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Book Review

Ugly Beauty: Jazz In The 21st Century


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Ugly Beauty: Jazz in The 21st Century
Phil Freeman
250 Pages
ISBN: 978 1 78904 632 8
ZerO Books

There is a scene in Douglas Adams' book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Pan Books, 1979) where a computer named Deep Thought is about to reveal the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything, having crunched the numbers for a mind-boggling 7.5 million years. To a large, excited crowd, headed by two philosophers, Deep Thought declares—after a dramatic pause—that the answer is forty-two. 'Forty-two!' echoes one of the shell-shocked philosophers. 'I think the problem, to be quite honest with you,' says Deep Thought, 'is that you've never actually known what the question is.'

Jazz, like the meaning of life, means different things to different people. There has rarely if ever been consensus as to what jazz is, the values it represents, who owns it, or who should pay for it.

Jazz had not been around for long before the first schisms arose. Hot versus cool jazz. Swing versus bebop. Jazz as entertainment versus jazz as art music. America's little-appreciated classical music or the country's little-appreciated indigenous folk music? Those arguments are in the region of sixty years old, or more, and they continue to incite debate. So, what to make of jazz two decades into the twenty-first century?

Music journalist Phil Freeman raises a number of questions pertaining to the relevance of jazz in the twenty-first century, the weight of jazz history and tradition, the broadening of the music's vocabulary, notions of pan-African identity, and more besides. Two hundred and fifty pages later, the waters around jazz seem even muddier, and the debates—in certain quarters—appear likely to get even fiercer. But what also comes through as loud and clear as an Art Blakey bass drum 'bomb,' however, is that the music, in all its myriad permutations, in and way out, is as vital as ever.

Ugly Beauty... is not an overarching history of jazz in the twenty-first century, nor does it claim to be. Freeman, who describes his dispatches as "postcards," limits his area of study to four geographical areas: London; Los Angeles; Chicago and New York City. Undoubtedly four of the global hot spots of jazz, Freeman identifies key players in each place. Through interviews, informal chats and atmospheric descriptions of live performances and albums, he not only portrays individual musicians who are making a splash, but connects the dots to wider, overlapping scenes, placing the music within broader social contexts and viewing it through the prism of long-standing traditions.

From the astral jazz of Kamasi Washington to the suited-post-bop of the Black Art Jazz Collective, from the Afro-futurism of Shabaka Hutchings and the "panoramic sound quilting" of Matana Roberts to the fierce performance poetry of Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother), from through-composed notated music to free improvisation, the music does seem to cover far too much ground to be reducible to a single word. Freeman acknowledges that it is "difficult, nigh impossible" to say what a jazz musician is these days, precisely because the music is, as he puts it, ... "a mosaic, not a monolith."

Many of the musicians that Freeman is drawn to clearly challenge the boundaries of what many people would probably consider to be jazz. For Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran, Taylor Ho Bynum, Mary Halvorson, Darius Jones, Tomeka Reid, and others like them, categories and labels are anathema to their boundless artistic natures. How much of the music is improvised and how much is through-composed may be relevant to the jazz police, but it is of no relevance at all to the majority of artists. "To blur out the distinction is what I'm after," Tyshawn Sorey tells the author.

Many of the above-mentioned musicians, the author posits, can tick all the jazz boxes on one project, only then to immerse themselves in multi-media projects, contemporary string groups or projects that prove too slippery to categorize.

Clearly, musicians of the new millennium have had fifty more years of music to process than the bebop pioneers of the 1940s and '50s. As Freeman underlines, no musician today under the age of forty is unaffected by hip-hop. In one chapter of the book, the author profiles five leading trumpeters: Ambrose Akinmusire; Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah; Keyon Harrold; Theo Croker and Marquis Hill. The common ground they share, Freeman suggests, is the ways in which they have incorporated hip-hop and modern production techniques into their music.

More first-person input from the musicians on the relationship between hip-hop and jazz would have made for a more persuasive narrative. "Jazz, hip-hop, rock 'n' roll, gospel, blues, it's all coming from the same tree." That statement by Marquis Hill invites the reader to conclude that hip-hop is no more important than any other influence, and there is too little hip-hop meat in this chapter to contradict that notion.

Interestingly, however, the author's assertion that Miles Davis's Doo-Bop (Warner Bros. 1992) was "one of the most notable attempts at a true fusion of jazz and hip-hop" will likely invite reconsideration of a much-maligned album.

Ugly Beauty... provides a number of well-constructed signposts to understanding the complexities of jazz in the twenty-first century, sheds light on several dozen of its chief protagonists and provides listening guides that will serve as reference points for anyone coming to any of the music for the first time.

But jazz, as the author notes, is a music that is always evolving, which makes it difficult to pin down. Perhaps it will take a computer of the sophistication of Deep Thought and 7.5 million years to truly understand what jazz means. That is, if we can ever work out what the question is.

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