One Writer's Method of Compiling a Year End "Best of" List

Ken Dryden By

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Many of us are habitual list makers and list readers, which even prompted a book a couple of decades ago entitled The Book of Lists. I am frequently asked for desert island lists (I usually say I do not want to get that far away from my entire collection), or even just a favorite album by an artist with a vast discography, even though I find such queries to be exercises in futility. Writers are regularly asked by their editors to submit "best of" lists for the year, so the question always remains, how does one go about selecting the titles?

I have compiled a few over the years with varying degrees of frustration, depending upon the restrictions placed upon me. While I do not know how others go about it, I am happy to share my method.

  1. I receive over 800 CDs for review in a year, in addition to some new releases that I end up having to purchase, mostly limited editions or overseas labels that are not actively promoted. Inevitably titles will be excluded from my list because I never received copies, or they arrived too close to my deadline to get proper consideration.

  2. I do compile ongoing lists of all titles as received and purchased, noting the year of release if there is a question. I find it odd when someone picks a title released in June 2006 for a Top Ten List of 2007. I have been trying to get the Jazz Journalist Association to switch to a calendar year for determining eligibility for CD awards, because I feel that CDs released right around our typical spring deadline get lost in the shuffle, while there are rather few new releases in December.

  3. There are always questions about historical releases. Charles Mingus Cornell 1964 is obviously not a reissue, but some folks feel it is unfair for such a CD title to compete against those by living, active artists. Yet not all editors allow a separate category for historical issues, so what does a writer do? If that is the case, the historical issue will get consideration rather than overlooked, though I hardly want to list more than one or two such CDs in a top ten or twenty list.

  4. Does one take into consideration the makeup of a list as to diversity of instrumentalists? I could easily put together a top ten with eight pianists if I was not careful, so I like the overall list to reflect some diversity. I do critically look at each draft, making some tough decisions. I remember one year that both Pete Malinverni and Donald Brown each issued strong piano CDs, oddly enough, both titled Autumn in New York, but for different labels. I would have loved to have included both, but felt I had to choose between them, due to the makeup of the remainder of my list, so the less widely known Malinverni got the nod. Which brings up the point that the final list for me is hardly meant to be authoritative, it is intended as something to hopefully get others thinking about their favorites and possibly discovering a CD they missed acquiring during the year. Most writers like to stretch their lists if possible, making it a top fifteen or twenty, or listing separate reissues and historical releases, even when such categories were not requested by an editor.

  5. The same thought goes into label representation. It would be easy for me to select Mosaic titles for the top five reissue slots, but I try to give consideration to everything I have heard. The major labels tend to be infrequently represented in my "best of" lists in recent years, simply because their output has been dwarfed in quantity and quality by a number of independent labels. For example, Phil Woods, a perennial favorite, was part of releases issued by Jazzed Media, Philology and Evening Star in 2007. All of them merited high marks, but it was impossible for me to list all three of them in a top ten.

  6. For me, the order of the artists has little significance. It is hard enough to narrow the field to ten or twenty CDs, though some editors want rankings. Personally, I could care less in which order I list them.

  7. During IAJE 2008 in Toronto, there was an interesting discussion in the Jazz Journalist Association as to the status of projects in which writers were personally involved. While I do not review a CD when I have written the liner notes for it, I feel it is somewhat unfair to the artist to automatically exclude his or her release from my year end "best of" list if I believe that the music is exceptional. I once listed Jaki Byard Quartet with Joe Farrell The Last From Lennie's in my top ten list at jazzhouse.org with the explanation "in spite of my liner notes" (though I was rather proud of them!) because Byard's long forgotten compositions, several of which were never otherwise recorded by the pianist, proved captivating. But if I had been active as a producer, publicist or other insider, I think that would keep me from mentioning a CD in a top ten list.

  8. Remember that writers do not live in a vacuum. No writer can obtain and/or hear every single new or reissued jazz CD in the course of a year, though I imagine that a few have tried. I consider the creation of my annual list to be a personal challenge, nothing more. Read it, accept all or part of it, or ignore it.

Now that I have explained my process of choosing titles, here is my final list, which combines aspects of lists I submitted to All About Jazz-New York, jazzhouse.org and the Village Voice (the latter which was only listed on line, along with those by other writers who were invited by Francis Davis to submit their lists).

Top Ten New Releases

  1. Charles Mingus Sextet: Cornell 1964 (Blue Note)
  2. Maria Schneider: Sky Blue (Artistshare)
  3. Various Artists: The Benny Carter Centennial Project (Evening Star)
  4. Dave Brubeck: Indian Summer (Telarc)
  5. Phil Woods & Irio De Paula: The Gershwin Affair (Philology)
  6. Wayne Escoffery: Veneration (Savant)
  7. Hal Galper: Furious Rubato (Origin)
  8. Bud Shank & Bill Mays: Beyond the Red Door (Jazzed Media)
  9. Jerry Bergonzi: Tenorist (Savant)
  10. Anat Fort: A Long Story (ECM)

Top Five Reissues

  1. Duke Ellington: The Complete 1936-1940 Variety, Vocalion and Okeh Small Group Sessions (Mosaic)
  2. Ben Webster: Dig Ben! (Storyville)
  3. Fred Katz: Folk Songs For Far Out Folk (Reboot Stereophonic)
  4. George Russell: Ezzthetic (Riverside Keepnews Collection)
  5. Steve Kuhn: Pastorale (Sunnyside)

Top Vocal CD

Judy Niemack: Blue Nights (Blujazz)

Debut CD

Susan Pereira & Sabor Brasil: Tudo Azul (Riony)

Latin CD

Bobby Sanabria: Big Band Urban Folktales (Jazzheads)

Top DVDs

Due to the incredible content, detailed packaging and superb quality of these historic European television broadcasts, I consider the Jazz Icons boxed set, listed by individual contents, to be the essential DVD release of 2007:

  • John Coltrane: Live in '60, 61 & '65
  • Dave Brubeck: Live in '64 & '65
  • Duke Ellington: Live in '58
  • Sarah Vaughan: Live in '58 & '64
  • Dexter Gordon: Live in '63 & '64
  • Wes Montgomery: Live in '65
  • Chares Mingus: Live in '64
  • John Coltrane/Dexter Gordon/Dave Brubeck/Sarah Vaughan: Bonus Disc (available only in the boxed set)


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