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.
How do you juxtapose Wilcox’s artwork for the three Man’ish Boy albums with the music?
Randal’s my partner. Essentially, in the Man’ish Boy universe, the three records are not just about the music, it’s the art, too. The art is part of the music and it’s all just one thing.
Do you look at Wilcox’s art and get inspired to compose music that would create an alliance with it?
Usually, he comes to the concert and hears the music first and then he starts drawing. Sometimes I’ll tell him like this is my idea of Mæ’bul and my concept of who she is and what her personality is. He’ll then check out the music and then he’ll draw. He’ll send it to me and usually I’ll be like “Whoa. Awesome.”
How do you choose which drawings make it into the artwork for the records? He must draw tons of stuff.
Mainly, we start with a lot of ideas. He doesn’t really go off tilt and just paint a character. We hung out the other day and I was telling him “Oh, I have this idea for a new character.” We were talking about the character and I was telling him ideas about the character. When I think about it sometimes, I realize it’s like kids playing. It’s us hashing out these ideas. Once the character is established, Randal goes off. Of Mæ’bul so far, we finished the record, everything was done, the packaging and then he was like “Yo, man. I just painted this new painting of Mæ’bul. He sent it to me and it was unreal. It was like “Holy shit!” She had this new hairdo. For us, we’re creating these people and they’re like real. To us, Mæ’bul is real, Big Gurl is real, Man’ish Boy is real. Man’ish Boy is like a person is growing up in our world. For us, these characters are going through time and we’re in this world and we’re just unleashing it on people.
How are the characters equated with your life?
Man’ish Boy is me. He’s my alter ego. He’s the youngest character. He’s like 16 or something like that and he’s growing up. When Man’ish Boy the actual record came out, I think, he was around the age of 10 or 11. He was really young. He’s been developing, growing and changing. If you look at the records, you see his shadow changing. He’s going through these changes. Big Gurl is a friend connected to me in a way, kind of like a homegirl or something like that. Mæ’bul is like a spiritual person that is connected to me she as my deep, spiritual side. Big Gurl is my devious, kind of party, mischievous… [Laughing]
Book of Mæ’bul is the third album in the Man’ish Boy epic. On the first album, the set starts with the song “Roosevelt” and on the newest record it ends with the same song.
The records are verses and [songs] are a chapter. I’m not going to end every chapter like the beginning is the end and the end is the beginning. [Laughing] In a lot of ways, I’m trying to get the listener that this is a big fuckin’ thing. This is not like “Oh, you know, I’m makin’ a record.” I mean, come on. I don’t want my own shit to be just a record. That’s boring. I’m not the kind of artist that thinks that way. I like to create art.
Do you think the same of all your records like that with, even say, Cosmic Lieder?
Cosmic Lieder is a collaboration between me and Matt [Shipp]. I think about creating music. I don’t think about this as a tale of tales but I do think of Man’ish Boy as that. I’m literally stressing out about it and thinking this all needs to connect. It doesn’t mean the audience has to understand the connection. It’s about me seeing these connections. But if someone is following the story, they’re gonna see it. It’s just like any story.
How does the Man’ish Boy epic relate to what you do in Little Women [with Travis Laplante, Andrew Smiley and Nazary]?
I think what we do [in Little Women] is organic and that’s why we name our records after things within the body… Teeth, Throat and this next record is going to be called Lung. For us, this idea of traveling through the body is organic. The thing is, Manish Boy is a totally different thing. If I were to visually math it out, it’d be these different compartments. Hopefully, by now, everyone has seen the art then the music. Then there’s the whole color scheme—the colors inside the record and how that’s saying something too, the whole thing with the way the title is and how that’s working and then there’s the separate thing that each character has their own little world, they’re the own person, have their own stories and the way they look at life. In many ways, I’m becoming God in that world. I’m watching over these children and seeing how they develop.
Have you thought about where the epic is going to go from Book of Mæ’bul?
There’s a villain of course, because there’s always a villain. We’re thinking way ahead. I’m already talking to Steven [Joerg] about what we’re going to do for the next chapter. Why are we doing all this music and why are the records they way they are? Well, because, Randal wants to do a movie and he wants the music from all the records to be the soundtrack for the movie. We’re also thinking of doing a graphic novel.
Have you thought about having Randal’s visuals shown behind you while you play?
We want to do something at The Kitchen like that and ask them to allow us to do something where the video and animation with the characters and stuff like that, while I play these verses. That would bring it into this other realm. I love music but I don’t really feel like I’m a musician. I feel like I’m an artist; I feel like I am like Randal, since I just do whatever the fuck I want to do. And that’s how he lives his life.
How did you and Randal meet?
He was friends with this cat who was doing beats and electronic music and that guys girlfriend lived in my building when I lived in Brooklyn. We became friends, hanging out and I came over to play saxophone. At first, I thought he was a photographer. There’s some photographs of Little Women that he took because Randal would just be hanging out. But he was like ‘Oh, no. I’m a painter.” When he moved into my apartment, he just started painting and it was really intense. He put ’em up on the wall, huge-assed, fuckin’ paintings. [Laughing] We were both listening to Madvillian a lot. I was like “Man, I want my fuckin’ record to look like this!” This shit is fuckin’ badass.
What about having the alter ego Man’ish Boy?
I’ve always wanted to have an alter ego. I wanted to be something else. Jazz musicians are, you know, like [mimicking deep voice] “Hi. I’m Darius Jones. I play the saxophone.”
Charles Gayle has an alter ego, also. He plays as Streets, the Clown.
I know Charles. He’s a great man and so artistic. William Parker has an alter ego, too. [Playing under alter egos] is not new; nothing’s new. I learned that a long time ago. [Laughing]. What’s new is the way you do it. For me, creating this alter ego, its this, Man’ish Boy. I told Randal what I wanted and he was like “Okay.” He was making these blurry face kind of things. I was like “I want a little boy to represent me.” Then I just left him alone. He then painted one painting and it [turned out] to be the inside cover of Man’ish Boy. I was like “Holy shit.” I then asked him if he could just, like, the full fuckin’ face of this character right here, and he came back with the cover of Man’ish Boy.
The Voice interviewed Chad Taylor of Chicago Underground Duo about making a living as a jazz musician. What’s your take on that?
Very few musicians are making a living just as a musician. That shit is an illusion. You see us and we’re doing a lot of shit. Most guys are like teachers. I taught at NYU for a little bit and I have private students. But it’s a hard life. A few months after I made Man’ish Boy, I got evicted from my apartment. Bird talked about that. There were times they were just so fuckin’ poor. I don’t think we can comprehend that. If we were transported to that time, the level of poverty they were dealing with would break us. I don’t think we’d be able to handle that [today], how hard those guys were living. There are stories about them walking from downtown to uptown and Bird taking a nap at Sheila Jordan’s house [Laughing] because he was making his way uptown. That shit’s far. That’s a far fuckin’ walk! For me, it’s more about a spiritual practice. I feel like music is my calling. I’ve said this in concert: I wouldn’t be doin’ this if I didn’t feel that spiritual connection to it. I don’t want to do any kind of music that I don’t feel that connection to. If I’m going to come out of my house or if I am going to spend time in my house on someone’s music, the shit needs to be deep.
When did you first pick up a saxophone?
I blew into my uncle’s saxophone at the age of five or six. Then he said “Yeah, you’ll be able to play but we’ll wait until you get older.” I was a kid. Then they got me a saxophone at around 10 or 11.
What music were you listening to at that time?
As a kid? I was into my uncle. He was a saxophone player and I was into him. How I grew up we weren’t allowed to listen to secular music. So the music I heard was stuff my uncle listened to and reggae because my father is Jamaican and then spirituals, like gospel quartets and the blues.
When did you start with jazz?
Once I started playing the saxophone, the majority of the people that played the saxophone were jazz musicians so I started checking that out. My mom bought me a Count Basie cassette and I heard Lester Young and that was the shit. Then I started listening to Charlie Parker. At the time, there was a good radio station and I didn’t know any of these people; I didn’t know who they were. I’d just listen to the shit, use a tape recorder and press play and that’s what I did. [Laughing] I was going to the library, too, listenting to Wynton Marsalis and Branford and Duke Ellington and it just grew and grew.
What is it like to play places like The Jazz Standard, then play DIY spaces like Death by Audio?
[Laughing] Zero to 100, baby! The reality is something like Little Women isn’t accepted in a certain places. And you know what, man? I’m cool with that. I don’t try to break those laws. I think those laws should be there. It forces people to go into different worlds; it forces you to not create clicks. If you want to follow Darius Jones, I’m requiring that of you. If you want to see me and check out what I’m doing, you’re gonna have to fuckin’ go to a grimy-assed place like Death By Audio sometimes or take it to the next level and come to Jazz Standard. That’s the reality of what I’m doing; I’m not saying everyone should do that. Some of the projects I want to be a part of are not accepted everywhere. I do think there are a lotta things that could be accepted in Jazz Standard or the [Village] Vanguard that don’t get to play there and that’s not cool. But a project needs to be tailored, and I feel like my music does fit—especially Man’ish Boy music—in mainstream jazz circles. I would never play with a quartet at Death By Audio. It’s never gonna happen. Like ever.
My choice. I would never do that. How I see something like Death By Audio as grimy and Mæ’bul isn’t grimy—she’s a lady, man. I’m not saying you can’t be a lady and walk into fuckin’ Death By Audio. I’m saying Mæ’bul wouldn’t want to do it. It’s just the is not cool.
What do you think about being called “punk jazz?” Little Women have been called that and Weasel Walter, who you’ve played with, is called that, too.
I think Weasel Walter is Weasel Walter. I don’t categorize him. I’ve spent enough time with him, playing and talking with him, to know that he is into really intense music and everyone knows that. But he likes good music and he’s a creative person and what he does is great. Punk jazz? Is Little Women really that? Call it whatever the fuck you want to call it’ we’re not thinking about it like that. Little Women doesn’t think of ourselves as any genre. We’re like androgynous. We’re not male or female. We just are. [Laughing]. Jason thought it would be funny to call it [that]. Little Women formed when I was in my mid-to-late 20s and they were in their early 20s. We were kids and have grown a lot.
What kind of mindset do you have to be in for a Little Women show as opposed to a Darius Jones Quartet show?
I think it’s similar. It’s about being open minded and not afraid to have an experience. I think everyone should come to a Little Women show, at least once in their lives and it’s a beautiful one. You’re seeing four dudes come together as one. Everything that Little Women does is oneness. There’s no leader. It’s truly a collective entity. I can’t compare them—I love them both.
You’ve played with Weasel in the Marc Edwards/Weasel Walter Group, in Mike Pride’s From Bacteria to Boys, with Mary Halvorson and tons of other stuff. You have a lot on your plate.
I don’t have time for everything. I am getting really busy and there’s other projects that are coming up that I really like, like Grass Roots, this thing with Chad [Taylor]. Great ensemble—me, Chad, Sean Conly and Alex Harding, motherfucker baritone saxophone player—just like a straight beast! Just like “woooh!” There’s an album comin’ out and it’s bad.
How did Grass Roots come together?
I was playing with Oliver Lake’s Big Band with Alex and we became roommates while we were in Pittsburgh for this show we were doing with Oliver. We connected, man. We’re like “Man, we should do some playin.'” He’s on the spiritual trip too and on that vibe. Alex knew Sean and I knew Sean so I called Chad up and was like “Yo, you wanna do this band with me, Sean and Alex?” Chad was like “Holy shit!” He was freaking out. That’s kinda how it went down. We’re gonna do a live gig on May 10th at ibeam, actually.
What will the next verse in the Man’ish Boy epic be?
Right now, I’m planning on doing a vocal record for the next chapter. I am going to compose a complete vocal record with vocalists that I’ve met. I’m going to create a group with these women. Another thing is, I want to create a language that I want to start using that will be connected to the universe in a certain way. I’m gonna do this vocal record then do a record with electronics, something I’ve wanted to do for a long time—all Man-ish Boy records. I’m going to premiere some of those (vocal) works at a lecture I’m going to do and talk about the Man’ish Boy world in August at the Performance Forum in August. I’m going to be lecturing about, and exposing, people more to the Man-ish Boy world and Randal will be there to speak, as well.
AUM Fidelity is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year with events here at the Vision Festival and in Montreal. What has being on AUM meant to you and your trajectory?
Oh, dude. First of all, Steven [Joerg] is my friend and he and I work so well together that it’s amazing. I care for him and care for what he’s spent doing. In a lot of ways, Steven is like a musician. He’s not making tons of bread [Laughing]. It’s hard being one man running a label, with a wife and kid, and with some of the artists he has on the label. I mean, William Parker and David S. Ware aren’t just like small people [Laughing]. He has these hefty, hefty artists and I’m happy to be a part of that. William Parker and David S. Ware are being so supportive of what I’m doing and AUM Fidelity. The thing about Steven is he sees himself as a facilitator; he’s not on some ego trip, man. He also sees that people aren’t getting rich off this shit. He’s just a hard working dude and I love that about him. He’s open and I’ve come to him many times about the reality of my circumstance. Steven knows when to push me and he knows when to back the fuck off. He understands how I work and I’m willing to work with him, too.
Darius Jones Quartet plays The Jazz Standard on Tuesday, April 17.