The New New New Thing
Whatever you want to call it, it is alive and well and living in Darius Jones and Tyshawn Sorey
Published: October 19, 2011
The real challenge here, truthfully, involves keeping you reading once you figure out this article is about jazz. Not you, the small cadre of seasoned heads and eager aspirants, but you, the average person who generally does not listen to much jazz, if any, or if you do, you pretty much lose interest at a point somewhere along the continuum of pre-comeback Miles. Trust that the only thing more wearying than reading another hyperbolic-sounding story about this or that worthy new player who’s really worth checking out, seriously, is the prospect of writing one. But even amid the glut of fully matriculated musicians and their various recordings, there is still music—vital, intriguing music—being made. And in 2011 a good chunk of it is being made by Darius Jones and Tyshawn Sorey.
There’s a cry at the heart of Brooklyn, N.Y. alto saxophonist Jones’ sound. It’s there in the way that he often holds a single note when other improvisers might throw in a flurry of them. It’s there in a certain roughness of tone that peeks through when he pushes his horn hard enough, along with touches of a shallow but firm vibrato. On his 2009 debut, Man’ish Boy (A Raw and Beautiful Thing), it offered the temptation to think of him as some sort of new-jack reincarnation of Albert Ayler, a free-jazz savant with uncommonly direct access to his own deepest yawp, a temptation only made stronger by his work with gunslinging free-jazz quartet Little Women. Jones’ second album as a leader brings his sound and approach into sharper focus. It’s not just a cry. It’s his cry.
Man’ish Boy’s idiosyncratic trio of drummer Bob Moses and pianist/diddley-bo player Cooper-Moore pushed Jones’ sound more in line with wild-ass vintage free-jazz almost by default. On Big Gurl (Smell My Dream) (like Man’ish Boy, released by AUM Fidelity), bassist Adam Lane and drummer Jason Nazary (the latter a fellow Little Women member) take part in interplay that’s more conventional in all respects, though Jones’ music loses none of its considerable power in the bargain.
The title of “Chasing the Ghost” echoes John Coltrane’s classic workout “Chasin’ the Trane,” and the former offers a prime display of the same sort of hard-charging blowing tune, each player driving the others on. If Jones’ tone hits some of its harshest paroxysms here, they aren’t out of place, and neither are they out of step with the rhythm section’s fourth-gear pulse. A hopscotching, staccato head gives way to overblowing from the leader and arco squeals from Lane on opener “E-Gaz,” yet elsewhere sinuous, romantic melodies climb the harmonic trellis of “Michele (Heart) Willie” or animate the heart-piercing (if not pacific) ballad “I Wish I Had a Choice,” hearkening back to an entirely different era of jazz. “A Train” may begin with Jones worrying a simple, nagging refrain like Ayler once did, but his reworking of Billy Strayhorn’s classic tune winds up showing off his own knack for melodic/compositional deconstruction more than his debt to any of his forebears.
So Big Gurl (Smell My Dream) is a jazz record, and a relatively inside jazz record after the unabashed outness of Man’ish Boy. This is no crossover move—it makes poor background music if only thanks to the leader’s take-notice tone—but it does mos def prove Jones is an original voice in more ways than one.
Oblique-1 (Pi Recordings) is, in many ways, fellow New Yorker Tyshawn Sorey’s most conventional recording as a leader to date as well. But you have to put a statement like that in context. The drummer/composer’s previous albums, 2007’s That/Not and 2009’s Koan, brought to mind spartan Euro improv and Morton Feldman’s minimalism (the former) or skeletal experimental guitar-driven indie music and more Feldman (the latter) as much as anything descended from bop. Here the erstwhile Vijay Iyer and Steve Coleman sideman deploys a traditional jazz quintet—alto saxophonist Loren Stillman, guitarist Todd Neufeld, keyboardist John Escreet, and bassist Chris Tordini—and some very traditional jazz modes/moods, e.g., the intimate ballad feel that takes over the second half of “Thirty-Five,” with Neufeld giving it his best Jim Hall six-string snuggle. But “Thirty-Five” sits in the track listing alongside “Fifteen” and “Eight,” each a selection from a larger body of Sorey pieces called “41 Compositions.” So, conventional and yet not so much.
Sorey’s work here appears to be a foreground/background experiment, at least in part. That is, although, say, “Eighteen” features an extended section of Stillman playing all by his lonesome, both composed sections and any improvisation that happens in these pieces tends to happen en masse—there isn’t much in the way of laying out, or laying back, per se. Much of the melodic material is resolutely knotty, but there is a lot of melodic material here, and even where it seems similar from track to track, Sorey and company give it a different feel, from the bustling opener “Twenty” to the lulling vibe of “Twenty-Four,” or deploy a slightly different attack, from the electric keys of “Thirty-Five” to the almost sotto voce extended techniques Neufeld deploys on “Seventeen.” Despite the numbers, this isn’t “abstract” music; “Fifteen” features an honest-to-god solo from a fired-up Escreet and, after a lulling center section, builds and builds tension through his obsessive chording and the increasingly intense playing of the leader, the true secret weapon here. It isn’t “easy” either. The word that applies here is, to be precise, “rewarding.”
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