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New York Is Now!: The New Wave of Free Jazz by Phil Freeman

There is a certain truth to first-time author Phil Freeman’s titular assertion that New York is now. Riding only The New Wave of Free Jazz, however, Freeman doesn’t give us the full breadth of the jazz underground in New York. There’s a whole lot more music going on in the Apple than Freeman, a converted hard rocker who fell metalhead over heels a few years ago for the music, gives us in his slender appraisal of the scene around the annual Vision Festival. The book only shabbily covers the Lower East Side, let alone the entire city.

Anyone who has paid attention to the NYC scene in the past five years will not learn anything by reading this book. Although the book makes no pretense of being a history of free jazz, it certainly lacks a sense of appreciation for the music and musicians of its past. New York Is Now! is better considered as a scene primer, sort of like NYC Free Jazz for Dummies. But New York Is Now!’s assertions are so general, conclusions so weak and topic so narrow that it is difficult to recommend it to anyone.

Even the way the book is written, focusing on current records and projects, gives it a short shelf life. New York Is Now!, despite being presented as a book, really shouldn’t be considered one at all. If you think of it as an overpriced, nice-looking fanzine, it is much easier to take.

New York Is Now! covers just seven musicians with any depth-David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Roy Campbell, Charles Gayle, Daniel Carter and Joe Morris-dedicating a passable magazine-style feature to each. Freeman has chosen to highlight only the AUM Fidelity/Thirsty Ear “Blue Series” axis, which hurts the book. By neglecting estimable NYC musicians like Tim Berne, Dave Douglas and Susie Ibarra, to name only a few, New York Is Now! discredits everyone else making avant-garde jazz in the Big Apple.

It’s not these seven bios where Freeman shows his weaknesses, however. His chapter on the free-jazz past, “History, Like Most Things Is Subjective,” is possibly one of the worst synopses of the music ever presented. His meager attempt to explain the path of the music in 17 pages is laughable. Only the wildly self-indulgent “Lies Jazz Critics Told Me” chapter is worse.

Other bonehead assertions: Freeman calls John Zorn, someone responsible for bringing the scene great attention, a “huckster” and a “dilettante” because his music “follows no tradition.” Freeman is singing in the key of Wynton here, though he slams him and brother Branford Marsalis later in the book. Freeman blames jazz periodicals for not covering avant-garde jazz, saying magazines like Magnet and Alternative Press (for which he writes) give it way more attention. Had Freeman cracked open a few jazz magazines he would realize that this is hardly the case.

Freeman makes a correct claim that the musicians covered in his book are the most important musicians on the free-jazz scene in New York, but he does little to illustrate it or explain why those not interested in free music should try to understand it. In his overly glowing appreciation of the scene, Freeman does little to distance himself from the music and the musicians in order to have some critical perspective. More often than not, Freeman is trying to show himself as part of the scene.

Freeman’s a fan boy; New York Is Now! is a fanzine.

Originally Published