Darius Jones and Matthew Shipp gave themselves a hard task in making an entire album of just sax and piano, performing all new originals. Cosmic Lieder can accurately be called uneasy listening. You have to be pretty versatile with your instrument if you want to make a duet album like this interesting. The more versatile one’s skills are, the more challenging the music can become. So when Jones and Shipp sat down and gave the signal to roll tape, they weren’t going to just play the blues – at least not in any way most are accustomed to.
The first track is called “Bleed”, which may summon thoughts of violence or death or some unpleasant command. But its nudging start into a voyage of calm may suggest that the title’s command is synonymous with “live.” Through “Ultima Thule” and “Zillo Valla”, Shipp constantly shifts the foundations at play with his sturdy chord work, bleak harmonies and effortless blurring of jazz and classical piano. As for Jones, Shipp says it best when he describes him: “he does not let jazz licks get in the way of real expression.” No, Darius Jones is pretty adept at knowing when to play and when not to play. He goes up, down, legato, staccato, but never makes it sound flashy. His saxophone screams on “Zillo Valla” are so restrained it’s almost startling. Someone didn’t go to the Zorn school for skronking, that’s for sure.
Starting around “Multiverse” is where these two guys dig even deeper for variations to the sax and piano format. Shipp’s maelstrom piano stirs up the dark undercurrent from hell while Jones sputters atonal clusters through his reed. A little more than 30 seconds from the end, they get so quiet I thought that the engineer had faded them out. No, that’s them really playing that quietly, that quickly, that controlled. “Mandrakk” chases these weird elements further. Shipp plays what sounds like a prepared piano (I can’t find any information confirming nor denying this), while Jones makes his horn heave sighs after trying to clear its throat. Though these co-composed pieces feel loose, since they most likely sprung from improvisation, this is the point of Cosmic Lieder where Jones and Shipp allow things to become more impressionistic. This comes to a head on “Motherboxxx”, where Shipp’s fingers sound like a caffeinated spider playing 12-tone. Something like “Black Lightening” can really fake you out, starting with what resembles a conventional form but them they steer the whole thing down a rough road.
Cosmic Lieder is truly uneasy listening. Put it on at low volume and it will blend into the background. Put the headphones on and it can be an absolute bear. It’s at this point that you need to just trust the instincts of these two guys. Darius Jones is an up-and-coming virtuoso with big plans on the horizon. Matthew Shipp just celebrated his 50th birthday, which I still find difficult to believe. This isn’t a case of the old school clashing with the young blood, just the two camps finding that they have a great deal in common.