Darius Jones, Jazz Bohemian

With his new collaboration with French singer Emilie Lesbros, Darius Jones cements his position as a brilliant, model jazz musician in the new century.
Darius Jones
Le Bebe de Brigitte (Lost in Translation)
AUM Fidelity

Is there anything surprising about the latest recording from composer and alto saxophonist Darius Jones? Not at all. It features Jones’ quartet, with Matt Mitchell on piano, Sean Conly on bass, and Ches Smith on drums. No surprises there. Oh, and it also prominently features the singer Emilie Lesbros, who delivers a wild but subtle vocal performance in both French and English, swooping and crooning, improvising and conjuring in a continual dance across unusual forms with the leader’s horn.

But, nope, that’s not particularly surprising, either. After all, Jones’ last recording featured four a cappella female voices exploring a science fiction birthing myth in notably different styles and timbres using a language that Jones himself made up.

Jones, in short, is a pure original. Though situated firmly in the lineage of profound black American music — from Robert Johnson to Johnny Hodges, from Sun Ra to Oliver Lake and onward — Jones has pursued a path of daring beauty since beginning his career as a leader in 2009. Today, after absorbing his six-album cycle of music that is simultaneously extremely varied and remarkably focused, we have to acknowledge that Jones is one our most important young composers and thinkers about this music. And, in a sense, it may be helpful to think of him as a new kind of jazz bohemian.

Darius Jones Personifies the New Jazz Bohemianism

Jones is not the only contemporary jazz musician whose output looks like a rainbow, containing a great diversity of sources, inspirations, and historical echoes. This new bohemianism has become jazz’s new “normal”, and a salvation and refuge for the music. Against a backdrop of evaporating record sales and limited places to present the music in concert, jazz musicians have been undaunted: making deeply personal, uncompromised art that has an increasingly global range.

A “bohemian”, of course, is generally an artist who lives an unconventional lifestyle and operates in a community of like-minded creators, a term born in France as a reference to Romanian immigrants who were thought to have come to the country through Bohemia. In the US, the term came to be associated with various communities of artists (most recently, perhaps, the Beats of the ‘50s and ‘60s) who were ignoring barriers and creating art that defied convention, despite a conservative culture.

Today, jazz musicians like Jones fit the description. Drummer Tyshawn Sorey creates meditative soundscapes for many different bands even as he works on Ph.D level studies in classical music at Columbia University. Trumpeter Dave Douglas has a recent output that spans the shape-note singing repertoire, hymns, impressionistic hard bop, compositions by Wayne Shorter, and … electronic dance music. Jones mixes hard-edged free music, lush balladry from the jazz tradition, and French art songs. And that’s just on his latest record, Le Bebe de Brigitte (Lost in Translation).

The vibe of this music suggests a glorious bohemianism in an almost literal way. Drop the needle on “Beneath the Skin (We Are Already One)” and you walk into a late night jazz club where the music is both traditional and slightly, gloriously unhinged. Lesbros enters at the top over Smith’s smokey brushwork and a series of low pedal tones on bass that are echoed by chiming piano notes, both low and high.

It’s dramatic, theatrical, probing. And the sonic landscape is both complex and simple: Jones’s alto starts creeping in around Lesbros’ voice just as she begins a series of moans, cries, and eventually percussive intakes of breath. Mitchell’s ringing high notes are shadowed by another shadow — either notes from a Rhodes piano or possibly by Smith’s vibraphone. The music, without even venturing yet into chords or complex harmony, is nuanced.

About a minute into this track, it’s the composer who takes over as performer. His alto saxophone tone is rich and clean, but the melody that he traces here also trades in blues-bent notes that veer microtonally into yearning. Lesbros accompanies him with whispers, and eventually she is ceded the melody again, at which point Mitchell begins playing a set of impressionistic jazz chords, made more piquant by the mingling of Rhodes and acoustic piano lines, as if Bill Evans and Joe Zawinul had both wandered into the same otherworldly recording session.

Lesbros moves between English and French now with her own impressionistic emotion: “Wait for me … / It’s important what I’m doing / Wait a little bit more a little bit longer / I’m crazy / I’m observing the world”. And as she sings this, Jones’ alto tone cracks into multi-phonics for a moment before returning to a majestic, classical tone on his original melody.

This one track alone, which ends with two minutes of the band at its most tender and sensitive, makes the case. This is music set between worlds, exploring sound but also words, a statement that you can’t pin down but also decisively individual.

An Artist of the New Century

Jones could fit into any number of boxes if he so chose. He has a soulful alto sound and could be a southern-fried soul jazz player if that was his desire — when he chooses blow like Cannonball Adderly or Hank Crawford he’s as believable as anyone you can imagine. Or, being a product of “jazz education” (BA in “jazz studies” from VCU in Richmond, Virgina, then a masters in Jazz Performance/Composition from NYU), he could hold down the alto chair at Lincoln Center or anywhere else he chose. Jones also has major bona fides (and a group of mentors) from jazz’s AACM/avant-garde world, and he could easily play superb music with that tradition’s boundaries.

It seems that no one of these identities could satisfy the searching musical intelligence of Jones. While he was still developing his sound in Richmond, Jones formed a multi-media and performance art group that mixed modern dance, visual art, poetry, animation, and music into live performance. Upon arriving in New York, Jones launched into a mature phase that would allude to chamber music, hip-hop, new music, and of course jazz, but the emphasis would be on integrated suites of compositions.

His first run of recordings was the announcement of a great new player, an alto saxophonist of mighty gravity, but also a mature musical thinker. A tune like “Michele Heart Willie” from 2011’s Big Gurl (Smell My Dream) just turns your head and focuses your ears on Jones’ huge sound and great imagination. Playing with just a trio and no chording instrument, he stood out as a player of intensity. The next tune on the same album, Jones’s utterly original take of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train”, was blistering and brilliant: a comet burst through the atmosphere, playing the familiar with barn-burning newness and power.

Duets from the last few years with pianist Matthew Shipp showed Jones to be a powerful instant composer with a feel for “new music” textural exploration (“Mandrakk” from 2011’s Cosmic Lieder for example). But all that has to be recalibrated when you hear songs from The OverSoul Manuel, where Jones appears only as the composer, with four voices that are as different as the various sides of the leader’s musical personality performing his wildly inventive melodies. Operatic vibrato, folk coziness, jazz intimacy, soul shouts, experimental coughs and guttural shrieks are all folded into a mythic symphony of voice that is Bach one minute, Meredith Monk the next.

This is utterly where it’s at for the jazz musician of the 21st century. If you came of age as a young musician, as Jones did, since the year 2000, then you’ve never dreamed of releasing your art on a major label. Jones has been signed with AUM Fidelity since 2009, an independent label that barely predates the millennium and was founded by Steven Joerg after his experiences at indie-rock Homestead Records and, essentially, in the likeness of labels like SST. The aesthetic, and some of the music too, was more DIY punk-rock than Columbia/Blue Note/Verve. Label-mates such as Matt Shipp and William Parker are polymaths too, musicians whose “jazz” identity just barely trumps the fact that they regularly collaborate with musicians from other worlds.

It’s no surprise, then, that Jones’ OverSoul Manuel was funded by a Van Lier Arts Fellowship and that the new Le Bebe de Brigitte was funded by the French-American Jazz Exchange, which is supported by several major charitable organizations. To be a jazz musician today, you also have to be an entrepreneur and publicist, a promoter as well as composer. And, well, if you’re going to work that hard for something, it’s going to be for something that you deeply believe in, something expresses your identity.

It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that identity, and the flexible nature of that concept, is the cause and rallying cry of this generation.

Lost in Translation

The subtile of Jones’ new record is “Lost in Translation”, and one concern of the recording is clearly the movement from one language to another. Some songs translate easily. “Chanteuse in Blue” is easy to love and understand, with Sean Conly walking a jazz bass line like Paul Chambers and riff-like melody with a Thelonious Monk scamper to it. Lesbros playfully sings the English lyric, and we get a strolling joy: a singer explaining that she’s a French chanteuse but beset by these American blues, her purring confession occasionally highlighted by her more avant grade techniques, crackles and growls that move from melody to percussion.

But it’s also not that simple. “I am suffering from the difference that people think we have”, the lyric notes, and in the final two minutes of the tune, Jones steers it away from swing into a syncopated funk pattern that could almost be from a Steve Coleman album, with Lesbros’ singing switching to French and coming back, again and again, to “le difference” as its theme. Exactly.

The language of “I Can’t Keep From Weeping” is about as direct and appealing as imaginable. Here, Jones has crafted a song that has the shape and appeal of a classic ballad in a soul vein, with a dose of Stevie Wonder meeting up with a song from the ‘40s. But even here, the band performs a translation of surprise.

At first, Mitchell’s piano sits under the vocal in a singer-songwriter vibe, then the band (and Mitchell’s spare and gorgeous Rhodes playing) enters to give the songs a sense of hip groove. When Jones enters with an alto solo, it starts as a pretty take on the song’s chords, but then the group interplay increases as Jones’ tone and harmonic reach widens. By the fourth minute of the performance, Lesbros reenters with spoken words as Smith breaks up the groove and everyone is into a temporary free zone, chords tumbling, cross-rhythms percolating … and then the melody reenters in this open space and an octave up, and we have a pop song that has been turned alchemically, into something more artful, but still beautiful.

The concept of this album also works without Lesbros’ voice. In “Universal Translator”, Jones has crafted a composition for instrumental quartet that also deals with shifts and contrasts in tone, timbre, rhythmic pattern, and storytelling mode. On the one hand, the tune is premised on a bold set of descending, tumbling chords, and they have the appeal of a blues song in their insistence and grounding in classic American roots music. On the other hand, rhythmic form is irregular and unusual — a listener feels the conviction of it but is constantly surprised by the movement. Smith is particularly excellent here; during Mitchell’s solo he is like a tap dancer moving all across the stage, which then leads to his own solo, underpinned by the muscular sound on Conly.

It is to Jones’ credit that his own sound, a pungent and marvelous thing, never outshines his band or his material. But of course this is the case. Jones is, more than anything, a conceptualist. His playing is marvelous, but he is the opposite of, say, someone like James Carter, who dazzles by simply blowing so brilliantly over the changes, by elevating individual virtuosity over all else. Jones has conceived of each of his albums to date as a chapter in the story of his own alter ego, the Man’ish Boy — a character who alludes to the classic Muddy Waters tune from 1955 but who also shares the kind of mythic origin story that we associate with jazz iconoclast Sun Ra. Though Le Bebe de Brigitte seems outside the existing narrative, it uses thematically connected cover art by Justin Hopkins. Perhaps the real connection is in the title: The Child of Brigitte … Fontaine, who is an avant-garde French singer who has collaborated with Sonic Youth, Grace Jones, Stereolab, and Archie Shepp — as well as The Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Jones and Lesbros sit clearly in Fontaine’s tradition as an artist who is tied to a independent, multicultural, multimedia, and deeply individual approach to creativity. That is bohemian.

Darius Jones, in Concert and in Person

This quintet, seen live at DC’s Bohemian Caverns last Fall just before the new album was recorded, was relaxed but intense. In a small club, Lesbros can dominate the room with her expressiveness and theatricality. The rhythm section is completely pliant, as well as a dynamic marvel, whispering and thundering, depending on the need. That describes the leader equally well. At his most thunderous, Jones has the power of a great tenor saxophonist, pumping sound from the bell of his horn. He’s probably even better, though, when he speaks softly, painting in pastels around Lesbros or using his keenly refined tone while Mitchell sets the chords just right beneath him.

Speaking to Jones, that refinement and gentle intelligence is dominant. He speaks like a history professor about his favorite musicians, whether they be bebop masters or James Brown. Jones’ wire-rimmed glasses reinforce his patient willingness to listen to the opinions of others, but he’s quick to correct errors and to further his explanation of his own philosophy on music.

More than anything else, my impression of Jones is that of a man with a great mission to express the full wealth of his self, his history, and the history of his culture. To say all of that, he requires a breadth of methods and collaborators, an overflow of influences and outcomes. It makes sense that almost every recording by Jones features a new set of musicians and, in the last two, wildly new ensembles that paint with color sounds that are unknown until Jones conjures them.

May there be many canvases ahead.