Little Women is one of the most fascinatingly uncategorizable groups around right now. A quartet featuring alto saxophonist Darius Jones, tenor saxophonist Travis Laplante, guitarist Andrew Smiley and drummer Jason Nazary, Lung is their second full-length CD, following 2010’s Throat and their debut EP, 2009’s Teeth. When I interviewed Jones in 2010 for the second issue of Burning Ambulance, he had this to say about Little Women and their working methods:
“Playing with another horn player, I guess I feel more like there’s this front line, so we have a function, and then the rhythm section has a function as well, and then we can all blur this together and become one whole thing. Also, when I’m playing with another horn player, I’m trying to really connect with him or her so we can have synergy as a front line, playing lines together, making sure my voice and his voice are creating a singular voice that’s the combination of us both. Like in Little Women, a lot of times I’m really surrendering to what Travis is playing, his ideas and stuff like that, and he would say the same thing. It’s a give-and-take. Sometimes he wants to do something, and I’ll go there with him. Sometimes I’ll say, I don’t wanna go there, I wanna do this more accompanying thing, or play on top of what he’s playing, making what he does accompaniment. It’s just about connections.”
The connections between the four members are extraordinarily organic and even physical. Laplante’s and Jones’s horns lock together, repeating incantatory phrases in squealing registers that threaten to vibrate the listener’s fillings loose, even as Smiley’s guitar and Nazary’s drums ring and clatter. There is almost no low end to this music; it stings and jabs and needles, like Prime Time covering Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. It also has some things (repetition, high frequencies) in common with the music of guitarist Mick Barr (Orthrelm, Octis, Ocrilim et al.); the Brooklyn-based scene the members inhabit being small and porous, it’s not all that surprising that Barr’s drawings have adorned the covers of all three Little Women releases to date.
Lung (like Orthrelm‘s 2005 OV) is a single extended piece, some 42 minutes long. But that’s where the similarities end. Little Women‘s opus travels through multiple movements: Sometimes it’s murmuringly quiet, other times blisteringly loud and shrill; there are passages of intensely rhythmic, focused aggressiveness, and stretches of seemingly formless, questing exploration; and at times it passes out of the realm of music entirely, which is what makes the group’s work so fascinating and sui generis. As the titles of their releases imply, the members of Little Women are as fascinated by sound’s effects on the body—and the body’s ability to produce sound—as by melody, harmony and rhythm. Going all the way back to the Teeth EP, Jones and Laplante have recorded using extremely close microphones, in order to capture the sound of breath leaving their lungs. The last two minutes of that EP featured the group members wordlessly chanting, jabbering and sobbing in an almost pre-linguistic manner, as though their music had reduced them to some atavistic state.
Lung begins with almost two minutes of slow respiration. Breath goes in, breath comes out. It’s synchronized, but not perfectly so, and not effortlessly; one is reminded of the labored breathing that accompanies the practice of yoga, and reminded that meditation—the attempt to transcend—is hard fucking work. The first instruments heard are Nazary’s cymbals, danced all over by the sticks; it’s not until the four-minute mark that the horns and guitar enter, each man playing a hypnotic yet somehow pastoral melody that winds in and around the other men’s contributions. When they put their horns down, they begin singing long, monkishly droning notes. Their voices waver and go off-pitch; they suck in breath, then resume.
As the piece continues, it passes through one movement after another, but there are no breaks—it’s a continuous performance, one with little or no “free jazz” fervor, no matter how intense the music gets. Lung is a work of ferocious, and collective, discipline, recorded in pristine detail precisely because capturing the sounds of the men making the music is every bit as important as preserving the notes they play. It’s utterly beautiful in the way Sebastião Salgado‘s massive photos of miners and shipbreakers are—it’s a document of men at work, creating something larger than themselves. The only way this could have been improved would have been to release it as a DVD, so we could watch them sweat and gasp and wrestle with sound and the air in the room and their own bodies. This is the most beautiful and emotionally powerful piece of music I’ve heard so far in 2013.
Here is some video of a rather extraordinary performance from 2010 which, in its atavism and focus on the physical, in some ways prefigures Lung: