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The Only Music 

Wednesday, Sep 26 2001
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Writer Phil Freeman loves modern free jazz. Loves it, sad to say, practically to death. Gods, take note: If this man builds you a temple, enter not unhelmeted.

Viewed from one angle, Freeman is everything Charles Gayle, Matthew Shipp, David S. Ware and the others covered in his book New York Is Now! could want in a worshipper. He gets it. He knows that not all spirit-stirring music must proceed between narrow lines of harmony and meter. He understands the complexity of ”free“ music and the discipline required to perform it well. He perceives that stormy infusions are absolutely necessary to keep jazz waters fresh. He’s a sympathetic interviewer, an involving prose stylist and a committed proselytizer. He‘s passionate as hell.

So most of New York Is Now! is informative; some of it’s even inspiring. Freeman‘s subject -- the latest generation of improvisational extremists to take root in Manhattan’s rocky soil -- is a neglected and worthy one. Getting further acquainted is a privilege.

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Meet Gayle, whose experience, stretching back to the ‘60s scene of John Coltrane, makes him a godfather; having emerged from a long stretch of homelessness, he stands as an impossible combination -- a searing saxist who also sometimes launches confrontational pantomimes or bursts into jeremiads against contemporary decadence. Meet pianist Shipp, whose universal melodic sense and seemingly dubious alliance with Henry Rollins’ record label helped bring the sound of abstract energy to a natural audience -- youth. Meet saxophonist Ware, who says music schools have lost ”the creative spirit, what improvisation is . . . Life itself is improvisation.“

Freeman also introduces you to the provocative thoughts of guitarist Joe Morris, saxist Daniel Carter and many other believers, and expands now and then from music to broader social concerns, as when Vision Festival organizer Patricia Nicholson points out, ”People have become so used to the commonness of evil . . . So people need to believe that they can do good, and that their goodness makes a difference.“

When it comes to the music itself, Freeman is unaffectedly poetic. Sunny Murray‘s cymbals are ”like tidal waves sweeping away seaside hotels.“ During a Jemeel Moondoc performance, the melody emerges ”like patterns of rust on a vast sheet of metal.“ An improvisation by Other Dimensions in Music is ”like a whale breaking the surface of the ocean for a moment to spume.“ Good stuff.

But he blows it. ”Some people are going to be really pissed off at me when they finish reading this book,“ Freeman declares on Page 15, and he obviously hopes they will. Maybe, though, he shoulda thunk for a second about whether people would actually finish New York Is Now!, considering some of the ignorant and myopic stuff he says.

Since Freeman arrived at his free-jazz epiphany via death-metal and punk journalism -- a logical and legitimate departure point -- it’s not surprising that he‘d require Ken Burns’ Jazz series (which he derides for its narrowness!) for enlightenment about the possible merit of jazz pillars like Count Basie and Art Tatum. What‘s more surprising is that he would flaunt his cluelessness by trying to discredit LeRoi Jones’ and Frank Kofsky‘s political interpretations of the ’60s jazz avant-garde, despite showing awareness of the socially minded Archie Shepp (”Malcolm, Malcolm -- Semper Malcolm“), Charles Mingus (”Meditations on Integration“) and John Coltrane (”Alabama“). ”Though [Jones and Kofsky] claim to defend free jazz,“ writes Freeman, ”their work only serves to hurt it.“ Look in the mirror, dude.

Discount racial struggle as a motivator for free jazz in the time of freedom marches? Dim. But when the fortunatelyunfortunately named Freeman describes the music as having been ”imbued with a spiritual quality by some of its more earnest practitioners, as well as by more than a few starry-eyed, credulous journalists,“ he not only disrespects his own ‘60s models such as Coltrane (”A Love Supreme“) and Albert Ayler (”Spiritual Unity“), he mocks the sincerity of Gayle and other central figures in his book -- the great bassist William Parker, for instance, whom he quotes as saying, ”When you play free improvisation, I think God is there too. The spirit is there too.“

Freeman thinks trolls who hate free music lurk under every bridge. So he’s en garde to expose jazz critics like Stanley Crouch and Ben Ratliff as mainstream toadies, sellouts who‘ve abandoned the adventurous music they once championed. Whatever you think of their writing, Freeman insists you assume that they couldn’t possibly have just grown to appreciate more structured forms as they‘ve aged.

Thank Gawd, though, despite all the Rolling Stones, John Zorns and Knitting Factories he stoops to demonize, Freeman manages to find his banner still waving in the opinions of writers like the Atlantic Monthly’s Francis Davis -- folks blessed with ”excellent taste.“ Like his own.

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