Bassist Norris Jones, better known as Sirone, was born in Atlanta in 1940; he died in Berlin in 2009. Though he never became a mainstream figure, within the world of avant-garde jazz from the 1960s on, he was a brilliant innovator, a unique stylist, and a major influence.
Sirone came to New York in 1966, at alto saxophonist Marion Brown‘s urging; he played on two of Brown’s early albums, 1967’s Three For Shepp and 1968’s Why Not?, and within a very short time had racked up a string of impressive performances on albums like tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders‘ Izipho Zam, guitarist Sonny Sharrock‘s Black Woman, pianist Dave Burrell‘s High One-High Two, alto saxophonist Noah Howard‘s At Judson Hall and The Black Ark, and tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri‘s In Search of the Mystery. In 1971, he co-founded the Revolutionary Ensemble, a cooperative trio with violinist Leroy Jenkins and drummer Frank Clayton (soon replaced by Jerome Cooper).
The Revolutionary Ensemble released five albums, all but one recorded live, between 1972 and 1977 on a variety of labels, then reunited in 2004 and 2005 for one more studio album and two more live releases. (Jenkins died in 2007.) During their first burst of activity, Sirone also recorded with tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman (on The Ear of the Behearer and Coincide), with trombonist Clifford Thornton on Communications Network, and with the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra on Numatik Swing Band and For Players Only, the latter of which also featured Jenkins.
In 1978, Sirone, who had played with Cecil Taylor at the 1973 concert that yielded the album Spring of Two Blue J’s (and which has recently been released in full), rejoined the pianist in a new sextet that also featured trumpeter Raphé Malik, alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, violinist Ramsey Ameen, and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. That version of the Cecil Taylor Unit went on an incredible six-month run that yielded two studio albums — a self-titled release and 3 Phasis — and two live documents, Live in the Black Forest and One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye. I’ve written about that group at length here.
Almost as soon as Taylor disbanded the sextet Unit, Sirone recorded his first album as a leader. The concert documented on One Too Many Salty Swift… took place on June 14 in Stuttgart, Germany; on July 5, the bassist entered Generation Sound studio in New York with an ensemble of his own. Artistry, released on the tiny Of The Cosmos label in 1979, featured flutist James Newton, cellist Muneer Bernard Fennell, and percussionist Famoudou Don Moye. Long out of print, it’s been reissued, digitally and on vinyl, by the moved-by-sound label.
Moye gets the first word; the four-track album’s first piece, “Illusions of Reality,” opens with a sharp snare crack. The other three players leap in behind him, and the ensemble is off and running, essaying a complicated melody that has the loft-jazz feeling — a combination of intricacy and surging energy — of work by Arthur Blythe or Julius Hemphill. Newton’s flute playing combines speed with a hoarse, crying quality, as if a man with laryngitis were attempting to convey something urgently. Both Sirone and Fennell, positioned in the extreme right and left of the sonic field, respectively, alternate between plucking and bowing, notes falling from their instruments in clumps as Moye seems to encourage everything while doing nothing to push the music in any particular direction.
The second piece, “Breath of Life,” proceeds seamlessly from the first. It begins with an extended, scrabbling bass solo, the strings groaning under the bow and scraping as if they’re trying to unwind themselves and spring free. At the five-minute mark, Newton and Fennell enter, the flutist joining the bassist in a unison melody, while the cellist offers harsh but applicable harmonies.
The album’s third track, “Circumstances,” is stunning. Both bass and cello sing deep, mournful songs, as the flute dances in the air like a bird flying in circles. Moye’s cymbals hiss, tap and zing, punctuated by quick, subtle runs across the kit. The piece is more of a sustained mood than a journey; they’re bogged down in dark introspection like characters in a Beckett play. Toward the end, Sirone explodes, taking a furious solo as Moye offers almost martial commentary and Fennell attempts to join in, but even though he’s playing simultaneously, he’s excluded from the exchange until the final few seconds, when both men switch to bowing and the flute re-enters. The music fades out.
There’s an astonishing moment about five and a half minutes into the final track, “Libido,” when Newton is in the middle of an extended, lyrical flute solo and Sirone patiently plucks his way down the neck, using a scale like a ladder, with the cellist following just a step or so behind. When he gets where he’s going, he emits a drone so fierce, though quiet, that it sounds almost electronic, and holds it for a length of time that should be physically impossible. After a few more long, groaning notes, he vanishes, leaving flutist and cellist to duet for a few precious seconds. When he comes back, he begins plucking out a forceful, almost swinging bass line, and Moye jumps in, too, setting up a bouncing parade rhythm that leads inexorably to a tumbling, cascading drum solo.
Artistry is a stunning album unlike anything else of its era. Sirone and company came up with a collective music that combines avant-garde jazz, modern composition, and the joy of pure sound, and having this work back in circulation — apparently remastered from the original tapes, as there’s not a hint of vinyl crackle to be heard — is a gift. Don’t miss out.
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