Ottawa Jazz Festival: Darius Jones works towards a music without boundaries

Darius Jones

Darius Jones thinks big. It seems to be in his nature. 

The jazz saxophonist and composer will be in Ottawa Sept. 18 with the latest entry in his life’s work. The Man’ish Boy Epic series of nine albums  chronicling Jones’ take on African American music from the blues to today.

It is an ambitious project, but that suits Jones just fine.

“It is funny. I think I was thinking along the lines of (presenting the work of ) classical composers, but from the point of view of telling a story with each record.”

But really it’s become something else.

“It’s a part of my life. Instead of staying with one group and documenting the progress of that group, it is more about documenting the progress of me and my journey. I very much look at myself as an artist. If you look at the work of (painters such as) Kandinsky and Picasso or Francis Bacon, the way their work developed over time is really fascinating to me. If you listen to the symphonies that a classical composer has created; each one is like a painting.

“I wanted to create work a work that encompassed my own artistic path.”

The idea that he would produce a collected body of work that captured the essence of different artists through time in these nine albums was very appealing to Jones.

“I am also trying to capture the spirit of African American music as it has evolved.” This means seeing the music more as a continuum. 

“That is very important to me. That is the point I am trying to make. … If you look at our ancestors, the innovators and the people who really did this music, they didn’t really separate anything. They kept creating. You could hear it through the music.

As a result, he feels very much part of that continuum with the work he is doing.

“I feel I am in line with the tradition in a very sincere way because I feel that the tradition itself is broad. Today we listen to everything as listeners.”

Talk to Jones for any length of time you realize here has a clear vision of his role in life.

“I am trying to get to the truth of me.  My art work should reflect that. Whatever is happening in the industry doesn’t matter. The reality behind that is that most musicians are broad whether they feel fearless enough to admit it, that’s a whole other thing.

“They are all into lots of different things just like listeners are.”

There is a broader connection that he makes too. 

“Another person brought that up about how I talked about music and sound. I am a person who feels sound very intensely.

“It doesn’t have to be a pretty sound, but there is something about sound frequencies that really affect me physically. When I am writing or even when I am playing a solo, I can be getting super high off of certain tones, from the way I am hitting them and the way I am interacting with the ensemble.

“If I am looking at the audience I’m wondering how it is affecting the audience.”

Through that he believes he is bringing different emotions to his musical table. 

The title of the series Man’ish Boy, is a nod to the legendary Muddy Waters song a slightly different title Mannish Boy

“If you look at the lyrics of that particular song there is something very fascinating to me.” This is also a personal connection. Jones said he didn’t feel he was quite a man at the time he came up with the idea of the series of albums. But, he said, he wasn’t a boy either.

The lyrics he is focussed on say:

“My mother said I was gonna be
The greatest man alive
But now I’m a man
I’m age twenty-one
I want you to believe me, honey
We having lots of fun”

There is insecurity in the lyric, Jones believes, the kind of uncertainty and doubt that happens when one first becomes an adult.

But when one embarks on an ambitious project such as the one Jones is creating, that’s grown up work. 

On the Fourth Stage next week he’ll perform the fifth album in the series. It’s called Le Bébé Brigitte (Lost in Translation). It is an homage to the work of the French chanteuse Brigitte Fontaine.

“She is fascinating to me. This whole album dedicated to her. She is a super star,” Jones said. Fontaine is still alive and in her career she worked with many African American artists such as Grace Jones and the avant-garde group the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Jones said he wants to recreate the ethos of a particular album called Comme à la Radio that Fontaine made with the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

“And I want to celebrate this really open person who was pushing up against the boundaries of her traditional music and always reaching forward.”

These days Jones works with singer Emilie Lesbros who “embodies a lot of what I see in Brigitte Fontaine.” With her, Jones is using his quartet (Ches Smith, drums; Sean Conly, bass; John Escreet, piano and rhodes and Jones on alto saxophone) to create an album that feels like a Brigitte Fontaine record.

“I like how Brigitte Fontaine explores darkness in her lyrics. She was pretty radical. I guess you could consider her the Bjork of her time. I am bringing that to the table and dealing with two cultures intermingling. The Art Ensemble of Chicago hung out in France for years making music, and influencing musicians there.

“I want to bring light to that history of my people and this great female artist.”

Jones said he considers himself to be avant-garde by nature.

“It forces us to look at ourselves in different and new ways. I am trying to be that kind of artist and to celebrate as many of those people as possible.”

Out there in the avant-garde can be difficult. But Jones finds satisfaction and artistic freedom.

“The most important thing for me is freedom: the freedom to choose, the freedom to do whatever I want to do; the freedom to make decisions for myself and to create a world around me that feels free. I don’t have to think about what people are gonna think.

“I’m going to do this and hopefully people will come around to it.

“I don’t want to constantly be in a battle with myself because it stifles creativity. I want to be able to wake up, look in the mirror and say to myself I have accomplished what I need to do.”

This fifth album also demonstrates the importance the vocal instrument has assumed for Jones.

“As a musician I am always working from that point of view. In my horn playing and in a lot of things that I write. I am always thinking about the voice. What can the voice do or not do? Is my playing vocal enough? Does it have a beautiful vocal quality? That relationship between horn and voice and voice and process is my thing.”

One of the things he loves most about the voice is that everyone has one. It is the oldest instrument.

“That is why I believe we have such a strong response to singing or even speaking. We are affected deeply by this as humans. There is a connection there. There is universality. It brings us together in an amazing way.”

Of course there is also the issue of race that runs through Jones’ project. This fifth record the discussion is about the collaboration of the races.

“Even now this kind of mixing is still looked at as taboo by certain people. Fontaine challenges that attitude in her song Two World’s, One Soul. There is something about that particular record with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, that in many ways was an interracial record. 

“I am trying to give you something that will hopefully enlighten you about some issues that we are dealing with as humans. If we could stop looking at everyone from the perspective of brown, colours and differences, we can find more similarities and common ground.

“It fascinates me how we have siloed people too, even though there is connective tissue and things flowing into each other. As an artist I want to obliterate that as much as I can while here on earth. I feel like that is our purpose.”

Darius Jones Quartet
Ottawa Jazz Festival
Where: NAC Fourth Stage
When: Sept. 18 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.