The great literary critic Harold Bloom once wrote, “True criticism recognizes itself as a mode of memoir.” Case in point: Ugly Beauty. Phil Freeman’s collection of 29 short, sharp essays is true criticism. But his pieces are also real-time dispatches from the front lines of jazz, woven into a memoir.
Freeman’s portrayals of musicians are personal. He remembers the rush of the first time he saw them live, and what the weather was like. He remembers what they were wearing when he interviewed them. There is a risk in first-person criticism: The critic can become the story. Freeman never crosses that line. In his piece on Wayne Escoffery, he makes a persuasive case that Escoffery is a distinctive, highly accomplished, underrated tenor saxophone player. But he also conveys what the man looks like (he once worked as a fashion model); what the gaze of his “dark, penetrating eyes” feels like; what his intelligent voice sounds like. All this, plus an overview of Escoffery’s discography and an analysis of how his style balances traditionalism and originality. The essays on Ambrose Akinmusire, JD Allen, and Mary Halvorson are also Freeman at his best. His profile of Tyshawn Sorey captures one of the most elusive figures in current jazz.
Ugly Beauty looks like a typical jazz book, a collection of previously published pieces. It is not. Freeman wrote all of this material in 2020, the year without live music. But he drew upon interviews going back seven years and memories going back much further. He knows that his subtitle is ambitious. He admits, “Jazz in the 21st century is a massive subject, one that resists in-depth analysis by never staying still long enough to be pinned down.” Freeman is exclusively interested in musicians on the leading edge of the jazz art form. He is insightful on Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran, Linda May Han Oh, and James Brandon Lewis. His knowledge, and the centrality of music to his life, are obvious.
Writing about music has famously been compared to dancing about architecture. The only hope is metaphor. Freeman has a poet’s instinct for it. Here’s just one example, describing Shabaka Hutchings’ collaboration with musicians from Cape Town: “… a pulsing, shuffling vamp that feels like dancing barefoot in the dust as the stars whirl above you.”
Of course, as you read Ugly Beauty, you argue with some of Freeman’s hypotheses. In a book that purports to be about the major current dynamics in jazz, he all but ignores the single most important development in jazz of the new millennium: Europe. (He covers some musicians from London, but their roots are in the Afro-Caribbean diaspora.) And, while he is consistently supportive of players who “blur the lines between jazz, soul, funk and R&B,” he is less cognizant of how hip-hop elements can dilute the music, and how electronic effects can become clichés. Still, Freeman is a badass. If he weren’t, arguing with him wouldn’t be so much fun.