New York Is Now! The New Wave of Free Jazz

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New York Is Now! New York is Now!
Phil Freeman
The Telegraph Company
ISBN: 1930606001

The title says it all. While free jazz has had many homes in the United States (especially Chicago), its unquestioned headquarters today is the city of New York. Phil Freeman takes an explicitly outsider perspective on the NYC insider scene, offering insights that reflect his background in the "other" kind of energy music: punk and metal.

At the same time, he keeps in touch with the deepest roots of free jazz, making the kind of connections among styles and ideas that clearly reflect careful study. The "new" wave he promises in his subtitle is really about ten years old, but then it often can take a decade to fully appreciate the depth of new talent.

It's important to recognize up front that Freeman has a point of view, and he's not at all hesitant to express it. The granite ideology of Wynton Marsalis has no place in his musical universe; neither does the frantic post-modern flitting of John Zorn. Freeman mercilessly flogs Marsalis as a "messianic megalomaniac" and lambasts Marsalis's critical ally, Stanley Crouch, for his "insensate jeremiads" (you don't need a dictionary to figure out what that word means). Yet at the same time, he dismisses Zorn, the kingpin of NYC's avant music scene, as a "huckster"—for failing to plumb the depths of the traditions he throws into his musical blender. Between these two poles of power in the Big City lies a vast diversity of musical talent, of course—and Freeman picks up on some of the key players he deems worthy of our attention.

New York is Now! is both a revelatory examination of the key players on the free jazz scene and a shuttered exclusion of the rest. Following a brief personal introduction and a compact historical contextualization of free improvisation, Freeman leaps right into biographies of the musicians who "matter." Fortunately, he's generally on target—these artists have proven themselves central to the rejuvenation of an art form which went from impossibly subterranean depth to (admittedly limited) critical success. So it's worth listening to what he has to say.

The concept of cross-pollination among free jazz and alternative rock underground scenes, which he explores at some length, bears particular relevance in understanding the expansion of the American free jazz audience over the last ten years. [On a very personal side note, I interviewed three of the artists profiled in this book for an underground electronica magazine—before they realized my musical insurgency and promptly flushed me out the back door!]

Beginning with tenor saxophonist David S. Ware, the great torch-bearer of the new-wave NYC free jazz community, Freeman looks at the ideas and the impulses that have driven this group of creative musicians. Ware remains unique among his generation in having scored a major-label contract (two records on Columbia; now terminated). Because of this exposure, not to mention his exuberantly powerful tenor sound, Ware made significant inroads among listeners who would not have been exposed to this music otherwise. His early experience playing in groups with William Parker, Andrew Cyrille, and Cecil Taylor helped secure the foundations of his sound. In 1988 he launched his career as a leader with Passage to Music, a trio disc on Silkheart.

But the turning point, according to Freeman, occurred when Parker hooked him up with the (then- obscure) pianist Matthew Shipp. Subsequently Ware has committed to Shipp within a quartet format for thirteen additional records, and this body of work has earned him a towering reputation. Parker and Shipp have been mainstays in these groups; the drum chair passed from Marc Edwards to Whit Dickey, Susie Ibarra, and eventually Ware's current drummer, Guillermo E. Brown (who is truly a master deserving broader recognition).

Freeman moves on to other subjects before returning to Ware, his touchstone for this book. Ware ends up symbolizing both the vitality and the potential for free jazz in New York. Freeman's final chapter concludes the book with a behind-the-scenes look at the studio sessions leading to Ware's freshly released rebound record on AUM Fidelity, Corridors & Parallels. These sessions come across as fascinating, unpredictable, and more than a bit scary... with Matt Shipp's switch from piano to keyboards, the quartet's sound has undergone an about-face.

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