The Boo 'n Hiss Book Department:
The Freedom Principle by John Litweiler

In The Freedom Principle - Jazz After 1958, author John Litweiler chronicles the march of jazz into freedom, with each new liberation (be it an individual’s particular style, or the relative freedom of jazz’s progressive subgenres) being touted as a necessary step in what the author deems the correct direction. The author’s jazzview is almost the complete opposite of Wynton Marsalis, who would dismiss all developments after about 1965. Both are in error, as they see the history of jazz as following a script of some sort, or conforming to a blanket set of ideals, which is no way to look at an organic, improvisational field of music made by individuals. In other words, there is no right or wrong progression to the music; what happens happens, and those involved in the happenings aren’t usually the ones writing books or lecturing about it.

For Litweiler, the only value that key bop players had was that they were freer than their immediate predecessors. And so what Philly Joe Jones was drumming in the ‘50s was kosher, but thereafter irrelevant. What Monk was doing in the late ‘40s was true, but thereafter irrelevant. Or so I read it, as Litweiler mentions all these names (often with praise) and then leaves them as stepping stones on the ultimate path to Liberation. The guys who get the most text - Ornette, Albert Ayler, Coltrane, you can guess - are apparently the bee’s knees, where jazz was supposed to be heading all along. Litweiler doesn’t come right out and say this, but the premise of his book is clear, once you’ve finished reading it. (And he does, predictably, take Coltrane to task for recording the Ballads album of 1962. Beauty cannot compete with Freedom.)

Now, it’s an enjoyable book, fairly well written. Nary a notated musical example in sight, but the author has keen ears, and his observations about many recordings might send you scurrying back to the record player to hear some described passage of music. Well and good. But my beef is with Litweiler’s attacks on music that doesn’t fulfill his arbitrary criteria and timeline of Freedom. For example, he praises the 1965 recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet, but by the very next album, Miles Smiles, Litweiler complains of a loss of “energy and adventure” (huh?), calls Ron Carter’s bass playing “jaded” and “world-weary” (what?), and deems Tony Williams drumming “brilliant” but “irrelevant.” (??!) Is there anyone else who thinks that ESP is more adventurous than Miles Smiles? That “Masquelero” is nothing but “exhausted memories” of Sketches of Spain? Oh dear. So, you see that the more popular an artist gets, the more acclaimed they are, the less likely Litweiler is to say they’re on the right track. He doesn’t just say they’re not as “free” as he’d like; he actually makes the reader feel as if these artists were lost, if not irrelevant and clueless.

Little wonder, then, that he takes brief jabs at Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock in a chapter called “Pop-Jazz, Fusion, and Romanticism”. His longer attack on Bill Evans, hardly unexpected in itself, contains this priceless bit of illogic:

“Evans...[had a] limited rhythmic range...Many solos are in triplets, variously accented, sped, slowed, which he occasionally alternates with jazzy syncopations of dotted eighths-sixteenths; sometimes his juggling of these patterns is broken by less regular phrases which he sequences up and down the keyboard...”

Hey John, if you’re trying to convince me of Evans’ “limited rhythmic range,” you might want to tone it down a bit. And if you think Bill based all his solos on triplets and tiny variations, you really haven’t listened to him much, have you?

But nothing compares to the trouncing of Keith Jarrett. No one can discuss the history of freedom in jazz without running into and acknowledging Jarrett. From his solo piano concerts to his American Quartet’s obvious debt to Ornette, Jarrett cannot be ignored if the topic of improvisation is on the table. Litweiler resents the task; he calls Jarrett a “fusion musician” right off, perhaps to knock him down a rung, but even Jarrett’s detractors would laugh at the allegation that Keith and fusion were friends. Litweiler then strongly hints that Jarrett’s infamous solo concerts of the ‘70s aren’t actually much more than a pretentious, public demonstration of what any conservatory student can pull off in the practice room. (!!!) There is no civilized response to such a thought. He carps about an “escape into sensationalism” and then blasts Jarrett’s actual improvisational procedures: “except for insane or intoxicated people, life is not a series of inspired impulses.” So no jazz artists, except for loons like Jarrett, ever work from inspired impulses? Really? Ornette didn’t? Cecil?

So Jarrett is deemed a selfish freak, and Litweiler leaves him “playing on in his voracious quest of ecstasy.” 75 pages earlier, Albert Ayler is praised for playing on in his “frenzied quest for ecstasy.” So which “quest for ecstasy” is more valid? Is it better to be “frenzied” as opposed to “voracious”? Is it nobler to be ignored than celebrated? Obviously, Jarrett’s music is not Litweiler’s cup of tea, but this is no reason for the author to go out of his way to discredit it. Someone’s got issues.

Anyway, for its better, more reasoned moments, the book is worth a read, but have the salt shaker handy. That’s about all I can say.

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