Darius Jones: The Mastering of Musical Allegory

A musician who knows no category

Laying the Groundwork
Alto sax player Darius Jones fits into no category as a musician. In relation to his Virginia history, his Pentecostal family background, he is atypical. “If I am in any category, Darius Jones is the category!” he exclaims. AUM Fidelity record producer Steven Joerg has said of him: “Throughout the history of music (as we know it from recordings), those musicians that bring the whole package are rare. Darius Jones is one of them … ”

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Darius Jones
By Peter Gannushkin
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Darius Jones

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Jones wants more than anything to make clear that he is a “unique” human being, that what he is doing in the music is a “unique” endeavor. He intends to exhibit his self-worth from the get-go: “My ideas have power.”

It is a knee-jerk approach to label a subject in order to help someone understand unfamiliar territory. However interviewed, studied and appreciated, Jones simply leaves a huge impact. He is too good and too different to plug into any kind pigeonhole. If Jones has done anything in this world at this point in his young life, at age 33, he has established himself as a leader, as a model for a new generation of musicians and improvisers, in that group called “avant-garde.”
Certainly the legends like Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Sun Ra, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach (where can one stop listing) influence creative improvisers.

But the present-day avant-garde musicians like Matthew Shipp, Joe McPhee, David S. Ware, Wadada Leo Smith, Fred Anderson, William Parker, Cooper-Moore, Sabir Mateen, Roscoe Mitchell, Roy Campbell and Hamid Drake, among many others, directly influence the younger generation. It is time to create and become accustomed to using new reference points.

Jones unfolds an unending roster of musicians, including Archie Shepp, Wayne Shorter, Oliver Lake, in addition to the aforementioned, out of whose flowering he has given birth to himself, his trio, his concept for the shape of his music. In the beginning of blues and jazz, and any other branch of musical composition for that matter, abstract or traditionally oriented, the key to the musical line, for Jones, is a story... if not one that has specific antecedents, then one that is completely self-referential. Jones describes his music in terms of harmonics, rhythms and counterpoint. He chooses to play on top of a strict form. In the midst of the music, the form will be retained. And the story can evolve. Jones is “attacking” the stereotypical version of jazz forms; he is “redefining” them.

With screaming alto notes and passionate embracing lines, Jones holds back nothing to express a fully formal and improvised “alchemy,” an appreciation and absorption of a complete universal picture out of which he desires seriously and sincerely to make his mark as the musician/artist he is, using an “unapologetically modern language.”

Making A Transition
Clarifying that he is “spiritual” rather than religious, Jones describes his young life and the place of music in his Pentecostal environment: “… Music wasn’t for entertainment … It was for saving and helping a person to be more into helping their soul and body and be encouraged so they [could] live through another day.”

Jones first blew into a sax when he was 5 or 6 years old. But he learned to play saxophone in the sixth grade; he played in church by the time he was 13. His uncle Roosevelt, who also played alto, taught him. Roosevelt was disciplined: “He would get angry when I would play notes that weren’t inside what was happening … ” Jones explains. “My uncle wanted to understand everything that I was doing … He pushed me … And I reached the point where I thought, ‘I am going to be the greatest saxophone player ever … Even greater than you [his uncle]!’”

In retrospect, Jones can see that he learned a “very important lesson” in his family about individuality: “To be you,” he says with emphasis. “To be yourself … It means that you have to constantly be aware of ‘self … ’ and learn about what’s going on inside of you. What it is that you like? What is the thing you are seeking? What is the thing you are hearing? And trying to figure out and trying to filter through … Trying to figure out what is influence and what is intuitive and coming to you naturally … Being an individual means being honest with yourself—in any artistic craft—not just music. Making one’s statement means speaking to oneself in the most honest way possible and … This is very important to me … The idea is not to prove anything. The idea is to communicate … The only purpose in ‘proving’ is ego … Music is a service. What you are doing is serving. Jazz stopped serving people at some point … [and turned into] … stroking ourselves so that people like us rather than trying to communicate. Instead of really, really telling a story? I think that it is important to do that: to tell a story, to communicate, to serve people in that audience, Serve them honestly. They are going to hold your message or they’re not … That’s life.”

“When I used to go to church, I had to listen to the pastor. I had to be open to receive that message. But, sometimes, that message wasn’t always for me. But, sometimes, it was for me and I wasn’t ready for it. Audiences need to come to the musical message, open … thinking maybe this is something I need.”

After attending college for several years in Virginia, Jones moved to Brooklyn. Before he left home, he said to his father, “I’m afraid.” His father replied, “Listen here, listen to me, you can’t be afraid … You have to be fearless. He was so serious. You have to be fearless in all that you are.”

“I play that,” Jones added, after he paused for a moment. Then he went on: “I thought about [what his father had said] on the train to New York. Fear is a connection to the dark side … The more you fear, the more you are disconnected.”

In 2005, when he arrived in Brooklyn, Jones was prepared to communicate, prepared to convey a message that was about “not knowing,” a message that was about the mystery of that which is larger than he is, but from which he initiates direction.

Through his neighbor in the apartment that he lived in, Jones first met a visual artist, the 37-year-old Bronx native, Randal Wilcox. Shortly thereafter, the two became roommates. A conversation started between musician and painter that led to the rise of Jones’ The Man’ish Boy Trilogy.

Artistic Modes Combine
Wilcox reveres the times he started working with musicians who were into electronics; that period thrust him gratefully out of an uncreative “dead zone” and was a bridge to the time when he met Jones. Sharing an apartment for over a year with Jones, Wilcox’s “paintings extended from my room throughout the apartment and into the living room, where Darius would write and rehearse music … We had many long discussions on a range of subjects, from our relationships with women, to artists and musicians that neither of us were familiar with, to the many things we have each wanted to see artists and musicians do, but haven’t yet … One of the best things about working on this project is that it’s caused us both to stretch our imaginations and think ‘outside of the box’…We work primarily in an intuitive, non-verbal way ... Darius is one of the few creative people I know who has integrity, knowledge and respect for history and tradition, a large and lucid perspective, and the desire to use his talents to make meaningful music for a larger audience.”

The Jones/Wilcox alliance generates a cookin’, rockin’ campus.

The Man’ish Boy Trilogy
The title of what Jones dubs the “first verse” of the Man’ish Boy epic, aka Or’gen, Man’ish Boy (A Raw & Beautiful Thing), the first record he would do with AUM Fidelity, sparked the collaboration between the two artists. This musical tale, according to Jones, relates to his personal history as he knows it, “beginning with the first things he heard and enjoyed and was exposed to.” Jones “wanted to transport himself back to that place … when he was listening to ‘old music’ … the blues and gospel quartets.” Gospel quartets are “very intense music … They had a cry to their sound that was really important to me” … He puts that cry into his music because “it reaches out to me in a powerful, unforgettable way, actually.” He describes that wailing cry (“Cry Out,” second track on Man’ish Boy) as means to say: “Here I am. This is my story.”

Unlike the other two albums in the trilogy, Man’ish Boy is improvised, similar to the way in which Jones played saxophone in church when he was young. He “had no music, had to play by ear and had to make up music that went along with the song. I would do that every week, twice on Sunday and once on Wednesday.” Cooper-Moore on piano and Rakalam Bob Moses on bass give this record the substance it needs to render the birthing of Jones’ story thorough and whole.

Responding to the idea of Jones’ title for this recording, Man’ish Boy, Wilcox “immediately thought of a young child standing in a field with an adult’s shadow behind him. Once realized, this character could also stand in as Darius’ alter ego. Darius liked the concept and was already thinking about a character that would be his double … Man’ish Boy’s appearance [on the front cover of the CD] is based on a very old optical illusion … I was researching this kind of imagery in 2009 and also had a very loose idea to make paintings of mutant Black children … All of these ideas crossed over into the album art” including the usage of three as a defining number in the imagery.

The question the collaborators next asked was: “What if a narrative-through comics or animation-was established that would connect the imagery to the sounds even further? Darius and I realized that there is a great potential for us to create…an ambitious story—our story—that will interest those in and out of the audience for contemporary art and jazz.” They were laying the groundwork for the next phases of the trilogy, of the ongoing saga.

The cover of Big Gurl: Smell My Dream, the second “verse” of the Trilogy, was “brainstormed” from Wilcox’s idea for two characters … a woman and a gigantic dog … that shared a symbiotic relationship. Big Gurl is “an earthy free-spirited woman who lacks the power of speech [even though she has a mouth]; the psychic link with her animal companion allows her to talk and allows the dog—who is blind [even though it has three eyes]—to see.” Wilcox interprets Jones’ motivations succinctly. When Jones moved to Richmond, Va., to attend Virginia Commonwealth University, “It was the first time I had lived outside of the immediate care and love of my family … Once my family’s influence and desire were no longer a daily influence, I felt a sense of new found freedom.” Jones initiated a process of learning to perceive and absorb life experience and grasp his own voice … not realizing heretofore that “ … it was possible to become a composer. It never entered my mind.”

Also a trio recording, like the initial Man’ish Boy, but with bassist Adam Lane and drummer James Nazary, Big Gurl became a vehicle for Jones to map out his concepts of rhythm and sound within a structure as he had learned in his own terms. Translated into his music is his emotional growth, occurring as a result “…of living by the seat of my pants …” He dedicates this record to the people with whom he connected, who were his life teachers. He came out of the Richmond period with verve for living, a creative passion, inculcated in the “organic” process of living and totally “in love” with music for the first time.

The Darius Jones Quartet, which includes Matt Mitchell on piano, Trevor Dunn on bass and Chez Smith on drums, recorded Book of Mæ’bul (Another Kind of Sunrise) in September 2011. It completes “the back-story to my life’s ‘sonic tone poem,’” writes Jones. “Those years right before and after I arrived in New York were full of so many personal revelations about my relationships with women and my father … who takes great pride in my being an artist.”

Jones’ mother told him when he was a child that he was “born in a sea of women”; given that memory, he realizes that everything he has understood about love and beauty has come from women. Mæ’bul “embodies every woman I have truly loved or had a relationship with in my life.” In this group is his mother, who “has shown him what love is and how to express that in action over time”; his sister, whose “African features and dark brown skin” leave Jones with an idea of “how the past and present can collide to create such beauty”; women who have crossed his path and left indelible ‘impressions”; his girlfriends, who are out of his life, artistic, or problematic; and even two women with whom he had horrible experiences and about whom, he says, he is trying “to take something very ugly and making it into something beautiful.”

Book of Mæ’bul (Another Kind of Sunrise) is a transition into his future. It is one more intuitive stepping stone towards the codification of his inner being and the mastery of his language. He is in it, hook, line and sinker on a foundation built from the consciousness arising from reliving birth, beholding freedom and exchanging love. What follows will not be logical.

In Totem
All three record designs have a consistent red/green/black/yellow color scheme, reflective of Jones’ Jamaican heritage as well as notable pieces of African-American contemporary art. The imagery is powerful and “raw” in the basic sense of the word. Wilcox’s representational style, like Jones’ stark yet evocative alto playing, is bold; nothing is hidden or subtle. Wilcox’s paintings are unadulterated and too intelligent to be called primitive. His art perfectly matches the music, not analogically, but honestly and structurally with an irrevocable underpinning of deep emotion, compassion, and a commanding lack of triviality.

Jones proclaims that the Man’ish Boy Trilogy “is greater than” itself: it speaks of the evolution of both his and Wilcox’s work … African-American artists’ work that somehow does not need rules, he stresses. “Anyone can sit down and come up with a multitude of ideas … But to truly find magic and find inspiration … while being tapped into the source … that takes courage … Randal and I are trying to say it is OK to be unique and it should be celebrated and should be embraced a lot more than it is.”

The freedom as an individual that Jones now embraces gives him license to observe, swallow, assimilate and transform into music the wealth that his life manages. Far be it from anyone to snatch away either literally or metaphorically, the means by which he can do this; his artistry is God-given.

Darius Jones is named after the Persian King, Darius, whose reign lasted for his adult life ending in 486 BCE with his death. King Darius is responsible for saving Daniel from the Lion’s Den in the Old Testament’s Book of Daniel. Since 2009, with the arrival of Man’ish Boy as the youngest version of the main character, the Book of Darius is now being written. With a total of nine characters, nine records, a graphic novel and a movie to come, the incipient stages of the complete story might very well be told.

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