Great and well-deserved news for Chicago jazz singer Saalik Ziyad: the 34-year-old vocalist and lyricist shows up in the just-released 60th annual Critics Poll conducted by Downbeat, the magazine often considered “the jazz bible.”
Ziyad, one of the city’s most adventurous vocalists and a member of the AACM, received 46 votes in the “Male Vocalist – Rising Star” category. That was enough to finish tenth and get his name published in the magazine’s splashy August issue.
A silky baritone and intrepid improviser, Ziyad can move effortlessly from romantic ballads to octave-hopping scat to experimentation with computer-generated sounds. His poll placement represents an especially impressive accomplishment for an artist who has no recordings under his own name and who rarely performs outside Chicago. It’s surely something to build on, in terms of garnering more recognition from listeners around the country.
But one has to wonder – how might Ziyad had fared in a true contest against actual up-and-coming vocalists? Because that’s certainly not the case here.
Downbeat has always adhered to a problematic policy regarding the Critics Poll. The magazine refuses to set any criteria for “Rising Star” musicians (as opposed to the “established” artists, who compete separately among themselves). So each participating critic decides for himself where he’ll place a given artist. With no clear or enforceable guidelines on what makes an artist a “Rising Star,” the results are – well, as confused as you might expect.
Ziyad’s case is a perfect example. In the Rising Star category, he found himself up against such singers as Bill Henderson, who first recorded in the 1950s; Jamie Cullum, the world-famous British artist whose most recent disc sold an estimated 60,000 recordings (a huge number in jazz, and more than all the other candidates combined); and Joe Lee Wilson, who died last year – begging the question of exactly where his star is “rising” from this point on.
To further muddy the issue, most of these artists also received votes in the “established” male vocalists category – including the Rising Star winner, Giacomo Gates. He got a total of 246 votes between the two categories; had he been slotted into the “established” category – as would befit a 61-year old artist with more than 20 years professional experience – he’d have finished just 50 votes behind perennial victor Kurt Elling.
On the other hand, there’s Gregory Porter, who in 2012 released only his second album. He got a total of 250 votes in the two categories. That would have been more than enough to make him the winner in the Rising Star category – which is where you’d expect to find a singer who hit the national scene barely two years ago.
But don’t tell that to the voters who gave Porter 154 votes in the “established” category, where he vied with the likes of 80-year-old Freddy Cole, 87-year-old Jimmy Scott, and Tony Bennett – who turns 86 next week.
The Downbeat Critics Poll spills over with contradictions of this sort. Others who show up in “Rising Star” categories include singer Karrin Allyson, a headliner whose dozen Concord albums span two decades; saxist Eric Alexander, who has released more than 30 albums (and appeared on dozens of others) in his stellar career; and the 68-year-old Italian clarinetist Gianluigi Trovesi, widely considered one of Europe’s great jazz elders.
Perhaps my favorite is Evanston-born bassist Bob Cranshaw, who turns 80 this year; who has been a staple of Sonny Rollins’s touring bands for more than 30 years; and whose bass work you hear on such classic 1960s albums as Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” and Wes Montgomery’s “Bumpin’.”
“Rising Stars,” all.
Many people consider Downbeat’s refusal to clarify these categories somewhat controversial. I’m not one of them, however. “Controversial” would involve some sort of argument about the validity of this procedure, with points to be made on either side.
From my standpoint, there’s no controversy here; the procedure is flat-out ridiculous. It’s a cockamamie setup that each year results in the bizarre spectacle of certain musicians receiving votes as Established Artists and also “Rising Stars” – but not enough votes in either category to actually win it.
So congratulations to Saalik Ziyad, who will hopefully continue to improve his vote totals in years to come. Perhaps he’ll even get to the point of winning the category – provided it doesn’t take too long. Because by then he’d be an “established” artist. Right?
I guess we’ll have to wait and see.