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At the start of his new book, Ugly Beauty: Jazz in the 21st Century (Zero), Phil Freeman reflects on how he felt in October 2020. The last jazz performance he’d attended was eight months earlier, before the pandemic shut things down. “I expected to spend 2020 as I’d spent every previous year,” he writes, “going out a few times a month to jazz clubs, hanging out with musicians backstage or at the bar before and after their sets… . That didn’t happen, obviously.”
The worst of it, for Freeman, was that he’d sensed powerfully resurgent energy. Despite a record industry caught in free fall, “jazz had been feeling truly vital for several years,” he writes. Thankfully, Freeman stops short of declaring a “new Jazz Age,” as Time magazine did notably in 1990. He understands jazz and its following in subtler, humbler and more organic terms. As have others, Freeman cites the response to saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s 2015 triple-CD release, The Epic, as both proof and catalyst of this renewed vitality — as “not just a validation, but an opportunity.”
The opportunity Freeman advances here relates both to the music and its potential audience and has to do with musicians and listeners weaned on indie rock and hip-hop, on metal and EDM, and, yes, on jazz tradition, too. Freeman, who writes a monthly online jazz column from which this book takes its title (actually, drawn from a Thelonious Monk composition), and a daily metal blog, and whose own Burning Ambulance, which involves a website, podcast and record label, is about as catholic in its tastes as any music enterprise, is well positioned to consider jazz’s current landscape. He studiously avoids existential questions (i.e., what is and isn’t jazz?). He wants readers to consider his book “less as an encyclopedia and more as a collection of postcards.” “I didn’t write this book for the jazzbos,” Freeman says during a phone conversation in January. “I want this book to bring new people in.”
Freeman’s “postcards” are portraits and landscapes at the same time. His chapters are brief essays that profile 43 musicians, while setting scenes drawn from his own experiences. He doesn’t adhere to strict stylistic categories; he knows those no longer quite apply. Yet he also knows that context is the most valuable thing a book like his can offer. To that end, he divides his book into five parts, each with an organizing principle; in Part One, musicians (including saxophonist JD Allen and pianist Jason Moran) who dress well and “sound like ‘jazz musicians’ to non-jazz fans”; in Part Two, those (like bassist Tomeka Reid and flutist Nicole Mitchell) who create music that “owes as much to modern composition as to swing or the blues”; and in Part Three, players (including Kamasi Washington and harpist Brandee Younger) who are “reviving or maintaining the tradition of spiritual jazz.” Part Four is devoted to trumpeters, such as Ambrose Akinmusire, who, among other things, explore “the possibilities of hip-hop and modern, high-tech production.” The final section focuses on musicians (saxophonist Matana Roberts, and others) who are “pushing harder at jazz’s boundaries and borders than anyone else around.” It’s hard to quibble with the musicians Freeman chose to focus on. It’s possible to question his categories, yet therein lies the sort of discussion befitting jazz’s contemporary scene.
Freeman may not write for jazzbos, but he is one. These pages are enlivened and enlightened by his immersion in and experience with music made at clubs, in real time. The book he completed during a locked-down pandemic world ends up very much an ode to live performances. One of the strongest scenes arrives in the first chapter, with his account of four performances over two February 2020 nights at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery by Ghidorah, an ensemble with a three-tenor-saxophone frontline (Marcus Strickland, JD Allen and Stacy Dillard). In their music, Freeman hears three distinctly individual players, all in their 40s, “grappling with the legacy and lineage of the jazz tenor saxophone” as well as three very different composers supporting one another’s visions of where their music is headed. There isn’t one destination, and Freeman doesn’t try to pretend there is. Plus, this group hasn’t been recorded. Its presence, and whatever that presence implies, lives on through accounts like this.