Home » Jazz Articles » Phil Freeman Talks Jazz in the 21st Century



Phil Freeman Talks Jazz in the 21st Century

Phil Freeman Talks Jazz in the 21st Century

Courtesy I.A. Freeman


Sign in to view read count
The problem is that the apprenticeship model is dead, and musicians will freely admit that. That makes it very hard to have a continuum.
—Phil Freeman
If music journalism had an award for honesty, it would belong firmly on the shelf of Phil Freeman alongside his latest book, Ugly Beauty. And if I had a choice about the design of said award, I might opt for a gold-plated boxing glove to symbolize the gut punches his words deliver. Not because his approach is violent, but because his tough love for the music makes us stronger. Like the music he describes, the book eschews pandering appreciation in favor of breaking down barriers of (mis)interpretation around fandom by acknowledging a "sizable, if critically overlooked, audience for music that blurs the lines between jazz, soul, funk, and R&B" (p. 2). Because if jazz is still evolving, and if musicians are playing differently as a result, then listeners are absorbing differently by extension.

Indeed, extension is the watchword for the many-tentacled creature jazz has become, attaching its suction cups of influence to places of increasing social importance. By broadening the categorical imperatives to which we have grown accustomed, producers and consumers alike are ensuring that the art of recorded sound maintains an immediate, relevant, and impactful charge. "It's hard to say what jazz's place is in the twenty-first century" (p. 6), Freeman writes, and on the table of that claim lays out a series of postcards spanning five overarching categories: 1) the standards group, 2) the composed group, 3) the spiritual jazz group, 4) trumpeters, and 5) boundary pushers. Whereas the first three parts share an associative quality, the latter two are more wayward examinations of their subjects.

If any red thread can be pulled from this bar-hopping mélange, it is a commitment to debunking the myth of originality in the fullest sense of the word. Rather, he is interested in articulating (and in having the musicians articulate) the evolving organs that make up jazz's body. Make no mistake: Freeman is not on a mission to dismiss the past. Like an archaeologist, he understands the value of telling stories about the here and now by digging up what has fallen instead of trying to tear down what has yet to rise (a futile task). And by allowing his interviewees to unearth nuggets as only they can with the tools they've honed over years of personal experience, Freeman invites us to share in a feeling of structure amid chaos. All of which reminds us that just because we live in a world that refuses to listen doesn't mean the music will ever stop speaking. So, perk up your ears and dive in.

I had the pleasure of unraveling some finer details of the many impressions this book made on me by sitting down with the author for a virtual gab session. Below are some highlights.

All About Jazz: I'd like to start by asking you how the book came about and how your publisher, Zero Books, got involved.

Phil Freeman: It was a blind pitch to Zero, and they liked the idea. It took me most of 2020 to write it, and then it came out the following year. I went through a bunch of ideas. I knew I wanted to do another book because I hadn't written one since 2005, which was my book on the electric music of Miles Davis [Running the Voodoo Down]. Then, in 2007, I edited an anthology, Marooned: The Next Generation of Desert Island Discs. I had it in mind to do a sequel because hardly any of those writers were still working anymore, and the albums they chose were absolutely of the first wave of rock criticism. But I just never had time or a strong enough idea to do another book. And then, finally, I realized, we're 20 years into the 21st century—that's enough time to assess the landscape and the changes in jazz. And, obviously, since the arrival of Kamasi Washington, shit has changed. There was definitively a dividing line before and after Kamasi.

AAJ: Beneath that dividing line, do you also see any sort of continuum? Or is this more of a threshold moment when things change dramatically? As you discuss in the book, all the ingredients were there for a new recipe, so it's not as if this is all out of the blue.

PF: The problem is that the apprenticeship model is dead, and musicians will freely admit that. That makes it very hard to have a continuum. Basically, you've got generation after generation of musicians coming out of college with their master's degrees or whatever and forming bands with their friends. Because you can't get a job, for example, playing in Billy Hart's band anymore. If there is a continuum, it's being singlehandedly pulled along by William Parker because he's the guy who supports young musicians and will play with them. But there's only one William Parker. And, for a while there, Anthony Braxton, too, had ensembles that were composed of his students, including people like Mary Halvorson and Taylor Ho Bynum who are professionals in their own right. But nobody's taking a bunch of kids on the road and showing them the ropes anymore. Maybe Stanley Clarke and Herbie Hancock to a degree, but most people are on their own out there. I also feel like there's a psychological difference between generations. I address that in the trumpeters section of the book, where I talk about jazz musicians who grew up in a world of hip-hop and those who come from the world before hip—hop [see pp. 171-173]. That's a dividing line. It was a radical enough sonic break that it alters who you are as a player. It changes how you think about time, it changes how you think about arranging, it changes everything. Ambrose Akinmusire just thinks about rhythm differently than somebody 10 years older than him. So, in conceptualizing all this, I said to myself, you're a journalist, you need to let the artists do the talking. And that's when I came up with the idea of a collective portrait of jazz now, so to speak. Once I did that, I started figuring out who I was going to include and how much material I had to pull out because it's hidden. A certain portion of this book is drawn from pieces that I wrote for other outlets, but they're not reproduced in the form that they originally appeared. I took chunks of things, recontextualized them, and blended them with other stuff. And then, there's a large amount of new material, which is where the first-person angle comes in, throwing myself into the narrative. Did that work for you?

AAJ: Taking yourself out of the equation flirts with the "I know everything and you don't" pretension, so personalizing it made me feel welcomed at a horizontal level rather than you vertically imposing some grandiose ethos about jazz—because, obviously, there's playing but there's also listening. I also think it provided a framework because it reminded me there was a real person sitting down with these people.

PF: Right. And, by the end, I hope you come away from it with an understanding of why I'm asking the specific questions that I'm asking. I've been reading Jeremy Pelt's Griot books—two volumes so far of interviews—and he has very specific things he wants to know from these people. He asks the same question to every artist, but all the answers are different. And, eventually, you get a kind of collective portrait of a community, which is fascinating.

AAJ: Almost like the Bernard Pivot approach James Lipton brought to Inside the Actors Studio, which codified the interviews as a collective piece of work, in a way.

PF: Yeah, exactly. And that's why I felt it crucial to acknowledge in the introduction the necessary incompleteness of this book. At one point, I had the first sentence as: "This book is out of date." Because it was going to sit there for months before it came out, and jazz moves so quickly. But I felt like that was taking self-deprecation a little too far, so I cut it out.

AAJ: For readers who aren't so familiar with your work, can you expound a little on the title? Not only why you chose it, but just what it means to you in the context of this kind of slice of the 21st century that you're presenting for us?

PF: "Ugly Beauty" is the title of the column I've been writing for Stereogum since 2017. It was a good hook from that angle, because I was getting positive comments from people who didn't know anything about jazz yet who found value in the music I was guiding them toward. I really hate when someone will say, oh, you should listen to jazz, and it's like, well, what should I listen to? I never tell people you should listen to jazz. I tell people you should listen to this album by this artist. You like Coldplay? Cool, you should check out GoGo Penguin, you'd probably like them—something to make a simple connection with what they know, with what they're into. So, the title of the book comes directly from the Stereogum column, but the fact that the column is called that is because I feel like those two words sum up the off-kilter kind of beauty you find in a lot of Brooklyn jazz, for example. I wanted to convey that side of things: It's going to be beautiful, but it's also going to challenge you in a way; it's not going to crawl right into your lap.

AAJ: Do think there's a point in our lives as listeners at which we move out of harmony and go into these exciting boundary-pushing areas. Are we all, so to speak, born as standards and mature into free improvisations throughout life?

PF: I think it's a natural evolution, and it happens in every form of music. You start out listening to, let's say, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and then, you move in some other direction, like Sonic Youth or Metallica. And the same thing happens with jazz. I started out where almost everybody starts, with Kind of Blue and Crescent, and then A Love Supreme. But then, I moved to Meditations by John Coltrane and On the Corner by Miles. And then, in the late '90s, I disappeared deep into New York free jazz; I discovered Matthew Shipp and David S. Ware. For a long time, that was all I listened to. I turned my back on the conventional stuff and was listening to nothing but free jazz and super aggressive stuff. But I got tired of that. It's not a journey in one direction. It's a back and forth, it's an all around. Right now, for example, I'm obsessed with 1950s Duke Ellington. I've been listening to Uptown nonstop, which is a pretty wild record, by the way. The first song is basically an excuse for an epic drum solo. And the band is amazing. For all the free jazz I've listened to in my life, there are days where I'm like, nope, I want to listen to Ellington. I want to listen to Louis Armstrong. So, it's not a question of evolving in one direction. It's a question of hearing more and more, and figuring out your own tastes.

AAJ: I can totally relate to that. I grew up with Michael Jackson, The Beatles, The Beach Boys—those were my staples. And then, I got into classical, which became by back door into jazz. What started as an obsession with Vivaldi eventually led me to 20th-century music and the Kronos Quartet. And then, suddenly, I'm hearing John Zorn's Forbidden Fruit and the distinct sounds of Terry Riley and Steve Mackey. All these bleed-throughs become apparent to me, and all I can think is, who are these people and what are their influences? And now, I find myself returning to a lot of the stuff that led me there to begin with, like Bach, and it just keeps circling in on itself in a very beautiful way.

PF: Exactly. It reminds me of that quote from Mark Twain, which essentially says, the older you get, the smarter your dad gets. I wrote a variation of that in a birthday card to my mom. I said, it's infuriating how much more sense you make the older I get. And, you know, when people tell you that you have to learn the rules in order to break them, it sounds like bullshit. And yet, it turns out to be true. There's a reason Cecil Taylor practiced the piano for six, seven hours a day: because he had complete mastery of that thing and could make it do anything he wanted in an instant. I had the most incredible experience seeing him live at Avery Fisher Hall once, back in 2003 or 2004. He played this thundering passage in the middle of a solo set, just ripping the keyboard up one side and down the other, like a tidal wave of notes. And just as I was catching my breath, he did the exact same tidal wave of notes again. And I realized he knew exactly what he had done, that there was an unbelievable amount of control and discipline involved, which make it even more breathtaking. To realize that it was deliberate was stunning, like being hit by lightning. That kind of thing is vital, and you have to be able to go back to first principles a lot of the time. For example, I was talking on Twitter about how people need to rediscover Clifford Brown, who was a monster of a trumpet player. And because he died in the mid '50s, his legacy has kind of vanished now. But, my God, the guy could play like you can't believe.

AAJ: Hearing you talk about Cecil Taylor reminds me of one of my favorite recollections in your book, when you ask him if he's ever played an electric piano, and he looks at you, in your words, "as if I had suggested he consider growing a third arm" (p. 12), which jives with what you were just saying about his relationship with the instrument. He was so intimately bonded with every physical part of that instrument, nothing else registered for him.

PF: When I first met him, I asked him what kinds of pianos he prefers, and he started talking to me about the merits of the Steinway versus the Bösendorfer and how American Steinways are different from European Steinways. He knew every inch of that thing, so yeah, it was fascinating. It was insane what he what he knew about the piano; he could probably have built you one by the end of his career.

AAJ: Going back to some of the more "out there" stuff for lack of a better term, you and I share a deep love for Keiji Haino, and I was happy to see him get a nod in the Matana Roberts section. But it made me think, because whenever I hear "free improv," he's somebody that always comes to mind, even though there's a difference there. How would you articulate that difference?

PF: I feel like Haino is outside the conversation because people either file him under noise, which is wrong, or they file him under avant rock, which is also wrong, if less so. Because he definitely comes out of the sort of shamanistic side of The Doors and things like that. And he'll tell you straight-up that he's a big Doors fan. I remember the one time I interviewed him and we talked about the fact that Western rock albums were received uncritically in Japan when he was growing up—if it was Western rock, it was all placed on an equal plane. They didn't know which ones were the cool ones and which ones weren't by American standards. But Haino does have spiritual commonalities with jazz-based free improvisers. There's a reason he's done as much work with Peter Brötzmann as he has. He's after unfettered expression, but at the same time, he listens really carefully. He gives you an honest response to what you're doing musically. He expects full commitment from you as part of the performance. But he's not just waiting for his turn to blow up. He's listening and responding. And that's true of Brötzmann as well. They're both very sensitive performers who just happen to work at high volume.

AAJ: Speaking of high volume, can you talk a little bit about your love of death metal? Does it activate similar things for you as jazz or is it on another plane entirely?

PF: The obvious difference is that death metal is an extremely ritualized and strict type of music. Death metal bands don't improvise. They don't even jam. There's no room for changing the solos. A progressive death metal song is much more like a string quartet in how the different instruments wind around each other. But it's not only the energy I love; I also love the specific sonic frequencies they use, which have changed over time. When death metal started, it was a slightly more aggressive outgrowth of thrash metal. But now, death metal bands are using programmed rhythms a lot, they're using the highest production technology they can. They program in these bass drum hits that are just monstrous—stuff you'd normally only hear in hip-hop. It's an extremely experimental music in the sense that they're constantly trying new things to be heavier and more aggressive but also subtler. Because there really are some subtle effects going on in death metal, and you wouldn't think of it because they present themselves as these knuckle-walking barbarians, but when you listen closely to death metal records, you're like, these guys know what they're doing. Alex Webster from Cannibal Corpse is one of the best bass players in any form of rock. He's a jazz fusion-level bass virtuoso, but he's in Cannibal Corpse. And when you EQ their records so that his bass becomes a little bit more prominent, it sounds like he's playing a fretless.

AAJ: My death metal knowledge is rather limited, but one thing that always struck me about Cannibal Corpse and bands like Carcass is the sheer amount of space they achieved on some of those seminal records from the '90s, a sense of grandeur I had never encountered before in a rock format. It's not just a wall of noise; it's very precisely placed.

PF: Yeah.

AAJ: Shifting gears a bit, as I was reading the book, I was reminded of the seemingly endless debate about jazz versus popular music, what constitutes a standard, and all that. I'm curious about whether you feel the notion of a standard is also changing on this side of the dividing line you draw. Could Nine Inch Nails' "Closer," for example, be as much of a standard as "My Funny Valentine"?

PF: I think it would be nice if modern songs broke through in that way. And a few have. Brad Mehldau, for one, adapted Radiohead's "Exit Music (For A Film)." The problem with "Closer," of course, is that it became a standard because you hear it in every strip club, which goes back to jazz's unsavory early history. So, in a way, it's perfect. But sure, I think there's room for jazz musicians now to adapt modern songs. But more modern songs need to rise to that level. I don't want to sound like a cranky old bastard, but this goes back to the dividing line of pre-and post-hip-hop—composition just works differently than it used to. It's built around a beat and a looping pattern rather than a complex ladder of chords and harmonies. If you find harmonically dense pop music, that gives you something to play with, and I think jazz musicians will embrace it. And who knows, maybe the old pipeline will be reactivated in that jazz musicians will start pulling tunes from whatever's on Broadway now.

AAJ: Another subtext I really enjoyed in the book—and again, I think this is why it was important for you to include yourself to the extent that you did—was enriching our understanding of musicians as human beings. For example, in your chapter on Jeremy Pelt, you note seeing his personality in his playing. Does that mean your role as an interviewer has also enhanced your role as a listener? I'm also curious to know whether there are any musicians whose personality was a total surprise to you.

PF: Shabaka Hutchings certainly surprised me personality-wise. Because his playing is extremely raucous and—I hate to use the word because it's so loaded—primitive, or what he calls "stupid sax." But then, you meet him and talk to him, and you realize he's an incredibly sharp classically trained dude. He knows exactly what he's doing. He's extraordinarily perceptive.

AAJ: In the mini intro to the final section, you make the following statement: "All the music discussed in this section is both demanding and cathartic" (p. 212). What defines catharsis for you, and do "cathartic" and "demanding" necessarily go hand in hand? Have you ever experienced catharsis in non—challenging contexts as well?

PF: I think so. Most people, when they go out to go see a live music performance, don't necessarily want to be challenged right away; they want to actually enjoy something. But there are times when you say, all right, I'm open to this, show me what you got, and I would say Matana Roberts is very much about challenging the audience in terms of making them think about what they expected when they walked in. At the same time, it's not confrontational. I remember seeing her one time at Le Poisson Rouge, where she conducted the audience with arm gestures, creating harmonies and all that. We all had fun. And that was in its own way challenging, because you don't come to a show expecting to be asked to participate. But she did it in a very cool way. And so, there's a way to confront and challenge the audience without being a dick about it. And that's the key difference.

AAJ: In terms of the five-part structure of the book, did the themes emerge organically as you were assembling these pieces, or did you them in mind already?

PF: I consciously assembled them, and they had much cruder names when I started. There was one section called "Nerds," another called "Punks," and so on. I polished that stuff up as I went, of course, but I knew more or less what I wanted to do, and I knew more or less where everybody was going to fall. I definitely chose the artists in question to fit under different headings, but I don't feel like the headings are false.

AAJ: Going back to the introduction, you talk a little bit about how jazz festivals have evolved into something more politically charged, inclusive, and conducive to dialogue. It's not just nod your head to a few solos, disperse into the night, and go to your separate ways. There are panel discussions with musicians, activists, and scholars around the meta-level issues, around this music and its history. Do you still see that spirit continuing?

PF: I do see it continuing because the artists insist on it. And if the artists insist on it, then the listening audience will be there. I feel like as long as the artist is treating the listener intelligently, then it's going to work.

AAJ: And that's what's so good about, right? It's not coming from a perspective of I, the Enlightened Artist, will lay my wisdom upon you.

PF: Yeah, it's coming from a very "we're all in this together" spirit, and that's a good thing. That's the way discussion should be held. We all have to grapple with this, so let's teach each other—that kind of thing. It's not about tallying up our hardships: I'm oppressed in five ways, but you're only oppressed in four ways, so I win this round, you know? It's like, here's my deal, now tell me about your deal, and we'll see whether there's a solution that helps us both. But at the same time, as I've talked about with some of the more socially engaged artists that I've interviewed, you've got to ask yourself: How far does political protest in instrumental music get you? You can give a piece any title you want. But then someone is going to put it on while they're having sex, you know what I mean? By then, they've already decontextualized your art for you.

AAJ: That's one thing I appreciate so much about visionaries like Nicole Mitchell. Obviously, a huge intellect, but she offers her wisdom rather than imposing it and invites us to play with it in our own way.

PF: Exactly.

AAJ: You are someone who believes in the value of traditionalism (p. 11). What do you feel like traditionalism is doing for you right now as a listener?

PF: I definitely feel like traditionalism offers comfort. Going back to Ellington, he's one of the top three archetypal jazz artists, you know, so you can sit back and listen to that stuff and say, okay, this is really beautiful. But when you've listened to three or four Ellington records in a row, you start to perceive the subtle changes he's bringing, and you realize there are like 8,000 ways to play the blues. And so, the more you listen, the more you say, oh, wow, I did not expect that. And yet, it's still a blues tune. The horns are still coming in and doing the things you thought they might be doing, but there's also this element of surprise. So, the value of tradition is not to play exactly what's been played before but to play what's been played before, and then offer another possibility.

AAJ: We often hear the term "jazz community." What levels of kinship did you notice in putting this book together? And is there such a thing as a jazz community, or is it more like amoebas floating around, fusing and separating in space?

PF: It's definitely more atomized. At the same time, people connect in ways you wouldn't necessarily expect. The example that immediately came to mind as you were asking that was the album Bangs with Jason Moran, Mary Halvorson, and Ron Miles. When I found out about this record, I was like, how the hell did Jason Moran and Mary Halvorson connect? And when I asked him, he said he saw her play at Lincoln Center, and his wife [Alicia Hall Moran] suggested they should work together. Cool. That's what happens when jazz musicians listen to each other. And when they hear somebody doing something amazing, even if it's in a different realm than what they usually do, they want to work with that person, and you get this insane one-off collaboration. I would never have picked Moran to have collaborated with Milford Graves, either, but he did. So, there are lots of connections going on simply because the musicians themselves are listening.

AAJ: If you were to sit down and outline a sequel to Ugly Beauty right now, who would you include that you didn't the first time around?

PF: I would definitely include vibraphonist Joel Ross because I've spoken to him recently, and he's really doing some very interesting stuff. I might also want to deliberately focus on areas I consciously ignored, like Scandinavian musicians, the Portuguese jazz scene, and stuff like that. This is definitely a very American book, and that was deliberate. But I'd like to do something that explored Europe more because there's a tremendous amount of great work going out there. There's plenty for me to dig through and work with.

Post a comment

Get the Jazz Near You newsletter All About Jazz has been a pillar of jazz since 1995, championing it as an art form and, more importantly, supporting the musicians who create it. Our enduring commitment has made "AAJ" one of the most culturally important websites of its kind, read by hundreds of thousands of fans, musicians and industry figures every month.

To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to vigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.




Get more of a good thing!

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories, our special offers, and upcoming jazz events near you.