Book reviews

Philip Freeman – ‘Ugly Beauty: Jazz in the Twenty-First Century’

Philip Freeman – Ugly Beauty: Jazz in the Twenty-First Century

(Zer0 Books, 272pp., £14.99pb. Book Review by Jon Turney)

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Want to turn a collection of columns into a book? Here’s how. Find some themes. Add linking commentary. And wrap them with a subtitle that suggests something a bit grander.

Philip Freeman, and his publisher, do all those things. And yes, his latest volume is mostly about jazz in the twenty-first century. It also contains much excellent writing. Read it, though, for leads to new, stimulating music, rather than for any grand theses. It is, as the author modestly avers in the intro, not an encyclopedia, more a collection of postcards.

So we get 43 mini-profiles of outstanding musicians, most in their thirties or forties. He generally begins with an impression of a live show, then weaves in interview snippets and comments on recordings. Some of the content will be familiar if you know Freeman’s contributions to Bandcamp Daily, Stereogum, Burning Ambulance, and other outlets, but it is good to have them in one place. They are spread over five sections, beginning with players he regards as 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 who are loosely associated in different ways, stylistically, geographically, or perhaps even temperamentally. And – the organisational strain showing a little – there is a section devoted to five trumpeters (Ambrose Akinmusire, Christian Scott, Keyon Harrold, Theo Croker and Marquis Hill).

The focus is on the US, including New York, Chicago and LA, but a few London-based players who have caught his ear (Shabaka Hutchings, Yazz Ahmed, Nubya Garcia and Shirley Tetteh) get a look in. There are no non-Brits from Europe, but there is a clutch of South Africans, though they all get treated in a single piece.

The introductions to each section raise some of the tricky definitional issues. Like most critics nowadays, Freeman sees jazz as a practice that can assimilate pretty well any other kind of music. That poses the question whether jazz is (any longer) a recognisable kind itself. The book wraps round that contradiction. By the final section, where we find artists as astonishingly creative, and genre-free, as Matana Roberts, it’s pretty clear the term jazz has little meaning. But the subtitle insists that it still does.

If Freeman can’t resolve that little conundrum, never mind. Probably no-one else can either, and it seems to matter less and less. It’s enough that he writes sympathetically about such a range of music. The tone is conversational. He’d be the ideal person to get talking to in a club where you’ve fetched up to hear a new artist. He knows more about them, and will fill you in quickly on who they are and what they do. That is, he assumes you are interested, and doesn’t tell you who Miles or Coltrane were, but explains clearly why the people you are about to hear are interesting.

All this is helped by a vast range of musical reference (he writes about pretty well every kind of contemporary music) and a straightforward style garnished with neat turns of phrase when he needs them to convey some of the qualities of the music. Thus, violin and bass in a Matana Roberts piece “shivered through reverb like air coming off hot pavement”. Or, Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, “makes a sound like the air coming out of a balloon, as though his emotions are too strong to be contained by melodic precision”. Just so.

The best way to use writing like that is sparingly, and he does. I’d happily have seen more of that kind of thing, but space is short. Indeed, while it would be quite easy to think of another 50 equally worthy subjects making great music now, fitting this selection in is pretty tight. A few of the pieces feel a little abbreviated.

But that’s no bad thing either. Each chapter ends with a list of seven or eight recordings to check out. So you can read Ugly Beauty twice: once quickly to view the landscape; once slowly, sampling the music as you go. I’m certainly still finding exciting new things to listen to.

Jon Turney writes about jazz, and other things, from Bristol.  Twitter:

LINK: Ugly Beauty at John Hunt Publications – Publication Date is 28 January 2022

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