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The Month In Jazz – June 2020

Ten years ago, Darius Jones flew across the New York jazz scene like a comet. His debut album as a leader, Man’ish Boy (A Raw & Beautiful Thing), was a lung-busting trio date featuring his astonishing alto sax, the richest and fullest sound produced by that horn since Arthur Blythe, and backed by Cooper-Moore on diddley-bow and Rakalam Bob Moses on drums. The music was part jazz, part gospel, and part avant-garde exploration in pursuit of pure sound, uniting at least two generations of free jazz players in collective spiritual exultation. He made two more albums in an easily comprehensible free jazz mode, 2011’s Big Gurl (Smell My Dream) and 2012’s Book Of Maebul (Another Kind Of Sunrise), using pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Trevor Dunn, and drummer Ches Smith on the latter. At the same time, he was playing in the no wave/avant-noise-rock group Little Women, whose albums Throat and Lung are stunning, and recording two sets of duos — one studio, one live — with Matthew Shipp. A six-year run of work was capped off with one of the wildest creative achievements you’ll ever hear, The Oversoul Manual.

The Oversoul Manual took Jones three years to write, rehearse, and record. It featured no instruments at all; it was a work for four female singers, written in a language of his own creation that consisted of individual patterned phonemes rather than words per se, and took the form — according to his liner notes — of a religious/reproductive rite from an alien civilization. It sounded like something that should be sung by people in robes, too. The women’s voices rose and fell, from high-pitched near-shrieks to guttural growls, harmonizing sometimes and simply overlapping other times. It was part high mass, part Philip Glass opera, and the vocal frequencies were so extreme that it could have a physical impact on your body when you were listening to it. It was performed at Roulette and then at Carnegie Hall, and beautifully recorded in the studio. And afterward, he made one more jazz album — Le Bébé De Brigitte (Lost In Translation) — and then vanished.

He didn’t disappear completely, of course; he was still playing here and there. But he stepped off the album-cycle treadmill. The last time I saw him in person was at an Art Ensemble Of Chicago concert in 2017, and when I asked him what he was up to, he said that he just didn’t feel like he had anything to say on an album right then.

I called him up last week, to check in and see how he was doing, and his feelings hadn’t really changed. He felt like the work required to write and rehearse and record an album was often a discouraging rather than an inspiring process. He told me about the years of rehearsals and rewrites that had gone into The Oversoul Manual, only to have critics respond with somewhat hostile puzzlement — “Why aren’t you playing the saxophone? What is this? How am I supposed to categorize it?” On the other hand, he told me that people whose art had inspired him, like Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, and Wadada Leo Smith, had come to the performance or heard the work, and loved it. So for him, that was enough.

When I asked if he was coming out of retirement anytime soon, he laughed. It turns out he’d been planning to return to the music scene in 2020 with three albums, including one with strings — there’s a whole tradition of alto sax and strings that encompasses work by Charlie Parker, Anthony Braxton, Arthur Blythe, Johnny Hodges, and others — and a solo disc to be produced by guitarist David Torn. All three projects, though, were pushed aside by COVID-19 and quarantine. Personally, I can’t wait to hear any and all of them. Darius Jones is a unique and unforgettable creative voice. If you’ve never heard his previous work, dive in, and with luck, his new projects will see the light of day sooner rather than later. He’s been away too long.

Moor Mother, on the other hand, isn’t going anywhere. She’s pumping out a staggering amount of music, much of it solo work or collaborations with one other person, but the free jazz group she fronts, Irreversible Entanglements, have been digging into their live archives and have self-released two concerts so far. Live In Italy came out in May, and Live In Berlin came out this month. Each is a seamless, continuous performance, fully improvised in the moment (though lyrics from the group’s two albums do pop up here and there), and their energy is as furious and unrelenting as ever. Live In Berlin is a tight 45-minute set, probably from a festival, but Live In Italy is 90 minutes of righteous fury, almost exhausting in its power. Here’s one track from each:

And now, here are 15 more of the best new jazz albums of the month!

Ambrose Akinmusire, On The Tender Spot Of Every Calloused Moment (Blue Note)

When I saw Ambrose Akinmusire and his quartet — pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Justin Brown — at Winter Jazzfest in January, I didn’t know they were premiering music from an upcoming album. I was just spellbound by their roughly 45-minute set. Akinmusire is a fascinating trumpeter, because he never seems to cut loose. His lines murmur and sigh, and there’s always a blurry edge, as if the notes are on the brink of dissolving into the air. The rest of the band challenges him constantly, throwing aggressive waves of rhythm and pounding piano at him, but he remains focused, like a guy standing in the middle of a party working out math problems in his head. “Tide Of Hyacinth,” which opens the new album, features Juan Diaz, a Cuban

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