It's rare for any publication today to have a music critic whose interest and taste in music is as broad as John Corcelli's (which was one of many reasons why we brought him on board at Critics at Large). While most of his posts are reviews of new music, including pop, jazz and classical, he occasionally does profile pieces such as this commemorative look at Downbeat magazine.
Critics Poll (August 2011). As a monthly journal that has adapted well to change, its Critic's Poll and Reader's Poll is an important barometer of what's being heard and reviewed in music.
The August 2011 edition of Downbeat features the critic’s picks for the best in jazz of the past 12 months and as a critic who did not participate in the poll, I was happy to see certain musicians getting recognition, namely, American pianist and composer, Jason Moran. His album Ten (Blue Note, 2010) was voted the best of the year. Moran himself was voted as Artist of the Year and he led the poll in the Piano category by getting more points than Keith Jarrett and last year's poll-winner Brad Mehldau. This is fine company, to say the least, and while I'm generally fickle about "best of" lists, I was very happy to see Moran grace the cover of the magazine and win three categories. Ten made my own list of the top records in 2010, and I have to admit that I'm feeling vindicated for trusting my ears and choosing new releases off the beaten path and rarely with a high profile. Nevertheless, with all the great music and musicians vying for our attention, which is bloody difficult in the 21st Century, it’s nice to see the so-called purists at Downbeat support up-and-coming musicians. In fact, that’s been an important part of their mandate since the beginning.
In the 1950s, when rock & roll was pushing jazz from the mainstream of American culture, Downbeat distinguished itself by embracing the change rather than trying to ignore it. So by the late 1960s, it wasn’t unusual to see The Beatles on the cover with Cannonball Adderley, or a story about new jazz-rock groups such as Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears. They too, were critically evaluated and profiled at length. In 1970 in the 18th Annual Critics poll, the record of the year was Bitches Brew by Miles Davis, which was also number one for the readers as well. An issue in February 1971 featured stories about Ornette Coleman, Lee Konitz and Captain Beefheart. And just glancing at back issues of the magazine through the years, one sees a pattern of music journalism that can best be described in one word: contemporary.Downbeat continues to talk about the present state of music, but without too much sentimentality for the past. Its motto, "Jazz, Blues & Beyond" could be considered its mission statement. But it wasn't quite like that in the early years.
Throughout its history, Downbeat has been very considerate of its readers and subscribers. In fact, the annual "Readers Poll" has been around longer than the "Critics Poll" by some 17 years indicating that the magazine has considered its readers the utmost critics. That said, last year readers voted Pat Metheny's album Orchestrion as the record of the year which I consider one of his least successful. So while it's interesting to get the pulse of Downbeat fans, regardless of taste, the Critics Poll offers some balance. The 2011 Readers Poll results will be published in November.
- originally published on August 6, 2011 in Critics at Large.
– John Corcelli is a musician, writer and broadcaster.