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Darius Jones: The Oversoul Manual

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The Oversoul Manual is an ambitious and intrepid vocal opus by composer Darius Jones, who forsakes his alto saxophone and all other instruments aside from the four voices in the Elizabeth-Caroline Unit he has assembled for the project. Operating in all permutations from solo to quartet, the singers tackle 15 a cappella etudes over the course of nearly 53 minutes. It’s the latest installment in Jones’ Man’ish Boy saga: the “manual” is a sacred text, an alien birthing ritual that produced the Man’ish Boy himself over a seven-year span.

The ongoing myth-story clearly animates the muse for Jones, who extends his Sun Ra-like plotline with hieroglyphic song titles à la Anthony Braxton and a made-up vocal language for the Elizabeth-Caroline Unit, further baiting the cynics. But The Oversoul Manual is a contoured, formidable, signature work. It eschews vocalese in favor of pure, rounded notes and declamations. It can be very spiritual (especially the joined voices), but in the manner of hymns or chorales rather than gospel-blues testimony. It is frequently penetrating and, especially in solo voice, occasionally visceral.

Jones succeeded in his most crucial task-selecting four talented vocalists with diverse yet complementary skills. Sarah Martin is a classically trained soprano who can add operatic drama and high-pitched punctuation. Amirtha Kidambi has studied South Indian Carnatic vocals and worked with Robert Ashley, Muhal Richard Abrams and Matana Roberts, among others. Mexican-born Jean Carla Rodea has worked in free improvisation with Gerald Cleaver and arguably packs the most emotion among the quartet members. And Maine native Kristin Slipp possesses great range that includes comfort in the lower tones and has an album of jazz standards out on Sunnyside.

The Oversoul Manual wears well, a good sign for such an idiosyncratic project. When I want a jolt of Darius Jones, odds are I’ll still opt for his Man’ish Boy/ debut or his duets with pianist Matthew Shipp. But the longer songs on the new work are generally the best, and the entire project burnishes its familiarity and reveals new facets with each listen.

Originally Published