I admit to being completely bamboozled by this release. Like many other writers who got to hear saxophonist Darius Jones’s collaboration with Matthew Shipp and his latest release with the avant-jazz group Little Women, I thought I had the guy reasonably pegged. Four releases deep in his mythical god-man Man’ish Boy compositional series, Jones has gone completely vocal. The Oversoul Manual features nothing but the human voice for close to 53 minutes. Specifically, it’s the female voice. More specifically, it’s a quartet called the Elizabeth-Caroline Unit. If all of this strikes you as a bit odd, it’s about to get weirder.
The story takes place on a planet named Or’gen. On Or’gen, if you want to procreate, three or more humanoids need to enter a spiritual agreement. This “Unit” follows a sacred text known as The Oversoul Manual written in the language of oe∫. Only after performing these 15 pieces of music will a child eventually take shape. Each mother then has a turn to “impart her wisdom, experience, and deepest desires for the child”. This is a process you need to keep up for years at a time, and the Man’ish Boy took seven. And when he appeared, it was an alleged watershed for the Or’genians, the “awakening of a cultural and spiritual development that this planet had not seen before”.
The tracks are titled, but not in any way that’s familiar to me, you, or anyone else. When listed from top to bottom, they form two funneling shapes. Track one is named “o o o o o”, track two is “o o o o”, and on down to line to track five where the circles turn solid: “•”. They increase in number up through track nine. Ten is named ” Δ ••••• Δ”. The dots in the middle decrease until track 15 is named “Δ•Δ”. The English translation is as follows: “Os/M-pt. 1”, “Os/M-pt. 2”, and so on. Amirtha Kidambi, Sarah Martin, Jean-Carla Rodea, and Kristin Slipp make up the Elizabeth-Caroline Unit, and Darius Jones recruited them based not only on their musical talent but also because none of them knew one another. And these ladies do some strange things with their voices. Jones doesn’t waste any time in letting you know that this project will not be 100% “pretty”. In the first track, one of the vocalists is on the verge of frying her voice. But in no time at all, the music will take a sublime turn with Freddie Mercury’s four angel mothers singing in tongues. Sorting one movement from another feels like a fool’s errand. How can I get across the feeling that “o o o” sounds better than “Δ••••Δ”? Or is it the other way around?
Honestly, The Oversoul Manual is a long string of musical “moments” rather than “movements”. Within the tracks are germs of profound harmony and dissonance. The four voices will sometimes line up perfectly and other times they will be at odds with one another. You may find yourself mentally tuning out when suddenly the most iridescent piece of music will float from your speakers and stun you in believing that there is an Or’gen, there is a Unit and there is a Man’ish Boy hatching in our midst. Or maybe Darius Jones is completely nuts. Objectively speaking, I think it would be nice to be just a little crazy, don’t you?