Darius Jones and Matthew Shipp releasedCosmic Leider in 2011, a pairing of a relatively young and exceptionally strong and capable alto saxophonist with an experienced legend of the new century’s avant-garde jazz. This first recording felt was a focused song cycle, almost classical: a recording with thorny harmonic content and edgy sonorities but a drive to tell a story. It was not a bunch of wild wailing. Neither of these musicians is inclined to be undisciplined.
But the music was challenging to your ears — not pleasant, tonal jazz but the kind of chamber-jazz that doesn’t follow standard harmonic rules and courts dissonance. That it did so in a set of related and highly terse compositions (seemingly spontaneously improvised) made Cosmic Leider a challenging thrill, sometimes beautiful and sometimes tense, always interesting.
Now comes the follow-up from Jones and Shipp, Cosmic Leider: The Darkseid Recital. These nine tracks are, on average, a bit longer than those on the predecessor, but there is every bit as much focus to this outing. Again, Jones contributes his gorgeous tone and steely sound on the alto saxophone. Jones is a player who uses total control of his instrument to make clear that any “funny notes” he plays are intended and fully felt. At the conclusion of the opening track, “Celestial Fountain”, for example, Jones plays an unusual trill high in the alto’s range, a sound that no player has ever quite conjured before by ears. It is stunningly beautiful and stark, a sound generated by a master.
Shipp is equally intentional and powerful in his pianistic attack. Like his partner, he purposefully conjures harmonies, intervals, and phrases that sit outside standard jazz tradition, but they all have a clear logic of their own — a beauty, in fact, that comes partly from jagged originality. A composition such as “2,327,694,748” (perhaps the human population of this Earth?) has sections of lyricism, sections of almost violent attack, and sections in which the two improvisors work in such cooperation that they seem like one musical mind. Shipp is never flailing or banging; he is conjuring spirits from the piano that exist happily and shiningly beyond Cole Porter or Duke Ellington. He does it with a sense of sympathy for your ears, even though the work can be purposefully jarring.
Together, Jones and Shipp are naturals. “Granny Goodness” begins with Shipp reaching into his piano to create certain notes that buzz when struck. He hops around the keyboard and dares you to hear the instrument differently. Quickly, Jones enters playing in overtone whispers, conjuring the hum of the alto’s metal, the song of the reed itself. As one partner plays on the physicality of his instrument, so does the other, and then they circle each other and let things grow.
There are many times during The Darkseid Recital when the sense of structure is very high. “Lord of Woe” begins with another Jones high trill that is matched in a squiggling call-and-response by Shipp’s upper register. The following section begins with Shipp introducing a a staccato pattern amidst a flowing ballad feeling, and soon Jones repeats it quietly in his lower register. This prompts Shipp to bring it back as shifting two-handed harmonies played as staccato quarter notes, over which Jones plays a lovely tune.
There are many other examples of this sort of intuitive connection and clarity. “Divine Engine” repeats the motif of a high, held note from Jones between periods of contrapuntal exploration in different tempos. “Novu’s Final Gift” starts with an unaccompanied melody from Jones, to which Shipp adds a set of chords that ultimately invites the recording’s loudest and most violent section — but one that ends on a miraculous dime, allowing the players to flow into a gentle stream of tunefulness. On and on it goes.
Some of the music here was recorded before an audience (seemingly at New York’s The Stone), other tracks were done in a studio, but all of the sound is excellent, with a sense that we are situated smack between these remarkable players, hearing the ideas wing from one to the other. But, as ever with Matthew Shipp and apparently now with Darius Jones too, our assumptions about what it means for jazz to “sound good” are challenged and expanded.
In the case of this series of recordings, the challenges force us to hear structure amidst dissonance, and each listening bring a wider sense of how we define both surprise and beauty.