Darius Jones: From Johnny Hodges To Noise Jazz
AAJ: In a couple of places on Man'ish Boy you sound a little like Johnny Hodges, for example the beginning of "Roosevelt."
From left: Anders Nilsson, Peter Nilsson, Darius Jones, Dave Ambrosio
DJ: Johnny is my hero. He is my favorite saxophonist of all time. Everything about Johnny, the way he walks on stage, the way he walks up to the mike, he has this kind of "whatever" quality as he's playing. He doesn't really care. He's like, "Yeah, beautiful [stuff's] coming out of my horn but, whatever" [laughs]. I kind of like that. It's funny looking at him and hearing him play. Actually just listening to him play is some of the most beautifulI think it's some of the most interesting playing of his time. I feel like that was the beginning of a person using extended technique. A lot of people think I'm crazy when I talk about that. I feel like he was using extended technique, really messing with the timbre of the instrument a lot, and that's something that's really important to me."
AAJ: How did Johnny get that incredible sound, the smoothness and the bends, the glissandos?
DJ: The way he played the horn, just from looking at [photos], he played on the very tip of the mouthpiece, which means he's looking for a lot of flexibility. He's not taking the mouthpiece really far into his mouth. So he's almost playing like a classical saxophonist is playing. He really understands the movement of air, and those bends and stuff he was doing then, which is some intense embouchure control. To really have that control over your sound, where you're able to vocalize it like that, like any note, it's a lot of embouchure control. It's something I work on all the time, really being able to get many different sounds out of one noteand really being able to bend the note upward and see how you can bend it downward, really understanding the different parameters of the note is something that I assume Johnny had to investigate on some level.
In his vibrato, he had this really beautiful vibrato, which is a flexibility thing in the embouchure as well. I think he was a true master of the instrument. I think he understood a lot of mechanical things about the instrument. Unfortunately I haven't read any interviews where anyone has really talked to him about that.
AAJ: One story about Johnny has it that, in a conversation, all he talked about was how hard it was to get good tomatoes in New York.
DJ: From what I've heard about Johnny, he didn't think he was very smart. I think that had something to do with the reason why you don't hear a lot about in depth interviews. He didn't do a lot of interviews. I think he didn't see himself as a very smart person, which is crazy. He was innovative. No one sounded like that, at all. I used to have this recording of him and Charlie Parker playing together. It was the deepest thing ever. I lost it years agoI had it on cassette when I was a kid. It was a collection of different alto players. And I really dug this thing. They just played the blues. It was amazing. It was amazing to hear that contrast, someone playing less notes and someone playing a lot more notes. And also one person just really dealing with sound, and another person dealing with harmonic movement. [The album is Jam Session (Verve, 1952), and features saxophonists Hodges, Parker, Benny Carter and Ben Webster].
AAJ: Have you ever played tenor sax? A lot of people seem to go to the tenor but you're with the alto, which I actually prefer usually, for example Johnny, Charlie Parker and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley.
DJ: I think I really hear the alto, man. I remember picking up a tenor saxophone and playing it for a few moments and just didn't really feel connected to it, and I have always gravitated more to alto players when I've been listening to them. I've always made the effort to hear what they're doing more than I've done with tenor players. I like to hear a tenor player too, but I think the alto just fits me. I love that voice range vocally. I think a woman's alto voice is absolutely the [stuff]. It doesn't get any better than that for me. That's my shit, man. Give me that all day long. Just a woman singing alto.
AAJ: Which tenor players do you listen to?
DJ: I love Sonny Rollins, I love Dexter Gordon a lot. I think Dexter is amazing. Older cats, Lester Young, Sam Rivers. I love Wayne Shorter because of his compositional mind. I think cats now, I'm really picky about tenor players. The cats that I really dig right now are Marc Schoen, Chris Speed, Tony Malaby, Ellery Eskelin. It's not a lot. It's a small amount of tenor players. Bill McHenry, I love his concept, the way he's playing tenor. I think with tenor players I'm looking for a concept. David S. Ware. I'm kind of hard on tenor players 'cause there are so many of them. They're like cockroaches!
AAJ: How are you influenced by Charlie Parker?
DJ: Charlie had an intense knowledge. [He] was really into the blues. I've pretty much listened to all the great alto players a lot. Charlie was one of the first, him and Johnny Hodges were probably [the two] when I was young, when I was growing up. Probably the first ones that I heard. And Charlie, what I liked about Charlie is that he played in this flowing manner, his playing was very flowing. It just flowed from one thing to the next. I heard his music very much like classical music but with this sort of raw quality to it. And little inflections that he would put into his music like that little chicken thing that he would do... 'dit a dit,' and stuff like that. I was young so I didn't know who he was, but I just liked it. I felt like he was very lyrical, [that he] understood how to be free but still be inside of the context that he was playing in.
AAJ: He was a composer. I had this conversation with someone once, and we were saying that he was not really a"saxophonist; he was a composer. It was like listening to classical music. The saxophone was just the instrument by which he played his compositions to the world, how he educated people about how to use the higher notes in the chord in a tune, what could be done with them. What have you taken specifically from his playing?
DJ: I think I've taken from Parker what everyone has taken from him, just [his] brilliance, and long lines. He played long lines, he played just lines that went on for a while sometimes. Just these huge lines. I remember just digging that and trying to do that all the time, just play these very notey clusters of notes, these long phrases, just really long extended phrases [that] Parker would do. And moments where he would do a flurry of notes to move the music forward, to always have this momentum. It makes me think about the contrast between him and Johnny Hodges, because Hodges' thing, it wasn't about getting to the end, it was about keeping you suspended.
Also I like how, if you took the chords out of Charlie Parker's playing and just looked at the lines without any of the chords, it would be just out! It just would be all this chromaticism. It would be so out, actually. It just fascinated me. Someday I'll probably do something with that concept, just taking his stuff out of the chords and putting something else under it.
I love live Charlie. I have this recording of him live with a big band. He's the soloist and he just sounds so free. He totally would have gone to the avant-garde thing. I think he was the greatest improviser, and I think he would have gone beyond changes at some point. If you hear what he's playing, he's actually trying to get away from them. He's trying to figure how he can be as free as possible in that context, and I think he would have just got further and further from that.
There's so much about him. I was just thinking about him with my concept [of rawness, of organic-ness], [and] he for me represents a lot of just... raw possibilities. I think he changed everything. As a jazz musician he was so himself all the time. I think that was new. There were so few players like that. I think they were more bandleaders, like Duke and people like that who just had a strong personality, but I think Charlie was a player who had this persona just as a player. He didn't really write a lot of tunes. You were listening to him just as improvisor. And it's scary. You realize how connected improvisation is to composition and how this guy was really so exploring that on such a high level. He was so ahead of himself.
AAJ: There is a book published in the '60s (Ira Gitler's excellent Jazz Masters Of The Forties) which has a quote that says that if Parker were alive today (in the the '60s) he would think he was living in a "room full of mirrors." He would hear everything he wrote coming back at him, and this certainly continued in the '70s, for example the "Sesame Street" theme. It sounds just like Charlie. I saw there are photos of you wearing a jacket in a Hodges-like pose. Charlie's suits were usually more crumpled!
DJ: I think I'm more like a cross between Johnny Hodges and Charlie Parker in some waysmy suit coat is usually crumpled too!
AAJ: What about the next step in style after Charlie, Cannonball Adderley?
DJ: OK, here we go. So this is the deal. I was into Hodges and I was a real serious Hodges fan. Charlie, I studied him, but damn man, I got into this serious phase of being into Cannonball. And the thing about him was he had a sound thing too. One of the things I love to point out about him was that you started hearing these top notes on his horn and he never really hit them. He kind of just screamed them out. On a tune like "Arriving Soon," he would just be like [imitates a semi-screeching sound]. It'd be in the chord, but the sound would be so completely not there. He's kind of not really hitting the note. And his feel, he would throw these phrases out that were sometimes odd. I mean, you'd be like "Is he going to be able to make that work?" and it would workit would just work rhythmically a lot of times.
And he had a really fascinating harmonic concept. I think he took a lot of chances and heard things [that were] out, a little bit obscured somewhat. He wasn't into harmony on some sort of crazy level, but I think his thing was really about rhythm and timing and feel. The way he played eighth note passages and the way he could bounce. He would get into these rhythmic things but that was very new too, playing just rhythm, like 'dit dit... dit... dit... dit... dit dit... dit... dit... dit dit... dit... dit dit... dit.' He would do that in a solo and I think that that was something new for an alto player. You don't hear that tremendously.
If you listen to Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959), he gets into this thing whereI think it's on "All Blues"he just starts doing this rhythmic thing and towards the end it just starts to become super rhythmic and it's playing around with these rhythms, with this rhythmic little motif, and I think that's really fascinating.
And it's really blues orientatedhis playing was still very blues oriented. I think I was very attracted to people that could really play the blues and he was one of them. He would really have that quality, and [he would] be able to dash into a line out of the blues vocal thing, and then do all these rhythmic lines. Even his more complicated lines were very rhythmic. He was trying to get to all these "rhythmicy" things. I think where you can really hear it, where he starts to get into that thing really hard, is on the very end of the secondary chorus, he starts to get into that quality [demonstrates vocally]. It's not like Charlie at all. Comparing these two cats is just wrong.
Bird's thing was really inside. He was really rhythmically in the pocket all the time. He wasn't reallyjust checking out his transcriptions and listening to himhe wasn't really taking a lot rhythmic chances like Cannonball did. [Cannonball] was so rhythmically off kilter, wonky. He was unpredictable. His playing was super unpredictable. And that's exciting, to not know what's going to happen at all. I think there was a more refined quality to Charlie's playing versus Cannonball's. Cannonball has this, it's just getting raw.