Phil Freeman Knows His Jazz

The acclaimed music critic and impresario delivers the only book on jazz in the 21st Century that matters

Phil Freeman Ugly Beauty: Jazz in the 21st Century, Zer0 Books 2022

Jazz, for all its incredible achievements, sometimes feels at risk of collapsing under the weight of its own history.

A jazz fan could live a life of incredible listening experiences without purchasing a record made after 1970. But classic recordings and reissues don’t make for a healthy genre. It’s important to know about music being made by artists today. 

The book Ugly Beauty by Phil Freeman looks to redress the balance and bring the jazz fan up to date with the state of the music in the 21st century. Freeman is a veteran music journalist that has been covering both jazz and metal since the nineties. He writes for Wire magazine, does a monthly jazz column called Ugly Beauty for Stereogum, and has a podcast, review website, and record label all under the banner of Burning Ambulance. Though he describes himself as an “outsider” since he’s not a musician his expertise is nevertheless unquestionable.



The book is divided into several sections allowing a wide range of styles to be covered. Freeman covers what might be considered more traditional jazz artists as one group, followed by a group of artists who engage equally with the avant-garde jazz scene and modern composition,  and the “spiritual” jazz scene. He then looks at the work of five trumpeters and compares and contrasts their various approaches and inspirations. Finally, he ends the book by examining some of the true outliers of today’s jazz scene.

Under each heading, five artists are covered in a short profile. While not meant to be a comprehensive rendering of their careers, Freeman constructs a vital snapshot of their music through both exposition and interview. The reader gains of sense of what truly drives the musician and their trajectory from their first records to their most recent work. A list of essential albums completes each profile and reveals the hidden component of this book, the listening experience.

It’s hard to point to any particular artist as a surprise seeing as the reader brings their own listening experience to the book. Those who know the work of the traditional artists covered, such as Jason Moran and Jeremy Pelt may discover the more modernist approach of Tyshawn Sorey and Mary Halvorson to be a new rabbit hole to fall down, and vice-versa of course. For those who dig into each list of essential albums, they will be surprised by the sheer volume of fantastic music waiting to be discovered. 

But for all the sonic variety covered in this book, many themes of culture and politics emerge as a commonality among many of the musicians. Race often emerges as a primary concern. Mantana Roberts’ Coin Coin project confronts the subject through the retelling of her family’s history in America. Meanwhile, Tyshawn Sorey’s profile delves into a discussion of his music viewed through the lens of race. One can sense as an African-American his music might be scrutinized for traveling too far afield from what most consider jazz. Citing George Lewis’s 2002 essay, “Improvised Music After 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives” which stated that despite cultural  differences in the practice of music, all options were open to all players. If that text originally defended whites playing jazz, Tyshawn Sorey could turn the argument around and defend his right to compose and play whatever he pleases. 



Another common concern deals with the impact of hip-hop on jazz. It’s safe to say that every player covered in Ugly Beauty grew up with hip-hop being a major force in world popular culture. In many ways, Freeman’s section on trumpeters seems to deal with this ever-present most consistently. Christian Scott a Tunde Adjuah specifically mentions the influence of trap music on his work while Keyon Harrold specifically talks about playing on a song by southern rapper Big Krit. But among the outliers that fill the final section of the book, the role of hip-hop is even more central for at least two of the artists. Camea Ayewa, a.k.a. Moor Mother is part poet, part rapper, part producer, and beatmaker who is currently producing some of the most powerful music regardless of genre. This section also features Kassa Overall a drummer and beatmaker who has played with the likes of Geri Allen but whose own albums play out like a surrealist mixtape.

In addition to the above artists, these subjects tend to appear, even if briefly, in so many of the artists covered. And it’s this consistency and shared viewpoints that draws everything together and gives this book its urgent relevancy. While it is impossible and undesirable to divorce jazz from its rich history, Ugly Beauty reveals the importance of what’s going on now. This music is exciting and important, and maybe the jazz community just needs to be reminded. 

The average reader who chooses Ugly Beauty likely knows a few of the artists covered, but it is doubtful they know all. The book serves then as a companion to the discovery process which would be incomplete with the music itself. Yet the process of coming to terms with all these records is greatly accelerated when experienced in conjunction with the text. 


VIDEO: Phil Freeman talks Ugly Beauty 

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Todd Manning

Todd Manning is a recovering musician who mostly writes about Metal and Jazz various places around the internet, including Burning Ambulance, Cvlt Nation and No Clean singing. He lives in Indianapolis, IN.

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