Music’s a spiritual pursuit for jazz saxophonist Darius Jones
Listening to the Darius Jones Trio’s debut, Man’ish Boy (A Raw & Beautiful Thing), is one of those back-to-the-future experiences that often define the art of jazz. The moment saxophonist Jones enters, with an unaccompanied, keening cry on his alto, it’s clear that his is a personal voice, refreshingly free from cliché. Yet it’s also obvious that he’s an avid student of jazz, whose heroes extend from swing star Johnny Hodges and bebop architect Charlie Parker right through to the most cutting-edge of noisemakers—a curriculum he readily admits to studying.
“And of course I went through a John Coltrane phase, listening to Trane all the time,” he also confesses, reached at home in the New York City borough of Queens. “I’ve kind of been back into one of those, recently.”
A deep appreciation of Coltrane’s music is probably a prerequisite for understanding modern jazz, but immersion in the tenor titan’s oeuvre can also lead the unwary astray—especially if it takes them down the path of prioritizing technique over expression. That’s not a problem for Jones, however, for he learned the fundamentals of his craft in an extremely unrepressed setting: the black Baptist churches of Richmond, Virginia, where he grew up.
“I didn’t really know that it was improvising,” he admits, laughing. “I was very ignorant. But, yeah, I remember these moments where we’d play a tune, and the tune would go on and on, and they’d be like, ”˜Okay, go on and play!’ So after a while I got acclimated to improvising, making up melodies and making up counterpart, and then blowing on top of it”¦. I learned a lot doing that.”
Jones might find himself in more secular settings these days, but his gospel background comes through in the emotional heft he brings to the sax. It also colours his musical philosophy: for this committed Christian, there’s no point in giving anything less than 100 percent when he’s on the bandstand.
“When you get up to perform, or even when you’re writing music, it is a spiritual act, and it has to have sort of an ecstatic or at least emotional aspect to it for it to be of value,” he stresses. “I mean, you wouldn’t give God just anything. You would give him only the best, only the things that mean the most and are the most precious to you.
“The ultimate goal of a truly spiritual musician is to be a great craftsman,” he adds. “If you don’t study the actual fundamentals of music, you have limitations—and you don’t want to be limited, because you want to be able to go as high as possible. So those two things, the intellectual and the spiritual, have to become one. And to speak solely from my point of view as a musician, that is my goal: to create a situation where my mind and my heart are working together, simultaneously.”
Jones does just that on Man’ish Boy, on which he starts from a gospel foundation, delves into various forms of bluesy eloquence, and then goes as far “out” as anyone has since the glory days of Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and Archie Shepp.
“What drew me to the avant-garde is that one can be free to do whatever they want to do, to truly manifest their vision,” he says. “Other genres of jazz music don’t always allow for that to happen.”
The Darius Jones Trio plays the Ironworks on Friday (October 22).