Q&A: Darius Jones On The Man-ish Boy Epic, Being Called "Punk-Jazz," And AUM Fidelity's 15th Anniversary

Categories: Interviews

Peter Gannushkin
If ever there was a dude who exudes the air of spiritual illumination while being a total badass, saxophonist figurehead Darius Jones is it. In conversation, the burly alto overlord fuses his devout Southern rearing with New York City crud and attitude, as well as impassioned and bleeding respect for his myriad collaborators and for AUM Fidelity label boss Steven Joerg. Meanwhile, he's cussin' up a total shit-storm while citing Charlie Parker and Madvillain as influences.

Jones instantly made his presence felt in this city's jazz and avant-garde scene when he relocated here from Virginia in 2005, making himself ubiquitous at places like The Stone, Zebulon and Death by Audio and serving as a member of mind-blowing punk-jazz quartet Little Women and teaming with pianist jazz royalty Matthew Shipp. But the composer's Man'ish Boy epic is arguably his and painter/collaborator/friend Randal Wilcox's most significant achievement.

Beginning with 2009's Man'ish Boy (A Raw and Beautiful Thing), the duo banded, Jones composing blusteringly intense and melodic pieces dripping with his Southern blues and soul while Wilcox, inspired by Jones' music, painted characters to accompany the theme. The epic continued in 2011 with Big Gurl (Smell My Dream), and the imminent release of Book of Mæ'bul (Another Kind of Sunrise) adds another chapter to the Man'ish Boy story. Sound of the City sat down with Jones.

So you just played a duo gig at Zebulon with drummer Ryan Sawyer?

Yeah, yeah. That's my boy. There are so many great musicians in New York. It's kinda hard to be like... especially when I feel some deepness (like I do with Ryan). We met playing with (bassist) Trevor Dunn. At first, man, to be honest with you, I was like, "Man, Ryan's jive. What the fuck is this shit?" Ryan's deep. He's little bit more than a great drummer. His shit is heavy. I've played with him enough to know that it's like, "Whoa."

Have you played with Ryan only in improvised settings?

What we were playing with Trevor [and Ryan] was Ornette Coleman tunes [in the Proofreaders]. Actually, I'm going to do a standards gig with Ryan, like, this month. I don't know what it's for but he called me for it. We're gonna play two Frank Sinatra tunes and a John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman tune.

Do you like doing covers?

Oh, man, I love doing covers. I love interpreting [covers]. I look at music like that as (just) written music. I don't look at it as like, "Goddaamn!" I was telling someone recently that I don't look at that stuff as the grail. It's a tune; it's something you could've written, anybody. You write a tune, and as a musician it's my job is to interpret it. And that' what I do: I fuckin' interpret the shit. I'll find something; I'll try to find myself within it. I like doin' that. I don't think that is what jazz is. I think jazz is about forward thinking. So when you are presented with a composition of any kind, I think your job is to get as deep as possible inside of it. And I feel like somebody like Ryan Sawyer is really great at that, and yeah, he's just a beautiful human being too. He just loves music and he's amazing. Period. Hands down. We're doing some shit with Shahzad Ismaily, like a band. So you'll probably start seeing that. That guy—that's another dude. Superbad. Great musician. Supermusical individual.

You've named Dunn, Sawyer, and Ismaily, and you play and collaborate with so many musicians. Is there a sense of community within the jazz scene in New York?

I think that it's community driven in the sense that we all want to just play great music. I don't think it's this sort of heady thing like "We need to band together and conquer." [Laughing]. I don't like organized shit like that. My girlfriend has realized this about me, where she's like "It's so funny you grew up in a religious household because you're just so anti-group." I feel like the jazz deck is so me because it's about individuality but individuality connecting with others. I am a person, you're a person and we come together to create something that is unique that is between the two of us. And that's what I'm into. I think the people I associate myself with at this point and the people who you will see me start to collaborate with coming up are those people are just open, man, they're just open to creating great music. The source is the music and music is why we want to come together and do this.

Dunn plays bass on your new album, Book of Mæ'bul (Another Kind of Sunrise), the third verse in your Man'ish Boy epic. Did you have this particular ensemble [Dunn, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Ches Smith] in mind when you composed for Mæ'bul?

I wanted a quartet, yeah. The music was there; I needed to find the right people. At first, it was like I wanted to try a lot of people [to play on Mæ'bul]. It was [pianist] Angelica Sanchez, [bassist] Lisle Ellis and [drummer] Jason [Nazary). And that didn't work out. It did and it didn't. I wanted something to be more structured. I played with them and it was good but I realized I wanted some cats who wanted play structured—structured but look inside the structure in a very modern language but with inside this structural world, which these tunes [on Mæ'bul] have form, chord changes and all this shit. I then called Erik McPherson, a killin' drummer. He's fuckin' badass. I just love his playing but he wasn't available [Laughing] for the gig. Then I called Ches because we had been talking about doing some playing. I didn't know what he'd do completely over this but I knew that Ches was open and willing to work with on music, regardless of the situation. I knew he had the skills to be able do what I needed to be done for this particular music. I called David Bryant, another amazing piano player. David did one night then couldn't do the next night. So I called Matt. For bass, I called Sean Conley, but he wasn't available. I didn't think of this but Matt said "You should call Trevor." I was like "Yeah, I should call Trevor!" [Laughing]. He happened to be available for both nights. It was interesting. The first night, hearing David Bryant with Trevor and Ches, it really didn't click. But I felt really connected with David but I didn't feel that David was connected with them.

Then the next night, that was what it was. Matt was connecting with me and our hookup was deep and the hookup between the rhythm section was deep and I felt the music was amazing and could grow to what I was hearing in my head and beyond. I'm thankful that it is these guys. I love all these guys—Matt, Trevor and Ches. I think those guys are dope, as people, they are super open musically, which so am I—anyone can see that just from what's I've done at this point and I like to surround myself with that. Closedmindedness is not a part of what I'm doing, at all.

With the Man'ish Boy stuff, these are more like private to me. Really, the Man'ish Boy epic thing is about me and Randal [Wilcox]. It's about the collaboration between the visual artist and myself. But there is this sub-part to it. I am creating my own world—that's my endeavor here, to create my own universe. Which is kind of insane.

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