Phil Freeman – New York is Now! The New Wave of Free Jazz

New York is Now! The New Wave of Free Jazz.
Phil Freeman
(The Telegraph Company – 2001)
by John Barrett

Phil Freeman has a mission, one he thinks could change – even save – jazz as we know it. He was a fan of punk rock who took a liking to free-jazz – he heard in it the same power, the same defiance, that drew him to punk. He went to free-jazz shows, offered reviews to punk and heavy-metal magazines – the reviews were accepted, in outlets that never covered jazz. Other signs are visible: punk labels issuing jazz records, a younger audience going to the shows, rock clubs booking the occasional jazz act. Most of this activity has missed the attention of the jazz press, or is misinterpreted when it gets covered. As Freeman sees it, the newest school of free-jazz is different from its forebears, has attracted new fans, and could bring in many more … if only they knew what the music was really about. Phil hopes to achieve that with his book; I’d say he’s already partly there.

Freeman writes compellingly: he describes the sound in visual terms, with rapt, excited phrases – not the voice of a historian, but a fan. In describing the fathers of free-jazz – Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane – Freeman feels they were dealt a disservice by ideological critics. Too often, the musicians were called angry (the term “anti-jazz” was coined to describe Coltrane) or political radicals bent on revolution. Those terms never described the entire free-jazz community, no then and not now. (As an example, Charles Gayle is pro-life, a stance that has cost him many jobs.) In a series of essay-length profiles – of musicians and groups – Freeman shows the different approaches, the different philosophies, which make this music different from all others.

Freeman is best when he describes the players: he follows Matthew Shipp as he visits a record store, he hears the band Test on a subway platform, he watches wrestling on TV with David S. Ware before a recording session. He doesn’t interview them per se; we read the musicians’ comments, and then Freeman’s analysis of their music, with his joyous, unbridled verbiage. The chapter about Gayle (“Trembling Before God”) is especially passionate (“a music that sounds like it could rip holes in the sky and earth”),a writing whose energy matches that of Gayle. Matthew Shipp comes off as warm, friendly, and pragmatic – far from the “aloof intellectual” stereotype given to some jazzmen. (“…I’m building my career at a very slow pace with a very organic logic, and I’m very happy to be doing it that way…”)

The best section is called “Chasing the Future”, where David S. Ware records the album which would be called Corridors & Parallels. The tunes were untitled when Freeman wrote this; so vivid his description that it is obvious which tunes he speaks of. Reading this chapter while hearing the music will enhance your appreciation of both. “It was going to be a good record, and more than that, it was going to surprise everyone who hears it.” That much is true, and more.

Admittedly, the book has its own axes to grind. Freeman has little patience for most jazz critics, whom he accuses of attacking free-jazz without knowing it adequately. He has many uncomplimentary things to say of John Zorn, whom he sees as attention-grabbing; I find that a little harsh. And he has several problems with Ken Burns’ Jazz series: free-jazz was the only genre criticized on the program, with Cecil Taylor dismissing a Cecil Taylor statement as “self-indulgent”. (A little later, we are told that The Art Ensemble of Chicago appeals to “white college students in France” – is the group being criticized for the race of its audience?) Phil believes that the music should speak for itself, because when it does, it wins people over. His statements about the potential audience for free-jazz are at the moment speculation. But as always, jazz evolves in unexpected ways, and some movements take years to make their impact. It’s been felt by Phil Freeman, and he closes the book with an invitation to the reader. “There will always be more records, more performances, more music. Enjoy it all.”

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