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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Photo by Peter Gannushkin

When Darius Jones plays his alto saxophone, it doesn’t sound like he’s pushing air through it. Jones seems to spew some molten liquid—his sound contains a darkness and density that blatantly defies the laws of physics. This sound seemed to capture everyone’s attention in 2009 when Jones released his debut album, Man’ish Boy (A Raw and Beautiful Thing) on AUM Fidelity, a record that found a spot on countless critics’ best-of lists. He has since released three more albums as a leader or co-leader, each one offering further explorations into Jones’s mysterious universe that lies somewhere in between jazz, blues, and the avant-garde.

For his show at The Jazz Gallery on Friday January 17, Jones has teamed up with a very special guest—French singer Emilie Lesbros. We caught up with Jones by phone this week to talk about his new project and how he approaches writing for the voice.

The Jazz Gallery: For this show, you’re collaborating with French singer Emilie Lesbros. How did this collaboration come to be?

Darius Jones: I was a fan of Emilie for a while, and I wanted to work with her—I wanted to do something substantial. Someone told me about the French-American Jazz Exchange, and I was like, “Oh that’s a good idea.” So I applied for that grant, got it, and so we met and talked a little bit. She was down to work with me. I’ve been working very intensely for the past few years on a large-scale work for voice. Emilie is one of those really rare, special people—there’s not another one of her out there. What she’s capable of doing is just unreal.

One of the things we have in common is this woman Bridget Fontaine, this legendary French avant-garde artist who has done all kinds of great things. We’re trying to deal with Bridget’s perspective as a musician and artist, and the tradition that I come from, which is jazz and gospel and the blues. We’re trying to say something different with these traditions.

TJG: Can you tell us a little more about Bridget Fontaine and what about her work has interested you and Emilie?

DJ: The first thing that you need to understand about Bridget is that she’s more than a singer. She’s a playwright; I think she’s even a novelist. She’s done all kinds of stuff—it’s unreal. I’ve been trying to find an American equivalent to what she is, and I can’t really put my finger on who that would be. Her music runs the gamut. She’s dealing with that tradition of French singing, but she also worked with people like Archie Shepp and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. She’s considered an avant-garde singer, but she’s also considered a French pop artist.

What you’ll probably see on Friday is the beginnings of working some of this type of thing out with Emilie. Like I’m going to an arrangement of a Schöenberg piece from The Book of the Hanging Gardens. She’s going to do two of my originals, and we’re probably going to do a trio with her and Andrew Cyrille. Andrew did this record with the singer Jeanne Lee and the saxophonist Jimmy Lyons that’s super amazing, so I wanted to deal with some of that too. This project is just starting and it’s really challenging.

TJG: So is writing for voice a new thing for you?

DJ: Well, the last time I played at the Gallery, I presented some music for an acapella quartet, which I wrote a whole alien language for. I am going to try to incorporate that into some of the music with Emilie.

Here’s the long story: I really love the idea of playing with language. It’s something that the voice has that an instrument can’t really do. What I’m trying to do with Emilie, because she can do this, is to use the French language, but also use English and vocalese and my own system that I’ve created for voice. You’ll hear that connection between all these sounds and languages, even in one song, switching back and forth. I think it can be very powerful when a vocalist can have that control over their voice and timbre, which then affects language.

I think this is appropriate because I don’t think jazz is one language anymore. Well I guess I’ve never felt that it was one language. I think it’s a combination of many languages being filtered through the prism of the artist that you’re hearing.

TJG: So how did you get interested in treating the human voice as an instrument, rather than something that just transmits texts?

DJ: I grew up in the church, and so my experience with the voice was that it was a large instrument. In the church, the voice has a lot of different layers. There’s the preacher who’s doing his kind of inflections and creating the drama in a sort of speak-singing way. You have singers who in the gospel tradition do so many kinds of pyrotechnics with their voice. So much is communicated through the inflections of the voice.

As I got more into music, I really got into opera, loved world music. I’m half Jamaican, so I grew up hearing Patois spoken in my house. I loved how that could be something that switched back and forth in my family. They would be speaking in an American accent, and then they’d be speaking with a Patois-based sound. Also the idea of growing up with slang vs. proper speech in the African American community. And then just falling in love with certain vocalists: ala Betty Carter, ala Nina Simone, ala Bridget Fontaine, ala Leontyne Price. I’m pulling from a lot of things.

For the next two or three albums, I think I’ll be heavily focused on the voice, because my concept as a horn player completely comes from that. At this point I’m not really thinking along the lines of saxophonicity. I’m trying to figure out a way to express myself in a very vocalized way through my instrument, and do that over everything: over playing changes, over playing free, over playing a groove. Surrounding myself with vocalists has been such an amazing experience in that regard.

TJG: One thing that I find interesting about vocal communication is that you don’t necessarily need to know the language a person is speaking to get a strong sense of what they’re trying to communicate—so much comes from contour and inflection. Is this something that you’re exploring in your pieces that switch between languages? 

DJ: Yeah. My thing is about true communication right now. As predominantly English-speaking people, I feel like sometimes when we’re talking to one another, we’re really not communicating, that our language fails us a lot. I find it fascinating that you can sit through a whole opera and be brought to tears by what is being evoked, and not even completely understand the story. We can listen to Jobim and all that great Portuguese music and just be like, “Yes! This is amazing!” but we have no idea but they’re really saying.

My work is definitely about that right now—how is that happening, and how can it happen through an instrument as well. I’m trying to evoke something and communicate something through my instrument, and now here’s a voice next to me. What is the difference between the two of us? Is there a difference between the two of us? Ultimately, I’m asking that question.

The Darius Jones Quartet featuring special guest Emile Lesbros plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday January 17, at 9 and 11 p.m. The group features Jones on alto saxophone, Aruan Ortiz on piano, Sean Conly on bass, Andrew Cyrille on drums, and Emilie Lesbros on vocals. $20 general admission ($10 for members). This performance has been made possible through the French-American Jazz Exchange, a joint program of FACE (French American Cultural Exchange) and Mid Atlantics Arts Foundation, with generous funding from the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Florence Gould Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Institut Francais, Ministere de la Culture et de la Communication and Societe des Auteurs et Compositeurs de Musique (“SACEM”). Purchase tickets here.