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Darius Jones is Keeping Jazz Alive

I always cringe when I hear jazz organizations and backward looking aficionados lamenting the death of jazz, full of half-hopeful hand-wringing about “keeping jazz alive.” Some pine for bygone days (80 years ago!) when jazz was the popular music, others huff and puff about jazz being “America’s classical music.” Both attitudes are hindrances, locking the music into acceptable styles and conventions and furthering the thing they hope to avoid: turning a vibrant, expressive art into a museum piece, far removed from the world we live in. Those filled with nostalgia are always disappointed in the current state of affairs, always fearful of uncharted territory. But from my vantage point, there has never been a better time to be a jazz fan. Today there are hundreds of creative musicians forging pathways to the future. Darius Jones is one of them.


The alto saxophonist and composer cut through the inclement weather on Saturday, January 7 to deliver a searing, jaw dropping set of music for 70 intrepid listeners at the Parlor Room in Northampton. The concert was the second part of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares’ double whammy, which hosted the Jean-Paul Bourelly/William Hooker Duo in Jim Olsen’s same cozy venue the previous evening.


Jones and his trio, bassist Adam Lane and drummer Jason Nazary, mostly drew from Big Gurl (Smell My Dream), their outstanding 2011 AUM Fidelity release. “Equally earthy and avant-garde,” wrote Carlo Wolff in Jazz Times in his album review, “intellectually stimulating though anything but academic… Jones can keen, weep, caress–and cut, too. The appealing unruliness to his music coexists with authority.”


Jones introduced “A Train” by paying homage to its composer, Billy Strayhorn, Strayhorn’s employer, Duke Ellington and especially Johnny Hodges, the alto saxophonist who made the original come alive. As a blustery introduction slowly revealed the contour of the melody, the pace blistered, and the tune, while still recognizable, was turned inside out. It looked backwards without sentimental longing. It looked forward with unblinking courage. It was an exhilarating 10 minutes.


There was also E-Gaz, a tribute to another alto saxophone master, Eric Dolphy. An original by Jones, it too evoked the spirit of the original without imitation. It was all there: the cry, the moan, the advanced technique, groove, blues and rage. The rhythm section was in lock step all evening. Lane providing deep, spiraling bedrock bass lines, Nazary pushing and accenting, smiling all the way. In contrast to Friday’s duo concert, which uncovered meaning through episodes of probing interplay, Saturday’s event was a concentrated display of well-oiled precision.


Jones told me of a summer spent in deep study of the approach of Steve Coleman, one of the most influential jazz musicians of the last 30 years. He said at the end, it made his head hurt. He meant it without disrespect. Though they share a prodigious technique and a predilection for precise, knotty heads and modern phraseology, Jones hues closer to the blues and embraces a multitude of tempos and moods.


At one point in the concert, Jones repeatedly shook his head and said “2017.” He talked about the beauty and promise of the American experiment, and remarked how as “a free black man from the South,” he had been able to create and thrive. Without mentioning the incoming president by name, he braced himself for the days ahead and launched the band into a Jones original, “Ol’ Metal-Faced Bastard.”


If the days ahead fill us with dread and apprehension, at least we can rest assured that with musicians like Darius Jones coming into their own, the future of jazz is now.

Marty Ehrlich, extraordinary reed player, music scholar, storyteller and friend, returned to the Connecticut River Valley on December 16 to perform with his trio at the Blue Room in Easthampton, MA. T

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