Alto saxophonist Darius Jones (subject of a cover story in Burning Ambulance #2; buy here) was at the University of the Streets on 7th Street and Avenue A on January 29, 2011 to premiere new music by his working trio with bassist Adam Lane and drummer Jason Nazary. They’ve only been heard briefly on record; his first CD, Man’ish Boy, featured multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore and drummer Bob Moses, but one hidden live track at disc’s end showcased this group. Almost all the compositions the trio performed at this show are to be recorded toward the end of February, and will be released on AUM Fidelity later this year.
The hour-long set began with a murmured “Okay” from Jones, who raised the horn to his lips and launched into a slow, John Coltrane-esque melody which was not so much supported as challenged by Nazary. The drummer was working his hi-hat and floor tom with sticks (one held backward for greater impact), thumping the kick drum almost as an afterthought and keeping time in a way that suggested the eccentric rhythms of John Lee Hooker‘s 1940s and 1950s sides as much as the free work of Milford Graves or Rashied Ali in the 1960s and beyond. Jones simmered without ever boiling over, offering intense but controlled shrieks as the intensity of the piece built, then stepped away as Lane took a hypnotic, repetitive solo with Nazary tap-tap-tapping on the snare behind him. When the saxophonist re-entered, it was slow and careful, and Lane took the piece out, bowing softly.
Jones introduced the second piece with loud finger snaps, setting an uptempo rhythm which Lane took up with a rock-steady throb, even as Nazary continually interrupted himself with a stuttering, broken beat. The saxophonist is a thoughtful player, never abandoning himself to wild squalls of sound—he picks out notes one by one, like someone selecting the ripest berries from an overflowing basket. During the more uptempo numbers, Nazary seemed to overpower the music time and time again, making the question of why the saxophonist chose to work with this drummer a persistent one.
Their relationship became clearer on the third number, a ballad marked by restraint on everyone’s part. At times, Jones’ florid lines seemed inspired by soft rock and smooth jazz; I kept thinking of Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.”
In some important ways, Darius Jones seems closer in spirit to swing-era saxophonists than to free players, even the gospelized, Pentecostal fire-breathers like Albert Ayler and Frank Wright. This was proved when the group tackled “Take the ‘A’ Train.” His soloing was equal parts Ornette Coleman and Charles Gayle, with fast distorted flurries at the lower end of the alto’s range, but after another bass solo from Lane, he re-entered and closed things out with a lurching, thickly bluesy groove.
At the set’s midpoint, Jones began to address the audience, which he hadn’t done to that point. The next piece, he told us, was based on Eric Dolphy‘s “Gazelloni,” but it wasn’t really recognizable as such. There were some glimmers of Dolphy-ness in the melody, but lots of shrieking and sharp harmonics, too. When the piece ended with bowed bass and piercing sax notes, it sounded like electric guitar feedback.
The final new composition of the night was another ballad, called “I Wish I Had a Choice” and set up by a discussion of the sacrifices necessary to a life in the arts. It was romantic and delicate, with Jones returning to his method of playing individual notes, not phrases. But then Nazary took a solo that was all crashing cymbals, and the piece’s mood hung on by a thread without ever quite slipping away entirely.
The trio’s set concluded with a version of “Chasing the Ghost,” a Man’ish Boy track with tremendous headlong energy and built around very Coltrane-ish phrases from Jones, which led into a squiggling, free solo and then erupted into fierce, ecstatic roaring. Jones latched onto an ascending scale and played it a dozen or two dozen times, finally exploding into a storm of sound like Pharoah Sanders in 1967. And then it was all over.
Seven pieces in an hour; the Darius Jones Trio traffics in concision. Many of these pieces seemed to barely finish stating their themes before they were winding down again. Perhaps this is because they’re new; both Jones and Lane referred to sheet music throughout. But the performances were focused and powerful, and make the prospect of hearing the studio versions a very pleasing one indeed.