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Darius Jones: From Johnny Hodges To Noise Jazz

AAJ Staff By

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Alto saxophonist Darius Jones—who won most critics' nomination for the best jazz newcomer album of 2009 for Man'ish Boy (A Raw And Beautiful Thing) (AUM Fidelity, 2009)—is a great fan of Johnny Hodges. He says that the lyrical Duke Ellington altoist is his hero, and this is pleasantly noticeable at the beginning of Man'ish Boy. It is also a good thing; not only did Hodges possess one of the most beautiful sounds in music, but Jones' focus on Hodges-like bends and slurs serves to give his sound a clear originality—or at least a signature—that many saxophonists these days lack.

Jones is also a composer, and his frequent use of the trio format allows him maximum room to write creative compositions. He listens to a wide range of music, from Mozart and Muddy Waters to Nirvana, and his music is a pure attempt to present something new. Man'ish Boy is not your "standard" saxophonist record; its compositions contain so much fine and varied detail from all three instrumentalists, that headphones or large speakers may be needed to really pick up all the sounds. Jones takes his span of influences and projects them all onto a new canvas, fully succeeding in his creative aim. Both Cooper-Moore, on piano and diddly-bo, and drummer Rakalam Bob Moses are brilliant trio mates—musicians of great depth and color. Moses achieves almost talking drum effects, and Cooper-Moore's home-made diddly-bo is nothing short of extraordinary in its sonic variety.

Jones has always been fascinated with sonics in general, and, while a student in Richmond, Virginia, was extemporizing with computer improviser Marty McCavitt in the group Birds in a Meadow. Jones came to New York in 2005, and soon formed the now-internationally known noise jazz group Little Women, with, tenor saxophonist Travis Laplante, guitarist Andrew Smiley and drummer Jason Nazary. The band has been described by an Austrian magazine as providing a "first-hand idea of what terror can mean," and its music is an example of another Jones focus: creating order from chaos.

Jones also emphasizes the importance of writing music organically. It may be that it is now necessary to make this point more frequently, as there are so many people pressing buttons on machines to "make music" these days. Any lasting or real music must be organically created. Learning as you go and letting things happen naturally are the key.

New York singer/composer Lola Danza, an occasional colleague, has said that "we are now past 'avant-garde' [in the traditional jazz usage of the phrase], and are doing something new—we just don't know what to call it yet." Jones is an example of this new type of music which, while containing much jazz influence and clearly still remaining jazz, is being written by people who have listened closely to rock and other music that has come about since the '60s. You could try calling it "rock-jazz," or even "indie jazz." As Jones says, he is not "free" and he is not in the "standard" category of current sax soloists: as he puts it, "There is a third category, and I'm about to show you what it is!" The album also contains much sonic experimentation. You hear the steamy South, the evocation of wailing African flutes, and experimental rock-like explorations, all played acoustically.

Ellington always spoke in terms of writing tone parallels, and it is a fair assumption that Jones is taking that approach on Man'ish Boy (A Raw And Beautiful Thing), the first in a projected series of albums that will trace life in the American South, where Jones grew up, and the saxophonist's own development and experiences, while presenting different musicians over its course.

Chapter Index
  1. Man'ish Boy
  2. Saxophone Influences
  3. Growing Up In The South
  4. Categorizing Music
  5. Little Women
  6. Continuing Compositions
  7. Future Releases

    Man'ish Boy

    All About Jazz: Does your approach to writing for your working trio differ to that on Man'ish Boy, especially since the album is the first in a conceptual series?

    Darius Jones: I change my writing, definitely. Playing with Cooper-Moore and Bob Moses is very different from what I do with my working trio, which is with [bassist] Adam [Lane] and [drummer] Jason [Nazary]. The music is just different. It is more traditionally rhythmic, but also it's still very raw. We tend to utilize a lot of different form ideas [with the trio]. With Cooper and Bob, it's more head and blow. With my working trio we have these kinds of "schemes." Some of it's head and blow, but then there's a form that Jason and Adam are playing under me and we stay pretty close to that. It's just more composed, I would have to say. [But] with Bob, a lot of those tunes are launching pads to go, just to improvise.

    AAJ: The album has been a great success, with nominations for newcomer album of the year and so on.

    DJ: It seems like people are digging the record. [I'm just] coming out of the gate, man. A lot of people like it. I'm a little freaked out at the same time. The next one has to be pretty killing. But I like that kind of heat. I like pressure, a little bit of pressure. I think a lot of people were shocked by the Man'ish Boy record. It was like, "Where did this come from?" I was there the whole time. You weren't just paying attention!

    AAJ: Some of the effects achieved by Cooper-Morris on the diddley-bo are amazing. On the introduction to "We Are Unicorns," there is a sound like a horse. Is that the diddly-bo?

    DJ: That's the diddley-bo. It is amazing. That track is deep. That was a first take too. That just happened. That was an improvisation with me and Cooper-Moore. We just have such a deep connection him and I. We're both from Virginia, we both grew up in a church atmosphere. I was in his band for a while. That tune is so vocal and so Southern. When I hear that I feel the South in it so strong. It's funny you said you heard the horse in there, because I heard that too. I thought, "Woa, man, we're taking it to the animal farm." It's deep.

    AAJ: What's "Chasing The Ghost" about? Who's the ghost you are chasing?

    DJ:That song is about my experience pursuing that spiritual realm. I grew up in a Pentecostal Church. I was filled with the spirit of God and I spoke in tongues. That tune is really about that experience. It's searching for that thing that's elusive and very spiritual. So I'm searching for the Ghost, for the Holy Ghost. I want to get it and in a lot of ways I want other people to find it too. I want us all to find the Ghost. It's funny. That tune is so about church. It's about my experience of what that is.

    AAJ: "Big Train Rolling" certainly sounds very Southern.

    DJ: That [title] came from Bob Moses. [He] actually said that. Before we started that improvisation, he said "Big train rolling." To him, it's [that] I have this big sound, I'm Southern, and he hears some John Coltrane-esque inflections and concepts in my playing. So it's a play on words. The train is rolling, but Trane is rolling too [laughs]. Trane could make you feel that a lot of times. His lines just went rolling on and on and on and on. You just get caught up in that. When I hear that improvisation, I think of a train just rolling through Mississippi.

    AAJ: There are a few Coltrane-like screams on the track.

    DJ: It embodies a lot of that. I went through a serious Coltrane phase. He's Southern himself. He grew up in a church environment also.

    AAJ: The last track, bar the hidden one, is "Please Forgive Me." Is it you who wants to be forgiven?

    DJ: I'm saying "forgive me" to everyone for everything that I feel like I couldn't have been. I feel like sometimes you get in situations where you can't be what they want you to be, at any given time. Sometimes you're not ready to be that, or sometimes you're not destined to be a certain thing, and I think that I feel bad at those moments. Especially in relationships with women, I've always felt that way.

    I've felt, "If I wasn't a musician I could love you, or I could be what you want." Sometimes with my parents I've felt that way. I feel so strongly about being myself in this way and I feel it's positive, but "You don't agree." Even with friends, sometimes I've felt bad. And in those moments I feel the need to ask for forgiveness: 'It's not that I don't see your perspective, it's just not who I am." Sometimes I feel bad about that.

    AAJ: Man'ish Boy has a great front cover design. There are three views of the same person's head. What does it mean?

    DJ: The artist, Randal Wilcox, and I are really good friends. We're two very intellectual black young men. And we're both artists. I didn't want my image on the record but I wanted the image of who I perceive myself to be. In a lot of ways I see myself as a boy, as someone that is growing, who's in a process of developing myself. So that's why he's not a grown man. He's a "man'ish boy," on the way. It's a conceptual thing. It's bigger than life itself for me. I'm a man'ish boy, my roommate, the artist [Wilcox], he's a man'ish boy. You're probably a man'ish boy.

    I said in this one interview, when they asked me about [the title] Man'ish Boy, "What brought that on?," I said, "Well at the age of five my mother said I'd be the greatest boy alive." It's a lyric and a tune by Muddy Waters, and for me, I think I have something to give the world as an artist. I feel so strongly about that. I feel like it's my calling to make music. I feel like it's a spiritual calling and it's my destiny to do it. Man'ish Boyis basically me touching on that and creating my own universe.

    The reason why he has three heads, it goes into many different things. There's a trio, so I'm playing with three people, these two [other] people who I connect with, and then there's also a very blatant kind of racial thing there where it's talking about being black and just feeling sometimes that you have three heads. You know, when people look at you. You feel alienated. And I think I feel that way, in a lot of ways.

    So really, [what] you're just seeing [is] Man'ish Boy is basically me working with [all] that and also showing, "these are some of my concepts for playing with a pianist," how I see that world. Man'ish Boy is a peek, man. It's a peek into the universe of Darius. Basically that's Chapter One. It's not the coup de grace; we have not gotten to the depths of it at all. I love that record. It makes me happy and I'm glad to have done it with my heroes. Man'ish Boy is a foreshadowing of many things to come. If you listen to the record you hear a lot of things. You hear a core idea, a core essence, and that's really what I wanted to do. You hear the core of me. But you don't hear everything.

    AAJ:The album has a subtitle, "A Raw And Beautiful Thing." Raw is beautiful?

    DJ: There's a raw side to me and there's a beautiful side. And there's tradition. I believe in the legacy of this music. But you should play with some older musicians. I really believe that. Whether or not you choose to play changes or play free you need to be aware of [earlier music]. [You need to be] conscious of that music. You need to have a certain historical understanding. Also, my thing will always be raw, because I'm organic. Anything that's organic is raw, man. It's not pristine. Raw is nasty!

    AAJ: You obviously like Muddy Waters' music?

    DJ: Muddy Waters was a great influence. The way he played the guitar was really raw. [And] Johnny Hodges, he was not a sophisticated guy. Look at the music he chose to play outside Ellington. Ol' Dirty Bastard [a member of hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan], I think he was a genius, man. I think what Betty Carter did was raw. Patti LaBelle is raw, Parliament and Funkadelic. And I can just keep going on. What you're looking at is R&B, rhythm and blues, man. Do I consider myself a free jazz musician? I consider myself a soul musician. I am the new soul musician. I am soul now, what I'm doing now is about soul. Raw and beautiful, rough and black. I'm talking about a lot of things. I'm talking about black music, folk music.

    AAJ: You obviously like the trio format. It's a useful format for a soloist, as it gives room for that person so he has maximum freedom.

    DJ: I've been playing trio for a very long time. Pretty much my first bands were trios, like bass and drums. They were my first jazz oriented groups. I think I've always liked guitar trios growing up, like blues trios. For me, it's really about understanding that relationship between bass and drums and the soloist. And I felt like if I could really get to a deep place with that, adding the keyboard or a chordal instrument would be easier. I feel like I would be able to understand its role and be not only able to play with it better but also be able to compose for it better and to understand its language within the rhythm section. So, when I was starting out, I wanted to really get a deep understanding of the bass role. What does a bass do, and how does that work with me? How do I and the bass work together with the drums?

    "I think I also fell in love with [the trio format] really after I heard Thomas Chapin's Trio and how much work he put into that format. That really changed my life—him playing trio, that band, Mario Pavone and Michael Sarin. All those Thomas Chapin records really affected me strongly." [Thomas Chapin was a free improvising saxophonist and flutist, influenced by Peter Brötzmann, amongst others].

    AAJ: Do you especially like the drums as an instrument?

    DJ: The drum for me is just so very intense. I want a drummer that can do a lot of things. Bob Moses is in many ways my perfect drummer, because he has an amazing unique sound, an approach to playing drums; he has everything else [too]. He has great time. He understands the role of the drum. He has power but he has extreme beauty and subtlety at the same time.



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