Jessica Jones: More "Word"


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I love hearing ways of using words that are not just words on top of music but as one of the elements of the sound, of the ensemble
Jessica JonesTenor saxophonist Jessica Jones has worked with the likes of Joseph Jarman, Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Steve Coleman and Peter Apfelbaum. A current resident of Brooklyn, NY, she lives with her saxophonist/husband Tony and is a long time jazz educator focusing on children to develop their talent for improvising, composition and oral tradition.

She has previously released Family (Nine Winds, 1997) and Nod (New Artists, 2004). Word (New Artist, 2008) includes poetry, song, and some free jazz with husband Tony and daughter/vocalist Candace Jones, drummers Lou Grassi and Kenny Wollesen, and bassist Ken Filiano.

All About Jazz: I was reading that you, in a former life studied linguistics. How do you relate this to jazz? And is jazz part of language?

Jessica Jones: I studied linguistics and tried to mold that and classes I'd taken in languages and theater into a major of "The Sound of Language As Music." When I talked to an advisor at UC Berkeley about it, he said "That sounds like a graduate level of study. What is it you really want to be doing?" and I said I wanted to be a saxophonist, precipitating a move to New York City.

Anyway, I'm sure different people have different answers to the questions you are asking me, I can only answer for the connection I experience, which is that one of the most amazing aspects about jazz to me is the culture of developing a personal sound, a representation of your most unique self through music. Speaking is an unselfconscious version of that—I react to the sound of the voices of my family, and respond to the uniqueness of people's phrasing and openness of their sound.

I think we all experience that, whether or not we notice it. One thing I like about New York City is the variety of sounds of language you hear, not just in accents but in phrasing. Like, no one says "blah blah blah—God forbid—blah blah blah" in California, where I'm from. It's like a cultural marker, along with some Yiddish/comedian phrasing like "What?! You got no hot-dogs or what?" It's like hearing [pianist Thelonious] Monk alongside [saxophonist John] Coltrane. I like the weird music it makes to hear so much differentness together.

So that's where it meets jazz to me—the valuing of individuality and diversity as enrichment for a community. And in jazz, I feel that there is definitely a movement that is, consciously or not, unifying the individual sounds, similar to how the newscasters on TV all strive to have a generic accent and lose their regional sounds. I definitely think the strength is in how we are different and still come together. And, of course, the music itself is a language also, yes. It communicates more than we can with words, and heals people, and feels to me like where I'd like to go after I die. It's more direct than words, it skips the symbolic meaning of words and sends you vibrations directly.

AAJ: And certainly on this latest record of yours, Word, you display your personal sound, but there is also a personnel component to the sound, yes?

JJ: Absolutely! I am dependent on the individuality of others to bring something intriguing to the mix. I have a basic recipe for a song, but the players bring their own take on it and it makes it much more interesting to me. I'm definitely excited to hear how something fleshes out when playing with great players.

We've been lucky to be in the company of a number of wonderful musicians, and on Word I was able to mix in some poets, who bring in another dimensional voice. In terms of my approach, if you think of [pianist/composer Duke] Ellington, he certainly had his own sound playing on his own or with a trio, but he also had the esthetic of bringing the strengths of the musicians in his band into his sound when he wrote for them. Part of the charm of the sound of [bassist/composer Charles] Mingus' music to me is the sound of [drummer] Danny Richmond with Mingus. There's a chemistry and vibration to mixing people that clearly is a component of my favorite music. Like Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack.

One thing I particularly liked about working on the music for Word is that we had such a diverse set of people. The first half, which features Candace singing, sounds more like a classy yet quirky version of a traditional jazz group, while the second half is a piano-less, horn-based ensemble, with poets Abe Maneri and Arisa White, that is buoyed by a dream engine of Kenny Wollesen on drums and Ken Filiano on bass. It's like a lot of different spices in the same meal or something. I like being kept interested. And maybe I'm also hungry right now, hence the food metaphors.

Also, I have to say, I am deeply influenced by Tony, my husband, to whom I've been listening since we were in high school together. He has the ultimate in a personal sound to me. We have played together a long time, and I think the core of the sound of the band is the sound of him and me together, the sound of the space between us.

Jessica Jones QuartetAAJ: The poetry/jazz connection is an interesting take here, both old school—Patchen, Rexroth, Kerouac, etc.—and new school, as in hip-hop and rap. Can you comment on your obvious love of poetry?

JJ: Well, my mother talked a lot when I was growing up, and also I talk a lot. I just like the sound of words and the phrasing and music in peoples' use of them. I remember writing a lot of limericks in third grade. I liked the rhythm of them, I think. I can remember the room and the circumstance and the feeling like a frozen moment, of the first time I heard Dylan Thomas reading "A Child's Christmas in Whales," and the first time I heard "Rappers Delight," and Mingus' "Fables of Faubus" by Mingus. These things just strike me, resonate in me.

Words don't sound particularly different from music to me, they sounds like the same spectrum of sound. Like a different hue, but still on the spectrum. I love hearing ways of using words that are not just words on top of music but as one of the elements of the sound, of the ensemble. It's also auditory but works what feels like two parts of the brain at once—the sound of the words and then their meaning. It's like smelling something that you are touching; there's a lot to process at once. It's challenging. And the human voice also is very direct, goes straight to your spine. I like that too.

AAJ: And this might explain why you chose the saxophone, for the vocal qualities of its sound?

JJ: Probably.

AAJ: How does this unique interaction between husband and wife—saxophone and saxophone—effect your creative process?

JJ: I think we listen to music in a similar way—we'll be listening and our ears will perk up at the same things. We do spend a lot of time discussing different players and composers and what we like about them. I like living with someone who is searching on the same path as me. It's not that we are finding the same things, or even interpret life all that similarly, but we have company on the same path.

Also, our kids are both musicians, which is a wonderful thing to have in common with your family. There's something very magical about the nonverbal communication in music, and to have that common ground with the people you love—even while you might get annoyed at their behavior—is very cool. It's like having one foot in the real world, but all of us having access to this other dream world also, and having that experience in common.

Jessica Jones / Tony Jones Jessica and Tony Jones

And it's inspiring to feel someone else in the house working on music; it makes me want to work on it too. Tony and I each work on different things, but then we come together to try them out with each other. I think we learn a lot from each other. We each have our strengths, which have been interesting for me to realize over time, and to try to incorporate those strengths in composing. I think also we each feel deeply accepted by each other in our approaches. That might sound a little corny, but it makes the atmosphere feel completely safe for utter insanity and innovation.

Selected Discography

Jessica Jones Quartet, Word (New Artist, 2008)
Peter Apfelbaum & the NY Hieroglyphics, It Is Written (ACT, 2005)
Jessica Jones Quartet, Nod (New Artist, 2004)
Jessica Jones Quartet, Shake (Independent, 2002)
Joseph Jarman, Lifetime Visions for the Magnificent Human (Bopbuda, 2000)
Jessica Jones Quartet, Family (Nine Winds, 1997)
Marco Eneidi-Glenn Spearman Creative Orchestra, Marco Enedi-Glenn Spearman Creative Orchestra (Music & Arts, 1996)
Don Cherry, Multikulti (A&M, 1988)

Photo Credits

Top Photo: Courtesy of Jessica Jones

Bottom Photo: Jacqueline Ford, courtesy of Jessica Jones

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