As a saxophonist/composer/teacher/non-profit creator, Jessica Jones takes a holistic approach to music-making. All of the different hats she wears align in an open and positive musical expression. As a composer and improviser, Jones draws comfortably and equally from a wide range of sources, including mentors like Don Cherry and Joseph Jarman, as well as musics from the Caribbean and West Africa. This perspective is showcased on Jones’ newest record, Continuum (REVA), released this week. Featuring her longtime working band of Tony Jones on tenor saxophone, Stomu Takeishi on bass, and Kenny Wollesen on drums, the record showcases the continuum of the jazz tradition, both stylistically and educationally (Jones’s former student Ambrose Akinmusire guests).
Jones and her quartet will celebrate the release of Continuum this Friday, January 25, at The Jazz Gallery. We caught up with her by phone to discuss the history of the group, her approach to working with diverse musics and performers, and the work of her non-profit organization, Rare Earth Vibration Association.
The Jazz Gallery: This show Is celebrating the release of your new album, Continuum. What does the name mean?
Jessica Jones: It’s about the way that you learn jazz, as a continuum, from elders all the way down. One of my students who I had for six years, who just graduated from high school, he’s 17, he’s on the album. And Ambrose Akimusire is on it; he also used to study with me when he was young. So that’s kind of the thread going through it, the idea of the title.
TJG: How do you choose which guests to bring in, with how your band is structured?
JJ: Each case is an individual case. I wanted to feature this young student, because I think he’s really ready for that kind of opportunity, for being heard. And as far as the song with the singer, Ed Reed, he and I had some conversations, and I had taken some notes on the things he said, because he’s been through a lot and he’s really wise. And I wound up putting some of his ideas into a song, things he has talked to me about. So I wrote the lyrics based on things he’d said, and I’d never had anyone perform it vocally, only instrumentally. So I thought, why not see if he wants to do it. He sang the song, and that was geared specifically to him. The other song that has guests is, I was working at a music camp and someone was playing an instrument that he calls a kamale, a Malian instrument. He was in the room next to me, in the living situation, so I would hear him practicing. It sounded like the sonic area that Don Cherry used to play, when he played his ngoni. So I was really curious about the instrument, and wrote a song to go along with that and asked him to play on it. I asked Ambrose to play on it, because I was really hearing that trumpet sound, and he was in town, so it worked out that we could do that recording of that song together. Those were three individual situations where, compositionally, I was hearing that kind of direction, with these individuals.
TJG: What is your compositional process like? Were you thinking towards the scope of the album when you were writing pieces?
JJ: I was trying to document recent work, and looking across and seeing what united it, what the common ideas were. It’s really a cross range of styles on the album. Some funk, calypso, free stuff, blues, kind of a range, which I can’t really help.
TJG: How do you go about composing for improving, since improvisation is so important to your group?
JJ: For one thing, this quartet is made up of people who I’ve known a long time. Tony and I have been playing music together for forty years! And we’ve worked with Stomu and Kenny over the last few decades—Kenny consistently, and Stomu in the 80’s and then recently, in the past few years. They’re people I trust. So the framework can be kind of loose, or require a lot of their input: I can count on their adding a lot of musicianship to what I’m putting in. Some of it is more straight-ahead jazz, where I’ll say, you do that part, we’re just going to do this as written, and then loosen up in the solos. Some of it’s looser than that: we’re going to start with this, and then you add what you think goes there. There’s also some input on arrangements. Stomu’s helpful in saying, “What if we open this up? What if we do that?” It’s kind of a group process, in arranging it to adapt to the band.
TJG: With that kind of ability to shift, how does it feel to make the record, which is more of an official document?
JJ: What you’re saying is that playing live is a different kind of loose than saying, how long is the song going to be, and so forth.
JJ: I feel like I have a sense that this is just documenting the moment. It may not even be the pinnacle of how we play it, but this is where we are right now, and how it sounds today. If you keep playing the same piece, a couple years from now, it’s going to sound different. I think, also, a recording is a way to get a focus, and get the musicians together. It’s difficult in New York to get the paying gigs, that can keep you having a consistent working band. That’s been my experience, anyway. A recording is a nice way to get a focused goal and get people ready for something, and have it be an event itself.
TJG: How do you view the jazz landscape that’s in New York right now?
JJ: I don’t have a strong opinion. Some people are like, “oh, everything’s dying,” some people are like, “oh, it’s a great time to be alive” [laughs]. I’m someplace in the middle! There are a lot of venues, and I think the question is kind of a bigger global question: how can you afford to live here, and pay a band, and play? And the people who are able to get through that thing, it seems like, the economics of it is reducing the gene pool of the music. The Jazz Gallery is a good place: the guarantee, the focus on the music. Some places are more dependent on the commercial aspect, and that affects the musical choices.
There’s a lot of underground stuff, a lot of people really dedicated to creative music, hearing it, seeing it, helping it be heard, playing it.
TJG: What have you been listening to lately?
JJ: I go back to some of my favorites all the time: Dexter Gordon and Thelonius Monk. I have been checking out a little of Ambrose’s album, the latest album he had. One of the songs on the record is inspired by the Hamiltones—Anthony Hamilton’s backup singer, and I was listening to that. Gregory Porter a lot, especially love “When Love Was King,” the orchestral version from the Nat King Cole tribute album. Betty Carter. Zimbabwe Mbira music.
TJG: What are you hoping to get to, onstage and with this release?
JJ: I enjoy when the band feels like it’s breathing together, on the slower things. When the energy takes the music to unexpected places. I can rely on this rhythm section to always provide something interesting that I’d never thought of. It takes you places you can’t go by yourself.
This release and another one, that I’m hoping to also play at The Jazz Gallery, are the first releases of a record label I just started.
TJG: How did that get started?
JJ: We started a nonprofit organization that houses some education programs, as well as performance ideas, and focuses on creating access to arts programs for everybody. The record label’s a natural outgrowth of that, trying to make a pathway for underrepresented voices. It starts with us, but as a nonprofit, the idea is, like The Jazz Gallery, to focus on the quality of the music, and mixing it up a little bit. Things are dominated now; there are pipelines that, in the end, are related to money. It winds up being, whatever you have that can give you scaffolding you need to do what you want it to. That’s true in all arts, but music especially, there are pipelines: college, grad school, networks. That leaves out of a lot of people who can’t get in that situation. That’s the cycle: who gets to be heard? Our organization is called Rare Earth Vibration Association—REVA—and so is the record company, and I’m excited to see that progress and be viable.
The Jessica Jones Quartet celebrates the release of Continuum (REVA) at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, January 25, 2019. The group features Jessica Jones on tenor sax, Tony Jones on tenor sax, Stomu Takeishi on bass, and Kenny Wollesen on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.