New York Is Now! The New Wave of Free Jazz

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New York Is Now! is the first work to give book-length treatment to some of the New York musicians who carried free jazz from its late 60s' heyday to its 1990s' revival as the latest 'new thing' for jaded rock heads to discover.

Phil Freeman

Reviewed by Aaron Shuman

Sunday, August 25 2002, 12:44 PM

New York Is Now! is the first work to give book-length treatment to some of the New York musicians who carried free jazz from its late 60s' heyday to its 1990s' revival as the latest "new thing" for jaded rock heads to discover. And Phil Freeman, if you're willing to believe his self-promotion, is the jaded rock head who discovered this "new thing" and is bringing it to metal's masses, in magazines like Alternative Press, Magnet, and Metal Hammer.

Arriving in stores months before the David S. Ware Quartet took the festival stage to reinterpret Sonny Rollins's "Freedom Suite," New York Is Now! is either ahead-of-the-curve and historically important, as Freeman would have you believe, or a product puppy dog eager to capitalize on a growth market. Passionate in its myopic focus on the Quartet, the book opens with the Quartet's 1998 performance at the Vision Festival and closes with the Quartet's recording sessions for its 2001 release Corridors & Parallels. In between, we meet the group's principals—the book's first three artist profiles are devoted to Quartet members Ware, pianist Matthew Shipp, and bassist William Parker—and Freeman's table of contents damn near reproduces the back catalog of Aum Fidelity, the label of Quartet producer Steven Joerg. Contrast this limited range with the more catholic understandings of the music conveyed in Valerie Wilmer's As Serious as Your Life or A.B. Spellman's Four Lives in the Bebop Business, and you understand why the latter are considered classics of jazz history, while the former is advertised on CD booklets from the label it lavishes with uncritical praise. Perhaps this is the kind of synergy Freeman's publishers, the new media Telegraph Company, encourage. But if Freeman recognizes a difference between writing promotional copy, jazz criticism, and his own coming-of-age story, there's little proof of it in this book.

As Freeman follows the Quartet's rise from underground sensation through major-label signing to the artistic achievement of Corridors & Parallels (others have been less kind to Shipp's use of synth on that album), the book also marks his progression from jazz outsider to insider. Arriving at the Vision Festival as a "neophyte" in the book's opening chapter, titled "What Happened to Me," Freeman is a guest inside the recording booth by book's end. We become his captive audience as he repudiates the "Lies Jazz Critics Told Me", constructs his counter-canon, and warns in the Acknowledgments, "Those who wish to correct me should write their own books, and I will read them."

Larded onto this chronological progression is an argument that what jazz needs "to survive" is to reach out to a "new" avant-rock audience. It apparently never occurs to Freeman that if jazz survived long enough for him to discover it in the '90s, then rumors of its death might be exaggerated. It also never occurs to him to give props to those who helped build the slide between rock and jazz long before Freeman slipped down it. Instead, he senselessly invests himself in New York's parochial turf battles, dissing John Zorn as "a dilettante" and "huckster," while club svengali Michael Dorff and "the Downtown 'new music' aesthetic" of his Knitting Factory is "clogged with indie-rock bands, art-rock holdovers, and postmodernist Jewish music." Their fault is booking less of the "hardcore free jazz" Freeman favors.

Never mind that such criticism makes no sense coming from a convert advocating the Great Rock Crossover; nor that the border between Downtown and the Lower East Side is neither as distinct, nor maintained by most musicians as fiercely, as Freeman would enforce it here. Dropping these disses as Bible truth—without going into detail to explain why these schisms formed—suggests the lie behind Freeman's claim "to have written this book in order to present honest information about free jazz to people…only passingly familiar with it." To read Freeman is to enter a universe where there is no Wire magazine, where Sonic Youth never played with the Sun Ra Arkestra. To read Freeman is to believe that the avatars of this movement are himself, the Ware Quartet, and Joerg, who formerly ran Homestead Records.

Freeman's inability to detach his writing from his attachment to his subjects marks this book as a fan biography, which fills the history of jazz writing. Fan bios play a vital role in documenting the work of underappreciated artists, but they usually view their subjects through the occluded lens of hero worship or whatever ideological investment the author has made in them. Fan bios become dangerous only when they present themselves to be objective histories, as Freeman does here. In the history of jazz writing—a field marked by exemplary writing and Spirit Catchers (a book that claims to analyze the spiritual dimensions of Coltrane's art)—Freeman has written the most annoying thing possible: a Spirit Catcher that thinks it knows better.

That said, Freeman does provide a public service by decoupling the music from the revolutionary rhetoric that accompanied it in the 1960s. Training his guns on the big cats—Frank Kofsky (author of Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music) and Amiri Baraka (author of Blues People, Black Music, and many others)—Freeman's attack is worth noting, though his intellectually specious approach wounds himself more often than his prey. For instance, Freeman quotes a fictional character from Baraka's play Dutchman to discredit his jazz criticism as "ridiculous because they reveal the author's utter failure to hear what the musicians are playing; infuriating because this sort of idiocy has, through lack of refutation, become orthodoxy," all without quoting from Baraka's criticism. "How is it possible to hear rage, or politics of any kind, in albums with titles like Meditations, Spiritual Unity, or Ascension?" asks Freeman.

But by reducing the music to a backlog of recorded titles, Freeman ignores the social contexts in which the music was performed. Phil Freeman cranking up CDs to 11 in his New Jersey crib is one thing, ya dig, but the Jazzmobile, or Baraka's Black Arts Repertory Theater/School, or Sam Rivers's Studio Rivbea was something else: social and educational institutions that helped define the music. Freeman doesn't acknowledge that where and how we are brought into music affects our perceptions of it. Nor, for that matter, did the school of Sixties criticism Freeman would dismantle, which at its worst, mystified what was radical about the Sixties scene, by attributing all sorts of revolutionary properties to the playing of music itself. (To say this is to overlook the major contributions Baraka made to jazz criticism.) Saxophonist Anthony Braxton made a complementary point in his tour book Forces in Motion, where he noted:

"The reason I indict the left is that, at every point of the way, the left could have tried to teach people about what was happening, but they chose only to take those areas of information that were conducive to their own interests. It was very fashionable to talk about black power, black rage, the music as screaming, etc., etc."

What's ironic is that "the music as screaming" is exactly what draws Freeman's attention. In place of ideology, Freeman substitutes an extreme attitude, and an extreme attachment to product. (That's his choice of adjective, not mine, to describe the "extreme metal" and hardcore jazz he loves.) Not surprisingly, this leads to a valuation of "balls out" playing, with predictable consequences. For instance, Freeman much prefers "the rock-like fury" of current Ware Quartet drummer Guillermo Brown, "one of the most powerful men behind the kit in any jazz group," to the "ornamental role" of Susie Ibarra, who left the Quartet and has established herself as a composer with a series of releases on her co-run label, Hopscotch, and John Zorn's label, Tzadik. Give Freeman the benefit of the doubt if you will, and assume his failure to consider Ibarra's work as leader has nothing to do with the fact that she detached from his preferred camp of men on Aum Fidelity and recorded with the enemy on Tzadik. It's still clear that Freeman needs to get a grip on Asian musics, because from the moment he posits "the sparse Asian sound" of the Far East Side Band on page four, his descriptions are rote and racial: Korean-American violinist Jason Kao Hwang, Japanese drummer Satoshi Takeishi, and Japanese DJ Krush all apparently have an "austerity" in common, which Freeman likens at one point to Chinese court music, while the "ornamental role" of Ibarra and Takeishi has something in common with the "exotic" percussion of Zen Matsuura. Moments like this are especially galling, because Freeman is reproducing entire discourses of the racialization and gendering of jazz—what Braxton has critiqued as "the already over-accented position of the masculine[ity] of present-day black creativity"--apparently without realizing he's doing it.

Complementing this extreme attitude is an extreme attachment to the uniqueness of his one-to-one relationship with the musician. The distortion these attachments cause reach their comedic best with his chapter on Charles Gayle, which starts with the unintentionally funny lament:

"Writing about Gayle is difficult. He's notoriously hermetic, keeping a safe distance between himself and the rest of the New York musicians, to say nothing of his legendary caginess with the press. He doesn't work with the same players as everybody else…"

It apparently never occured to Freeman to interview anyone else to fill in the gaps of Gayle's story. Freeman notes that Gayle was "a great beneficiary of Michael Dorff's patronage" but never quotes Dorff, who as we've already seen, is dismissed as soft on hardcore jazz. And though William Parker has frequently worked with Gayle, Freeman never quotes him, either. Indeed, what is remarkable is that we rarely see musicians react to or comment on each other's playing; rather, each musician is presented individually to us, through the medium of Phil Freeman. This sanctifies his individual relationship with the musician, and his ability to get the story no one else can get, and when this approach fails (as it does with Gayle), Freeman's response is to reproduce myths about the artist, make some hyperbolic claims, and throw in lots of record reviews, to pad out one of the book's shortest chapters.

It's as if the artist doesn't exist outside of Freeman's interest in him, and the intensities of Freeman's in-the-moment experience (in concert or consuming the holy wafer of CD) matter more to him than the art. His putdown of Wynton Marsalis—"almost immediately, he revealed himself as the worst kind of messianic megalomaniac, delivering pronouncements with frightening regularity on what was, and was not, jazz"—applies equally well to Freeman's own efforts. So does his verdict on Ken Burns's Jazz:

"It's not aimed at jazz listeners—it's aimed at an untapped market segment…What longtime listeners think about the distortion of the music's history is not his concern—he's got a story to tell, and he's going to tell it."

It's enough to make you wish Freeman had heeded guitarist Joe Morris, in one of the book's best chapters, when Morris explains his distinctively clean, distortion-free sound:

"The reason I articulate everything is so that no one can go, 'Yeah, man, it was really burning.' They go, 'What was that?'…It forces them to follow the pattern, to become involved in details, rather than just taking the visceral and try to pass it along to everybody."

With this book, Freeman assumes the position of his generation's Kofsky, who Freeman disdains for "like so many radicals of the Sixties, attach[ing] himself like a sucker-fish to the "black cause," undermining the real work of the civil rights struggle with his nonsensical, intemperate rhetoric." Substitute "the Nineties" for "the Sixties," "free jazz" for the "black cause," Revolution 2.0 for The Revolution, and you have an accurate description of Freeman in whatever struggle he finds himself engaged in. This self-styled John Brown's efforts to expand market share by any means necessary won't make the ground shake or the heavens roll. But if ESPN's "X Games" and the like replace the Offspring with skronks of sax and bleats of trumpet on the soundtrack, we will have Phil Freeman to thank for this triumph of extreme ideology.

Available from the Telegraph Company, $17 

Aaron Shuman is a co-director of Bad Subjects 

Copyright © 2002 by Aaron Shuman. All rights reserved.

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