Phil Freeman, a freelance music critic since 1995 has appeared in newspapers and magazines such as The Aquarian Weekly, Alternative Press, Magnet, Jazzis, Down Beat, Juggernaut, and Metal Hammer. While he has a passion for avant-garde jazz, he loves hard core rock and death metal as well, writing about all of them with understanding and affection. Profiles of David Ware and Matthew Shipp that appeared in Juggernaut magazine were among the first articles to bridge the gap between free jazz and extreme metal. A thirty one year old New Jerseyite, New York Is Now is his first book as well as one of the few to date profiling what might be called the post-Wildflowers generation of the avant garde in jazz. Published by The Telegraph Company, it will be available September 10th, 2001. This interview was conducted on July 21st, 2001 and was joined by pianist and composer Matthew Shipp, who is profiled throughout the book. Interviewed himself for the 9th issue of A Gathering of the Tribes, Matthew has since been appointed producer of the jazz division of Thirsty Ear Records, formerly an all indie rock label.
Phil Freeman! How are you doing?
PF: I'm fine. How are you?
(Indicating Matt Shipp): I took the liberty of inviting Matt Shipp. Hope you don't mind.
PF: Not at all. How are you Matt?
MS: Good, good.
I'm glad you both could make it. Well, Phil, let's start with the obvious and begin at the beginning, as they say. How did New York is Now come about?
PF: Well, in May of 1998 I went to the Visions Festival in New York. I had heard Tao by David Ware's quartet and I'd heard Prism by Matt's trio. Having written about Prism for this heavy metal magazine Juggernaut being published down in Florida, I said to them "Look, there's going to be this festival, I'll do a live review for you," so they sent me down and I wrote a live review which was expanded and eventually incorporated into what became the first chapter of the book after pitching my proposal to Telegraph, but I walked in and just started hanging out with people. I met Matt and you and Steve Dollar and a whole bunch of people.
I have to make a correction here -- you refer to me in that chapter as a "jazz critic," which I am not. I'm a poet and I guess if I'm any good that makes me something of an anthropologist, and as such, I might be more of an intimate than a "critic." You know, a fellow traveler. (Laughter)
PF: So I met people and I started hanging out and realized it was very different from what I was used to -- you know, the rock scene, where you just go in and buy some beers and watch the show, after which you buy a tee shirt and leave. There was more going on than that. And there was more going on than in a jazz club where you walk in, pay $25.00, buy some beers, sit for forty-five minutes and then they throw you out. The music was great but it was even beyond that -- it was people coming together at the end of a year and sort of updating everybody on what was going on, you know, musically and--
How was that different from the underground rock scene?
PF: That's about playing a show, making some quick money, and moving on to the next show. If some people happen to show up every time you play, great -- but it is not a community, per se.
Could it be that there is just a larger audience for that scene?
PF: That might be, but the nature of the audience is different, because rock fulfils a specific social function.
PF: The release of testosterone -- masculine aggression; and providing a soundtrack to the mating game. You go, you watch the band, you see the girl at the bar, you talk, you try to pick her up.
How did that differ from the festival?
PF: It's more about the music. You're not going to get laid at a free jazz show.
Well -- that depends. You might get laid afterwards.
PF: If you're in the band you might.
I had an experience just recently where I ran into a woman who'd been stalking one of the musicians mentioned in your book for fourteen years. I'm not kissing and telling, but I can tell you the case you just made is pure conjecture. Music has always been part of the mating game. Not necessarily from the musician's point of view, but music has always been part of it. Grapes too. That's just part of the social construct. It's the same with birds when they sing, so I don't know what you mean.
PF: I mean the music plays a more central role.
I think you're talking about aesthetics. Maturity. You ...
PF: You can see that the way people dress at a rock concert ...
I think we can lay this to rest. It's just a matter of aesthetics. You know -- "Shake, Rattle and Roll" -- "Elvis the Pelvis." The appeal in free jazz might be a different part of the body. It's just a matter of procedure, so to speak.
PF: Well, I have no training in semantics.
Well, we'll have to leave your area of expertise open to conjecture. In the book you say free jazz needs to me more accessible -- in a marketing sense -- to today's youth if it is to survive as a commercially viable art form. Along that same line critic Ann Powers of the New York Times wrote an article about the festival in that paper saying she went expecting fusion and was surprised to find what she heard was more. In other words, she had no idea what it was she was supposed to critique. How can the music attract new audiences in the face of such ignorance?
PF: On its own aesthetic merit. People just have to know it's out there. To a large extent people don't even know that it's out there. They need to be informed. It's not that people say " Oh, I'd like it better if they did this or that," and the music would have to go in some particular direction. I think it has enough strength that when it's heard people will say, " Oh, yeah, I like that," and stick around. It's not going to be incumbent on the musicians to change to meet an audience's expectations. The audience will have to follow the music because there is such sufficient variety. They'll catch something. Everybody doesn't sound the same. You're not going to get the same thing from the Ware Quartet that you get from Charles Gayle or Test. You'll hear very different things. These musicians are not there to cater to an audience.
MS: As far as that goes, a guy stopped me in a bar once and said, "Oh, I heard an album of yours on the radio and I really, really liked it but I've only been listening to rock and figured if I was going to start buying jazz I should buy Miles Davis or John Coltrane," and I said "Why? Those guys are dead and I need the money! Their estates are already bulging with money from royalties. Why would you feel you had to buy theirs before mine?" and he said, "Yeah, you're right. Why would I?" So you hear it and you're attracted, what else do you need? You see, John, You're from a different generation, when there was more of a cultural affinity for the music.
Which addresses my question.
MS: which meant in your generation you moved to the neighborhood and you heard the music, but now everything is more corporate, you know, MTV and all.
So how do you widen your base? Nothing happens in a vacuum. Maybe that guy wanted a comparison -- to be able to hear what it was you freed yourself from, so to speak -- Phil mentioned that his knowledge -- coincidentally -- only goes back to Miles and Trane ...
MS: Well, what does that mean in terms of aesthetic appreciation? Howard Mandel thinks he knows everything about this music and he thinks I suck -- so what does that mean? That I suck? What is all his information telling him? On the other hand, here is Phil, a lot of people have more information than he does, but he listens and likes what he's hearing. What does that tell you? It should tell you that Mandel cares more about history than his own ears. When it comes to a critic like him and one like Phil who doesn't profess to know anything other than what he is hearing, and emoting to, I prefer Phil. Definitely.
PF: Well, I have to say I apply the same ahistorical approach to rock that I apply to jazz. Most jazz critics are like lawyers or Talmudic scholars. There is all this arcane information you're supposed to have -- I don't buy into that and I'm not afraid of my stance -- to face someone who says I haven't studied. Critics usually like to set precedence, but that's not always important.
Well that may be so, but I'm predicting you're going to need some pretty thick skin in response to what most critics will have to say about that. I mean, there is obviously a dialectic in spite of what Matt says. No Bud Powell -- I'll even throw in Boulez -- no Matt Shipp.
PF: But he exists now and he deserves to be written about on his own merits.
That's true. I like your book. I told you, I'm glad you wrote it. I'm glad when anybody writes about jazz. The thing is to make sure you're right. I don't mean you have to be afraid of making a mistake, but given certain information, that that has a chance of happening. That's why I'm a poet. I have a license to make mistakes.
PF: All I mean is the key to a record is ultimately not in the liner notes, it's in the artist's work. If I say something wrong, let the reader correct me. Let him write his own book. I'm just opening a dialogue here. Those guys need to be written about and I did it. I mean, most of that book is a diatribe, you know, a polemic ...
I admire your sentiment.
PF: Album releases and stuff. Let me tell you a story: before the book came out I pitched a story regarding a David Ware recording to Down Beat, the Bible of American Jazz criticism. It was a thousand words. It was accepted but chopped down to 350 words. Now you'd think since it was chopped, the third left would contain the good stuff, but no, it was the worst piece of negative editing I've ever experienced. All the coherence was sucked out. When they read the lukewarm commentary I gave Down Beat in the book, I got a furious e-mail saying I'd just burned that bridge. Generally their position is this music does not stack up against history. I find that unreasonable. My intent is to respond to what I like.
MS: In terms of history sometimes I wish I'd just dropped down from Mars.
But you didn't and I'm not sure I'd understand you if I had. I just think that as a critic it's important to have some information. You might think something you're hearing now originates with this or that person, or you might think Charlie Parker invented a phrase and you might find Louis Armstrong had done that and it was just a reference. You might find an Ornette only restated something Bird did. That's what gives the music its genre, don't you think?
PF: But does knowing or not knowing diminish the pleasure of the moment?
In you case you're not merely listening. You're writing about it, so you should know what it is you're listening to.
MS: Wait, wait -- Phil has definitely done his homework. Even if there is a mistake it doesn't mean he hasn't done that.
Then who was his editor? Did he have one down there? Is an editor supposed to know what his writer's doing? What I mean is, hey Phil -- you love the music you're listening to, right? You love Matthew, right? And rightly so. He is an icon, a beacon. There will be musicians in the future guided by what he has done one hopes, and people will be guided as well by what you have said ...
PF: Well, I can't help that. That'll be their own fault. I mean, if you believe everything you read in a book -- most of the book is just an opinion. Like I said, if I say something wrong, let the reader correct me. Let him write his own book.
Well, why were you all over Baraka and Kofsky? And Shepp -- hey, a progenitor!
PF: Baraka -- when I read his stuff, I can always hear him working out his own shit. I think that's the worst kind of criticism, when it's not about the art, but the critic. And as for Frank Kofsky, like I said in the book, he is just a suckerfish attached to a Marxist shark. He may believe that stuff -- I don't know -- I don't. I think he is one of the most patronizing writers that ever walked the earth, who attached himself to the music because it was something he could pin his theories on. I say musicians who include politics in their music do so at their peril. It's bad for the music.
Politics--music often has everything to do with politics. This music had its genesis in politics. I found out from Phil Schaap, of all people, that Andy Kirk was taught music by Wilburforce Whiteman, the father of Paul Whiteman. The politics of the situation were so bad that Paul Whiteman ended up trying to play jazz while Andy Kirk had to play it. Gothic rock had its roots in something and it ain't Chuck Berry--or is it?
PF: I don't know Andy Kirk.
The Clouds of Joy? Very important band in jazz. May Lou Williams came out of that band. No Mary Lou, no Matthew.
MS: More Errol Garner, no Errol Garner, no me.
When I first met Matt shortly after he'd come to New York, I used to tell him he couldn't play because he didn't fit my idea of what a jazz musician was. I figured he could play anything but that. Then he told me that the late great Chicagoan drummer Steve McCall and cellist Abdul Wadoud were in one of his quartets and that he was working with Roscoe Mitchell, so I figured I'd better go hear him. That was fifteen years ago and I've been a fan ever since.
PF: That sounds like you went on celebrity endorsement. While the result was positive, it's like you just followed the hype.
No -- I didn't follow the hype, I just followed the music and liked where it led me. It didn't happen in a vacuum. But as I have said I liked your book. I like the musicians you profiled and expect more people will respond to the music because of it. What is your project?
PF: A novel about the porn industry and a book about heavy metal.
Good luck with everything. I'm not Oprah but I want everybody to read your book, go hear your music, buy records, and respond to it. You are a great advocate for some great music! Forget about Down Beat! Buy Phil Freeman and www.tribes.com!