Alto saxophonist Darius Jones (who I profiled in Burning Ambulance #2) has performed with different personnel on each of his AUM Fidelity releases to date. His debut release, Man’ish Boy (A Raw & Beautiful Thing), featured Cooper-Moore on bass and diddley-bo, and Rakalam Bob Moses on drums; the follow-up, Big Gurl (Smell My Dream), featured bassist Adam Lane and drummer Jason Nazary. (This trio was also heard on a hidden bonus live track at the end of Man’ish Boy.) He and Nazary are also members of the quartet Little Women, alongside guitarist Andrew Smiley and tenor saxophonist Travis Laplante; their full-length debut, Throat, was released in 2010, and a follow-up may be coming soon. He can also be heard on Betweenwhile, by drummer Mike Pride‘s group From Bacteria To Boys. Most recently, Jones duetted with pianist Matthew Shipp on Cosmic Lieder, which R. Emmet Sweeney reviewed last April. In every case, his voice remains distinctive and identifiable; he is always himself, even when burrowing into a collective storm of sound, as on Throat. Like Ornette Coleman, Peter Brötzmann, or any other great stylist of the horn, he causes others to come to him, rather than disguising his fundamental nature in order to fit in. And yet, he does fit in, because he is possessed of an openness of spirit that welcomes collaboration. His bands are not support staff, but partners.
On his latest CD (buy it from Amazon), Jones fronts a quartet that includes pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Ches Smith. Dunn and Smith are players whose work I have heard in a variety of contexts, from Mike Patton‘s group Fantômas, John Zorn‘s Moonchild ensembles, and the jazz group Endangered Blood (Dunn) to multiple out-jazz ensembles led by folks like Marc Ribot, Mary Halvorson and Tim Berne…and the noise-rock trio, led by former Fudge Tunnel mainman Alex Newport, Theory of Ruin (Smith). They also played together on a 2004 CD by Dunn’s Trio Convulsant. The fact that they have chosen to work with Jones, who, while flirting with noise-rock in Little Women and some Weasel Walter-led projects, nevertheless comes quite clearly out of a post-Albert Ayler, spiritual jazz context, is immediately interesting.
Book of Mae’Bul begins with “The Enjoli Moon,” a tender ballad that allows Jones to unfurl its melody slowly and with great care. He allows the notes to flow through the horn almost as though a balloon is deflating, never hurrying to the next one but wringing all the harmonic energy out of each before proceeding. Mitchell’s piano playing follows his example, and Smith’s drumming, while energetic and occasionally even aggressive, never overpowers the piece. Dunn is a subdued presence, taking only the briefest of solos with delicate support from Mitchell.
As the album progresses through its eight tracks, the tenderness manifested in “The Enjoli Moon” fades, replaced with a muscle-flexing tension that makes Book of Mae’Bul a “difficult” listen, in that it demands that you engage with it. It will not sit in the background. Jones, Dunn and Smith—more than Mitchell, though he does it too—play with great force, even on slow pieces. They don’t go for stereotypical “free jazz” blare, of course. The saxophonist isn’t interested in that, and neither is Smith. There’s a moment toward the end of “Be Patient With Me” where he rolls across the toms in almost direct imitation of Elvin Jones backing John Coltrane in 1964, but otherwise, he seems determined—without making it into a Thing—to do the unexpected, to react in a way that a typical “jazz drummer” would not, even as the music remains firmly rooted in jazz.
I think if this music swung more, it would be easier to just relax and enjoy. But there’s a twenty-pound-boots feel to its rhythms and momentum most of the time. And then there’s the final track, “Roosevelt,” which features the entire band but in its final minutes boils down to the interaction between Jones and Smith. The saxophonist is emitting fierce murmuring squeals as the drummer scrapes his cymbals and clatters bits of the kit, and the music—in a surprising bit of studio-craft—slowly fades down to silence, as though this furrowed-brow, AMM-ish back-and-forth could go on indefinitely. (Almost a threat, that.) This track, as much as anything else, encapsulates Book of Mae’bul and the Darius Jones Quartet. They are men doing difficult work, and every note shines with the sweat of their efforts. Which may be why they want you, the listener, to put as much effort into hearing them as they have put into the sounds they make. If you’re up for the challenge, it’s an intense and rewarding album. If you’re not…I totally get that, too. There will be plenty of days where I will scan through the contents of my iPod and go right past this album, thinking, Nope, I need something more basic and elementally fulfilling. Comfort food. But there will be days when I will be damn glad this record exists. If you’re visiting this website, I suspect the same will be true of you.
Here’s a shortish (just under 10 minutes) clip of this group performing at Roulette in NYC in 2010: