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Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Phil Freeman - Ugly Beauty (Zero Books, 2022)

As I began writing this review, I was about half-way through Phil Freeman's Ugly Beauty: Jazz in the 21st Century. I had been picking it up and putting it down for a week or so, which is no fault of the author, rather I blame my computer-mediated attention deficit disorder. The thing is, Ugly Beauty is perfect for this approach to reading. The stories, anecdotes and encounters with musicians, choice quotes woven in from longer interviews, and smartly detailed tangents linking the musicians, the gigs, and the music are served well in short richly detailed chapters.

It is clear from the start that Freeman has listened to a wide and varied assortment of music and has done a painstaking job of keeping the details of the recordings, encounters, and concert dates straight. A sampling of artists are profiled in each chapter, but the subjects of the chapter are embedded in various networks. The enumerations of who has played with who, releasing this or that album, paints a picture of artistic development of both the artists and the scene they come from. Each artist/scene is treated to a similar presentation and by the end of each neatly structured chapter, you may, like me, find yourself popping off immediately to search your collection or check Spotify for one or more of the recordings you've just read about.

Freeman begins with the mainstream musicians, capturing several in the mid-point of their careers, including JD Allen, Ethan Iverson, Wayne Escoffery, Jason Moran and Orrin Evans. In Part II, he moves into the somewhat more experimental players, the ones who are reshaping 'jazz' and blending genres, like pianist Vijay Iyer, whose music straddles mainstream and avant-garde, as well as other fan favorites like Mary Halvorson, Tomeka Reid, Linda May Han Oh, Nicole Mitchell and Tyshawn Sorey. Throughout, the writing is crisp and smart. For example, an anecdote leads to Iyer through a concert from the Art Ensemble of Chicago and various offshoots. These connections, be they through people, places, or events, serve as path markers.  

That is what this book does best, connecting the dots, giving shape to what jazz is today, though what it actually looks like, is fuzzier than ever before. Freeman starts with his nodes, offering a somewhat solid taxonomy, with each "part" of the book exploring a branch of the jazz family tree. To improve on that metaphor, I would recommend thinking of a giant Mangrove tree. In addition to what is on the page, the more the reader fills in the interconnections, the more this slim book fills in. Hell, this is the type of stuff we used to do teasing every piece of possible information out of LP liner notes.

In addition to the aforementioned topics, Freeman dedicates a chapter to spiritual jazz, rooting the work of Shabaka Hutchings, Yazz Ahmed, Makaya McCravan, Kamasi Washington, and Darius Jones (among others) loosely to the forebears: Albert Ayler, John and Alice Coltrane, and the general spiritual movement in the 60s and 70s. Then, he moves on to a set players of a specific instrument, the trumpet. He also notes that each player in this part, Ambrose Akinmusire, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Kenyon Harold, Theo Crocker and Marquis Hill also incorporate hip-hop into their music. In the final part, and maybe what it was all leading up to anyway, the work of Jamie Branch, James Brandon Lewis, Matana Roberts, Kassa Overall, Moor Mother and Luke Stewart is connected through its raw and uncompromising genre-bending urgency.

This book will likely sit near to the Penguin Guide to Jazz by Brian Morton and Richard Cook on my shelf, whose thin pages of tiny font I once poured over religiously, seeking connections, trying to understand what I needed to know to 'know Jazz.' Here we follow Freeman doing the same. Ugly Beauty is less of a reference and more of a living history, where he's putting what these musicians are doing right now, into the context of, well, jazz in the 21st century. 


Monochromios said...

Thank you for the highlight on this book. As a listener who just ended John Corbett's "A Listener's Guide to Free Improvisation" and feels like an orphan, Freeman's books looks like a great thing to immerse myself in.

Tachymètre said...

Thanks Paul for the review. With so little written about the genre, it’s superb to see a book like this being written and printed - clearly a labour of love, alongside the Free Jazz Collective.
Phil Freeman seems to have continued to develop as a writer, from the raw on the page NY Is Now, through his Burning Ambulance articles (not to mention the excellent podcasts), and now to Ugly Beauty. Looking forward to this one.
- Richard