Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Book Review - Phil Freeman, “Ugly Beauty – Jazz in the 21st Century”.

by Ian Mann

March 16, 2022

Insightful, intelligent and thought provoking. Freeman makes a compelling and convincing case for the ongoing importance and vitality of jazz in the 21st century.

Book Review

Phil Freeman “Ugly Beauty – Jazz in the 21st Century”

(zer0 books)

Phil Freeman is a music journalist specialising in jazz and metal. Among the publications and other outlets he was written for are The Wire, Stereogum,  Bandcamp, Red Bull Music Academy, Jazziz, Alternative Press, The Village Voice, Signal To Noise and Relix. He was the founder of MSN Entertainment’s heavy metal blog Headbang and a former editor of the magazines Global Rhythm and Metal Edge. Freeman is also the co-creator of Burning Ambulance, a “media empire” (his words) that encompasses a website, a podcast, and a record label.

Freeman is the author of three previous books “Running the Voodoo Down: The Electric Music of Miles Davis” (2005),   “Marooned: The Next Generation of Desert Island Discs” (2007),  “Sound Levels: Profiles in American Music 2002-2009” (published in 2010).

I know Freeman’s work best from The Wire, where he writes the monthly column reviewing jazz and improvised music, as well as conducting interviews with artists such as guitarist Mary Halvorson.

Freeman’s latest book takes its title from the monthly jazz column “Ugly Beauty” that he writes for Stereogum, the column itself presumably taking its title from Thelonious Monk’s composition of the same name.

As Freeman explains in his introduction the book partly a product of lockdown. Denied the opportunity of attending live performances Freeman began to question the role of jazz in the 21st century. The music’s past has been well documented, perhaps too much, and jazz, like rock, has become rather too absorbed in its own history. Books about contemporary jazz musicians are few and far between, which is why this work is so welcome, whereas the giants of the past (Parker, Davis, Monk, Coltrane and more) still continue to dominate the jazz market place, both in print, on disc and on the airwaves.

That said the profile of contemporary jazz has risen considerably in recent years, with Freeman attributing much of this to the commercial success of saxophonist Kamasi Washington with albums like 2014’s “The Epic”. Freeman makes the point that Washington spoke to a generation “raised on indie rock and hip hop” and that a generation of jazz musicians steeped in those same things has emerged in his wake. Many of these are profiled in this book.

Freeman welcomes the democratisation of the music that has occurred in recent years, thanks in part to the culture of streaming and of social media. He is positively enthused by the energy, variety and political commitment of the current scene and in this book he speaks with many of its leading practitioners, from both sides of the Atlantic.

The book is divided into five parts, each examining a sub scene within the larger contemporary jazz firmament. Each section features an introductory essay from Freeman, presumably written during 2020/21, followed by interviews with, or articles about, individual musicians culled from Freeman’s writings for various publications. I distinctly remember reading his interview with Mary Halvorson when it was first published in The Wire. Each interview / article is followed by a list of “Essential Listening”, typically consisting of half a dozen recommended album recordings by the artist(s) concerned.

Part One features six artists whose work can be clearly linked to the jazz tradition, many of whom still wear suits on the bandstand. Freeman’s introductory essay explores the role of traditionalism and its place in the modern world of contemporary jazz. It’s an intelligent and thought provoking piece of writing that examines its subject from a variety of angles.

The artists interviewed in this first section are saxophonist JD Allen, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonist Wayne Escoffery and pianists Victor Gould, Ethan Iverson, Orrin Evans and Jason Moran.

The article about Gould also features his work with singer Jazzmeia Horn, while Iverson and Evans feature in the same piece, Evans having succeeded Iverson as the pianist with The Bad Plus. Freeman’s piece ranges beyond that band to provide an overview of the individual careers of both musicians.

I don’t intend to dive into detail regarding the individual articles / interviews. I wouldn’t want to steal Freeman’s thunder and in any event the perspicacity of the writing and the wealth of detail contained in the pieces demands that they be read in full.

Part Two looks at musicians who are perceived as being jazz performers but whose work embraces other strands of music ranging from contemporary classical to Indian to hip hop. Freeman’s introductory essay looks at the word ‘jazz’ as a signifier and as a marketing tool. Again it’s a perceptive piece of writing that makes many salient points and does so with an admirable turn of phrase and economy of language.

The musicians examined often have close links with Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, two pioneers who have habitually stretched the definition of jazz to the limit. Those featured are pianist Vijay Iyer, cornet player Taylor Ho Bynum, cellist Tomeka Reid, flautist Nicole Mitchell, guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Linda may Han Oh and drummer / composer Tyshawn Sorey.

Reid and Mitchell are addressed in the same piece, in part due to the fact that the pair have worked together, in part because of their links to the Chicago based organisation the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Mitchell having been its first female chair.

Part 3 brings Freeman to London to speak with a number of British jazz musicians as he explores contemporary ‘spiritual jazz’. The introductory essay examines the relationship between music making and spiritual or religious faith, another incisive piece of writing that raises as many questions as it answers.

Jazz listeners will have their own idea as to what ‘spiritual jazz’ sounds like, the overall template having been established in the 1960s by musicians such as John and Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. Something of that legacy has been carried on into the 21st century in the work of the artists Freeman covers here, beginning with the British musicians Shabaka Hutchings (reeds), Yazz Ahmed (trumpet), Nubya Garcia (tenor sax) and Shirley Tetteh (guitar). These last two are addressed in the same piece, having been founder members of all the female band Nerija. That group’s alto saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi is also referenced, specifically her work with her own band SEED Ensemble.

In the next section Freeman focusses on the work of the Chicago based drummer, producer and bandleader Makaya McCraven, who has collaborated with a number of the British musicians,  among them Garcia, Hutchings, Soweto Kinch, Theon Cross, Joe Armon-Jones and Kamaal Williams. McCraven has also worked closely with harpist Brandee Younger, the second figure to be addressed in this article and the heir to the jazz harp tradition established by Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby.

The chapter subtitled “Recovering Indigenous Knowledge” examines the legacy of a number of South African born musicians, notably pianist/ composer Nduduzo Makhathini, trombonist / vocalist Siya Makuzeni, pianist / vocalist Thandi Ntuli, saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane and trumpeter Ndabo Zulu. The thorny subject of apartheid is addressed, as is the musical legacy of musicians with whom UK readers might be more familiar, pianists Abdullah Ibrahim and Bheki Mseleku, trumpeter Hugh Masakela and the work of The Blue Notes, led by pianist and composer Chris McGregor.

The next section tackles the work of Los Angeles based saxophonist Kamasi Washington and his circle, among them bassists Miles Mosley and Stephen ‘Thundercat’ Bruner, trombonist Ryan Porter, pianist Cameron Graves and vocalist Dwight Trible. Washington’s phenomenal success has led to many of his sidemen establishing solo careers, although the ‘tight knit crew’ dynamic of the Washington band remains.

The final piece in the ‘Spiritual Jazz’ section examines the work of the American alto saxophonist Darius Jones, a musician about whom I have to admit I know very little. But after having read Freeman’s words I’d love to learn more about the man and his music.

Part 4 addresses the work of five musicians who all play the same instrument, the trumpet. Ambrose Akinmusire, Christian Scott, Keyon Harrold, Theo Croker and Marquis Hill are all masters of their chosen instrument, but what really concerns Freeman is not they all play the same horn but their relationship with hip hop.

All five were born in the 1980s and were raised at a time when hip hop was permeating the mainstream. All incorporate elements of it into their music, albeit in different ways. Freeman’s introductory essay addresses the relationship between jazz and hip hop and emphasises the importance of the late Roy Hargrove, who perhaps did the most to build bridges between the two genres, who combined a career playing hard bop and latin jazz with his work with his own funk band the RH Factor and his collaborations with the pool of musicians and vocalists known as the Soulquarians. Akinmusire, in particular, is quick to acknowledge Hargrove’s legacy.
Freeman compares the role of the trumpeter / bandleader with that of the hi hop MC, a valid analogy.

I’ve been lucky enough to see all five of these musicians perform live at UK jazz festivals in London and Cheltenham and have been hugely impressed by all of them. Nevertheless I felt that in most of these performances their sets were tailored towards a jazz audience, their recordings exhibit a much stronger hip hop component. That said I’m certain that all have the skill to adapt their live shows according to context and can target a younger crowd in a club environment by placing a greater emphasis on the hip hop elements in their music.

The final part sees Freeman addressing musicians who “have ideas that can’t be contained by traditional notions of what is and isn’t jazz”. In this respect there are similarities between these musicians and the likes of Iyer, Halvorson and Sorey in Part 2, but in the main this collection of musicians create music that is less academic and is “a little darker, a little angrier, a little more punk”.

In a sense they are more closely aligned with the five trumpeters of Part 4, all of whom are politically engaged and express their anger through a blend of jazz and hip hop. This last group add elements of rock and electronica to the jazz, hip hop and political components. As Freeman points out they are too confrontational to be comfortably housed in conventional jazz clubs and are more likely to found playing rock venues or other alternative performance spaces.

In this final section Freeman addresses the work of trumpeter / vocalist Jaimie Branch, saxophonists James Brandon Lewis and Matana Roberts and drummer / producer / vocalist Kassa Overall.  The last chapter of the book is dedicated to the poet and musician Moor Mother (Camae Ayewa) and the restlessly busy bassist Luke Stewart, a member of Moor Mother’s band but who plays with half a dozen other groups, including James Brandon Lewis’ band. Indeed these kind of connections are common to all the musicians featured in this book, jazz is just as tight knit a community as it has always been, with modern technology actually encouraging wider collaboration.

In his articles Freeman brings a lot of himself to the writing, describing the places at which he meets his interviewees and the venues and the circumstances in which he sees them play. This kind of autobiographical detail doesn’t detract from the work, Freeman isn’t saying “look at me”, instead he’s providing a context and building an atmosphere, you can imagine being in that New York jazz club with him.

Throughout the book Freeman’s knowledge of, and love for, the music is palpable. He writes with passion and intelligence, allowing the musicians to speak for themselves but putting their work into context, both in terms of current musical and socio-political culture and the jazz tradition as a whole. He makes a compelling and convincing case for the ongoing importance and vitality of jazz in the 21st century.

As a champion of contemporary jazz myself I’ve heard most of the musicians featured in this book on record and have been lucky enough to witness many of them performing live. Many have been the subject of favourable CD and live performance reviews elsewhere on The Jazzmann.

I can count myself a fan of almost every musician featured in this book so the interviews and articles have been insightful and informative. Readers can pick out their own individual favourites and read about them, so in this sense “Ugly Beauty” is a book that can be picked up and browsed again and again, as opposed to a work that readers are likely to read cover to cover.

That said there is an overall structure and Freeman’s introductory essays featuring his musings about the nature of jazz and its role in the 21st century represent some of the most insightful, intelligent and thought provoking passages of the entire book.

Anybody with an interest in any of the artists featured in this book, and of contemporary jazz as a whole, will find much to enjoy in this excellent and well written book.

“Ugly Beauty” is available via

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