Phil Freeman
Photographs by Susan O’Conner
The Telegraph Company

Phil Freeman has written a guide to and anecdotal history of contemporary free jazz as practiced in New York City that is sorely needed. Mr. Freeman writes with passion and insight about the free jazz scene and its principal players and brings plenty of original insight to jazz criticism along the way. It’s refreshing to read trenchant criticism that’s informed by musical knowledge, history and social studies. Mr. Freeman comes from a hard punk and metal head background and his outsider’s take on jazz makes for exciting reading.

The chapter on the history of free jazz, which Mr. Freeman traces to seminal works by Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and John Coltrane, fills in the lacunae found in just about every standard establishment history of the medium. Moreover he lays it out clearly and knocks down a few shibboleths along the way.

The bulk of the book is devoted to profiles of and discussions with most of the leading musicians of the free jazz movement today: David Ware, Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Roy Campbell, Charles Gayle, Joe Morris and Daniel Carter. Each of these musicians gets his say and receives the benefit of Mr. Freeman’s explication of the work in question, so that the novice to free jazz has a key to understanding and appreciating this complex and demanding but supremely enjoyable music.

Another chapter of the book is spent describing the origins and functioning of the Vision Festival, perhaps the most important showcase for the new free jazz. The brainchild of Patricia Nicholson the Vision Festival has been held annually in New York City since 1996. Shamefully this vital and innovative event has been consistently given short shrift (predictably) by the establishment media as well as by once culturally progressive papers like The Village Voice. Mr. Freeman at last gives the Festival its due by placing it in the context of the NYC music scene and by letting Ms. Nicholson tell us about it herself.

Ken Burns’ 500 lb. Gorilla of a documentary JAZZ gets the dissection it so richly deserves. Though it’s already been the subject of harsh criticism elsewhere, Mr. Freeman’s analysis is by far the most cogent and on target. JAZZ is to jazz what the Piltdown Man was to anthropology: a fantastic hoax that bamboozled people for 50 years who should have known better. Mr. Freeman follows up his discussion of the documentary with a look at the present state of jazz critics, the criticism they write and the magazines they write it for. One hopes that he rocks some boats with his jeremiad.

Concluding chapters deal with the importance of independent music labels for producing cutting edge music in general and free jazz in particular and a heartfelt description of a recording session of the David S. Quartet. There are useful appendices of a recommended discography and list of places where the interested reader can order directly from the distributor. All in all, Phil Freeman has broken new ground with this book and has, as far as this reviewer is concerned, brought new life to jazz criticism.

Richard Modiano