Jazz in the 21st Century” – London Jazz News
Philippe Freeman – Ugly Beauty: Jazz in the 21st Century
(Zer0 Books, 272pp., £14.99pb. Book review by Jon Turney)
Want to turn a collection of columns into a book? Here’s how. Find themes. Add a binding comment. And wrap them in a subtitle that suggests something a little grander.
Philippe Freeman, and its editor, do all these things. And yes, his latest volume deals mainly with jazz in the 21st century. It also contains a lot of excellent scripture. Read it, however, for leads to new and thought-provoking music, rather than grand theses. It is not, as the author modestly states in the intro, an encyclopedia, but rather a collection of postcards.
So we get 43 mini-profiles of exceptional musicians, most of them in their 30s or 40s. It usually begins with a live broadcast print, then weaves in interview snippets and commentary on recordings. Some of the content will be familiar to you if you are familiar with Freeman’s contributions to Bandcamp Daily, Stereogum, Burning Ambulance, and other outlets, but it’s good to have them all in one place. They are divided into five sections, beginning with musicians he considers purveyors of traditional jazz virtues – JD Allen, Jeremy Pelt, Wayne Escoffery, Victor Gould, Ethan Iverson and Orrin Evans, and Jason Moran. The other sections feature groups that are loosely associated in different ways, stylistically, geographically, or perhaps even by temperament. And – the organizational constraint showing it a bit – there is a section dedicated to five trumpeters (Ambrose Akinmusire, Christian Scott, Keyon Harrold, Theo Croker and Marquis Hill).
The focus is on the United States, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, but a few London-based players who caught his eye (Shabaka Hutchings, Yazz Ahmed, Nubya Garcia and Shirley Tetteh) take a look. ‘eye. Brits from Europe, but there are a handful of South Africans, although they are all treated as one piece.
The introductions to each section raise some of the tricky questions of definition. Like most critics these days, Freeman sees jazz as a practice that can assimilate any other genre of music quite well. This raises the question of whether jazz is (more) a recognizable genre in itself. The book revolves around this contradiction. In the last section, where we find artists as surprisingly creative and genreless as Matana Roberts, it is quite clear that the term jazz has little meaning. But the subtitle insists that’s still the case.
If Freeman can’t solve this little riddle, so be it. Probably no one else can either, and it seems to matter less and less. It is enough that he writes with sympathy on such a range of music. The tone is conversational. He would be the ideal person to chat with in a club where you went to listen to a new artist. He knows more about them and will quickly explain who they are and what they do. That is, it assumes you’re interested and doesn’t tell you who Miles or Coltrane were, but clearly explains why the people you’re about to hear from are interesting.
All of this is aided by a vast range of musical references (he writes about just about every type of contemporary music) and a straightforward style topped with neat turns of phrase when he needs them to convey some of the music’s goodness. Thus, the violin and bass in a piece by Matana Roberts “shuddered through the reverberation like air coming off a hot sidewalk”. Or, Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, “sounds like air coming out of a balloon, as if his emotions were too strong to be contained by melodic precision.” Just so.
The best way to use such writing is sparingly, and he does. I would have gladly seen more of this sort of thing, but space is short. Indeed, while it would be easy enough to think of 50 other subjects equally worthy of making good music now, fitting in this selection is pretty tight. A few of the tracks feel a bit shortened.
But that’s not a bad thing either. Each chapter ends with a list of seven or eight recordings to discover. So you can read ugly beauty twice: once quickly to see the scenery; once slowly, sampling the music as you go. I certainly still find exciting new things to listen to.
LINK: ugly beauty at John Hunt Publications – Release date is January 28, 2022
Categories: book review