington, won Best New Release, and thankfully so: It’s a finely played and programmed olive branch to the jazz-curious that leans on prime jazz and R&B history, not pop.
But I was flummoxed to see that our writers also voted The Epic into their No. 1 spot, mainly because any cynicism I’ve heard about Washington’s snowballing stature has come from a jazz critic, myself included. “The audacity of a three-hour debut!” I’d mumble at the bar. “What about Ravi Coltrane or Azar Lawrence or James Carter? Where are this guy’s fans when the Cookers play a gig? Why him, and why now?” As I’ve written before, that’s a complex answer, and it requires more space to address than I have here. But at its core, rather than politics or even Washington’s hip-hop associations, are reasons of pure quality and good taste. Afro-centric modal jazz, soul-jazz and album-era R&B are Washington’s stock-in-trade, and they stand as earthbound, instinctually satisfying styles that are essentially trend-proof. They also dovetail conveniently with the very real vinyl resurgence: It’s not a coincidence that the youngest and most fervent audiences I witnessed at a jazz show in 2015 were there for Washington, headlining a festival, and Pharoah Sanders, playing a date at a small Brooklyn rock club. If Washington is the crossover artist of the moment, jazz is lucky to have him. Think about it: A couple decades back, Kenny G served that purpose.